I lived in a van for two years

Rent Week 2018: His friend did it, so he thought he would try it too and save some money. In his last year at university he started living in a van. Now, two years later, he’s moving on.

As told to Jamie Small.

Recently I sold the van I lived in for two years. And now I have picked up the keys to my first home, and I know I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t made the radical financial move of giving up on flatting.

At first moving into a van was just a way to save a bit of money, but it turns out you can save a lot if you do it right. The idea to move into a van grew over my second-to-last year at Canterbury University, 2015. I had a friend who did it, though she was permanently parked at a flat with access to amenities.

I got to the point where I thought I could make this work at uni, because it has free wi-fi, showers at the gym, toilets, and a nearby laundromat.

I imported a van and spent the summer of 2015/16 kitting it out with a bed, custom mattress, storage, solar panel, fridge, cooktop and running water. The van cost approximately $9000 to import and $4000 to kit it out. There are definitely cheaper ways to set up a van, but I wanted something nice to drive with a few luxuries inside. Then I went through the therapeutic process of selling all my stuff. By the start of my final year of uni, I was ready to roll.

Going in, I thought I would be moving every day, but I soon found a section of Kirkwood Ave with free parking right next to the gym – it’s just outside the university and there’s no time limit, so I left the van parked there pretty much the entire time.

I was very covert, and would peek out between the curtains in the morning to make sure nobody was nearby when I emerged. I sometimes had to wait until people moved on. The van had tinted windows and lined curtains, so it didn’t have the classic tourist “fluffy curtain” look. 

The early days, I had towel curtains.

The only time I ever got told to move on was when I parked outside a church. I’d moved to this new spot because my old spot was hard up against a bus stop and the bloody bus had scraped the front of my van. Someone left a very polite note on my windscreen asking me to park elsewhere as I was obstructing the view from the church.

I wasn’t the only one doing this, either. I never interacted with any of the others, but I saw their vans around and chatted with a couple of staff members at uni who seemed to know what was up – they said there were always a few people pulling this stunt.

I got correspondence sent to my mum in the North Island, and registered the van to my old flat, though by the end of the year none of my old flatmates lived there.

I ran out of student allowance in the last three months of my degree, and things got tight. I had to budget everything right out. I finished university and started a job at an engineering firm, still living in the van. We get paid fortnightly, and the day before payday was my birthday. I had spent the last of my $2000 overdraft. My credit card was maxed out. And then I got paid for the first time.

I kept my living situation a secret for the 90-day trial, brushing off questions about where I lived, saying “oh, over by uni”.

But eventually my university access ran out and I had to find somewhere else to shower. There were facilities at work but I didn’t want to get into an awkward situation if I got found out, so I came clean to my business manager and asked if I could use the work shower. She took it pretty well.

My favourite spot to sleep, and to wake up.

Most people I told took it well; the most common response I got was disbelief. Then concern. But there was nothing to be concerned about – by this stage I was earning a full-time salary and not paying rent, which is most people’s single biggest expense. I was spending $100 to $160 a week total, eating mostly fish ‘n chips and $5 pizzas with the odd flash $12 meal thrown in for the veggies.

I missed the forced interaction of having flatmates coming and going, cooking, talking. But I made sure to catch up with friends by regularly going rock climbing. I was lonely, but not in a sad way.

One night I was parked downtown near work and I woke up to an earthquake, which was strange given I had shock absorbers. It just carried on and on and on and I finally realised it wasn’t an earthquake, but someone was cutting my bike off my van. I looked out the back window to see two dudes there with a hacksaw. I just pounded on the window as hard as I could and they shat themselves.

My second winter made me realise how lucky I got with my first one. It was seriously cold in 2017, and in June I parked up in a friend’s driveway, and paid them $60 a week to use their facilities and run an extension lead from the house to my electric blanket.

The idea to buy my own house came out of nowhere a few months ago. I was tossing up whether to leave my parked-up situation and take to the streets for summer when I realised my savings actually put me in the range of home ownership.

I saved $21,500 in my first year of work on a $50,000 salary as well as taking a 10-day holiday in Australia. I sold the van for $10,000 and borrowed money from friends and family to get a deposit to buy a three-bedroom house house for just over $400,000. My budget says I should have paid them back in 2 years, with interest. I’ve done a lot of spreadsheets on whether it will work, and if they all come true then the investment should work.

So I spent my last night in the van, parked at my favourite sleeping spot in the Port Hills.


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Check out how Kiwibank can help your business take the next step.

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