We Can't All Live in Tricked-Out VW Vans

The #vanlife looks great viewed through pretty Instagram filters. Too bad it's tough to make any money that way.

Rich people ruin everything.

Photographer: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

I received a book in the mail a while back after one of my columns about high housing prices in big coastal cities. It's titled "How to Never Become Homeless," and it was self-published on the cheap 1 by William L. Seavey, a writer and bed-and-breakfast co-proprietor who lives along the Central California coast. Seavey's "20 recession-proof ideas for finding cheap/free shelter" include "live on your houseboat," "reside in a trailer on acreage," "build a strawbale house" and "sink your abode underground."

What struck me when I first read through them (other than that Seavey seems like he'd be fun to hang out with) was how few of the ideas were of any help to someone who wants to live in or near a city. Yes, there's "become an apartment manager," "live above a storefront" and "convert an 'old' building to living space," but in the most in-demand cities, those spots were pretty much all taken years ago. Living on the cheap in the U.S. these days is increasingly just a rural and small-town thing.

Jobs, on the other hand, are increasingly a big-city-and-suburb thing: Employment is declining outside the nation's metropolitan areas, and large metro areas (1 million people or more) have been adding jobs at the twice the pace of small ones (250,000 people or fewer).

This cheap-housing/good-job chasm has become one of the central dilemmas of American economic and political life. How can we bridge it? By traveling around the country in Volkswagen Vanagons and taking Instagram photos of ourselves, obviously.

Rachel Monroe chronicled this #vanlife phenomenon in the New Yorker in April, focusing mainly on Emily King and Corey Smith, an attractive couple in their early 30s with a great sense of style and by-now-well-developed skill sets in van repair (Smith) and social media production (King). It was belatedly reading the article this week that got me thinking again about Seavey's cheap-living advice.

Last year King and Smith made $18,000 promoting water bottles, van parts, energy bars and the like through their Instagram feed. In the first two months of 2017, they had lined up another $10,000 in endorsements. They're not the only ones making a (modest) living doing this. Then again, it's clear that not just anybody can. Writes Monroe:

There is an undeniable aesthetic and demographic conformity in the vanlife world. Nearly all of the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples. “There’s the pretty van girl and the woodsy van guy,” Smith said. “That’s what people want to see.” At times, the vanlife community seems full of millennials living out a leftover baby-boomer fantasy: the Volkswagens, the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics.

I already got to live out this fantasy -- minus the retro gender dynamics, I guess -- in the mid-1970s, when I was in fifth grade (I think) and my eldest sister and I traveled from San Francisco to Vancouver and back in her VW bus during my spring break. Still-vivid memories include reading "The Two Towers" while lying in the bed in the back of the bus while parked next to a river in Oregon, touring the now-defunct Olympia brewery in Tumwater, Washington, being interrogated on the U.S. side of the Canadian border by immigration agents who suspected that my sister was kidnapping me, and getting sick on the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria. So no, I don't need to bask in your stinkin' #vanlife Instagram feed, thank you.

But I digress. Not only is the option of making a living by taking photos in your van available exclusively to members of a narrowly circumscribed demographic, but even they would appear to be getting priced out. King and Smith bought their Vanagon for $3,500 four and a half years ago. Since then, growing demand for #vanlife experiences among those with cash to spare has driven prices (not necessarily of the Vanagon, but of similar used models) as high as $70,000, Hannah Elliott reports in Bloomberg Pursuits. She also mentions that a new Mercedes Sprinter van retrofitted for a #vanlife lifestyle will set you back $130,000 to $140,000. Basically, people with money eventually ruin everything, and now they've gentrified sleeping in a van by the side of the road.

There are those who can make a good living (earning well more than $18,000 a year, I would guess) in the kinds of places where it's practical to build a strawbale house, live in a cave, or park in a trailer or a van. It just isn't easy. In some ways it's easier than it used to be, what with the ability to connect to the world via the internet -- in the early days of her van travels with Smith, King actually paid their bills by working remotely as a web developer. But it does not appear to be easy enough for more than a small minority of people, usually people with special attributes and deep connections to urban-based economic networks, to do it. Which leaves us with the duller and more difficult tasks of either creating more jobs in small towns and rural areas or building more housing in and around big cities.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. It's held together with one of those binding bars often used for school reports.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at

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