The pros and cons of van life and other unconventional housing

Life on the road can be liberating but hygiene is only one of the challenges

A woman reading in a van
The freedom to roam means you can wake up to beautiful views
(Image credit: Matthew Micah Wright/Getty Images )

With the cost-of-living crisis biting, more people are considering living in alternative housing, particularly vans and houseboats.

A 2019 study by residential and leisure mooring provider BWML found that 51% of millennials would be willing to live in an alternative dwelling to get a foot on the first rung of the ladder, with 53% saying they would live in a caravan, and 33% up for living in a houseboat.

Van life can seem enticing, with its reduced expenses and enhanced freedom. However, this lifestyle comes with many challenges and isn’t always as glamorous as it is portrayed on social media, where #vanlife is an increasingly popular hashtag.

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1. Pro: save money and work less

When you live in a van, there’s no mortgage or rent to pay, and there aren’t any utility bills. Your main expense will be fuel for the van, so you can lower your costs even further by staying in one place for as long as possible. This allows you to work fewer hours if you choose.

Houseboats also come with savings, as they are exempt from stamp duty and you can avoid council tax if you are not permanently moored. However, the average price of a houseboat is “between £250,000 and £450,000,” Riverhome’s Nicholas Austin, told Unbiased.

2. Con: hygiene issues

Keeping yourself clean is one of the challenges of this lifestyle. An Outbound Living survey found that 28% of van lifers shower at the gym, 21% use built-in van showers, and 20% use campsite facilities, which normally come with a fee. A combined 13% said they bathe with baby wipes, or in rivers or seas.

Using a toilet while living in a van “isn’t always an enjoyable topic to discuss”, conceded Project Van Life, which noted that some van dwellers use “pee bottles” or simply relieve themselves in the “open space” outside the van. This isn’t for everyone.

3. Pro: freedom to roam

Living in a van can be a liberating experience. Working less “gives you more time to travel, enjoy hobbies, work on side projects, or simply relax and enjoy yourself,” said Where The Road Forks.

Singing the praises of travelling as a van dweller, blogger Courtnie Hamel wrote that “we’re always on our own schedule and have been able to experience each destination in a totally different way”, so “if we end up really liking a specific spot, we can choose to stay longer if we want”.

4. Con: lack of space for manoeuvring

Although there are a range of sizes of vans and houseboats, none will offer you the same amount of space as most conventional homes. “There are times when I certainly feel very crammed,” said Hamel.

The size of the van “can make for constant reorganisation of things, and a lot of bumping elbows”, said Outbound Living. “Having everything in your van makes manoeuvring around the van a little bit tough,” agreed Destinationless Travel.

5. Pro: closer to nature

Space in vans is limited, so if you live in one you will spend more time outside, which brings you closer to nature. The Outbound Living survey found that half said they primarily sleep on public lands, in national forests, or grasslands, which means they wake up to beautiful views.

Van life and living on the waterways both allow you to escape the chaos of urban life and dwell somewhere more peaceful and real. “Nature plays a major, almost unavoidable role in the van-dwelling lifestyle,” wrote Olivia Young for Treehugger.

6. Con: maintenance

If your van or boat breaks down and needs to be repaired or replaced, this can leave you in a tricky situation as it is your home. “Ours took almost a month to fix, we had to get it towed 200 miles and since we had to stay with family out of town we weren’t able to work,” remembered Hamel.

“Real van life takes a lot of work, and you need to be almost constantly strategising,” said Gnomadhome. “The constant planning, strategising, and uncertainty can be tough to deal with at times” and “could lead to anxiety and burnout”.

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