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James Tadeo checks e-mail on his laptop, in his converted Grand Caravan minivan, while exploring a country road north of Brampton, Ont., on May 19.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

James Tadeo, a warehouse supervisor and computer programmer, dreamed of owning a cottage. As a kid, his parents took him camping throughout Ontario: Algonquin Park, Georgian Bay and Grand Bend.

“When you go canoeing in these places, you always see people and their cottages and I’d think ‘Wow, that’s so beautiful.’” In 2011, he bought a home in Brampton and thought he’d start trying to save $75,000 to $80,000 for a small vacation property.

But cottage prices soared past his modest budget, putting his dreams beyond reach. At the same time, Mr. Tadeo started hearing more about “van lifing.” While he saw YouTube videos and Instagram posts about people giving up their apartments or other homes to live in a van full-time, Mr. Tadeo thought it would suit him as a budget-friendly cottage alternative, where he could escape to the wilderness in comfort.

Once seen as a lifestyle for broke hippies, van life became more popular in the 2010s and took off even further during the pandemic, with posts on social media platforms touting the low costs, mobility and freedom.

Mr. Tadeo's cottage alternative on wheels.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

As remote and hybrid work became widespread, the appeal of hitting the road for a few days, or full-time, became more enticing – and financially realistic. Coupled with record-high home and cottage prices, van life is a cheaper alternative for those with limited budgets.

Mr. Tadeo purchased a 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan van for $1,500 in January, 2020, just before the first pandemic lockdown. Over the next five months, he spent another $2,000 renovating the interior, adding a small bed, a heating system, solar-powered battery and electrical system, lights, shelving and storage spaces.

Mr. Tadeo kept his costs low by using gifted items, like leftover plywood from a family member, or found objects like discarded furniture and wooden pallets in good condition. The electric system was his biggest expense, at about $800. “I didn’t want to skimp on the electrical,” he says. “I wanted to make sure I had brand-new parts.”

Electronic items are powered by a converter.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

He purchased batteries that normally run an electric golf cart, and solar panels, which together are sufficient for Mr. Tadeo to use his laptop, charge his phone and run items such as a Crock-Pot and portable oven. He documents his builds and tweaks on a YouTube channel called Silver Cabin.

So far, Mr. Tadeo, who is in his mid-50s, has travelled around Ontario in his van, spending up to two weeks at locations like Tobermory, Huntsville and Algonquin Park. He has a portable toilet but opts to use rest stops, truck stops and campground facilities when possible. In the next year, he hopes to do a six-week trip along the West Coast.

Heather Nassler is the administrator of a Facebook group called VanLife Ontario that has more than 3,500 members. Like many lifestyles, Ms. Nassler says that van life can be done on a budget, as with Mr. Tadeo, or luxuriously.

“I have seen vans that cost over $100,000 with heated floors and a hydraulic bed lift,” Ms. Nassler says. Built-in hot-water showers are another luxury, as are high-end solar panel systems.

Ms. Nassler’s own van life took her through Ontario, Quebec and the East Coast from 2018 to 2019 with her ex-husband. She estimates that their monthly costs totalled about $800, including $100 on groceries, $90 for vehicle insurance, $300 for gas and $30 for a Planet Fitness membership, where they could take showers. They kept parking and campground costs down by staying on Crown land sites.

However, the roof of their first van – a 2006 Dodge Sprinter that cost $11,000, with an additional $9,000 spent on retrofitting, ended up leaking and causing substantial rust damage. The van was later sold, stripped of its retrofits, for $1,500. “It’s been a wild ride,” Ms. Nassler says.

The purchase of an older vehicle can help the budget-minded van lifer save money. But Ms. Nassler’s experience is a reminder that, like buying a fixer-upper house, renovations can go awry. However, living for less than it costs to own or rent a home isn’t always the end goal for this lifestyle.

“I think there is a misconception out there that it’s going to be cheaper than renting an apartment,” says Caval Olson-Lepage, a certified financial planner with Affinity Wealth Management in Saskatoon. “When I look at my clients who are interested in van life, their goal and objective is that they don’t want to be tied down to a location.”

Ms. Olson-Lepage encourages aspiring van lifers to map out a budget for both upfront and continuing costs, depending on where they plan to travel. Consider fees like campground and park permits and parking, which can quickly add up.

Inflation is a major concern for van lifers, particularly the rapid and steep increase in the cost of gasoline. With the summer driving season under way, the national average gas price is more than $2 a litre, according to GasBuddy.

While older vehicles are cheaper upfront, they may have higher continuing maintenance costs that can be expensive, especially if they require days at a repair shop. “Where are you going to stay if your van is inaccessible to you?” asks Ms. Olson-Lepage. “If you need to repair something, and it has to go in a shop, you may now have hotel costs.”

For part-time van lifers, such as Mr. Tadeo, Ms. Olson-Lepage would budget for time on the road as one would a vacation. “You’re looking at it from a recreational standpoint,” she says. “It’s more short-term budgeting instead of longer-term budgeting.”

Above and below: Mr. Tadeo makes coffee in his van.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Tadeo is currently saving up to buy and renovate a larger van with a budget of $30,000. He sees his first build as a test project, of sorts, to see whether he enjoyed the lifestyle before diving into a more extensive, and expensive, build.

He’s since abandoned his plans for a cottage. Van life is a fraction of the cost compared with paying for a cottage and being stationary in one place, he says, “but to me, the same level of enjoyment.”

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