Living in a Van

What I’ve Learned in Year One

My “Bean Machine” 💗

Growing up came fast for me. Living in a household I disagreed with caused me to move out earlier than most teenagers. Although I was already 18, I was naive and thought I was ready for anything. Four moves later, my boyfriend and I were living in a bare, $800/mo, 1 bedroom apartment in a nice part of San Antonio. Big Mistake. 

A month after moving in, when rent and bills came due, our paychecks were late, putting us at $900+ in extra late fees and charges. At this point, we pondered the question, is it even worth it? Traveling has always been a dream of both of ours, and living in a van is something we were both interested in. We searched the internet and found a gutted, Ford E250 for $1000. We bought it almost immediately, moved in everything we owned, (not much) and left.

While looking back, it seemed like a really, really stupid idea. It was.

Texas summer is hot, as in sometimes you can’t even breathe hot. Throwing all of our stuff in an empty metal can on wheels is like moving into a furnace. We were broke for a while, keeping us from doing any work on our new van.

Although the van had several problems, we planned on eventually restoring her. The first things we bought for the van was a trailer hitch, a generator, an AC unit, and materials to mount it into the back window.

Big Bertha

The Original 

We made reflective window covers, built a bed frame, and set up a TV inside. It was incredibly basic, with our food under the bed, our clothes in a plastic storage bin under the TV, and tapestries covering the bare metal walls.

Unfortunately during a trip to our home town of San Angelo, TX, we got into a car accident, resulting in a cracked radiator and added transmission problems. With our jobs in San Antonio, little money to live on, and our family 5 miles away, we decided to stay to fix the van. A few weeks turned into a few months, and the van was barely fixed. 

By the time we made it back to San Antonio she had all but given out on us. The brakes were almost completely shot, along with the transmission. We got our jobs back, found a place to stay, and made a hard decision. We sold Big Bertha to a pic-n-pull for $200. Our first home on wheels now lies crushed with small pieces of our old life still inside.

Crushed Dreams

Although she was crudely built, it was an introduction to van life not everyone gets to experience. 

Though the loss of Bertha was life changing, it wasn’t necessarily a setback. After months of hard work, prioritizing, and saving money, we had already found our new home. Thanks to hefty tax returns and dedication, we drove to Dripping Springs, TX to pick up our rare beauty.

A 1993 Chevy G20. The company Eclipse bought and converted the van in the 90s. From Michigan, to Texas it went on years of adventures before it ended up in the previous owners hands. She intended to make it fully livable, but “life” caught up and dreams stayed dreams. She sold it to us for an incredible $2000.

It was a huge steal, considering it came with a mini fridge, a microwave, and plenty of other pluses. It was more than enough, and a huge upgrade from our tin can. The only big problem it had when we bought it was the transmission. We figured it would be worth the repairs, being a beautiful old conversion.

We dropped it off at the transmission shop and set up $200/biweekly payments. After weeks of working and $2,400 in repair costs, we got our Bean back. Again.

By now we had managed to get a generator, a TV, fans, and bug screens. We enjoyed our home for about a month before more challenges faced us. Rising temperatures, generator problems, and lack of resources left us tied to one location.

Then one dreadful day as were leaving Family Dollar and the key turns all the way around in the ignition. Bad news. Having to tow a vehicle 20 blocks down the road was a hole burnt, not in our pocket, but his amazing dad's who has paid for extensive amounts of repairs and amenities for this van since.

Back to the shop, the poor thing needed a whole new steering column. With us still being jobless, his dad payed another $700 for the part and repairs. Thank the universe for this man. Weeks in the shop went by when FINALLY we get our Bean back. Of course it won’t be the last time she goes to the doctor, but hopefully it’ll be a while.

Pre-Love

Nowhere near finished, we still had a gaping hole in the side of the van. A rusty ball joint who refused to come out, and our generator and AC unit were both still sitting on the ground/in our van. By this time, we had managed to get things together while staying with his dad. A new job, steady income, and bare necessities meant time for some TLC.

Finding a trailer hitch, buying the materials, and doing the labor were nothing compared to how great it felt when it was finished. We bought wood, screws, liquid nail, and a saw. Improvising with what we had at his new job's warehouse, we cut, screwed, and sealed the window and mounted the AC unit in the back door.

Of course to put the AC in the window, the ladder had to be taken off and remounted. After a few weeks of thought, we decided the side was a perfect spot.

The rusted ball joint, on the other hand, had to be completely cut off and a new one re-welded back on. Neither expensive nor time consuming, it was a huge step in our journey.

Post-Love

With our generator and gas can strapped up outside, the next step is to paint the wood black to match the windows, grind the rust off the bottom, and find a new running board for the right side. Though they’re only minor fixes, everything takes time. Waiting for paychecks and paying bills keeps the process slow, but it’s worth it in the end.

As for the interior, we still have to buy a new DC compressor fridge that can run off of our house battery, as well as buy a porta potty for emergencies. The original conversion package came with a porta potty, a vacuum, and a few other things we didn’t find, although we do have the original owner's manual, as well as receipts, titles, business cards, etc. going all the way back to ‘93. It’s so cool to see the journey she went on before we found her.

Small necessities such as cooking, cleaning, organization, and basic everyday needs tend to be harder to maintain while living in a van. We’re still in the process of buying everything we need to be fully livable. Countless things have to be accounted for when not living in a full home. Washing clothes, taking a shower, and cooking meals become harder.

Thankfully, multiple people have come up with solutions to mobile home dwellers everyday problems. Compact, man-powered, or even electrical washing machines are sold on the internet for less than $100. Outdoor living shower rigs can also be bought or made with PVC and a hula hoop. Solar water tanks are growing popular, heating the water in a black container on the roof of the vehicle. Propane or electric stove tops can be bought in stores and online.

Eventually we plan to have all of these things on and in our van. Along with a new TV and gaming console, replacing the microwave with an oven, WiFi, solar panels, a bike rack, security cameras, and tons of other cool new things. Our goal is to someday be 100 percent off the grid livable, with the capability to travel where we want, when we want. 

Of course to do that we need remote jobs, or jobs that let us travel and do what we want. Though we’re not quite there yet, right now we’re just focusing on finishing the van.

Someday we want to re-stain, re-upholster, and replace the entire interior with similar materials and colors, as well as get the body damage repaired, and repaint the whole thing. When we’re done we hope to have a beautiful Bean Machine that will live an even longer and happier journey.

Thanks for reading. It’s my first time so I appreciate anyone who cares.💗

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