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Van Life vs RV Life – Consider This Before Buying Your Home on Wheels

Van Life vs RV Life – Consider This Before Buying Your Home on Wheels

Spending most of my time traveling has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl. Now that I’m working remotely, an RV or campervan can help me live that dream with my wife and dog by my side. However, with so many Recreational Vehicles on the market and so many new campervan conversions being done everywhere, it got me thinking about which one we should go with.

If you want more space and amenities that will help you feel like you’re in a normal home, then an RV may be the best option for you. However, if you want to spend time away from electrical outlets and paved roads and want a minimalist lifestyle, then the van life is probably the best option for you. 

Today I’m sharing considerations you should take into account before choosing the RV life and Van life as well as why we ultimately decided to convert our own van instead of buying an RV.

Typical Budget

When it comes to living in a camper van or RV, many people that choose to do this full time have a goal of living cheaper than renting or paying a mortgage on a home that has a firm foundation. Once that decision is made, it’s time to look at the cost between an RV and converting a van for #vanlife.

Vehicle Cost

A few years ago, the cost to buy a converted cargo van was significantly cheaper than most RVs with the same amenities. However, the surge of people buying vans and the limited amount of new vans being manufactured have significantly increased the price of new and used vans. In fact, you can often buy an RV for the same price, if not a little cheaper than most converted vans today. 

You may be able to buy a cargo van and convert it yourself for a bit cheaper than an RV but this will take additional time and planning to make happen. Additionally, the availability of the vans can make it more challenging to even find a van. The same is not true for RVs. RV manufacturing has seemingly continued to stay strong and more and more RV sales lots are popping up around the United States. This has also helped RVs become cheaper than ever.

Financing

Financing an RV is usually pretty easy as it has become common for both RV lots and banks to provide recreational vehicle loans. Though RV loans typically have a higher interest rate at 4-6% than a car loan at 3-5%, they also have a longer term. This results in a lower monthly payment for an RV but the overall cost of the loan may be more expensive.

Financing a campervan is a different story. Banks aren’t typically set up to finance a converted van and will either create a loan in the “other” category which has a higher rate ranging from 8.5-10% interest or they will only loan you the amount that the vehicle is worth (without the value of the conversion). Considering that most professional conversions cost anywhere from 10-30K, you will have to pay out of pocket for the remaining balance.

That being said, if you can get a decent rate for a basic auto loan, then you may be able to save money over the lifetime of your converted van compared to the high-interest rate and long-term RV loan.

Gas Mileage

Fuel economy, especially in the past year, is a huge cost when it comes to living in a van or in an RV. The fuel economy of your vehicle can change how often you can travel to new places and how much you need to have for your trip. The gas mileage of your RV and campervan is probably the biggest difference when it comes to costs. An RV typically gets 6-10 miles per gallon, which is not great fuel economy compared to the 10-15 miles per gallon on a converted van. This gas mileage changes based on the size and weight of the vehicle. Since the van is typically a lot smaller, it is usually more fuel-efficient. If you get a large cargo van and max out the load it can take, it’s likely that your gas mileage will go down significantly and may even be worse than a small RV. Some cargo vans are fuel-efficient with eco-boost additions and the newer vehicles tend to get better fuel efficiency as well since they tend to be more efficient vehicles.

Repairs

Repairs seem to be a huge expense for both RV owners and van owners with older vehicles. Like any vehicle, both RVs and vans require more repairs as they age. However, the same is true if the vehicle is carrying more weight than it is rated for by the manufacturer. Unfortunately, some people don’t understand this when they build out their own converted van, which results in more wear and tear on the vehicle.

Repairs on a van are usually cheaper than that of an RV due to so many auto-shops around the world. To repair an RV, you’re typically required to go to an auto shop that services an RV. In comparison, Though the cost of repairs ranges depending on the parts needed for the repair, you will likely find more shops that have the parts and expertise to repair a van faster and cheaper than an RV.

Additionally, the cost to tow vehicles is dependent on the weight and size of the vehicle. RVs tend to require a specific type of towing vehicle, which means that it is less accessible and more expensive. Because they are less accessible, it usually takes a longer time towing an RV. Vans, on the other hand, can be towed by most tow vehicles and thus don’t require specialized equipment, making for a cheaper towing experience.

Insurance

Though the cost to insure an RV is more expensive, RV insurance typically covers everything inside your vehicle. When it comes to RV insurance, you are able to set the value of your RV with the value of everything inside it as well without any special add-ons or special inspections. This makes RV insurance similar to renters insurance or home insurance. Van insurance, on the other hand, doesn’t typically come with that type of coverage by the standard. Insurance for your van is typically the same for any vehicle meaning that it covers the body and engine but often not the valuables inside. This includes all of your appliances, gear, and even the labor that goes into creating your vehicle. There are ways to get those items covered, but you will either need to work with an insurance company that bundles multiple insurances or works with multiple insurance companies to cover everything.

Driving Experience

One of the things that are important to consider when choosing between an RV and a van is the driving experience. For many, it is a major decision factor since most people don’t have experience driving large vehicles and may be nervous about driving an RV. Since whatever rig you choose will be your daily driver, it’s important to consider what that experience would be like and if you are comfortable with the complications or skills needed to drive either vehicle. Driving will be a daily experience so if you are a nervous driver, it may be worth weighing this part of the decision process more than other things listed here.

Vehicle Size 

When it comes to driving a van vs driving an RV, it may be too obvious to reference the vehicle size. However, it is an important consideration and thus deserves a place in this article. Vehicle size directly affects your driving experience. For example, if there is wind, you not only get a lower gas mileage as a bigger vehicle but also affect your control over the vehicle.

Turning Radius

The bigger the vehicle, the wider the turn radius. Vans like cargo vans are typically able to make U-turns and other small radius turns. However,  RVs don’t have that luxury. For many, this limits where RVs can drive and can provide complications. 

Parking

Most vans are small enough to fit in standard parking spaces. Extended vans find parallel parking challenging but it is still possible. RVs, on the other hand, aren’t typically able to park in non-trailer or RV-designated parking spaces or camping spot. In addition, many parking lots have regulations regarding RVs. 

RVs and high-roof cargo vans are too tall for most parking garages. However, regular and medium roof vans can park in parking garages with ease.

Another consideration is parking on level ground. Most RVs are equipped with hydronic legs that auto-adjust to ensure the vehicle is level, which is ideal for sleeping. Vans usually require the use of leveling blocks. The driver drives up onto leveling blocks to make the vehicle as level as possible.

Backing Up

Backing up in an RV can be a challenging process that typically requires someone to be outside directing the driver through signals seen through side mirrors. Backing up a cargo van, on the other hand, is similar to how you back up a car. As long as the driver has a rearview mirror or at least a backup camera, then the driver can back up like a normal car.

Tow Vehicle

When it comes to towing vehicles, the towing capacity is typically the same for both RVs and Vans. However,  when it comes to being towed, an RV requires specific towing vehicles. Vans can usually fit on regular towing vehicles and can be towed any distance. If you plan on transporting your home on wheels via shipping or towing, then this is something you may want to consider. However, it’s probably not a deciding factor since most people don’t plan for their vehicle to break down and need a tow.

2-Wheel Drive vs 4-Wheel Drive

Most RVs are 2WD but they can be converted to 4WD. Interestingly, when it comes to Vans, there are 4WD vans but most people go with 2WD because of the cost difference. However, some vans are rear-wheel-drive (RWD) while others are forward-wheel-drive (FWD). If you plan on traveling a lot, then you will likely want to go with RWD since hills in a FWD takes a long time to get up. This is due to weight distribution and the fact that vans hold most of the weight in the back of the vehicle.

Living Space

There is typically a huge difference between living in a van and living in an RV. In a Van, your space is typically a few square feet and everything is within one or two arms-length whereas there is a large range with RVs. For most RVs, there is a separate room space for bedrooms and the bathroom. If you need extra space, then an RV may be the best option for you. If you don’t mind living in tight spaces, then the pros of living in a van will probably outweigh the cons of living in an RV.

Sleeping Space

Most RVs have multiple sleeping spaces including a dedicated bedroom with a queen-size bed, convertible full-size beds, and in some cases, a second dedicated bed space above the cab of the RV. A van, on the other hand, has very little space. Most vans only have one full-size or queen-size bed. Some people have been able to rig up multiple bed systems and entire families have been able to fit into a van. That being said, it is typically at the cost of other dedicated square foot space like an oven or bathroom. If you plan on sleeping tons of people in your vehicle each night, then it may be better to go with an RV.

Kitchen Space

Though not all vans have a built-in kitchen, it is becoming more and more common. Though campervan layouts differ from each other,  many vans are built with a kitchenette including a sink, stovetop, refrigerator, and in some cases, an oven. An RV comes with all of that as a standard. In addition, some RVs come with a larger fridge and a dishwasher. Though you can add a dishwasher to a van, it is less common. The average person may not need a ton of kitchen space, but the more people you are feeding, the more space you’ll need for preparing food.

In addition to appliances, there is counter space for all of the cooking and eating you want to do. Most vans have kitchen counters but there is typically a fraction of the space for a kitchen in a van than in an RV. If you love to cook, you may feel like you have to go with an RV, however, if you don’t mind taking the space of other things such as a wet bath for a larger kitchen, then you can have a rather luxurious kitchen, just in a smaller space than that of an RV.

Lounging Space

Lounging space typically includes a couch and sometimes a table for board games and dining. Lounging space is standard with RVs but it isn’t always present in a van. If you want a lounge space, you either have to make it a convertible space that you use for something else like your bed, or you can prioritize lounge space over a larger kitchen or a shower space, for example.

Storage Space

Storage space is crucial when considering your entire life will be in either your van or your RV. RVs have significantly more storage space compared to a van. For example, an RV not only has more storage inside the RV because it is significantly bigger, it also has storage spaces under the RV. If you have a lot of stuff that you don’t want to get rid of or store, then an RV may be the better option.

Storage is built into most vans and you can expand your storage by storing things on top of the van. That being said, most people try to keep the storage inside the vehicle to help with gas mileage. If you are concerned about limited storage, then you may want to consider everything you need to store and whether or not a van can accommodate that. For example, if you need bike storage or backcountry camping gear storage, then you need to consider if that is something that needs to be stored inside your vehicle or if you can place it on the outside of your vehicle.

Both vehicles are typically built with or can be upgraded with a tow package for towing a trailer if additional storage or space is needed.  

Amenities

Comfortable living is something that people tend to consider when choosing between an RV and a van, which is where amenities come into play. Though both vehicles are capable of having many of the same amenities, the size and convenience of each vehicle may differ. With that being the case, it’s ideal to consider what amenities you want and whether or not you have the space for all of them or if you are willing to make adjustments for things to work.

Bathrooms

Though both vans can have bathrooms, RVs typically have bigger bathrooms and different plumbing.

Often, the toilets in RVs are similar to those in a home with a septic tank. This means that it flushes like an ordinary toilet and then the waste goes into a septic-like tank. These tanks are typically mounted under the RV and don’t move. To dump the tank, the RV owner connects a flexible pipe to the septic tank, and then the other end to the dump station, which typically looks like a hole on a cement pad. This job can be messy but after a bit of experience, RVers are typically able to keep it clean and simple.

Toilets in vans are typically self-contained. Not all vans have toilets, but the ones that do, usually have tanks built into the toilet themselves. Most toilets have a seat with either one or two holes that pipe into one or two tanks. These tanks typically get dumped by removing the tank from the toilet system and carrying the 1-5 gallon tank outside of the van to be dumped like a jug of water being dumped somewhere. Different states have different laws regarding where these tanks can be dumped but most states allow dumping down a toilet, considering that it isn’t too big of a tank.

Showers

Most RVs have an internal shower that is part of a wet bath. A van, on the other hand, doesn’t always have a van. For example, some vans have a wet bath, some vans have convertible spaces that are sometimes a shower and sometimes a bench or kitchen counter. Some vans don’t have a shower or only have a shower to be used outdoors. An outdoor shower is more popular than built-in showers because it has the convenience of being available wherever you are like an indoor shower but it doesn’t take up precious space inside the van. Because of this, many people living in a van have a gym membership that they use for unlimited shower use.

Laundry

Clean laundry is a challenge that both people who live in an RV and people who live in a van deal with. There are laundry machines that are built specifically for RVs, however, they take up a lot of space while also requiring a lot of water and electricity. This often means that using a laundry mat is the preferred option for both.

Stove and Oven

Both RVs and vans can be outfitted with a stove and oven. A stove is more common but as long as the electricity needed for the oven is available, both vehicles can use an oven. For RVs, the RV typically has to be plugged into shore power for the battery to be able to handle the oven. Many vans don’t have the solar or battery banks to handle an oven but these are upgrades that can be made as long as there is enough space.

Dishwasher

Most RVs and vans don’t have dishwashers. However, most RV dishwashers can be used in a van as well. If you hate doing dishes, this may be a great option for you. Plus, it can be more efficient with water considering that it can do multiple dishes at once compared to cleaning one dish at a time at the sink. Additionally, many people choose to store dirty dishes in the sink so that all of the dishes can get done at once and save on water. Instead of putting the dishes in the sink, you can place the dishes in the dishwasher. This leaves your sink open for other purposes such as cleaning vegetables for dinner.

Location Freedom

Most people consider a road trip when they consider moving into a vehicle on wheels. When it comes to parking just about anywhere, a van typically has more freedom than an RV. There are a few different reasons for this such as the size of the rig. However, other things go into this freedom as well.

Campground, RV park, and BLM Land

Most campgrounds allow RVs but when it comes to the rig size, that can affect the amount of space required and what campgrounds the RV can fit in. Additionally, RVs can typically drive out on BLM land as long as the road isn’t too bumpy and the bottom clearance is good. That being said, campgrounds and BLM lands don’t have water or electrical hookups, which are typically required for most RVs to function correctly.

This typically results in bouncing between one RV park to the next. Though staying in an RV park sounds expensive and may even sound like you are limited in where you can visit, the RV park typically has amenities like showers, convenient stores, and dumping grounds that you won’t have access to on BLM land or many campgrounds. That being said, consider where you want to visit and where you want to sleep when choosing between an RV and a van.

Stealth Camping

Stealth camping is typically among the reasons why people choose a van over an RV. It is much easier for a van to appear like it is supposed to be parked on the side of a street compared to any size RV. Additionally, vans typically use a battery bank and solar, which means that using appliances is silent compared to a power generator that is common with RVs.

Off-Grid Power System

The power system and power requirements are a larger difference between RVs and vans. Most vans have a bank of batteries along with some sort of power input systems such as solar panels, alternator input, or offshore plug-ins. Vans aren’t typically outfitted with power generators so the size of the battery system directly affects what can be used.

Though RVs are also dependent on the battery system they have, they are also commonly reliant on off-shore power to keep things running. This means that they have to be connected to an external power source commonly provided at Grampian grounds and sometimes gas stations.

What About Travel Trailers?

Travel trailers are different than RVs because they are towed behind another vehicle. This can be nice because instead of driving through town with a huge RV rig, you can drop off your travel trailer at a campground and then drive into town with your truck or whatever towing vehicle you choose. This means that your daily driver can be smaller and fit in average parking spaces.

This option completely changes the cost breakdown since you will be paying for both the trailer and the truck. However, the cost to tow a truck and repair a truck is similar to that of a van. In addition, the age of your travel trailer won’t affect the value of your home on wheels. That being said, you’ll still need to consider the towing vehicle to ensure that it gets the repairs and even get it replaced once it costs more to maintain it than it is to purchase a new one.