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More people seeking van-life as cost of living expenses rise

Posted at 1:06 PM, Oct 20, 2022

MISSOULA — Living the “van life” has grown increasingly popular over recent years. There are other ways to live in a motor home, such as bus conversions, living in a customized van, or traveling in a tiny home.

Some say it's one way to do less work and more of what they love. With the cost of rent on the rise in Montana, there’s been an increase in the mobile lifestyle.

“First of all, rent in Missoula is crazy expensive. I did not expect that at all,” said 23-year-old Michigan native Abigail Gould.

She moved to van life full-time in April 2022, and her first stop was Montana for five months.

“I went up to Glacier National Park. I hiked down in the Bitterroot, Lolo area…” Gould said.

For her, the transition to a minimalist lifestyle allowed for more space in other areas of her life.

“I wasn't doing anything with my friends, I was at work, 5-6 days a week. I had no time for anything because I was working so much,” Gould said.

She said now she can choose when and where to work as travels throughout the country.

“It’s so much less stressful. Making money and going to work. I don’t have to think like ‘OK, my entire paycheck is going to rent,” Gould said.

The average living wage for a single person in Missoula County is $34,738 before taxes, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And the average price to rent a one-bedroom apartment is around $1,600, according to Rent.com.

“I’ve always wondered how people with lower paying jobs, how do they make it in Missoula when – I understand the cheap apartments are over $1,000,” said Jon Runningbear, owner of Big Dog RV Services. It’s located west of Missoula.

“We build bus conversions and tiny houses,” Runningbear said.

He also practices what he preaches.

“I’ve always lived small, mainly because I didn't want the expense or to clean,” Runningbear said.

He also lives in a motor home. It’s a customized school bus with a tiny home built onto a bus chassis.

It’s made with the ability to shower, use the restroom, sleep, cook, wash and dry dishes and clothes, along with heating and cooling.

Security systems are also in place for people who want to go off the grid but remain safe.

Runningbear is a Texas native and he decided to make Montana his home decades ago.

“When I first came to Montana, I had a 6,000 sq ft house,” Runningbear said. “And one day, when I went to my CPA, and just going over the bills, my portfolio, the pie chart, there was a lot of that pie chart taken up with just living in terms of housing. And it really woke me up to what I was spending each month.”

Getting a bus conversion with Big Dog RV Services can run between $25,000 and $60,000. And the tiny houses start at $30,000.

Runningbear said the lifestyle isn't just cost-efficient, it can also be eco-friendly.

“I can actually wash an entire load of clothes on 50 watts. That’s less than most small appliances like a mixer would use,” Runningbear said.

Besides his water-recirculation system appliances, solar panels, and hydronic heating system, he says the biggest advantage of this lifestyle is liberty.

“Now, I don't have to work half as hard to maintain the same lifestyle. That affords me a lot more free time that I didn’t use to have,” Runningbear said.

As Gould continues her quest across the states, she said there are some downsides to the lifestyle, but she ultimately agrees.

“It’s just the freedom of it is probably the biggest benefit. If I want to go across the country and be somewhere else I have that option,” Gould said.

Big Dog RV Services has been in business for 42 years. This year, Runningbear said the company is booked through March 2023 due to high demand for customized motor homes.

He said during the COVID pandemic, he saw around a 50 percent increase for the services he provides.

“COVID, I think woke a lot of people up to the fact that we’re working way too much and enjoying our families way too little,” Runningbear said.

Although he has a diverse client list, his message remains the same.

“It’s not everybody’s answer but if you think about it, all the people who could live tiny, if they did, we wouldn't have a housing issue,” Runningbear said.