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These young SF professionals choose to live in RVs (sfgate.com)
77 points by auctiontheory on Sept 1, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 70 comments

I've been living in a motorhome for nearly five years now. Mostly travelling full-time. I parked for a total of about 3 months in the Palo Alto and Mountain View areas on a couple of occasions...just on the street. I have solar power, and propane for cooking and running the fridge, and big water tanks, so I can go weeks without hooking up. Mine is quite a bit larger than Tynan's at 34.5', but I think my next rig may be smaller. There's definitely value in being able to drive/park anywhere, and my current rig does not have that quality.

I started out in Mountain View; was paying $2145/month to rent a house. The motorhome lifestyle isn't significantly cheaper, when travelling a lot, but it has a lot of other advantages. At least, for me, the advantages outweigh the negatives.

How did things hold up? The RVs I've been in look like they are definitely built on the cheap. Cabinetry assembled with staples, faux-wood paper veneers, plastic plumbing fixtures, low-grade foam rubber upholstery, etc. Fine for something most people use a few weeks a year, but actually living in continually... I'd think things would wear out pretty quickly.

Awful. Shit breaks every time I drive it, and sometimes when I don't.

I am currently more interested in conversion buses (including some that are 60 years old). Even high quality modern rigs fall apart...and mine is not a particularly high quality rig. It was about $95k when new, and I bought it for ~$30k used. It was in decent shape when I got it, much less good shape now, though I'm in the midst of getting it back into shape for sale.

The things you mention, however, are mostly not the things that have been a problem on my rig. Cabinets are solid oak and holding up great. Plumbing has never had a problem.

Things that are problematic:

Ladder got smooshed by a tree when I backed into it. Got more smooshed by a light pole in Mexico with the roads were too small. A ladder is shockingly expensive to replace ($485 for an OEM replacement).

Windshield has been broken and replaced once, and now has new cracks in it. $500 deductible each replacement.

Day/night shades are nearly all a wreck. Restringing is cheap but time consuming. Replacing is very expensive.

Roof has sprung numerous leaks over the years. The slide out, in particular, has been a source of quite a bit of water damage inside the house. It's not terrible, but it's visible if you're looking for it. Water damage hurts resale value a lot, as it is difficult and expensive to repair. Roof needs new rubber. This is time consuming, and slightly expensive.

Air conditioner broke.

Leveling jacks are getting cranky.

Electric steps have broken three times in interesting ways (never the same breakage, but always makes them unusable or less usable).

Chassis battery broke loose and was on the verge of falling out of the bottom of the rig...I just happened to stop and check things at the right time. That would have probably been a bad day.

The carpets are wearing pretty poorly. Some of the upholstery is also looking a little bedraggled.

The exterior looks rough...the fiberglass itself is fine, but the decals are all peeling off and are cracked from sun exposure. I see why so many rigs this age are sold with decals removed...the rig would look a lot better that way, though it'd look kinda plain in all white.

So, yes, motorhomes are made to look good while new, and to fall apart over the next ten years. Some are built slightly better than others. But, none are made to last, as far as I can tell.

I bought an ex-rental unit since they tend to be cheaper and built more sturdy in a lot of ways to handle constant use by people who might not treat them the best.

Sadly we weren't able to live in it as long as we'd hoped due to having to relocate back to Canada for a family illness during the winter but while we had it things worked fine.

One of the harder things I found though is the feeling of never really being clean. We had a shower in it and showered everyday, we cleaned the inside regularly but still you always felt a bit grungy compared to living in a house/apartment.

What's the gas mileage when traveling on a highway?

Do you know of any others who did this in other countries?

My rig is a pretty modern Ford V10 based gasoline chassis. It gets 8-11 MPG, depending on how fast I'm driving, the weather, and whether I'm going over hills or not. Towing a vehicle behind will effect mileage. But, speed is the biggest determinant of mileage.

The big diesels tend to get about the same mileage. There are some little turbo diesels built on Sprinter chassis that get up to 17 MPG.

The old (ancient) diesel rigs I'm looking at to replace my current motorhome will get about 7-10 MPG, but can be converted to waste vegetable oil, or run biodiesel. So...maybe environmentally acceptable, as long as I don't put a lot of miles on it (I tend to like to travel for short distances at a stretch anyway, so I don't drive a huge amount of miles in any given month...much less than someone commuting 20-30 minutes to work every day would, for example).

I've talked to people doing it in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. I've met people from dozens of countries travelling the US this way. Germans, in particular, seem to be very interested in RVing in the US.

Anywhere between 4 and 12 mpg (US). The lower mileage tends to come from gas/petrol engines -- the Ford V10 is popular. As well as smaller diesels that are towing another car (A "dinghy") up hills. The higher mileage is usually from Mercedes Sprinter based RVs, and Class 7 & 8 truck conversions.

Costs when driving are high, because of the fuel expense. But once you're parked in a campground (or even in the street like in the story) the costs are pretty low -- $200-400 a month (or $20-50 for a daily rate) for a campground. $50-200 to refill the propane tank. And $20-40 to empty the black water tank at a dumping station. Some campgrounds charge for electricity (20, 30, or 50 amp connection). Internet can be had over a parks WiFi, satellite, or a MiFi device (factoid: a 50GB plan on AT&T is $300/month), or if you're monthly, a campground may allow TimeWarner or Comcast to run a line to your rig.

I get about 10mpg with mine(30' with an E450 chassis).

Not so much young people but Australia has "Grey Nomads" who tend to be retired people that spend their time travelling around the country living in their RVs full time.

The oldtimers in RVs are called Snow Birds here in the US. They are the predominant group living fulltime in RVs here. I've met a lot of retirees in my travels.

I don't know much about motorhomes: what is the bathroom/shower situation like?

Also, what's your internet configuration?

In a large motorhome, it's a lot like a bathroom/shower in a small apartment. It's not big enough to take a shower with a friend, but it's comfortable...I've visited friends apartments with less pleasant bathrooms than mine, particularly in high rent areas like SF and NYC.

I have had four different Internet solutions since moving into the motorhome:

Millenicom 3G was first. I got hit with a $1400 bill while on the border of Canada and the US (they apparently don't protect against the modem using foreign towers, and will then bill you international roaming rates).

Then switched to a Clear 3G/4G unlimited plan. Worked OK in most places. When the modem died and my Cradlepoint proved unreliable as hell with 4G connections, I switched to..

Virgin Mobile and a tiny little hotspot with a 2GB 3G/unlimited 4G plan. It's the cheapest ($35/month), and shares Sprint's network (as does Clear). Works OK. The hotspot overheats sometimes, but it reliable enough and fast enough.

I currently also have a cable modem. I've been parking in Austin, TX enough that I keep a spot permanently, paid monthly. So, I have cable internet there, which is vastly faster than any 4G service I've used. If Google fiber makes it there, I'll buy that, too. Obviously, Internet is a priority. I'm not in Austin at the moment, and so using the Virgin hotspot out in the sticks in New Mexico, and it's working OK.

There have also been times when I used my phone as a hotspot. It's on T-Mobile. They made it impossible to do on my plan about a year ago...so, I'm annoyed with T-Mobile (I'd used it as Internet backup for years; my plan didn't change, but they imposed new rules). Haven't changed yet, but may eventually change to a service like Virgin Mobile, Cricket, etc., since I rarely make phone calls. When I'm due for a new phone, I'll look into it.

Service maps are available for all of the carriers and are reasonably accurate. Sprint/Clear claims better service than they provide, T-Mobile claims less good service than they provide (but still have less coverage than Sprint). AT&T outright lies, but has broader coverage than T-Mobile. Verizon I've never had or used, but is reportedly very good...it's just outrageously expensive.

Many RV parks also have Internet, and I occasionally use lack of Internet as a motivator to get me to go out to coffee shops and be social.

It's been very rare that I couldn't get Internet somehow during my travels. I can count them on a couple of hands and I usually knew I was going off the grid for a while and could warn my company co-founder and our one employee.

If you had problems with T-Mobile blocking illicit tethering (I do), a VPN solution or even Hotspot Shield on the phone works wonders. Obviously if you use 200 GB/month this might not be sustainable, but something worth looking into for others.

Thanks for the great updates and detail!

Thanks for the info. How inconvenient is it to swap out waste and new water? How does that work in the first place?

It's not a big deal. There's a pipe with a quick connect hose on the underside of the rig...the hose goes into a pipe in the ground. There's a valve for grey and black water; you dump black, then grey. It's included in the fees of RV parks, as most have "full hookups" (which means, electric, water, sewer, and maybe cable), or you can pay $5-$10 to dump without spending the night at most RV parks with dump stations. Some cities provide RV dump stations for free to encourage tourism, and some businesses offer them for free to encourage shopping there, mostly in the west and in Canada.

It takes about ten minutes, if you're also filling up the fresh tank. My rig usually is running low on fresh water about the time my grey water tank is full, so it works out reasonably nicely. If I'm trying pretty hard to conserve water, I can go two weeks between visits to the dump station. Otherwise, I dump a little over once a week.

Obligatory link to Tynan's excellent blog: http://tynan.com/?sort=rank

And here's a couple of post he's made about his RV:

http://tynan.com/rv2012 (2012 Walkthrough)


His book about his RV-lifestyle:

Tynan Smith - How To Live In Luxury on the Side of the Road in an RV


Thanks for the link!

Does anyone recongnize the Famous Pickup Artist? http://tynan.com/how-i-became-a-famous-pickup-artist-part-1 Note that he garnered this reputation prior to living in an RV.

I was wondering if that was him. Certainly reading about him over the years. I'm not surprised he's living in an RV.

You read the whole article (while ignoring the fact that you have to follow a link to get to the second page) and then the last sentence is that he's not really living in his car anymore. What's the point of this article?

What's the point of this article?

A fairly safe sentence: This article cost less to write than it will make in ad revenue.

Another fairly safe sentence: What is the point of any arbitrary article you find in a newspaper?

The dangerous sentence follows that one.

Ooh, ooh, does it also start with "what is the point . . . "?

You misread the article. Todd, pictured with the short hair, is the one who previously lived in car and now has an apartment.

Actually if you had read the article fully, you'd have realized that the person mentioned at the end of the article was a co-founder, not the main subject of the article. This guy was living in his car not an RV.

The article mentions that it's illegal. Is that enforced? How would they know you're living in the RV? Do you have to move the RV every day because of parking rules?

I'm wondering why nobody does this in NYC (at least, that I know of.)

NYC can get really cold in the winter. RVs are not really well insulated; they're designed to be used in the summer; few people go camping in the winter. It would be expensive to heat at best, or you'd have to add a lot of insulation.

Most traditional RVs or even conversion vans like the rialto have more or less uninsulated plumbing which will be destroyed the moment it goes below freezing unless you winterize which is a huge pain, or have the plumbing removed or convert a van yourself and simply never install A minimal van conversion probably consists of little more than blackout curtains and a sleeping bag... If you're willing not to have plumbing, you could probably buy a conversion van without working plumbing fairly cheap. Much as houses with destroyed plumbing tend to go pretty cheap.

As a homeowner with occasional $400 heating bills in the frozen north I disagree with expensive to heat. RVs, especially conversion vans, are small vehicles. My parent's RV furnace literally physically could not burn $400 of propane in its furnace per month if it ran 24x7, which of course it doesn't.

This is a solved problem in the frozen north because of two hobbies probably not very popular amongst the most urban SF residents... deer hunting and snowmobiling. RVs get quite a bit of use indeed for those activities (I don't personally do either, but I do enjoy snow shoeing and there's nothing better than a RV at the end of the trail). Its much colder than NYC where the locals use RVs, its really no big deal.

Another interesting point is if rent costs $3000/mo in Manhattan, you need to calculate how much propane you can burn to meet $3000/mo... I think you'll rapidly determine you could live inside an operating (small) rocket engine for $100 of propane per night.

The primary insulation problem is sound insulation not so much heat insulation.

If you park the vehicle on the street and the police have decided they want crack down on "vehicular housing" in an area, they will ticket or arrest people for being inside their RVs at night.

The police won't usually break into the vehicle but will bang the vehicle and shine light into them to force people out.

I suspect that the West Coast's mild weather makes it much easier to live in an RV here. On the other hand, people are probably doing in NYC. Most people who do this aren't young professionals and keep the lowest possible profile.

It seems like the housing crunch and the recession have made police a bit more tolerant of vehicle living too.

Parking is super expensive and hard to find in NYC.

It's free to park on the street in most of NYC. And, with alternate side of the street rules, spaces open up every couple of days. You just need to be there when the street-sweeper goes by so you can grab one.

I like reading about RV-living and micro-apartments in a similar way as I liked reading Into the Wild. There's lots to like, but I'd never actually do it. I just don't think I could get comfortable with the sacrifice of comfort and safety (even if it is only a perceived reduction in comfort and safety). And plus my wife would divorce me.

Try a live aboard sailboat rather than the land-bound cousins. Some women find a dude owning a boat is an aphrodisiac. Most male boat owners have the inaccurate belief that percentage is 100% (its probably only about 50%). Source: I sailed a lot as a teen (although not a live aboard).

The funniest part of the whole situation, that I've observed, is the women see this guy spending like a drunken sailor on the boat, assuming that means 1) he's wealthy, I mean obviously he owns a 29.9999 foot yacht 2) he can spend money on me the same way as he spends on the boat. And usually it does not work out that way.

Just FYI: rents are similar in NYC, though I doubt people would use an RV here since: (1) parking is limited (2) parking is expensive (3) hard to find parking which also provides power and gas.

Question though: how do people living in RVs shower? Monthly membership at a gym? (Asking because a friend suggested that was likely the case.)

Most RVs over 20-foot or so have showers with hot and cold water. A lot of campgrounds for RVs also have showers along with laundry facilities. Gym memberships are common, too.

> Question though: how do people living in RVs shower?

The article says one of the people interviewed had a subscription to a fancy spa, and showered there.

Most (probably nearly all, I've never seen one that doesn't) have bathrooms with showers.

I'm doing this in Austin currently. Inspired by Tynan, I got a Rialta as well and have been using it as an exercise in minimalism. So far, it's worked out very well, even in the extreme heat.

That's what I like about the mind of an entrepreneur- the ability & desire to innovate.

San Francisco has through the roof high rent? Well, why not innovate & live in an RV? An innovative way to overcome the problem of containing personal costs. Also, this is a way to actually own something that can open up some very cool travel possibilities as well.

Living in an RV is innovation? Then living in a mobile home must be absolutely bleeding edge. ;)

I'm not saying that it's bad. As a kid I thought of traveling with friends to every ski resort in North America and living out of an RV. I knew a group that actually did just that and I still envy that opportunity. But I've settled down since then and I like having a foundation.

I get the feeling if you're going to "innovate" RV living, you'll do it in North Dakota and not SF. Lot of people with a lot of money now and a housing market that hasn't caught up.

Too cold in ND for RV living in the winter; no insulation.

uhm, well, they have been doing it for a couple of winters now

Sure, it can be done. People do a lot of crazy things. But it's not sustainable.

The other thing is that they build RVs with insulation that can handle the winter.

Some of those innovators might want to dial back the self-congratulations and get busy innovating decent, affordable housing.

They did. They bought an RV and lived in it. :)

They did no such thing, unless "decent" means living like an animal. Next thing, you'll be telling me that living in stacked chicken wire cages, the some people do in Hong Kong, counts as innovation.

"Living like an animal" sounds like an exaggeration. Yes, it's probably most appropriate for a single, hipster 20-35-something, but it's an interesting lifehack.

Compared to what you'd get for the same price in SF (e.g. a tiny bedroom in a shared 6 BR house - student-style), it looks like an interesting alternative.

(edit: very hipster / maker indeed - this is from Tynan, one of the guys mentioned in the article http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjiQFCunJqk )

Are there RV parks in SF that are on within a reasonable walk/bike of a main public transportation line?

I may have the option of moving to SF for work in the next 6 months and am trying to get a feel for what options are available.

Since the general consensus is that housing is ludicrously expensive I was tentatively thinking about RV or boat as a more frugal option.

There are no RV parks in SF. There are hardly any parking lots- most of those are quite small so a RV couldn't stay there. At best, you could find a parking space for a few hundred dollars a month.

He specifically lives in an ancient VW Rialto. Its a conversion van. From the outside it looks like a van, because it is one. Anywhere you can park a "normal" van you can park a Rialto. You've probably parked nearby one, or a modern sibling, in a grocery store or something without even knowing it.

You can't get away with that using a full size class A, or even a little pop-up trailer.

Real RVers know the real problem of RVs for road trips or urban live aboard is finding a dump station downtown. I suppose you can always use the local mega corp parking lot. Antics like that are what leads to attempts to ban RVs, of course.

Randy Quaid in Christmas Vacation .... "shitter was full!"

The article implied that he had an arrangement with someone to let him park his RV and tap an electrical supply.

SF addresses are obscenely overpriced for what you get.

Boat living definitely happens.

If you decide you prefer land, and your work is near BART, the East Bay (esp. Berkeley, Rockridge) offer much better value.

If you like the idea of taking a ferry to work every day, and work downtown, consider Marin County north of the GG Bridge.

No, SF addresses are "obscenely overpriced" to you for your perception of what you get.

Nah, SF rent is overpriced. You'd have to be pretty thick to think that you're getting a good deal.

I believe the closest RV park to SF is in Pacifica. Nice location but not very practical for commuting. There might be some in the east bay with better access.

I'm surprised no other comment mentioned Jacob of Early Retirement Extreme[1]. He blogged about living in an RV at the Pacifica RV park to save money. Unlike Mr. Money Mustache who is often derided in these comments, Jacob was extreme, and recognized it. Instead of living in an RV to bootstrap a startup, he had a normal tech job and saved tons of money to invest and retire on the dividends (I'm simplifying).

[1] http://earlyretirementextreme.com/

He's in an ancient used Rialto (excellent choice) not a giant class A. Unless you've got an RVer in the family (like my parents) you merely glance at it and say, oh, just another van.

You've probably seen a modern version without even noticing. Usually the give away is the side mounts for water. A modern new conversion van is like $75K so in a big enough city its cheaper than any real estate, not so much in the country.

They're pretty comfy if you're short. If you're living in a city, supposedly all those people live there because "theres so much to do 24x365", so other than sleep and sex you should be outside the vehicle at all times. Reminds me of my honeymoon cruise ship cabin, that was a dumpy broom closet but we were too busy to notice.

The mileage tends to be excellent. How many MPG would my wife's Prius get moving an entire house? 60 MPG divided by probably hundreds of trips = not so good. Rialtos get like 15 MPG, or so I hear, which isn't bad. I imagine it depends on the exact model and condition of mechanicals.

I always thought SF was on the ocean, and the obvious live aboard vehicle is a sailboat. Of course marina space is probably expensive and unavailable. Perhaps if you moored offshore in wifi range of work...

Not sure how much you would be harassed - but, if you were to park in the Presidio along a residential street - there are no time limits or street sweeping restrictions. When I lived there, I had a car parked outside for 6 months without ever having to move it.

There is a small community of RVers who park in Palo Alto (outside Cubberly Community Center), which is a 45-minute train ride from SF. The city is currently working to make life harder for these RVers, of course... as the RVs parked on the street / in the park are an eyesore next to 'million-dollar' (single-story 3-bedroom) houses.

Average rent for a 1-BR is $2990/month in Castro? Come on.

Easy to check on:


My initial scan says $2990 is a little low.

In the partial presence of rent controls, and in a market where demand is high and supply low, 'average of rents currently being paid' != 'average of rents for currently available rentals'.

Sounds about right to me.

No one lives in a 1 bed. I share a 6 bed in castro and it's way more affordable per person.

Then what's with all the 1BR's up for rent?

Supply and demand


I must be getting old... no one's ever said I look old before!

They seem more like 30ish to 40ish. Skimming the article... seems they are 30ish. Dealing with idiot clients probably aged them.

30 is the new 20.

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