The Apartment on Wheels

Housing is the top line item in most American's budgets, mine included.  I've moved frequently in my adult life, alternating between cheap, small apartments and slightly larger places with roommates.  This has mostly taught me just how much I prefer having my own place.  Living alone is definitely a luxury, but it's one that I value and have found worth a bit of extra money.  Still, when I returned to school a few years ago, I was taking a huge paycut.  I wanted to live solely off my meager fellowship stipend and reserve my income from relief work for savings.  This meant cutting my housing costs to the bone.  I moved into a small house with 2 roommates, 3 hyperactive dogs, and a cat whose main hobby was peeing on my things.  It was a cheap, low commitment way to get to know my new town, but not my preferred living situation.  I started scanning craigslist for other options a few months in and kept circling back to one in particular.  There was an RV lot with full hookups for rent less than a mile from my current address.  At $175 per month, I could live alone for a fraction of the cost of my rented room or the cheapest apartment in town.  Never mind that I had never set foot in an RV in my entire life and knew nothing about them. 

I started reading about RVs online, then progressed to viewing used trailers for sale in my area.  Eventually I found one that seemed like it would work.  It was an 18 year old, a 40 foot long 5th wheel trailer.  My 11 year old Accord would most certainly not be to move it, but I wasn't looking for the full time RV traveler lifestyle.  I just needed a cheap home base and the seller was willing to deliver it to my lot.  He admitted that the trailer had previously experienced some water damage, but he'd taken it down to the studs in the damaged portions and rebuilt it.  Note that water damage is the number one, most basic thing potential RV buyers are warned to watch for.  I went for it anyways, partly out of out of ignorance, and partly because the price reflected the prior damage.  Even if it depreciated to zero and had to be hauled away at my cost, I'd come out ahead. 

The RV was my home for close to a year.  It was certainly a learning experience.  First, my ability to spot red flags had been poor.  The seller had indeed done extensive work rebuilding it, but there were still several leaks that became apparent in the first rainstorm after I moved in.  I chose to replace the 18 year old carpet with vinyl flooring and discovered several rotten areas of subfloor, which had to be cut out and replaced.  One of the slides got stuck out and I spent several hours hand cranking it back in and replacing the burned out motor that powered it.  I did all of the repair work myself, emboldened by blithe optimism and Youtube rather than actual mechanical skills.  It was a great learning experience, but a stressful one, since I was living in my project.  Knowing that ultimately, it was nearly worthless except for its ability to house me made me willing to try new things.  In the process, I learned that I was capable of doing my own maintenance and repairs. I'd still call in a professional for electric or other potentially dangerous work if needed, but I can handle most of the little things.  Moreover, I actually enjoyed the time spent working on the RV and am open to the idea of bigger projects in the future. 

Apart from the frequent, necessary repairs, it was a comfortable experience.  With the slides out, it was close to 400 square feet, a veritable apartment on wheels.  I've always tended toward minimalism for practical reasons - more stuff is more of a pain to move.  RV life kept in line with this theme, apart from adding a few tools I had to purchase for repairs.  Everything I owned had its place in the trailer, and despite the small size relative to most dwellings, it never felt cluttered or cramped.  I could seat half a dozen people in the living area and occasionally hosted small dinner parties and movie nights, just as I had as an apartment dweller.  There's undeniably some social stigma around living in a trailer, but it wasn't particularly detrimental to me.  My social circle was all grad students living on similarly tight budgets, and most of them didn't bat an eye at the idea.

Ultimately, I decided to leave grad school and return to clinical work in my hometown, on the other side of the country.  Since I didn't own a truck, I'd have to pay somebody to haul the trailer there, and it didn't make financial sense for an old, cheap RV.  I'd spend almost as much as it was worth to get it there.  My current city also has much more restrictive zoning and less of a price difference between cheap apartments and RV lot rent.  My $175 per month had been an incredible deal even in the college town, mostly because the land was owned by an elderly couple who had not raised the rent in over a decade.  I sold the trailer on craigslist for a bit less than I'd purchased it for.  The buyer hauled it away and I hit the road an hour later. 

Since then, I've resorted to subletting apartments to have reasonable housing when I'm working and no housing expense on my thru hikes.  I'd consider going back to the RV life if I moved to a location where it presented a good value and where the weather was suitable.  The idea of having a home that I can simply put into storage when I travel is certainly tempting.  Have you experimented with non-traditional housing options?  If so, feel free to share your experience in the comments. 

The w/d was a luxury in the RV world


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