Life in a van

Michael Adkins sits on his bed in the back of his van. Adkins is currently in the process of covering all exposed wiring and van interior in wood panelling. He said he was inspired by the look of vintage yachts. [Photo: Luis Gael Jimenez]

At first blush, living in your vehicle may sound like a last resort. But Michael Adkins spent a long time planning his move from Sacramento housing into his van. And it’s impressive. Equipped with a bed, toilet, cooking range and some excellent woodwork–fashioned by Adkins himself–this space is certainly more home than vehicle. We sat with Adkins to discuss life in a house that you can take just about anywhere.

VOICES: River City: What gave you the idea of living in a van in the first place?

Michael Adkins: All I knew was that I wanted to build a house but I didn’t have the resources to build a house. Then I saw the tiny house movement. I was a huge fan. The whole idea of it, the way they look, the price. I was just attracted to it, so I started doing a lot of research. I was really set on buying one, but the more I started saving and planning for it, it seemed more practical to do this first. It just seemed more approachable. Finding an empty van, and building it out is a little bit easier than having to find a spot for a flatbed trailer and a house.

V:RC: Do you have any history in construction or car modifications?

MA: No, I’m just kind of self-taught. I watched a lot of YouTube videos and read a lot of forums. I did a lot of research and saved up for the van. I budgeted for the whole project. You know, a couple of months ago, I didn’t know the difference between a watt and an amp but now I’ve got running power in here.

Custom-built cabinets handmade by Michael Adkins hold all of his possessions. Adkins had never built cabinets before starting his project in May. [Photo: Luis Gael Jimenez]

V:RC: How weird was it adjusting to living in a van?

MA: I actually ended up moving into this thing prematurely. My landlord lost the property I lived on, so me and my roommates all just got kicked out. Luckily, I knew that I was eventually going in the direction of living in the van, but it was a few months too soon. I didn’t have electricity in here or anything, just a mattress. It felt a lot like camping. But it didn’t take that long to adjust, surprisingly. I don’t feel like I’m in a van. I forget that I’m living in a car sometimes. A lot of times, I’m in here with my girlfriend and it honestly never feels like it’s too cramped or anything.

V:RC: Are you still modifying the van at all?

MA: I’m actually in the process of installing a 16-gallon freshwater tank so I’ll have running water in here pretty soon. I’m also still adding wood detailing. I’m modeling it after yachts from the 1960s. This place is going to look like a little boat, but on the ground.

V:RC: Did you have to get rid of stuff to move in here?

MA: I didn’t sacrifice much to move in here. I have a fridge in here, my guitar, a stove. I mean, I was already a minimalist before moving in here, so it wasn’t a big deal. I also just got this toilet. It’s a self-contained composting toilet. It’s low-maintenance and odorless. You only have to empty it twice a year. It was sort of a birthday present for myself.

V:RC: What’s running all of these appliances?

MA: I have two 12-volt batteries. They actually recharge by me driving around so I don’t have any need for solar power or anything. Luckily, the alternator in the van is pretty good at charging them.

Michael Adkins sits on the twin-size mattress in the back of his modified Ford E-250 van. [Photo: Luis Gael Jimenez]

V:RC: What’s your cost of living right now?

MA: This van is actually financially empowering. I don’t have to pay rent. I just pay my phone bill and health insurance. It’s actually made me a little more impulsive. I’m eating out a lot more and saving less.

V:RC: What are some of the dangers of living in a van?

MA: I try to avoid all dangers [laughs]. I have a fire extinguisher in here for cooking and stuff. A fear I have though, being hit by a car. It’s super unlikely but, a car slamming into the van while I’m sleeping is an insecurity of mine. I don’t think it will ever happen, but it does affect how I choose my parking spots. There’s also been times where the back windows are dusty and it looks like someone cupped their hands and got in close to peek into the windows. Someone also once tagged the back window while I was asleep.

V:RC: Does that ever make you regret your decision?

MA: Not at all.

V:RC: So What do you do to relax in such a small space?

MA: I just chill in bed and read a book or watch dumb videos on my phone. My phone is my whole entertainment center and I’m okay with that. It was kind of like that before I moved in here anyway.

V:RC: Does having everything you own located in one place ever freak you out?

MA: I’ve developed a little bit of a separation anxiety. I don’t like to go too far from the van because all of my stuff is in it. I’m sort of always around it. I know this is all a huge risk, like, I can get into a car accident, the van could get stolen. It could all disappear in a moment’s notice but at the same time, you shouldn’t let that stop you from doing what you want to do. Everything is replaceable.

A look at the van that Michael Adkins has modified into a residence. Adkins has a refrigerator, a stove, a toilet and will have running water within the next few months. [Photo: Luis Gael Jimenez]

V:RC: How legal is all of this?

MA: I’m pretty sure it is illegal but I didn’t really look into it too much. As far as I know, if you’re parked somewhere you’re not supposed to be, you may get a fine. I think sleeping in the vehicle is the big thing. I try and keep the outside looking not so vagabondish to stay out of trouble.

V:RC: Do you recommend other people do this?

MA: I think if anyone wants to do this, they should give it a shot. All of the information is out there and I’d be super happy to help other people. I’ve filmed the whole process of assembling this. I’ve been making short clips on Instagram of the whole process but I think I’m going to make a more detailed series for YouTube.

V:RC: So how much money have you invested into this project?

MA: A lot. This is the most expensive thing I’ve probably ever put money into. I’d probably say I’ve invested about $8,000 at least.

V:RC: That is a lot of money, but for some people, that’s a down payment on a car and not even half the down payment on a house.

MA: Yeah, but it was a lot for me [laughs]. I  pretty much just owned a bicycle and my most expensive possession was a DSLR [camera]. It might be the toilet now.

Watch Adkins install the flooring of his van on his Instagram:


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Luis Gael Jimenez
Luis Gael Jimenez
Luis Gael Jimenez is a contributor to the Sacramento News & Review and VOICES: River City. He has spent three semesters on the American River Current, where he currently serves as editor-in-chief.