‘Camping all the time’: High housing market driving some Utahns to try van life

Local News

(ABC4) – One of the most iconic comedy bits in television history aired on Saturday Night Live in 1993 and featured Chris Farley as Matt Foley, who screams at teenagers played by Christina Applegate and David Spade while describing the lifestyle he lives as a motivational speaker.

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“I am 35 years old, I am divorced, and I live in a van down by the river,” Farley exclaims to raucous laughter, moments before hilariously diving through a coffee table.

Had this bit aired in 2021, it might not be nearly as funny. Foley’s situation might closely mirror how some Utahns are choosing to live these days.

While they don’t maintain a steady diet of government cheese, many locals are choosing to dwell in a van, refitted for comfortable living.

Sara Wild is one of those folks.

“I love it,” Wild tells ABC4. “Sometimes I’ll spend an afternoon or an evening up at a trailhead, watch the sun go down. With my hotspot I can set up my laptop and watch a movie sometimes in the forest. I feel like I’m camping all the time.”

Living in a van was always something in the back of Wild’s mind. After a fruitless search for buying a home, Wild decided to take the plunge and live the van life, at least until the housing market becomes more reasonable.

“I was in the market to start looking for a house, I was pre-approved, I started looking and was like ‘This is outrageous,’’ she explains. “Maybe in a few years, I’ll be able to buy a house, but for now I get to just do the van life thing.”

For now, the 2011 Mercedes Sprinter has everything that Wild and her pets, two Boston Terriers named Oliver and Nora and a ball python called Severus, or Sev for short, need.

The van is equipped with a queen-sized bed, shelves for storage, a desk for work, a refrigerator, rooftop solar panels, a sink, a 30-gallon water tank, and a portable toilet. While her van has a shower, she likes to use the facilities at her climbing gym, where she has a monthly membership. As the owner of a small, wilderness exploration daycare business, she is able to work on her laptop virtually anywhere. She tells ABC4 that most work days are spent at a city park, with the sliding door open for a bit of a breeze.

There were some challenges at first when it came to getting used to van life, Wild says. Figuring out how to keep her snake comfortable in varying climates was a major obstacle. Finding a place to dump waste was also tricky. Now that she’s figured out a comfortable routine over the last few months, she says she enjoys the new lifestyle but cautions that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

“I know that van life is not for everybody, and it can be tricky to live in such a small space,” Wild states. “I definitely wouldn’t do with a second person, unless there was a lot of good communication and flexibility.”

Her friend, Tanner LeSueur, has been living in a van since 2018. As a student at the University of Utah, he found that living in a van would roughly be the same cost as renting a dorm for a year. After doing the math, and coming to that realization, he purchased a 2003 Sprinter, built a kitchen and sleeping area inside, and lived in the van while he finished his graduate degree in engineering.

Using a university parking pass, he lived in the van on campus for a year. LeSueur wasn’t alone, as a group of other students also were living in vans of their own.

“I mean, no one asked questions,” LeSueur says when asked if campus police were aware of his housing situation.

“It was kind of like always going to a tailgate party,” he says regarding the community of van dwellers at the university.

While he works an engineering job at a medical device manufacturer right now, LeSueur’s dream is to build vans for others who are interested in the lifestyle. Interest is high and continuing to climb, he says.

“Go on Google and see the stats on van life,” he suggests. “The amount of people searching van life and nomadic lifestyles has gone up to ridiculous amounts in the last year.”

He’s right.

Statistics on searches for “van life” on Google Trends show a steady increase over the last five years. Beginning with the pre-pandemic days at the start of 2020 to now, searches in Utah for “van life” are among the highest in the nation.

As the housing market continues to price young adults out of traditional home buying, LeSueur thinks that vans will become even more popular.

“If you just drive around Salt Lake, you notice more and more vans as the months pass on. We’re talking about friends, a lot of us who have been interested in housing, who have been wanting to buy a home, and have been outbid, time and time again,” he explains.

Maybe Matt Foley was just ahead of his time.

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