Utahns try ‘van life’ as rents and home prices soar

Some have moved into RVs, trailers or vans willingly; others say they’ve been pushed there by rising rents and housing costs.

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Sidra Morris and her husband, Scott, were in the process last year of purchasing a farm in Clearfield where they could live and run their private school, the Knox Academy of Making.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Amid the chaos, they decided to back out of the property. But by that time, their house had already sold, and they had just four days to get out.

Their “quick solution” to avoid homelessness was to get rid of most of their stuff and move with their five kids — who at the time ranged in age from 5 to 15 — into a 40-foot RV about the size of a bus, Morris said.

“With all the uncertainty, we weren’t sure if we wanted to jump into another house or jump into a lease,” she said. “Family was kind of off the table because everyone was still quarantining, so we were, like, ‘OK, let’s just do an RV until we can figure out the next step’ — but then we kind of fell in love with it.”

While there isn’t any data outlining how many Utahns have ditched their four walls for a home-on-wheels in recent years, it’s clear that the Morris family isn’t alone. In a shift that some say is spurred on by social media, people from across the state appear to have been moving out of their homes or apartments and into converted school buses, vans, trailers and RVs in increasing numbers.

Some have done so willingly, seeking the promise of adventure that a nomadic lifestyle can offer. Others say they’ve been pushed there by rising rents and housing costs in a state experts estimate lacks as many as 55,000 affordable single-family homes and rental units.

With circumstances that are as distinct as their living situations, here are the stories of Utahns who are living in or planning on moving into a van, RV or converted school bus.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sidra Morris shows one of the storage areas in the master bedroom, in the RV they have been living in for more than a year, on Tuesday, June 22, 2021.

Shedding schedules — and debt

Morris, 41, said she’s been interested in tiny home and RV living for a while — but she never would have taken the leap had COVID-19 not pushed her family into it.

“If I hadn’t kind of fallen into it, I don’t know that I would have chosen it necessarily,” she said.

She said her teenagers were initially resistant to the move and the opportunity it provided for travel. But once they realized that life wasn’t the same at home and that their friends weren’t getting together much anyway, they got on board.

Some people thought it was absurd for the family of seven to move into an RV, but Morris said there’s been enough space for everyone, thanks to the vehicle’s pop outs and some creative building solutions.

The RV also has plenty of storage underneath, a European-style clothes washer and dryer and a separate toilet, shower and vanity, all of which have made it easier on the family, she noted.

“At first it was hard for all of us — because we have teenagers — to be in close quarters,” she said. “But it ended up being really great. We grew closer together as a family.

“We spent a lot of time outdoors. We got rid of all the busy schedules that families usually have and kind of [ended up] doing things together. So that was definitely a benefit.”

With lower monthly costs, the family also has been able to get out of “a lot of debt,” Morris noted.

She said they would like to keep traveling in the RV for another year but are now looking for a house after her husband recently took a job that brought them back to Utah and a more stationary lifestyle. With the state’s housing market a competitive “mess,” as Morris described it, the family is currently parked at a friend’s house in Huntsville.

“We love traveling that way as a family,” Morris said of the house on wheels where they’ve lived for the past year. “But now that we’re thinking of buying a house, I think we’re slowly letting go of the RV dream.”

‘It’s not achievable’

Maddie Bannon and her boyfriend moved into an RV in his parents’ backyard in West Jordan two years ago, at a time when the 29-year-old had given up on the idea that she’d ever be able to buy a house if she kept renting one.

“It just didn’t seem possible for me to be able to save enough money to buy a house unless I was somehow not paying $1,200 for rent, because that would be basically one of my paychecks every single month,” she said. “At that rate, I was saving, like, maybe $30 a month. And if you do the math, that’s, like, 50 years in the future I’ll be able to buy a house.”

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The move into the 500-square-foot RV was meant to be “very temporary,” offering the chance for the couple to save so they could invest in a house more quickly, she said. And it has helped, increasing the amount they’re able to set aside each month to around $900.

But in the state’s tight housing market — where prices continue to climb to a median of $468,000 in Salt Lake County and some buyers are offering $100,000 above asking price in their initial bids — Bannon said the dream of homeownership feels increasingly out of reach.

“I went into this thinking it would be maybe a couple of years, but it’s already been two and we probably have six more before we have enough to put a down payment on a house,” she said.

“We were thinking about either just moving further south, [to] Kamas or maybe up in Idaho; it just depends on what’s available,” she added. “But Salt Lake is just... it’s not achievable. It seems like it’s a city for millionaires now, so that’s not us.”

Living in the RV hasn’t been so bad, Bannon said, but there are drawbacks. It’s difficult to store bigger items and to have friends over, and she’s had to work at home from a bed desk to minimize noise in the small space.

Bannon, who doesn’t want to raise a child in an RV, also worries that by the time she can afford to live in a place where she would want to start a family, it will be too late.

“I’m approaching 30, and I’ll have about five to seven years more of fertility,” she said. “And if I can’t make it in that time, well then I guess that sucks for me. I can’t really do much about it.”

A planner, not ‘a nomad’

Kelli Holgate wants to retire, so she can spend more time with her grandchildren and building her quilting business. But she can’t afford to leave her job if she keeps paying $1,350 a month for rent.

So the 59-year-old widow recently hatched a plan to move out of her apartment in the Salt Lake Valley and into a van this fall, an “affordable transition plan” that she hopes will hold her over until she decides where she wants to put down roots next.

(Photo courtesy Kelli Holgate) Kelli Holgate, 60, plans to move into a converted van later this year, in an effort to save money while she decides where she wants to put down roots next.

“I’m not planning on being a nomad,” she noted. “I’m not planning on traveling all over the country and doing that kind of thing. I’m planning on going to [stay with] family, friends, my kids and being able to spend time with them but still have my own space.”

Holgate sold her house a few years ago in Cache County and moved south to be nearer to her children. She has the money for a down payment set aside and only sees herself living in a van for a few years, until she decides where she wants to — or, with rising housing prices, where she can afford to — settle next.

As she works to figure out her next move, she said some of her six kids, who are spread out across the country from Virginia to Washington state, have been “very supportive and very excited” for her to try the so-called “van life.” One of her sons, who lives in California, plans to help her build out the van.

Her other kids “are trying to be supportive, but at the same time they have concerns,” she said.

“They have busy lives and careers and families and I think there’s a little bit of that trepidation that they’re going to have to worry about mom.”

“They probably worry about mom anyway,” Holgate said, but added that, “I feel like I’ve done it in a smart way of really focusing on safety.”

Change is hard, Holgate said, and she thinks there is some stigma associated with living out of a van. But she said she feels more excited about the move than anything else, seeing it as an opportunity to spend time with her kids and nine grandchildren and to grow her business, Tiny Home Quilts.

“When I made that decision, I just felt really good about it. Like I have a plan,” she said. “I think it will be really good.”

“And if not, I’ll do something different,” she added.