When it comes to downsizing, living in a tiny house, or experiencing the van life both sound appealing. The web is full of sites devoted to each one, and it’s easy to spend hours looking at pictures and watching YouTube videos. But how do you go about comparing the two?
When deciding whether a tiny house or the van life is better, you have to look beyond the glamour and consider practical considerations, including how much each will cost, where you plan to build your tiny home or travel in your campervan, and your lifestyle.
If you want to look at pictures and watch videos, you can spend hours on Instagram and YouTube. But if you want a side-by-side comparison of the nitty-gritty details that enthusiasts often don’t talk about, this guide is for you.
What Is a Tiny House?
Let’s start by defining what we mean by a tiny house. According to the 2018 International Residential Codes (IRC), a tiny house is a dwelling with no more than 400 square feet of floor space.
The IRC states that loft space is not counted in square footage calculations. That might explain why you will sometimes run across sites that claim a tiny house can be up to 600 square feet.
Most tiny homes are built on trailers. These trailers are typically 8-10 feet wide and from 10 to 30 feet long. It is possible to set a small house on a foundation, but that would be the exception.
A tiny home should contain all the features of a larger house or apartment—a living space, sleeping area, kitchen, and bathroom.
What Is Van Living?
A camper van is a type of RV or recreational vehicle that is smaller than a motorhome. A tiny home starts as a flatbed trailer, and a camper van starts as a van. Typically camper vans are vans that have been converted so that the inside is a living space.
Sometimes they are referred to as Class B RVs, especially if you plan on purchasing something like a Winnebago Solis, a ready-to-drive camper van.
However, most campervans are built on a van chassis and then retrofitted so that they have a place to sleep, eat, and cook. Typically an individual will buy a larger van, like a Ford Transit or a Mercedes Sprinter, and then convert the inside.
Although it is possible to have a toilet and/or shower in a camper van, most do not. A camper van lacks the same amenities and space that a tiny house has, but in return, you can just climb in and go.
How We Will Compare Them
There are many ways to compare the two. Often, websites focus on the looks and features of a van or a tiny home, and practical matters get short-changed. Don’t get us wrong—checking out Instagram’s van life or tiny homes hashtags is useful and fun. However, pictures do not tell the whole story.
To give you a better idea of what to consider when deciding between these two, we will focus on three key considerations—finances, location, and climate.
How Will You Pay for It?
Costs of a Tiny House
Part of a tiny house’s appeal is that it costs less to build than a regular house. A smaller house and fewer materials and should cost less, right?
That depends on how you plan to build and how you determine the cost of a house.
There are several pathways toward getting a tiny house, and each one comes with different expenses.
Build It Yourself
This is usually the least expensive route. That’s because you have so many options for what you will buy and how much work will be done by others. It’s why you will find such a variety of prices—some people claim they built their home for under 10 thousand while others spend three times that much. These are some of the variables:
- The flatbed trailer that becomes the foundation of the house can be bought new for 15 to 20k, or you can find a used one for several thousand dollars.
- The materials you will use, like lumber, windows, and so forth—can be bought new, or you can reclaim some of them. You’d be surprised by what kind of second-hand building supplies you can find at a store like the local Habitat ReStore.
- The labor costs also vary quite a bit. The more work you are willing to do, the lower the cost. Of course, how much work you put into a tiny house depends on how much you can do and how much time you must work on your tiny home.
Have It Built
You can find builders who specialize in tiny house construction. Most states have at least one or two, and many have more. Even if you cannot find a builder near you, when the house is finished, it can be brought to your site.
Comparing prices is difficult because most tiny house builders do not list prices for individual models. However, when examining costs per square foot, you can get an idea of what a home might cost.
For example, in 2019, the average cost of a new house was $114 per square foot, although this varies from state to state. A 2,000 square foot house would cost $228,000.
Square foot prices for a custom-built tiny house are much higher—around $300. This means a 400 square foot tiny house will cost $120,000. The higher square foot price is due to the custom-designed storage solutions and specialized appliances, plumbing, and HVAC systems.
Buy a Shell
Another option is to buy the shell and then personalize the interior. You can find various builders that do so. Tiny Home Builders, for example, will build the shell and add dormers and rough-in plumbing and electrical for under $200 a square foot.
Buy a Kit
With this option, you get the materials and blueprint, and you provide the hammer and labor. What most kits get you are the materials to build the shell. Should you choose to go this route, make sure you understand what you are getting for your kit. For example, B&B Tiny House kits do not include the trailers.
Costs of a Camper van
There are two options for getting a camper van—you can convert a van or buy one built for that purpose.
Convert a Van
If you choose to convert a van, you have flexibility in cost and what features your campervan will have.
You could buy a van and fix it up. To figure out how much that will cost, break it down into two parts—the van and the interior.
Obviously, the older the vehicle, the cheaper it will be, and with that comes the potential for repair costs. When looking for vans, if you want to stand up in it, you will need a cargo van, like a Ford Transit, Ram ProMaster, or Sprinter.
New models of cargo vans will start around $30,000. Each of the big three make one, along with the Mercedes Sprinter, and a Nissan NV Cargo van.
Once you decide on your van, you must convert the interior. Again, prices can vary depending on what you want. When planning your interior, your costs will come in three major areas:
- Climate control. Will you install insulation? How will you control the temperature when the van is not running?
- Electrical systems. If you plan to have a refrigerator and stove, you will need to have a dedicated battery, solar panels, and the electrical accessories that tie a system together.
- Living. This means your bed, your stove and refrigerator, bathroom facilities, and storage. You have a lot of flexibility in how much you spend here.
Some people enjoy planning and take justifiable pride in their work. But some people do not have the 100s of hours required to fix up their campervans. Those who don’t have enough time purchase a conversion kit. These can cost from $6000 and up.
Buy a Camper Van
Another option is to buy a camper van. Some of these are built by recognized names—such as the Winnebago Solis, Mercedes Metris, and the Airstream Interstate 19. Others are manufactured by independent manufacturers who start with a Mercedes Sprinter, Ram ProMaster, or Ford Transit and then custom-build a camper van.
Expect to pay around $100,000 minimum for a fully customized camper van.
Pro Tip: Make sure that when researching camper vans are sold in America. Many models you will find on the web are only available overseas.
And the Winner Is?
This one is tough because you can choose the cheap or expensive route with either. However, campervans edge out because not only can you build one for less than a tiny home, but you also have the added benefit of mobility. One week you can be on the beach, the next in a National Forest. Try doing that with a tiny house.
Where Will You Be?
Location is another issue that often gets overlooked by both those who want a tiny house and those who yearn for campervan life. The roadblocks for either might make you question whether society really wants us to do either one.
Where Can You Put Your Tiny Home?
One of the biggest challenges with tiny houses is where to put them, which seems odd considering how small they are. You might want a small house, but it seems like most localities don’t.
Most building codes and zoning laws require that a residence have a minimum number of square feet for starters. That minimum varies, but you usually need a minimum of 1000 square feet, which is twice the size of an average tiny house. Architect Magazine has rated California, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida as the five best states for tiny homes.
These states received the highest ratings for numerous reasons:
- Opportunities for houses without a minimum square footage requirement
- The number of tiny house communities
- How many towns advertised that they were tiny-home friendly
- Whether the state had larger RV parks that allowed a tiny house to stay without specifying how long
- If builders and architects advertise that they design or build tiny houses
Ways to get around the many requirements exist, but even those are complicated. For example, your tiny home could be placed on a property with an existing house as an Accessory Dwelling Unit—if your city or county allows this.
Another way to get around the building codes is to register your tiny home as an RV. This will exempt you from those codes. But that also leads to complications—namely where it will be parked. Even localities that allow you to have an ADU forbid that you live in your RV permanently.
Finding a place to put your tiny house requires research and creativity. You may find yourself living further away from a town or city where you work than you had anticipated or moving your tiny home more often than you had planned.
Where Can You Park Your Camper Van?
You can find more places to park a camper van, but a few of those are permanent. But maybe that is what you want anyway—a life of adventure where staying put is not an option. Here are places you will be able to park:
- Public land. National Forests will let you overnight for up to 14 days in most areas outside of a campground for free. Of course, this means you are on your own when it comes to bathroom and water needs. Numerous websites and apps can help you find free overnight parking, including FreeCampsites and iOverlander, a crowd-sourced app.
- Walmart. Almost all Walmarts allow campers and RVs to park overnight. If Walmart is 24-hours, that’s even better. An occasional Walmart does not allow overnight parking, but you can call ahead. Do not assume you will have the parking lot to yourself—many travelers rely on them for an overnight stay. If there is no Walmart nearby, look for a Cabela’s, Cracker Barrel, or Bass Pro Shop—they often provide free overnight parking.
- Campsites. You can find paid camping on public lands (national, state, and sometimes county). Paid campgrounds usually provide access to showers, toilets, and water, as well as hook-ups for power and water. National and state parks with campsites sometimes provide them.
- Truck stops. Most major rest stops will let you park overnight for free. You can also get a (paid) shower and stock up on food. Although you will be able to park in a well-lit area, truck stops are not known for their quiet solitude.
- Private land. Besides friends and acquaintances who will allow you to stay for a week or two, some services will connect you with strangers who will camp on their land. One such service is Boondockers Welcome, where a yearly membership gets you access to people who will let you stay on their land for free. Hipcamp is more like an Airbnb.
- Cities. Many cities have ordinances against overnight sleeping overnight in a van. This stealth parking brings a series of difficulties, especially bathrooms. And if you get “the knock,” don’t get upset. You are breaking the law. Be courteous and move on.
And the Winner Is?
When it comes to variety and ease of finding a place to stay, Campervans come out on top. Localities might make it difficult to build a small permanent dwelling. Still, it’s more difficult for them to monitor who sleeps in an RV or campervan besides telling you to move on when you have overstayed your visit.
However, if you do not have that much wanderlust and like staying put, then van life is probably not for you.
How Will the Climate Affect You?
If you are planning to live in a van, then the weather will be a major consideration. Both heating and cooling a van can be challenging, especially if you don’t insulate and have a power source to run heaters, fans, or air conditioners.
Just thinking about air conditioning a van, you must consider:
- Power. Conventional air conditioners take up too much power, so you will need to purchase one made specifically for campervans.
- Noise. Loud AC units can be annoying when you’re trying to sleep.
- Efficiency. You have a limited amount of power, and your AC will be competing with your refrigerator and stove for it.
That’s just air conditioning. When it comes to heat, you will have the same considerations.
Climate considerations for a tiny house play only a small part if you insulate it properly and install a heating and cooling system. Since most tiny houses are designed to hook up to an outside power source, this will not involve the same level of planning.
And the Winner Is?
Tiny houses. A properly insulated tiny house with adequate heat and cooling source can be kept comfortable much more easily than a campervan.
A Skoolie—A Compromise to Consider
If a Camper Van seems too small, but you want the mobility, look into converting an old bus into a Skoolie. Think of it as a larger campervan that is more difficult to drive. When it comes to finding places to park, you will face similar challenges.
A 31-foot bus has around 180 square feet of living space. That is still tiny, even by tiny house standards, but large enough with the additional space, you will have room for a shower(!) and a more comfortable kitchen and living spaces.
Both a tiny house and a campervan appeal to people who want to downsize and lead a simpler life. When weighing your options, remember that both are going to require you to make compromises. If the adventure of living in a small space appeals to you, then start on your tiny house. However, if you are looking for adventure and the freedom to pick up and go on a moment’s notice, get ready for van life.