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Living in a Car

Updated on October 14, 2011

Living in a Car or RV Camper - Desperate Times – Desperate Measures

Is there a possibility you could end up living in a car? As more people are losing their jobs and homes an increasing number are looking for housing, ANY housing and that housing often comes in the form of some kind of vehicle or camper. As an RV owner I frequent RV Forums where people discuss different brands, maintenance, and “full timing”. This past year I’ve seen an increased interest in people who are looking at RV’s not as a weekend camper but as a place to live. And most of these new people have never owned and RV before and are not looking because they want to… but because they are now in a position of SURVIVAL as a result of having their home foreclosed and/or losing their major source of income as their jobs have evaporated. Living in a car becomes a real possibility for people in this position.

So this brief article is intended to investigate and open discussion as to what are the possibilities of living out of a vehicle… from car, to truck, to van, to trailer, to motor home, or any other kind of rv living.

Concerns when Living in a Car or RV

Almost nobody really wants to live full time in an RV, let alone a car or truck. But many are actually doing this and it’s their only means of survival. The shelters are full in most cities and the food pantries quickly becoming empty. With 45 million Americans accepting food stamps it’s not hard to see that times are tough. So here are some considerations for those being forced into sub-optimal living conditions. Things you’ll want to consider if living in a car becomes your only source of housing.

  • Overnight Parking Ordinances – this is very common in any city along the coastline of California or any city that attracts tourists. In addition to cities most Retail and or Commercial Parking lots are also legally off limits. If you are forced into a situation where you must park on public streets or parking lots your best hope of not attracting attention and being hassled is to figure out a way to make your vehicle stealth. When living in a car you do NOT want to attract the attention of law enforcement.

In 2001, officials in Lynnwood, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, passed an ordinance imposing penalties of 90 days in jail or fines of up to $1,000 against people caught living in their cars.

  • Hygiene – Excepting for Recreational Vehicles your car or truck probably does not have a bathroom, a sink, a toilet, a shower, a stove, etc. There are ways to get around this and strategies that you can use to keep up good hygiene while living in a car. One common method is to simply join a gym. If you can afford this it’s a good strategy because you will have access to restroom facilities and can take a shower every day. Be sure to keep up your appearance, you do not want to look out of place.
  • Food – With limited income you might have a tough enough time purchasing food let alone storing and preparing food and the even more difficult task of washing dishes! With an RV this is not that much of a problem, but with a car it’s a major problem. If you rely on fast food you quickly put your health at risk. One strategy is to get a small battery operated refrigerator and a hot plate or propane based stove. You can purchase these items at RV Supply and Sporting Goods stores. Most are pretty inexpensive, but for people with nothing probably out of reach. Once one knows they will be losing their home and forced to living in a a car they should investigate purchasing and RV “Deep Cycle” battery and an inverter so they can power appliances on an as needed basis. RV refrigerators are quite expensive, but they can also be purchased to run on propane in addition to electricity. Using an inverter is a great idea, but you still have to keep the batteries charged which would require being wired to your alternator and driving and or access to an electricity source or solar panels.
  • Safety – If you are going to be living in your car it doesn’t instill that everything is going to be okay feeling. In many areas there are issues of crime to deal with especially for single woman and families. Are you going to feel okay sleeping with a shotgun next to your head… probably not. Finding a safe place to overnight in most cities will require knowing somebody or having a vehicle which is very stealth. There are really no good answers to this issue other than trying to travel to an area that is safer or making arrangements with somebody who will allow you to park on their property. If you can not find this then your best bet is to go as stealth as possible and try to locate large apartment complexes with a lot of parking and park in the outer lots. In California where parking is at a premium this is tough to do.

The Vehicles – Living on Wheels – RV, Motor Home, Car, Truck, Van, Trailer

Cars are the least viable option; with seats in the way you won’t be able to stretch out and get comfortable and with many windows you will have a very difficult time pulling off anything stealth. The best option in this case is of course a larger car with a big trunk or a station wagon/SUV. When living in a car do not put up cardboard or anything in the windows which will attract attention. If you can get window tint that complies with the laws in your state do it! In some cases depending on the type of car you can pull of curtains or sunshades, just don’t leave these up all day. You co not want it to appear you are living in your car. Put belongings in the trunk or out of view in the day. In some larger cars you can fold down the rear seats and have access to the trunk. Shorter people may be able to create a bed platform in this manner and find a way to sleep. But overall a car is the worst possible place to be forced to live.

Trucks give you options! You can put a shell on a truck to store your belongings or you can put a camper on a truck and have full facilities that while cramped will give you a shower, a stove, a refrigerator, etc., and of course everything in between. A truck can pull a trailer – either a camping trailer or a cargo trailer (we will get to cargo trailers in a bit as part of a stealth option). Trucks can be 4x4 and will allow you the ability to go off road and “boon dock” (live in areas of open land off the beaten path). While not a great option in themselves trucks are a much better option than a car for obvious reasons.

Trailers are a good option if you have a place to park them. There are two kinds of trailers you an consider.

  • Camping Trailers offer you living space and can be fully self contained with restrooms facilities and plumbing. The problem with most trailers is they are very poorly insulated and if you live in an area that freezes your pipes may break if you try to use the water in the winter. If this is the case you really should try to find a “Four Season” Trailer which will have the pipes insulated and protected from freezing. You still may need to keep a heater running to stop freezing but it’s a better option.
  • Cargo Trailers offer you little in the way of amenities but they can offer you space to store your belongings and they can be configured so they look like a work vehicle not a place people are living. Cargo Trailers can be as tall as 6.5 feet so you can stand up in them and they can be as wide as 8 feet and some as long as 20 feet or more. Cargo trailers built on aluminum frames with aluminum walls might be able to be towed by smaller SUV’s or cars. However most Cargo trailers are built on steel with wood frames and can be heavy to tow. Look for a Cargo trailer with dual rear wheels for balance when parked. To be stealth you won’t be able to use leveling jacks.You can customize your own trailer with anything you can afford to put inside from cabinets to pluming and electric. Living in a car with a small cargo trailer could be an inexpensive option and a way to expand your storage. You can make them as comfortable as a regular camping trailer but it takes money, skill, and time. Throw a ladder on the roof and secure it down so it looks like a work vehicle and you can “hide” solar panels beneath the ladder. Install an extra vent on the roof and they are livable. The real problem in areas that get really hot is you will likely die of heat stroke if you try and live in one because of poor ventilation. You can configure a Cargo trailer and pull it with a truck so it looks just like any other job site rig and park in commercial areas likely without being hassled too much.

Vans are a better option than a car, but they can actually draw a lot of attention if they look crappy and have no windows. But the living space is much better than a car and you can outfit them with a lot of the essentials… like sings and small stoves. Ideally you can find a Van with a raised roof to give you extra living room. A stock Ford or Chevy Van has about 52” of height, by adding another 12” with a raised roof you can get five to five and a half feet of standing height. If you have to live in a van this is a huge difference! Plus most raised roof vans look kind of upscale and will draw less attention. Many have fold down rear seats that convert to beds, and you can store a lot in the back beneath the seats. You may have to throw out the middle captains chair but it’s again it’s better than a car. And you can also tow a small trailer. Not ideal, but not horrible… and there is no such thing as ideal when you are living in your car.

Motor Homes can be a good or a bad option depending on how long you need to live in a vehicle. The plus side is they have all the amenities, the downside is old motor homes are not very reliable as the engines and transmissions have to haul around a lot more weight than a car so they do not last as long. And people tend to stop maintaining motor homes over time. The exterior paint fades and they are hard to wash. Most people park them outside in the elements so in addition to sun damage many have leaky roofs as joints expand and contract with the seasons. A Motorhome over 10 years old probably has several “problems” everything from a refrigerator that needs to be repaired, to leaky plumbing, to worn out tires. Tires even if they look good may not pass inspection due to the age of the rubber. And RV Tires can be very expensive. You do NOT want to have a blowout while driving a motor home. Another downside to a motor home is that in most areas if it’s parked on the street or in a parking lot it just says “Hey we are living in here”. But if you can get a motor home and find a place to park it where you can connect to electricity and water you will be in a pretty good situation. Sadly most campgrounds and RV parks are so expensive you can not afford to stay in them when you are jobless. You could drive to a smaller community and try to find an RV Park with monthly rental and hookups. I’ve found some online that run about $350 a month, but even that may be out of reach for the jobless.

Other Considerations for Living in a Car

You’ll need to register and license your vehicle. Expired registration is just another invitation to be harassed. If you vehicle is ticketed, you had best drive to another city because the last thing you need is your “home” being impounded.

If you can you should purchase a pay as you go phone so you will have some way for prospective employers to contact you. It is a good idea to get a Mailbox at a place like UPS Store/Mailboxes etc. so you will have a physical address. The last thing you want is for a prospective employer to think you are homeless. We live in a country where Class Discrimination is rampant, and that’s just the way it is. Nobody wants to hire a homeless person not matter how talented. I can’t tell you why this is the way it is, but it is what it is.

And don’t be too proud to file for Government Assistance. Listen, that’s what it is there for. If the Federal Government can hand out Billions to Wall Street Bankers they can afford to hand out a few dollars in food assistance and such to help you get back on your feet.

I hope you never have to live in a Car, Truck or RV… but if you do it’s best to be prepared.

This article is open to discussion and ideas… please comment below. I hope you as a reader of this article never have to spend time living in a car.

Is there an upside to living in a car?

Yikes!  Living in a car is NOT fun!
Yikes! Living in a car is NOT fun! | Source


Submit a Comment

  • HoneyBB profile image

    H Lax 

    6 years ago

    Thanks for all the info. My interests in reading it probably stems from the possibility that I could find myself in that situation someday. I appreciate all the tips.

  • toomuchmint profile image


    6 years ago

    Desperate measures for desperate times is right, but it's a very well-written article. Voted interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  • Brian Burton profile image

    Brian Burton 

    7 years ago

    Wow, what an excellent article. Well thought out and great advice. Hate that this is a topic even worthy of talking about, but it's a reality of life for too many these days. It is really great that someone took the time to really dig into the subject and give quality suggestions. Very nice.

  • MikeNV profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Henderson, NV

    Isn't it great that we live in a country where once you are down and out it's nearly impossible to get back on your feet. There are actually laws against homelessness. You get caught and you get fined, jailed, and have what little you may have left taken from you.

    USA USA USA! I just read that Obama has raised $150 million for his re-election campaign. The nearest Republican about $30 million. Both are taking lots of money from Wall Street.

    We can bailout Wall Street but we can't help the homeless, we can't help the disabled, we can't help the unemployed?

    You don't have to be a socialist to understand the system is very very broken and the "Leaders" are doing absolutely nothing to address these issues... real people suffering and living in poverty.

  • gracenotes profile image


    7 years ago from North Texas

    Well, as late as 2007, I knew of a trailer park which only charged about $225 per month for a space. It was probably a little unusual.

    With a trailer, you'd have to know of someone who wouldn't mind your parking on their property, and this would probably be in a rural area, because cities sure won't tolerate much of that. These days, most don't allow you to have a trailer parked in your back yard, and certainly not in front.

    Good hub with good advice. Made me sad though. Rated up.

  • Jamie Brock profile image

    Jamie Brock 

    7 years ago from Texas

    It is so sad that people are having to actually consider living in a rv, trailers or cars. It is true that alot of people live paycheck to paycheck and my family is no exception. It's just so sad the condition of our economy. You've written an excellent hub though for anyone who may be faced with this very real prospect. Sometimes I wonder how my kids or future grandkids will ever make it if it keeps going the way it is.

  • thebigbagblog profile image


    7 years ago from CYBERSPACE

    Awesome job

  • sen.sush23 profile image


    7 years ago from Kolkata, India

    From outside USA the problem seems a bit distant. However, the circumstances are so real that it does not seem any bad fairy tale. The blog is well-written and great!

  • molometer profile image


    7 years ago from United Kingdom

    There is a long history of living in vehicles in the USA dating back to the depression of the 1930's were people just packed up their homes and moved across the country looking for work. Great hub voted up UI.

  • Xenonlit profile image


    7 years ago

    This is so sad, to have to hear such good and practical advice for those who have lost their livelihoods and homes.

    Well done and compassionate!

  • profile image

    Home Girl 

    7 years ago

    For that you have to HAVE a car in the first place...

    Being a woman I always dreaded to become homeless. I think any crappy place better than that.


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