Escaping Toronto’s rental crisis with #vanlife
Eamon Fitzgerald and Rebecca Moroney start their day like many couples: ruffling out of entangled sheets, groaning at the alarm, boiling water in a tea kettle and clicking on a laptop.
But when they pause to look out their bedroom window, their view is a little different – partly due to the windshield wipers.
The Toronto couple has been living in a converted cargo van since spring – travelling thousands of kilometres across Canada. Their view changes often, from the snow-topped mountains of Squamish, B.C., to the beaches of Prince Edward County.
“It’s like we have a $5-million cottage on the water,” Moroney says of spending summer days parked along a county side street. “The best part of van life is you have your home with you everywhere you go.”
Moroney, 27, and Fitzgerald, 25, are among the thousands who have taken up “van life.” With more than 2.1 million posts under the hashtag #vanlife on the photo-sharing app Instagram, it’s one of the most coveted lifestyles on social media.
Today’s van lifers aren’t the off-the-grid driveway squatters or Woodstock hippies of the ’60s. These millennial-aged wanderers, also known as digital nomads, are extremely plugged in; mostly freelance writers and entrepreneurs, they’re an Apple-era hybrid of HGTV renovation shows, Coachella festival style blogs, and Dragons’ Den success stories.
Some adopt the lifestyle as an alternative to paying high rents while others see it as the next step in the minimalist “tiny homes” movement. But even those who can afford spacious bricks-and-mortar housing have taken to #vanlife, such as former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Daniel Norris, who made headlines in 2015 for moving into a van during the off-season, telling the Star at the time he did it for the “solitude.”
For Fitzgerald and Moroney, living on wheels was a way around Toronto’s skyrocketing rents that also let them expand their business, Chaiwala, selling natural masala chai to independent cafés.
In March, they were preparing to sign a lease on a basement apartment near Trinity Bellwoods Park for $2,200 a month when Fitzgerald, who had been following the #vanlife hashtag for months, saw a post about a 2008 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van for sale for $13,500. Their business was locking in more clients around Ontario, and they thought a van would let them expand beyond the province.
“We dropped the lease, I kid you not, and drove out to the lot where the van was and we bought the van,” Moroney recalls.
They spent a month and $11,000 renovating the interior with mostly discounted items, such as recycled wood and subway tile from Italy found on Kijiji. They insulated and panelled the walls and ceiling and installed a foldaway table, futon-style bed, couch, a mini-fridge, cabinets and a counter with a stovetop and sink connected to three 19-litre fresh water tanks. The most expensive items were solar panels on the roof.
For the next five months, they zigzagged from New Brunswick to B.C., cooking vegan meals and showering at yoga studios that granted trial passes.
They made use of washrooms at cafés, restaurants, gyms and various public facilities – “Call us lucky but we’re not your pee-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of people,” jokes Moroney – and parked wherever they could find a quiet space: a few paid campsites, but mostly for free near beaches, behind clients’ cafés, on side streets in small towns and in Walmart parking lots.
Though some van lifers are nervous about unauthorized parking – known as “stealth camping” – Moroney and Fitzgerald haven’t run into any problems. “Most nights, if we haven’t found somewhere epic to park, like a great spot on the water, we’ll look for a Walmart,” Moroney says.
Since the van doubles as a home and office, come tax time the couple is able to write off most regular expenses, which aren’t that much to begin with – the monthly bills include $60 for internet, $100 for van insurance, and between $200 and $500 for gas.
Like many van lifers, the couple also makes money off social media content. In September, they made $500 on their YouTube channel, which has some 21,000 subscribers, and may soon enter the sponsored Instagram post market.
They met writers and fellow van lifers Lisa Felepchuk, 33, and Coleman Molnar, 31, “the way all great friendships begin in 2017” – on Instagram, Felepchuk jokes.
Known as Li et Co online, the Toronto couple spoke with the Star by phone from a public library parking lot in Kenora, Ont., where they’d stopped to take advantage of free Wi-Fi on their way to Banff, Alta.
Since March 2016, they’ve made a home in their 1983 Volkswagen Westfalia, which they share with their cat named Mewan McGregor (they keep a litter box on the floor and have only stepped in it on a couple of occasions).
The couple adopted van life, which is more common on the West Coast and in sunny California than Ontario, for the freedom and to escape Toronto’s rent – and nasty winters.
“Toronto is not a hippie hot spot in Canada,” says Molnar. They spent most of last winter in Arizona. “We were paying close to $2,000 to live in this city that’s frigid cold for six months a year and all we did was dream about going on vacation somewhere else.”
But for Moroney and Fitzgerald, their business keeps them from being able to chase the sun. And when the weather changes with the area codes – like last month, when they went from a Toronto heat wave to frigid temperatures in Winnipeg in a matter of days – van life isn’t as charming as the Instagram shots.
But the couple, who’ve since installed a heater, are determined to continue van life over the winter.
“It is our home,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s the most comfortable bed we know.”
“Sometimes we’ll go and sleep somewhere else,” says Moroney, “and every night we do, we’re like ‘Why did we do that? We miss our van.'”
Edited on 6 December 2017