Nerd Nomad

I live in a truck.

What’s something like that set you back?

I’ve covered the Why?, and partially the How?, of living in an RV full-time while still running a tech startup. After those two, the most common question is, “How much does it cost?”

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The RV: $33,500 ($469/month)

Obviously, the biggest expense in this is probably the actual RV. Someday I’ll write an article describing the process by which I came to decide on the type and size of RV I wanted and how I narrowed it down and got a pretty good deal, but for now, suffice to say I bought exactly what I wanted within my budget.

My rig is a 2003 Four Winds Hurricane 33SL, which is a 33′ class A motorhome with one “super slide”, which is a slide-out wall that expands the living room width by about three feet, making it nearly 50% wider than when the slide is in. “Class A” is a term that describes a class of RVs where the entirety of the vehicle is part of the living space, including the drivers and passenger seats. A class A motorhome looks, on the outside, kinda like a bus, rather than a van (class B) or a pickup with a cabin built onto the back (class C). Class A motorhomes tend to provide more living space, but lower sleeping capacity per foot of length, than class C motorhomes. Class B motorhomes tend to be much smaller, and look and drive like big fancy vans. Obviously, bigger vehicles are somewhat more difficult to drive and park, and there are limitations on where you can go in a class A that do not apply to class B and smaller class C motorhomes (ask Tynan about the advantages of a smaller RV). Gas mileage of class B motorhomes tends to be better than class C and class A; the class C and class A motorhomes are all built on the same Ford Triton or Chevy Workhorse chassis and so get roughly the same mileage.

My Hurricane is a “value” brand of class A motorhome, manufactured by Thor, and is built on top of a gasoline engine truck chassis built by Ford. More expensive motorhomes are built on diesel bus chassis.

I bought my rig for $29995 from American Motorhome in Sacramento (I can recommend them; they were honest, only had really clean good looking coaches on the lot, and had the best prices for miles around on less than ten year old coaches; for older coaches, you might look elsewhere, though, as they’re a bit higher than retail on their 1999 and below models). With taxes and registration it totaled about $33,500.

I initially had my heart set on a 2005 Hurricane 34N, which is a 35′ coach with three slides, making it a living space of over 300 square feet, and driving it would be very much like driving my 33′ coach. But, it turns out my “good credit” (mid-700s) isn’t good enough to get an RV loan. So, I had to pay cash, and luckily the 33SL showed up on the weekend before the Monday on which I absolutely needed to make a purchase.

Since I plan to spend at least a year on the road (probably more, but let’s be conservative in our math), I can amortize the depreciation on this coach out over 12 months. At this age and in this price range, RVs lose about $2500 per year, with exceptions for high mileage and excessive wear and tear. Earlier in their life, they lose more per year in value, and right now there are a huge number of late model coaches available for sale because buyers found themselves upside down on the loan and out of work, and so they let the bank have it. Mine was a bank repo, as are the vast majority of late model coaches on the market currently.

This is, frankly, the best market in years in which to be buying an RV, used or new (but, especially used), as long as you can scrape together the cash to pay for it. Getting a loan is hard, but getting a good deal is pretty easy, even from most dealers. The market for older coaches isn’t as depressed, as people who want RVs are simply buying older and cheaper, due to the low availability of loans. Nonetheless, in my searches I saw several nice 10-15 year old, technically sound and low mileage, class A RVs for under $20k, and a few for under $10k.

So, my monthly cost on the RV is $208 ($2500 in depreciation divided by 12), plus registration of $30/month, and sales tax of $231 (which is a one-time 9.25% cost, and will amortize more attractively the longer I live in the coach; if I’d thought ahead, I would have setup my domicile in a lower sales tax state before buying the RV; California has hatefully high taxes and registration fees, the highest in the country, as far as I can tell). So, I’m already spending $469/month just for the RV, if I only stay in it for a year. Pretty pricey for a loophole, eh?

Since I only paid about 90% of the low NADA retail for this coach, I’ll probably resell it for about what I paid (not counting taxes and registration), or maybe a bit more with the solar panels and other upgrades I add, but again, we’ll be conservative rather than wishful when pulling numbers out of the air. If I were to trade it in rather than selling it personally, I’d probably take the full depreciation hit, and then some.

Fuel: $200/month

A 33′ class A motorhome is not a fuel-efficient vehicle. It makes a Hummer look like a scooter (actually, no, it doesn’t…it looks OK when compared to a Hummer; that’s how idiotic driving a Hummer is: I can haul around my whole house for not much more gas than driving a Hummer). I’ve been getting about 7.5 to 10 miles to the gallon in my travels thus far, depending on terrain and speed, averaging about 8.5 MPG. The mountains that separate Mountain View from all of my destinations, so far, have been a killer on gas mileage. Level highway mileage is much better, and I’ll be away from these mountains before too much longer. I’ve been told that mileage depends more on how you drive than on how long the coach is; so a 25′ class C built on a Triton chassis like mine would, according to this logic, get about the same gas mileage. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I’m certain a class B will get better mileage, since it’s usually on a lighter-weight van chassis and has a smaller V8 engine.

The 5500W Onan generator also runs on gasoline, and reportedly burns about half a gallon per hour of use. When I am operating without being plugged in, and until my solar panels arrive, I run the generator for about two hours each day, in order to charge my laptop and house batteries. But, until I get the solar panels, I don’t plan to spend more than a day at a time unplugged, so I can safely say I almost never use the generator, and disregard it in my budget. It’s my understanding that generators get more efficient the larger they are, in terms of how much electricity they generate, but they also burn more fuel the larger they are. So, I would think getting the smallest size that provides the necessary electricity to charge your batteries as quickly as they can safely be charged is the way to go for efficiency sake. I haven’t done any math on this, but 5500W is the average size for class A motorhomes of this size. Air conditioning requires a significant amount of AC power, and so the generator would have to run if I weren’t in a park and it were hot out. I may need to add generator fuel usage to the math in the future, when I get to hotter climates, though I plan to follow the perfect weather south and then back north, rather than run heat or air a lot.

I’ve budgeted $200 per month for gasoline, though I suspect I’ll actually travel less distance than that. I expect, at this point, that I will drive one day per week, for about four to six hours, and park the rest of the time. There may be small side-trips to visit customers or carry stuff to trade shows for setup, but I think it’ll all fit in this budget.

In the time since I bought the RV three weeks ago, I’ve spent about $240 on gasoline; but that included the trip back from Sacramento after purchase, plus another round trip to the dealer to have new awnings installed (they were on order when I purchased the RV, and I could have just left it there for the few days until they arrived, but I needed to start moving out of my house immediately). It also included a round trip to Monterey as a trial run; I won’t be doing round trips very often in the future; I will go from place to place and loop the whole country or region before getting back to the starting point again. I currently have 3/4 of a tank of gas in the tank, so I won’t need to gas up again for another few hundred miles.

Obviously, staying in one place costs nothing in gas (except running the generator, if needed), so if I were to find myself on hard times, travelling shorter distances, or not at all, is always an option.

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Propane: $60/month

I’m guesstimating on this one, as I’ve only filled up once. Everything that gets hot (and one thing that gets cold) in an RV runs on propane. Mine has a 15 gallon tank, which costs about $60 to fill from almost completely empty. Furnace, stove, oven, refrigerator (when not plugged in or running the generator), and water heater all run on propane. Smaller RVs will require less heating, and have a smaller refrigerator, though I’m not sure how much difference that makes in propane usage rates.

I have a little electric radiator, as well, that I’m going to see about using with the solar panels, once installed, which may conserve some propane during cold weather, though I hope to get out of the cold and stay out of it. Air conditioning might be an issue, and I may need to install more solar panels to address it. (Edit: The radiator takes a minimum of 460 watts on its lowest, single element, setting, according to the Kill-A-Watt. It obviously will not be running on solar panels, since the most I plan to put on the roof is 320W. Looks like the little radiator is going to Goodwill.)

Reading on the Internet indicates that RVers refill propane as frequently as every week or as infrequently as once per year. So, it’s hard to say how often I’ll need to refill, but looking at my gauge and how fast I’ve been using, so far, I think once per month is about right. (Edit: I’m not quite two weeks into my propane usage from full, and I’ll be filling up today. My tank is, I believe about 1/3rd full now, so it looks kinda like in cold weather, I’ll use a little more than one tank per month; probably 20-25 gallons, or ~$80 worth. I hope to be in warm weather soon, which should make it stretch much longer.)

Mobile Service: $73

I have a G1 Android phone with T-Mobile service, and I can tether it to my laptop for Internet when I don’t have access to broadband of some sort. It works OK, though T-Mobile 3G is spotty. I almost never use the phone part of my plan (I use maybe 30 minutes per month of 1000), but I probably make up for it in data usage.

I’ve been told that Verizon has better high speed data coverage, so when the Nexus One is usable on Verizon, I’ll pick one up. That will add $59 per month, I believe, for a data only plan.

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RV Parks (optional): $1050/month

The civilized way to travel and live in an RV is to park in a well-equipped RV park. They provide electricity, water, sewer, and cable TV hookups, making an RV just like a little house. You can level it, put out the slide, hook up to the utilities, and put out the “Welcome” mat. WiFi also seems to be widely available at RV parks these days.

In the pricier parts of the country, like most of Northern and coastal California, RV parks can cost a lot more than the $35/day I’ve budgeted, but with membership in a few discount clubs (Happy Camper, Passport America, Good Sam, KOA, which all adds up to a couple hundred bucks per year, but will, I think, save several hundred more) I believe it’ll average out to less than that over the year that I’m doing this. I expect to park free, at Wal-Marts and on quiet streets near friends, quite a bit on the weekends, when I don’t need to work as much and don’t need good fast Internet, which will bring the average down even in expensive areas. Some parks have lower cost partial hookup options; usually low amperage electricity (like 15 or 30 max) and no sewer hookup, so you have to drive to the dump station once a week or so. Where I’m currently parked, you can save $5 a night by staying in a spot without sewer and cable TV hookups, bringing it down to within budget.

This is where having a smaller RV would be a major benefit. A 22′ class B can park pretty much anywhere, since it’s just a big van. My 33′ provides a bit more flexibility than a 40′ diesel, but not by a lot. So, if cost of living is a primary concern, a smaller RV is a good choice, and not just because they cost a little less than a big one. I can’t park in most driveways, but a smaller coach (even a 25′ class C) could.

Mail: $19/month

Having no permanent residence introduces some interesting problems for running a business, or even just staying legal with taxes and such. There are a number of services that provide mail forwarding, mail scanning, etc. for full-time RVers and boaters. There are hundreds of mailbox services that will hold and forward mail (most local mailbox places provide this service, even), but you’ll want someone that specializes in mail for full-time travelers. I wanted one that provided scanning in addition to forwarding, since I really don’t want to have to wait around in one place for mail to arrive. This narrows the field to just a handful.

I chose St. Brendan’s Isle, which is $12.95, plus a few extra bucks for scanning service. They’ve been very helpful and responsive, so far, and they provide a lot of information about the process and legal requirements. You have to provide a signed, notarized, form that permits them to receive mail on your behalf, so you’ll need to get setup a couple of weeks in advance of hitting the road.

The other option I considered was Paperless Mail, but they weren’t responsive when I asked about business mail and whether I could use a personal account for business mail (they have a “business” account, but it costs an order of magnitude more, and provides way more services than I would need; Virtualmin only receives a couple of pieces of mail per week, far less than I personally receive).

Honestly, this is one area where I think my life is more convenient than before I hit the road. Most of these services will shred and recycle all of your junk mail for you, for free. You just check a box, and it’s done. I hate junk mail, and even when you ask nicely, beg, plead, yell angrily, etc. some vendors (J. Crew, I’m looking at you, you twice-weekly junk mailing bastards!) just won’t stop sending junk mail.

Solar Panels: -$62.50/month (plus labor)

I’m installing two 80W solar panels as soon as they arrive from Amazon, which cost about $850, including charge controller, wiring, mounting brackets, and a small inverter. The interesting thing about this is that solar panels add resale value at a rate much higher than the cost of solar panels. This will adjust over time, as solar panels get cheaper, more common, and the resale market adjusts, but for now, I’ll actually make money when I resell by installing solar panels (though it’ll take me a day or two of somewhat hard labor to get them installed; and if you’re not handy with tools and electricity you’d want to have a professional do the work).

I plan to assess my electricity usage over the next couple of months using a Kill-A-Watt for my plugin devices, and keeping an eye on my battery condition for the house lights and fans and such, and figure up how much solar I actually need to completely run from solar. I strongly suspect it will be more than 160W, but I don’t have cash for more panels right now. It costs about $800 for each additional pair of 80W panels, and I have room up on the roof for a half dozen panels and the charge controller supports up to 30A (~500W). Tynan has, I believe, 320W of solar on his roof, and reports it is “enough”.

RV Full-timer Insurance: $51/month

Living full-time in an RV means that I have to have vehicle insurance and “home owners” insurance coverage on the RV. I checked with three providers, and GEICO was the cheapest at $51/month, with a significant amount of extra coverage for personal items. It would be $48/month with the standard $5000/month of personal items coverage. This is not much different than renters insurance for the house.

Total: $1808.50/month

So, I believe that’s all of my monthly living expenses for the next year; at least it’s what I’ve budgeted for. I’ll re-asses as time goes by, but I think it’ll probably be pretty sane.

I’m not covering the regular stuff; groceries and such, that I spend no matter where I happen to live. I have always eaten out regularly, and always been pretty spendy on groceries, so I don’t think it’ll be much different when I’m shopping and eating on the road. I did include the mobile service, as it’s more vital than ever, and is part of my Internet solution. I currently spend the same amount for mobile service as I did in the house, and I haven’t bought a new phone yet, so expenses are the same. But I probably will buy a Nexus One and get Verizon data service in the next month or two; I need better navigation and GPS, and I think I’ll be better served by Verizon’s network. So, that’ll be an extra $59/month while my contract runs out at T-Mobile.

The Old House: $2439/month

Just for comparison sake, my old expenses at the 1000 square foot house a few blocks from downtown Mountain View:

  • Rent: $2145
  • Internet: $71
  • Mobile: $73
  • Power and gas: $130
  • Renters insurance: $20

Total: $2429/month

One thing to note: I have no car expenses in either case. I sold my car when I moved from Austin three years ago, and I haven’t missed it (much). So, I won’t be taking a car with me on the road. My bike is on a rack on the back, and I’ll buy a motorcycle in a couple of months, if the bike proves unworkable. I figure I’ll just drive out every week or so for groceries and supplies, and then park somewhere new. One more interesting tidbit about cars: The car I sold when I moved from Austin cost about the same as my RV. I wouldn’t want to try living in a 350Z, though, even if it could carry a surprising amount of stuff in the hatchback (it probably could tow a small travel trailer, I guess).

It’s not really all that cheap, is it?

Someone on Hacker News questioned the logic of this comparison, suggesting that it’d make more sense to compare a 250 square foot apartment to the 250 square foot RV…but, I think that misses the point. I wouldn’t be willing to trade in a big house in a nice city for a tiny place if I couldn’t consider the whole country my living room.

The RV gives me the ability to travel anywhere in the country (and Mexico and Canada), while still sleeping in my own bed, cooking in my own kitchen, working in my own space, having all of my stuff, enjoying the company of my dog, and do it all for less than it cost to live in Mountain View. Regardless of the size of the house, the location advantages of an RV can’t be beat.

It’s also probably worth considering that a livable apartment in Mountain View, even a tiny one (though finding a small apartment that allows big dogs is extremely difficult in the bay area), will never be less than about $1000/month. It’s just a very expensive town to live in, and the surrounding nice areas, like Palo Alto or San Francisco, are even more expensive (a friend pays $1245/month on a ~300 square foot place in Palo Alto, that she got at the absolute low point of the rental price curve; she moved from a similarly nice and similarly sized place in the same neighborhood that she was paying $1500 for).

I could, obviously, choose to live in a really cheap city, or in the suburbs, and save tons and tons and tons of money. But I would be miserable. I want to live in interesting, exciting, beautiful, dynamic, places that have fantastic weather. I’m not particularly poor these days (though I’m by no means rich, and my current company still doesn’t quite pay me what my previous company did), so living cheaply isn’t really my reason for doing this. I’m downright pleased to find out that it is actually a lot cheaper than living more traditionally in any place I would enjoy living, even though I’m sure it’d be possible to live somewhere in the US for less and not have to live in a truck.

So, if you’re following along thinking I’m going to tell you how to beat the system and live for free, you’re in the wrong place. I’m too old to rough it all the time. I won’t hesitate to park in a Wal-Mart lot, or spend a few nights in a national park that permits non-designated RV camping, but I’m not too fussed about paying $50 or more per night to stay in nice locations with full hookups, sometimes, too.

Posted by: admin on January 22, 2010 @ 1:09 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

8 Comments »

  1. Interesting that full timer insurance is so cheap. I’m going to look into that, too… right now I have bare minimum liability for $10/mo or so.

    You’re never going to run AC or electric heat off solar panels, FYI. The absolute tiniest AC you can get is about 700w. For that you would need 1000w panels (they don’t really operate at their max, since you aren’t tilting them towards the sun), and even then you could only use the AC in the brightest weather.

    The one possible thing to check out, which I’m going to investigate this summer, is a TurboKool swamp cooler. They work well, use very little power, but do use water.

    Same with electric heaters. They’re 1000-1500+ watts. For heat, get an Olympian Wave 6 or 8.

    Tynan

    Comment by Tynan — January 22, 2010 @ 10:44 am

  2. Interesting overview. You start with some of the common questions, the question that comes to my mind is how it’ll be on the longer run to always be around vacationers. Context matters, and can help get your brain going in certain ways.

    Comment by kasterma — January 22, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

  3. Yeah, I was pleasantly surprised by insurance rates, as well. I also have comprehensive coverage for the coach itself, so I’ve got the most insurance coverage I’ve ever had. Insuring my 350Z cost a lot more, and didn’t include nearly as much coverage. It comes out to less than insuring a house and a non-sports car, as well.

    I had a free-standing AC/dehumidifier in Mountain View, and was surprised by how much cool air the dehumidifier mode could blow. I’ll have to look into swamp coolers and dehumidifiers for the RV. I don’t really like running the generator. Seems wasteful, and I plan to follow perfect weather, rather than suffer through hot summers or cold winters, so I should never need extreme cooling or heating. Weather was one of my primary reasons for doing this (ironically, I’ve ended up still stuck in the cold and rain, as my solar panels are actually shipping out for delivery next week, so I just looped down to Morro Bay and now I’m heading back up north again to accept delivery on Tuesday).

    I’d seen you mention the Olympian Wave in the past, and it’s definitely in the plans if I do find myself in cold climates. Maybe before I head up to Alaska. Though I think it’ll be mild in August when I’ll be there; I don’t actually know what Alaska weather is like in the summer.

    Comment by admin — January 23, 2010 @ 4:16 am

  4. Joe,

    You are a freakin genius. I don’t know how the hell you keep up with all of this, and keep virtualmin running so well…

    I’m inspired…

    Comment by Alex Cook — January 28, 2010 @ 6:04 am

  5. Joe, you are awesome. I wish I could do this but I fear with a wife and two kids it will never happen–not even for a year. So, I will live vicariously through you.

    Prost!

    Comment by Lloyd — February 11, 2010 @ 11:24 pm

  6. For what it’s worth.. if you would have still purchased your RV in California, you would have ended up paying their sales tax anyway. We learned this lesson the hard way when we upgraded our tow vehicle in San Diego back in November. We’re domiciled in South Dakota, and figured we’d just be paying our 3% sales tax.. wrong. CA charges it regardless. At least SD didn’t charge their tax on top of the high rate we paid in CA.

    Also.. be very very very careful about earning an income in CA if you’re not domiciled there. You could be liable for state income tax not on just what you earn in CA, but on your entire year’s income – regardless of where you are.

    CA is likely the most aggressive state for taxes, and they’re on to us working RVers who love to be there. :)

    How’d your solar panel install go? We have 200w and 220ah of battery on our rig. We run two MacbookPros and a MacMini off them pretty well in the summer with good sun. Helps that we recharge when driving, and we converted everything over to 12v and LED lightbulbs.

    Once you get outside of CA, I think you’ll see your cost of RV Parking will go down quite a bit. You start to have lots of options for public campgrounds that offer decent hook-ups, for a great rate. We’re actually in Austin right now (where I grew up, actually), and staying for $16/night at a state park. We rarely pay for more than 30% of our overnights however.. and I’m sure you’ll get adept at it too :)

    We keep our cost log here for all to see: http://www.technomadia.com/the-finances-how-to-afford-it/

    Another note.. come join us at http://www.nurvers.com – it’s a community of us younger, working, full time RVers. :)

    Comment by Cherie @Technomadia — March 21, 2010 @ 3:12 am

  7. [...] wrote about the costs of living in an RV a while back. Now that I’ve actually been living on the road for a while, I’m a bit [...]

    Pingback by Another Post About Money — March 30, 2010 @ 5:41 am

  8. Hi son,

    I just printed all 25 pages of Nerd Nomad comments. Your mom, grandmother and I like to read about your travels.

    I love you,
    Dad

    Comment by Dad — December 5, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

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