Married BYU students find alternative to apartment living

Kjersten Johnson
Lizzy and Seth Nelson married in April 2016, moved to Texas for internships, then struggled to find an affordable apartment when returning to Provo. Their solution was to live out of a van for the semester. (Kjersten Johnson)

Lizzy and Seth Nelson drive home from a long day on campus, but they never leave the parking lot. Their home for fall semester is a 1992 Ford Econoline.

Lizzy and Seth Nelson are living in a van for the 2016 Fall Semester. They initially were looking at “van dwelling” as an alternative to paying expensive rent and decided to commit to it for the adventure. (Gianluca Cuestas)

Lizzy and Seth, both BYU students, married in April 2016 and spent their summer in Texas for internships; they started looking for married housing in Provo during February, then looked remotely while living in Texas.

“Nothing seemed worth it,” Lizzy said, while resting on the small pull-out bed covered with a blanket knit by her mom.

Whether it was the distance to campus, the cost of monthly rent or the cost of utilities, the couple felt deterred from any of the apartments they found.

The Facebook page “MARRIED BYU/UVU Provo and Orem Housing” has almost 7,000 members. Lizzy said any post on the page with an apartment renting for less than $700 per month will have 40 comments within 10 minutes of the posting. The apartments sell fast.

The average cost of a one-bedroom, married-housing apartment in Provo in 2016 is $619 according to Carlie Derrick, a receptionist at BYU’s Off-Campus Housing office. The average cost of a two-bedroom, married-housing apartment in Provo is $709. In 2010, those prices were $544 and $633, respectively.

According to Y-Facts, 24 percent of BYU students in 2015 were married. The percentage of married students for 2016 is not yet available. Many married students this summer have had a difficult time finding housing to match their budget and other requirements.

Lizzy and Seth Nelson lounge in their van-turned-home. They leave windows open and pull down the blinds to help with the hot summer weather. (Kjersten Johnson)

The friend of a family member mentioned a couple in Colorado who was living out of a van while working. “It was the first time I’d heard of someone doing that by choice,” Lizzy said.

“We stored that away subconsciously,” Seth said.

What struck the Nelsons about this couple was that they seemed so normal. They weren’t broke or having a midlife crisis — they were working; they were just living their life and having fun while saving money. The couple blogged about their experience and answered common questions they are asked.

Lizzy and Seth remembered the blog when they struggled to find housing in the Provo area. They initially looked into “van dwelling” as an alternative to expensive rent, but ultimately decided to do it for the adventure.

“It wasn’t just desperation for us,” Seth said.

Lizzy said she realized they could live in an apartment for the rest of their lives, but once they have kids it’s not likely they’ll have a chance to live in a van. They were both sold on the adventure — if it had a time limit of one semester.

Kjersten Johnson
The newlywed couple has a photo from their wedding day on their dresser. The space is small, with a dresser, some overhead cabinets and storage in the trunk. (Kjersten Johnson)

They looked at three different vans the week before school started, and they bought one for $900 — roughly the cost of a security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment. They did minor renovations on the van, bought a dresser at the D.I. and moved into the van just before school started.

Because they haven’t been in the van for very long, they still haven’t completely figured out their schedule and how everything is going to work. Both students work on campus, so they often have 12-hour days on campus between work and classes. This means they don’t have to spend much time in the van while it’s still hot.

They shower in the Richards Building. They charge phones, laptops, etc. while on campus. They do laundry at a Laundromat.

Because the couple only has a small cooler, they said they now buy smaller, healthier portions of food.

The van only gets seven miles per gallon on a good day, and the motor is old.

“It’s not a van we can take to California on the weekend,” Lizzy said.

But for now, it’s the couple’s newlywed adventure and they’re enjoying it.

“It’s a set challenge,” Seth said. “We’re not doing this the rest of our lives. There’s still a lot to be seen.”

Kjersten Johnson

Kjersten Johnson is a BYU journalism major and life desk editor. Kjersten's dream career is to write for National Geographic.

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