BYU students choose van life to save on rent

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By Amy Griffin

(Amy Griffin, Smithin’ It, Audrey Nolte)

Many BYU students are finding they desperately need to trim back on their budgets because of inflation and a sky-high housing market. Only a few, however, are taking it to an extreme: choosing housing on the road.

Though it may seem surprising to those of us who like hot showers and our own toilet to use in the middle of the night, some students are trading their apartment contracts for the keys to a home on wheels.

For Marinn and Kale Smith, living out of their 1996 truck bed trailer wasn’t the “van life” highlights you might scroll past on Instagram.

“It’s not just about being in a bikini beachside with the back door open,” master’s nursing student Marrin said. “That’s just a little bit more unrealistic when you have to think about like, plumbing and showering, and where you’re going to dump. Poop became a very normal conversation for us.”

For the Smiths, who documented their experience on their YouTube channel “Smithin’ It,” choosing to live out of the back of a truck came down to two main factors. First, budget, and second, sneaking in as many laps on their mountain bikes on the weekends as possible.

The couple attended school and work on campus by day and found spots on the side of the road or in parking lots at night. Camper’s life didn’t come without its fair share of concerns.

“Energy consumption is something you’re always thinking about,” recent BYU graduate Kale said. The couple relied on solar panels to get them through the chilly nights.

“Do we have enough power? Do we have enough energy? Was it sunny enough today? Are we going to be able to run the heater all night?” Kale said.

Though the Smiths were told time and again that they’d tire of one another in such a small space, it never became an issue.

“Never once were we like, man. I wish we could just sprawl out more comfortably,” Kale said.

“That was a big one, though,” Marinn said. “‘Where are you going to go to get away from him when he’s bugging you?’ That was everyone’s big concern. I’m like, ‘He doesn’t! That’s why I married him!’”

Finding a more permanent home, however, became a more logical choice for the couple a few months into the pandemic.

“COVID-19 ruined it for us for sure,” Marinn said.

“When the school shut down and said, ‘Everything’s going online, we’re closing the gym, we’re closing the library, don’t come on campus anymore,’ like we lost basically our house. That was where we did everything during the day,” Kale said.

The couple hasn’t given up on the nomad life completely, though. They recently renovated a 1973 compact bumper pull trailer for their weekend adventures.

Though the Smiths’ journey living full time in the truck has come to an end, for another BYU couple, the adventure is just beginning.

Audrey Nolte and Trevin Powell married near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and quickly realized that fulfilling their dream of becoming homeowners in California would take some drastic measures.

“In order to save up for a house someday, (it) seems like the only solution is going to be living in a van for a while,” Nolte, a marketing student, said.

Last year, the couple bought a red 1996 van and renovated it themselves on the weekends between April and December.

Though Powell, an engineering student, did the majority of the construction work, Nolte had several projects all her own, such as the trim on the interior.

Though the Nolte-Powells don’t live full time in the van, largely using it for frequent skiing and camping trips, they’re looking to upgrade to a more livable van in an attempt to save on rent.

“We’d definitely invest several thousand more dollars in a nicer van,” Nolte said. They’re on the lookout for one “with less miles (and) a lot newer, nicer stuff,” in the hopes of owning a home on wheels with an actual kitchen and bathroom.

Both the Nolte-Powells and the Smiths mentioned the difficulty of finding overnight parking in a world somewhat sick of Instagram influencers.

“We would kind of hang out in the evening at a grocery store but you know they all had signs everywhere that said no overnight parking,” said Powell.

“People are not very open to the whole van life thing, even in public areas,” Nolte said. “People just think it’s weird, and so there’s often people kind of looking at you funny.”

Though it may seem like an unusual solution to the problem of expensive rent, both the Smiths and the Nolte-Powells can comfortably recommend student van life to anyone up to the challenge.

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