Stephanie Jaramillo and Rob Thorington had been dating for about two years when, last February, they made a life-changing decision. The Sarasota couple decided to use their savings to convert a Ford Transit into a home on wheels.
The pair were part of a new trend dubbed “van life,” in which people live in vans to keep their expenses low while meandering from place to place. Some people, exemplified by the character Fern in the popular 2020 film Nomadland, take up van life out of necessity. They can’t afford a permanent home and are forced to migrate to find short-term jobs.
For others, mostly young people, it’s an aspirational lifestyle—a fun way to see the world even if you don’t have deep pockets, not unlike the ever-popular European backpacking adventure.
“We both love to travel, and when we heard about van life, it sparked our creativity and we decided to build our own van and travel the U.S.,” says Jaramillo, 22.
Jaramillo and Thorington learned how to remodel their Transit by watching videos on YouTube. They added a couch that pulls out into a bed, a kitchen, cabinets and a compost toilet. After losing their jobs because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the two left Florida last June and lived in the van for three months.
“We went to Arizona first,” says Jaramillo. “Then we traveled the entire west coast, starting in San Diego and ending all the way at the tip of Washington. Next, we went over to Montana and finished in Colorado.”
The remodeled Transit does not include a washer or dryer, so the couple visited laundromats in the cities they traveled to. They also chose to stop at gas stations, grocery stores and hotels to use the bathroom.
After coming back, the couple decided to turn their adventure into a business. They are now remodeling and selling vans as Suncoast Vans.
A remodel job takes about two months, and potential features include high-end custom cabinets, solar and electronic systems and professional plumbing. Each van has a different price, depending on the specifications. One recent van sold for $85,000.
Space, of course, represents the biggest difference between living in a house and living in a van. Anything found in Thorington and Jaramillo’s van—appliances and furniture included—has to have various uses.
“We couldn’t just go out shopping,” says Thorington, 32. “We had to think about what we could fit and if we really needed it.” Other problems popped up. “If we wanted to order anything online, it was always a task because we didn’t have an address,” says Thorington.
Living in the Transit saved Jaramillo and Thorington a lot of money. They only had to pay for their phones, car insurance, gas and food, which proved to be the biggest expense.
“Cooking in the van was not as simple as cooking at home, so we ended up eating out a lot,” says Jaramillo. “But we still saved so much money not paying rent, which allowed us to afford more adventures on our trip.”
Jaramillo and Thorington have lived in an apartment since returning to Sarasota and are focused now on growing their business. They don’t want a permanent van life, but they do hope to be able to take three- to four-month excursions when they can.
“The biggest perk was having our home with us wherever we went,” says Thorington. “I never had to pack a bag or think about if I wanted a coat or not when I went out because my home would only be a few steps away.”