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How LOW can you go when it comes to your costs of living?

Posted by John Reed on

I am not the only one intrigued by the question of how small can a house be or how cheaply one can live. I am watching the TV series Tiny House at the moment. There are also TV shows about RVs and boats with living quarters. 

Last week, I rented an RV to see if I wanted to buy it. I did not and canceled my order to buy one almost exactly like it.

My REASON for being intrigued by this may be rare, though. I am a real estate investment expert. I remember when all you needed to build a house was a lot. Now, neighbors come out with pitchforks and torches if you dare suggest building an affordable house in their neighborhood. One man’s affordability is another man’s property value. Builders will tell you that building affordable housing is not impossible; it’s illegal. (Same is true about winning wars nowadays, but I digress.)

The Tiny House TV show defines a tiny house as having 500 square feet or less. The RV I recently rented was about 100 square feet total. Consequence: The bathroom was too small. I had trouble brushing my teeth with it. The RV owner admitted that he used the kitchen sink for that. That was not allowed in my house when I was a kid.

The toilet might have fit my granddaughter, when she was five. Not so sure now that she is six and a half. And the shower? Well, the tiny sink and toilet space has a drain in the floor and a hand held hose with a shower head on it, but you would have to take your “shower” sitting on the toilet.

That raises another point. It you are traveling in civilization, even rural civilization, you can take your showers at truck stops, RV parks, campgrounds, or at the local branch of your fitness club like mine: 24-Hour Fitness.

A lot of 20-somethings working in high tech in super expensive San Francisco shower at their health club or even their workplace. $30 a month is cheaper than paying, say, $70K for the bathroom part of a house or condo. When you travel in a car, you use free public restrooms all waking hours without a thought.

If you are traveling in wilderness, in mild weather, with a bathing suit, you can use the outdoor shower on almost all RVs. Don’t laugh, showering during my tour in Vietnam was about the same as that every day.

So you can do without a bathroom if necessary. What about a kitchen? I’m not big on cooking. My wife lately has been doing the Blue Apron thing. (Company was founded by a Harvard MBA, but my wife was using them before she knew that.)

But you readers and I have lived often without cooking facilities—in hotels and motels. We eat in restaurants.

When I was a kid, restaurants were too expensive to eat all your meals in them; today, absolutely not. Value meals in fast-food restaurants are not more expensive than preparing a meal at home. And if you ostentatiously hate fast food, go to the produce section of a nearby supermarket and buy your arugula and apples and juice.

Even slow food restaurants like Denney’s or Black Bear are pretty cheap especially when you consider prep, utensils, napkins, clean up, and the capital costs of all the appliances and plumbing.

Then there is the fact that convenience and some other stores let you use their microwave. Your workplace may have a break room with a microwave and other heating facilities. Takeout is cheap and many restaurants deliver.

So we already know we do not need a kitchen because we have all lived in hotels or dorm rooms or barracks for extended periods. Ditto a during-business-hours shower and toilet

So that’s eating, bathing and most toilet use. But can you sleep for free or cheap? And go to the bathroom in the middle of the night? That’s the hard part. You can theoretically sleep in your privately owned vehicle, but you need certain things, like room for a bed, privacy, security, climate control, and permission or not being noticed.

A hotel room gives you the bare minimum—almost—a middle-of-the-night bathroom and a bedroom with privacy, security, climate control, and permission. But the cost is a killer. A modest $100 a night is $3,000 a month—more than the mortgage payment on our 3,300-square-foot San Francisco-area house. RV campgrounds are not much cheaper.

I grew up poor, then college, then I was a bachelor army officer and businessman, then a newlywed trying to save money, then a grad student.

I lived in barracks with like 40 guys in the same room, in a bachelor officers quarters with a tiny and bed and chair and desk and sharing a two-door bathroom with the guy next door. I lived in bedrooms or an unfinished attic with my two brothers. I lived in a house trailer and a couple of rooming houses with a bedroom and a communal bathroom. In Vietnam, I lived in underground bunkers. I have lived in a tent and in the woods without one (Army Ranger School). Round, round, I got around.

Are any of those unacceptable to me now? Yes, the rooming houses, bunker, tent, under the stars, the BOQ, the barracks. My minimum need would be a bedroom, middle-of-the-night toilet, fridge, family room with my Relax-the-Back recliner, TV, office, table for eating if not cooking.

I read on-line about a couple who lived full-time in an RV and tried to see how cheaply they could live. Would believe $7,000 a year?

The main trick in RV living is what is called Boondocking or dry camping or coyote camping. That is, no hookups. I did it to write about it. It’s pretty easy. You can stay for free at all sorts of places: some Wal-Marts, casinos, national forests, Pilot/Flying J truck stops, friends’ driveways, wineries, farms, Elks and Moose Lodges (for members), military bases for active and retired military, and I’m sure, other places.

If you work the night shift and sleep in the day, you can sleep almost anywhere in your vehicle. It should probably be a van so no one can see you sleeping in it.

Living in a small space, like a van or RV or boat or studio also requires making double or triple use out of as many things as possible. This is also true of backpacking. There, it’s not the limited space, it’s having to carry everything on your back. So we’re talking sofa beds, Murphy beds, fold-down desks, seats that convert to beds, everything hollow for storage space.

In the RV, the roof doubled as solar cells and a ventilating fan outlet, the bench seats turn into the king size bed, sink turns into counter, captains chair pairs turn into twin beds, all lights are LED and each need only be pushed to turn on or off, tables disappear under cushions or behind the drivers seat when not in use, and outside awning rolls up for travel. Very clever.

But in addition to finding the inside of the RV too small, I found the outside too big: 24 foot length means parking and backing require truck driver skills, 9 foot height requires dodging overhanging trees—if possible. The van looks like a billboard to the wind and driving over a bridge is a battle if there is even a breeze. With a Mercedes Sprinter van, you don’t fit in parking garages or parallel parking spaces or a normal house garage or even some spaces at RV campgrounds.

The RV also did not have a space to hang out. No family room type space with room for a recliner. There was a TV, but a sort of stiff sofa bed was the only place to sit or lie to watch it. And it only gets broadcast TV in urban areas, nothing elsewhere. I would not need all the kitchen stuff the RV had. A decent shower in that space would have been better for me.

For people living on a budget and maybe being single or just a couple, you really can drive the cost of housing way down with clever design, “outsourcing” part of what is usually in a house like bathing and cooking.

In my real estate writing, I have what I refer to as the “full peanut butter.” That refers to subsisting on a diet of peanut butter and milk. When you are young and trying to save, or when you are starting a business and you hit a rough patch, you fall back on the full peanut butter.

My 2017 version of that would be something like a full Rahmen Noodles, and camping “out” in a small van that can fit into a parking garage. Sleep in a sleeping bag on an air mattress and get a chamber pot. Shower at your health club. Eat in restaurants or your van or your office’s break area.

Probably, just knowing you could do that is all you need. I and my family members have had brief periods of the full Rahmen noodle thing back in the day. We are affluent now, but that is partly because once upon a time, when we needed to save or to cut back on expenses, we discovered how cheaply you can live if you make the effort. And after you become affluent, the knowledge that you can always go full Rahmen noodles serves as a sort of psychological safety net.

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