SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The pandemic lockdowns sparked a lot of changes in how and where people live, with more people leaving large cities in search of more remote locations. For some, that meant taking their home on the road.
“When I bought it, it was just an empty box with two seats,” Sioux Falls native Kirby Wolff said.
It may look like an ordinary cargo van, but this will soon be Wolff’s home.
“I have it taped off to where the floor plan is going to be,” Wolff said.
A plan that maximizes every inch of the limited space.
“When it’s all done it’s going to be about 76 square feet, so it’s really tiny,” Wolff said. “It’s tinier than most tiny homes but the benefit is I get to drive it around the country.”
It’s that urge to travel that has van life growing in popularity with young people all over the country.
“It’s definitely become popular; I know people personally who have done this, in a van or a bus or a sailboat, or you name it,” Wolff said.
It’s a perfect fit with the pandemic shifting many people to working remotely.
“So that enables me to travel around as much as I want and still be able to earn a living and have fun doing it,” Wolff said.
He’s also having a lot of fun custom-building his van to fit his lifestyle.
“I’m going to have a really nice computer set up on the desk and a very big monitor,” Wolff said.
Helping him continue his work as an animator is the central point of his tiny living space.
“Having electricity was the number one necessity for me, so that’s why I put up solar panels on the roof of the van,” Wolff said.
Something he learned how to do thanks to some help from the growing van life community online.
“The internet has answers to a lot of this,” Wolff said. “I’m taking inspiration from that and watching tutorials.”
But there’s one question even van life bloggers are struggling to answer right now: how to actually find a van you can buy.
“It was extremely difficult. It was a lot harder than I thought. I thought I could just go stroll onto a dealership lot casually and buy one of these vans but unfortunately, that’s not how it worked,” Wolff said.
“We used to sell vans to everybody locally,” Cole Frankman, the Chief Operating Officer of Frankman Motor Company said.
Frankman Motor Company used to have 12-20 vans on their lot to choose from, now they’re lucky to have just one and they don’t expect it to last very long.
“We have a lead from someone in California on it, someone in Florida on it, usually they don’t even hit our lot, usually sell before they even get transported,” Frankman Motor General Manager Dustin Frankman said.
Part of the shortage is from the increased demand for more people looking to convert the vans into campers.
“Especially the last two years with covid, people getting out of the house and get into nature,” Dustin Frankman said.
But those customers are also competing with the growing demand from commercial businesses.
“They call them commercial vans for a reason, usually its commercial use. Usually, it’s not a matter of what I like or what I don’t like, it’s I need it and if I don’t have it, I can’t operate my business,” Cole Frankman said.
Whether it’s electricians, plumbers, landscapers or even corporations…
“A lot of them are going to big companies like Amazon,” Dustin Frankman said. “We’ve all seen the Amazon Prime vans driving all over the place.”
…the types of vans most in demand for van living are in high demand everywhere, which is driving up the price far more than any other kind of vehicle.
“Vans are going up the most,” Cole Frankman said. “On average, prices have increased 24 percent year over year.”
“We’ve seen some vans we were selling two years, now they can bring 50 to 100 percent more than they were seeing two years ago,” Dustin Frankman said.
Buying a used van right now will likely cost even more than a new one.
“One, two, three-year-old vans are selling for what they were new or up to $15,000 more than new,” Cole Frankman said.
Frankman says that’s because manufacturers drastically cut the number of new cargo vans they can produce since the pandemic, pushing new orders out for months.
“Sometimes somebody will find a new one and they have to travel across the country to get them,” Cole Frankman said.
“I ended up getting this van from a dealership in California and picking it up in Las Vegas, Nevada and then driving it all the way back here from there,” Wolff said.
For Wolff, securing his new home on wheels was like finding a needle in a haystack.
“I called like 50 dealerships around the country to try to find one van,” Wolff said.
And it ended up costing far more than he’d originally planned.
“A few years ago I could have done this for 20, 30 thousand dollars cheaper just with a brand new van,” Wolff said.
But he says it’s still cheaper than trying to keep up with the rising cost of housing.
“To renew my lease was going to be another $500 a month, so that increase might have spurred me on a little more,” Wolff said.
And while he’s not sure how long he’ll do it…
“Maybe not a forever thing, but definitely what I’m short term stoked on,” Wolff said.
…Kirby is excited to finish building out his van and start this new way of living.
“For me, I think the travel thing is huge, friends around the whole country that I wanted to visit so why not travel around and see some friends and see the country and have a good time,” Wolff said.
Kirby says one of the most common questions he gets is why a van instead of an RV? He says it’s easier to go anywhere in the smaller vehicle that doesn’t need to hook up to electricity or water and he wanted to be able to totally customize his home on wheels.