When Joseph Ephraim realized he wasn’t happy with his life on Long Island, he decided to try downsizing.
He went from a 2,800-square-foot house in Farmingdale with four bedrooms and three bathrooms to a 60-square-foot white 2000 Ford E350 cargo van with a portable toilet. He went from "garages full of stuff" to five T-shirts, three pairs of jeans, two pairs of shorts, some socks and undergarments. He went from working in health care IT for 17 years — and rehabbing and flipping rentals on the side — to working gigs on Craigslist.
“You’re literally waking up so you can go to a job that you don't like, to make payments on things that you bought to make yourself happy,” he said.
Ephraim, 48, whose given name is Ephraim Hernandez, said he realized seven years ago he wasn't happy on Long Island and with its high cost of living. At the time, he was paying about $4,000 a month just for his mortgage, taxes, insurance, electric and gas, and commuting two hours a day to Great Neck. All four of his siblings had moved away, he said, for personal reasons but “primarily financial.”
“It’s a debt-ridden, unhappy society. And it’s cyclical until you’re old and ready to retire and then you're finally too sick to go out and enjoy your life,” he said.
After his realization, he spent the next several years trying to figure his way out. He tried living with housemates but said that didn’t fulfill his wanderlust. He’s always loved traveling and was an experienced camper, so when he learned about vandwelling, it seemed like a perfect fit.
He spent two years researching how to convert a van into a home and scrutinized how much space he typically used in his house.
“I used half my bed, I used my kitchen, and a chair. Everything else was just unused space,” said Ephraim, who is divorced. “I literally had rooms I hadn’t walked in in months.”
For the past year he's been a “van nomad,” part of a growing community of people who live out of vehicles full time.
Ephraim said the reasons for living in a van can vary from person to person — some by need, some by choice. He says he’s part of the latter group.
Inside his van, he has a full-size bed, which he sleeps in at a slight angle to accommodate his 6-foot-2 frame. He’s also carefully fit in a refrigerator, fans, lights, a battery bank, a vacuum, a blender, a juicer and a butane stove.
“People say, 'Do you live in your van?' No. We live out of our vans,” he said. “We go into them to sleep. Maybe to cook. That’s it.”
He uses truck stops and gyms for showers but also has a portable shower he made from an old weed sprayer. And his van is equipped with a 400-watt solar energy system on the roof, which he designed and installed himself.
“Our homes are off-grid solutions,” he said.
Now, his home has about 202,000 miles on it and no monthly payments. He bought the van for about $15,000 several years ago when he participated in competition barbecuing and has spent approximately $5,000 for repairs and installations.
In addition to gas, his bills today include auto insurance (it’s down to about $1,200 annually), food (about $300 a month), a $12 monthly nationwide gym membership and $100 a month for two prepaid cellphones. (As a veteran, he’s eligible for free or heavily subsidized VA medical care.)
Gas costs him anywhere between $150 to $800 a month, depending on how much he’s traveling. He gets 10 to 14 miles per gallon, he said.
“I know what [Long Islanders] are paying for the train, and they still come home and have a car and insurance and all those other bills,” he said. “My commuting cost is probably less … even though I ‘commute’ way more in miles.”
“I no longer pay property taxes. I no longer have to pay school taxes,” Ephraim said.
The money he’s saving goes toward his travels: “I invest it in myself.”
While he has savings, he said he still earns income by working some IT projects here and there, rehabs houses, produces content on his YouTube channel and picks up random gigs on Craigslist.
“What I can make in a week supports me for a month,” he said.
However, his van does require maintenance more often now. It broke down once in the desert and he had to get towed out, costing him about $300 for the repair and two nights in a hotel.
“You have to go into your savings,” he said. “What do you do if the hot water breaks in your house? You fix it, right? So that’s the same thing we do.”
Parking while “urban stealth camping” can also be tricky. Some parking lots — Walmart and other 24-hour stores and casinos — are OK to spend a night in, along with campgrounds, rest stops and public street parking, Ephraim said.
“Come in at night and gone in the morning,” he said.
Ephraim says the biggest drawback of the van life is that it can get lonely. To combat that, he said, he tries to meet up with other nomads to travel together as a “tribe.”
Earlier this year, he attended the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, which is an annual gathering of like-minded nomads in the Arizona desert.
Bob Wells, a longtime vandweller and the event’s founder, said the number of participants at the 10-day affair has been growing exponentially every year. At the very first event in 2010, he said, there were 45 people, while this year, there were about 4,000 to 5,000.
He said most people enter this lifestyle for a common reason: “A reaction against a part of society we don’t like.”
Wells, a 16-year vandweller, runs a website dedicated to helping people live or travel out of vehicles. In 2008, he said his site “exploded” with inquiries.
“People lost their jobs. Then, they couldn’t pay their rent. They lost their homes. They got unemployment. They were facing being on the street,” he said.
But, he added, many who were “forced” into the lifestyle, like himself, eventually “fell in love with it.”
The types of people choosing the van life range from millennials to baby boomers, and he’s noticed it’s particularly popular among female boomers.
While some people have also converted school buses into homes or live full time in RVs, Wells said vans are the more popular choice among nomads because they’re cheaper, more durable and have “basic engines” yet are still relatively roomy.
Compared with an RV, Wells said a van “can go anywhere. You can park it anywhere in the city. You get more freedom.”
Either with others or on his own, Ephraim has traveled up the East Coast and down to Georgia, and through Texas to the West Coast. He’s also spent time in the Pacific Northwest, Utah and Idaho.
"Every couple days, we're moving," he said.
Some of his most memorable moments so far include hiking the Rocky Mountains and seeing the rock formations in Sedona Valley.
He’s now on Long Island visiting friends, and he brought his van to Jones Beach to tailgate outside a recent Jimmy Buffett concert.
His younger brother, Nelson Hernandez, says he’s noticed Ephraim is more relaxed and is happier since embarking on this new chapter.
“I’d say his overall outlook on things has seemed to improve,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez lives in Oregon but says his brother’s nomadic life has allowed the siblings to see each other more than usual.
“I’ve seen him three times this year,” he added.
Ephraim set out on the van life last summer, telling himself he’d try it out for a year.
Now, he says can’t fathom going back to a "stick-and-brick,” (as he and others following this lifestyle refer to traditional dwellings) and a 9-to-5 job. “I want to be nomadic. I truly enjoy it,” he said.
He’s considering upgrading to a bigger step van or adding a high top to his current one so he can stand comfortably.
Ephraim said he thinks the lack of affordability of homes on Long Island is chasing millennials away as it did with him.
“I can’t tell you how much second- and third-generation Long Islanders I know,” he said. “I don’t know if there are that many left anymore.”
“The kids are leaving and they’re not coming back."
Editor’s Note: We’re looking for Long Islanders who have adopted unique housing or lifestyle situations to deal with LI’s cost of living. If you — or someone you know — have a story to tell, email firstname.lastname@example.org.