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Photographer Michelle’s West Coast Van Life in Carl

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This is Michelle and her van, Carl, named after the man who sold her the vehicle.

Michelle (@michelle.lawrencee) and her dad transformed her van in just about three months into a super-cozy home that she’s taken around the West Coast. After a variety of jobs/gigs that have funded her travels, Michelle is launching her freelance photography (@michellelawrencephotography) business this year.

Enjoy the photo tour of her van below and be sure to read our Q&A with Michelle about her vanlife at the end of the post!

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Retro Vanlife in California (During Quarantine)

The aesthetic in this fan is lovely with all this wood. I really like the flat-front cabinets, as well.

You can see in the cab she kept the original seats, which are really groovy!

This is one of the smaller vans I’ve seen recently and she really makes it home with so little!

Nothing like twinkle lights to make a place feel like home.

Scarves provide a little privacy in her bedroom.

She left a lot of awesome headroom over her bed, sacrificing storage underneath: So she just has fewer things!

Love the wood inside the doors, too.

Last picture before the Q&A! Check it out below.

How many people (and animals) are living in your van? Just me and three plants!
Where do you live? How long have you lived tiny? I live in a van mostly on the west coast.  I moved into the van in Nov of 2018 and can’t imagine not living tiny.
What do you do for work? Or do you travel full-time?  I’ve done a handful of things to get to where I am.  The year before I bought the van I was working part time serving tables at a restaurant, had my real estate license and was selling houses part time & had 2-3 photography gigs each month.  I was hustling without even realizing.  I bought the van and built it out with my dad.  I left right after new years of 2019 and drove out to California!  I lived off of savings and worked for Spartan Races part time.  I photograph weddings and have done modeling gigs as well.  I worked at another restaurant for four months in California to save back up from Aug to Dec 2019.  I am currently building my brand photography portfolio and hope to work as a full-time freelance photographer and content creator for the rest of this year.  Weeew! That was a lot!
Why did you decide to go tiny? What are you hoping to get out of living tiny?  I started getting rid of excess things around my house prior to living in the van.  I really hate clutter and I felt like living minimally would create less distraction in a way.  Moving into the van has just enhanced that lifestyle.
How did you first learn about van life? Five or six years ago, I was working at a music festival and saw a couple in a van.  I loved it!
How long did it take to finish your van?  3 months – I worked on it about 3 days a week for 8 hours each day.
How did you build your van? Did you have any help? Did you do it yourselves?  I built most of it but my dad helped with electrical, plumping and was there to bounce ideas off of.  He helped with under-mounting the propane tank and made sure I built something that wasn’t going to fall apart.
Are you comfortable sharing how much your tiny home cost? What are bills/utilites like compared to before?  My van was $3,300 and my conversion was about $3,000.  A year into living in the van I had to have the transmission replaced which cost $2,100 with a 3 year warranty.  I was happy to pay it since I haven’t had to pay rent and I have an old van so I knew something would go wrong eventually.
How did you find a place to park and live in your van?  I did a lot of car camping before moving into the van so I had an idea of what I was doing.  I park in nice neighborhoods near somewhere with a 24 hr bathroom or a planet fitness.  I also park on BLM Land or by the ocean where it’s okay to park overnight.  I try to stay out of peoples way and make sure to not be a bother to people!  I haven’t had any issues at all!
Is there anything from your old life that you miss?  I miss my friends and family but I go back and see them as much as I can!
What benefits are you experiencing after going tiny?  I never have to pack a bag since I always have everything with me.  I always (usually) know where everything is.  Things don’t get lost as easily.  I enjoy my life more and feel like I’m creating a lifestyle that I’m proud of.
What about some challenges?  Um, can I use your bathroom? (For real though, if we weren’t in a pandemic, this wasn’t a problem but all the gyms are closed and I need to shower!)
What makes your van special?  I like that I named it after the man I bought it from.  His name was Carl and was so excited about the van.  He made a really great impression on me.
What is your favorite part of your van?  I think it’s all the barn wood that I found and put in random places.  I also like looking at how the screws aren’t perfectly aligned.  I remember back to when I was trying to make them perfect and my dad was laughing at me saying people would never notice!  It’s a good memory.
What helpful advice would you give to others interested in going tiny? For tiny living, I think it’s important that you go through your things multiple times.  I took my time and did one room at a time. I got rid of anything I hadn’t used in a year and then did it again for things I hadn’t used in 6 months.  I also continue to make sure I’m using everything I buy.  For van life,  I always suggest getting a van that you can stand up in that was taken care of by its previous owner. (if they didn’t take care of the inside, they didn’t take care of the engine either)

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Natalie C. McKee

Natalie C. McKee is a contributor for Tiny House Talk and the Tiny House Newsletter. She's a wife, and mama of three little kids. She and her family are homesteaders with sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and quail on their happy little acre.

Latest posts by Natalie C. McKee (see all)

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • jerry dycus
    April 19, 2020, 9:01 am

    Great story and info and how a lot of people should think about doing to survive the recession well.
    A couple details while this kind of van has good size, it isn’t economical so not a good choice if you do a lot of driving.
    I’d go a minivan or better, an old S-10 with an aero camper and/or a lightweight aero trailer, either of which needs at least a sit down toilet/shower.
    If until recently employed you’ll get at least $1200 check and $6k in added unemployment benefits well shopped this could be done under $4k with solar buying used or self built giving you low cost living, this freedom no matter the economy.
    That will give you $3200 left and state unemployment one should be able to live very well until the economy revives in 2 yrs.
    If that trailer is also an aero houseboat you can anchor out free most anywhere, even downtown in many cities on the water.
    Get a plan and execute it now before you fiddle the money away. You can break most any lease now with Force Majeure, a legal term meaning the contract can’t be enforced do to disasters, weather, etc that can’t be forseen. You can get out of car, apartment, etc leases legally and should if not low cost.

    • Mary McGuirk
      April 19, 2020, 9:49 pm

      BINGO…people can think from the BOTTOM UP with what they actually need, instead of what we have been trained to consume. With the internet, 3D printing up and coming, renewable energy and local aquaculture/hemp/bamboo/sprouts we do not need Madison AV or Wall ST and we can still live a great lifestyle sustainably.

      • jerry dycus
        April 20, 2020, 6:38 am

        To live comfortably you only need a bed/seat for each person, a place to cook, some storage and a shower/toilet. And you can greatly expand these with tent rooms or even ‘Florida’ rooms where in the old days people came to Florida in travel trailers then built Florida rooms to live in and use the trailer for sleeping, cooking, bathroom. There are still homes here today that have trailers buried in their center, 1 close by me.
        A cell ph can be a wifi hotspot and stream vid to your TV eliminating internet and cable costs makes this so much better now. Think of this as free time to do what you always wanted or think of a new life as we come out of this can be better.
        This is the end of a lot of parasitic corporations, our biggest problem as they are no longer needed in many cases as for $10k in materials or used one can have comfortable modest shelter, transport with lightweight EVs and solar for energy for 25 yrs. And the freedom, security it gives in trying times is priceless.

        • Mary McGuirk
          April 20, 2020, 6:34 pm

          Military families like mine took mobile homes from base to base in the ’50s through the ’70s from personal experience…I started my life in a crib over the foot of my parents’ bed. My dad built both a 12 x 12 offgrid house and a 24 x 24 foot house in rural AZ. The idea of TEMPERING the climate, not trying to control it, makes for 3-season porches that add a lot of liveable space for very little cost. TORNADOES and other weather can be an issue for mobiles. I really think it is likely cost effective to have a summer location and a winter location to eliminate the need for AC or HEAT as much as possible.

          For me, personally an 8 x 20 foot bath/kitchen module and a 12 x 20 foot living/sleeping porch is right for me…and I usually think that double that area will also provide room for aquaculture for food production and recreational private space.

  • Juliet Nelson
    April 22, 2020, 2:26 pm

    In my bucket list. When I retire, would love to live in my bohemian van and enjoy traveling retired!!
    Will sell my house and buy a rustic van like a lot of your commentary experiences!!

    • Natalie C. McKee
      April 23, 2020, 2:05 pm

      That sounds perfect!

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