I sold my house to live out of a van – and I’m loving it

It was a daunting decision, but Jackie Norman says that living life on the road with no fixed home is a dream come true.

‘What the hell are you doing?!’ the voice inside my head yelled. I really didn’t know. It was November 10, 2016, and I was standing on the front deck of my house, staring dumbly at what appeared to be an impossible task in front of me. Everything I had left in the world was on that deck, and now I had to try and fit it all into our new home – a black Nissan Elgrand.

The three-bedroom home I owned in Whangamata had sold in an incredible nine hours and just five weeks later here we were, standing on this deck, about to leave it forever. As for our new home on wheels, I’d barely had the chance to drive it, let alone work out where everything was going to go. I felt hopelessly unprepared.

That wasn’t even the half of it though. Here I was, embarking on a permanent life in a camper van, when I had never so much as set foot in a motor home before, or been camping. Too late now though; I had nothing else, no plan B. I was quite literally homeless. Again I asked myself, ‘What are you doing?!’ Fortunately Gareth, my partner, couldn’t hear the voice in my head and calmly took over.

“Don’t worry,” he grinned reassuringly. “I’ll find a way to fit everything in.” And he did.

Despite all my fears and misgivings, we’d been looking forward to our new adventure for weeks. Everywhere Gareth and I went, we were met with wellwishers. More often than not, they’d say how they wished they could do the same.

We weren’t just going to be living our dream; we were going to be living theirs too. Our families were a little more reserved, however. I had taken some risks and done some unexpected things in my time, but this?

What was I doing gallivanting off into the sunset at the age of 43, leaping headlong into a life of insecurity? Was I having a midlife crisis? There were times when I wondered that myself, but not for long.

The simple fact was I didn’t know where I wanted to be any more. I needed to go and find out.

Moving day was the absolute worst day of my life. Not because I was leaving the house; I was glad to be doing that, it hadn’t been a happy place for a long time.

But because I was leaving my youngest son. At 18, he was old enough to make his own decisions and he had chosen to stay in Whangamata, with his job and friends.

Despite the fact he was legally an adult and perfectly capable, I was racked with guilt. He was supposed to leave me, just as his older brother had done two years before when he left for university.

Not the other way round. But despite the bustling coastal town being a paradise for many, it was no longer a good place for me. For the sake of my own sanity and wellbeing I had to move on, but it was the hardest thing I ever did.

I drove out of the gate in floods of tears, down the road to our first campground. Because Gareth had still to fulfil his job contract, we needed to stay on in Whangamata for another 10 days.

Minnie, the nine-year-old and very overweight cocker spaniel we were also cramming into the van with us, was rather bemused at her new surroundings but seemed happy enough, and as we sank down gratefully into our folding chairs and opened a bottle of wine, my fears started to gradually disappear.

We were going to be alright. From now on, every day was going to be just like this one, relaxing in the fresh air and sunshine.

Except it wasn’t. For the next 19 days it rained incessantly. All day, every day. I won’t sugarcoat it – it was a nightmare! We had absolutely no routine and with Gareth working all day, we had no time to develop one.

I felt completely at a loss during this time and neither of us could wait for it to end so we could really get on with our new life.

You may well be thinking, why? Who in their right mind swaps a two-storey house and land for a few square feet? Whatever made me think I could live happily this way? In my case it was to break the cycle; to free myself from stress and debt.

Since my marriage ended four years before, every disaster that could possibly befall me had occurred – from serious health issues to multiple job losses to crashed cars, just to name a few.

As a financial educator for over a decade, I had been able to keep going a lot longer than most people and somehow kept magically pulling rabbits out of hats each month to pay the mortgage. I scraped up enough money for food and essentials each week by doing anything from cleaning to bartering produce from my garden and selling anything I didn’t need.

Eventually though, as was bound to happen, my bottomless frugal repertoire started to run out. I was drowning in debt and sinking deeper every month. I couldn’t sleep for worrying, I thought about money every minute of every day and my weight dropped to 45kg. I wasn’t living, I was merely existing. And there was no end to it that I could see. If I sold my home however, I’d be debt free in one fell swoop.

While one part of me baulked at the idea – it was a matter of pride and to sell would have felt as though I was admitting failure – once I made the decision it was as if an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The question was: what next?

One thing was for sure – I never wanted a mortgage again. I didn’t want to pay rent either. Everyone I knew who lived in rentals paid more to live in someone else’s house than I was paying to live in my own! I never wanted to owe anyone a darn thing ever again. Living on the road, however, was a pipe dream I’d had for years.

I imagined myself like Driving Miss Daisy, travelling around the country in a little motor home for the rest of my days.

“I’d love to do that too!” said Gareth when I mentioned it. But we both knew that wasn’t possible. For starters, we were too young – motor homing was for retirees, wasn’t it? And besides, how could we work to support ourselves if we were constantly on the move?

By some incredible stroke of serendipity, just two days later we read a story about a Kiwi woman just like me, who was sick to death of struggling and, despite also having no previous experience, sold up and bought a bus. Eighteen months on she had no regrets, but what caught our attention was she had no trouble getting work to support her lifestyle.

If she could do it, so could we! As soon as the house was sold, we went out and bought our van for $15,000. Our new, mortgage-free home on wheels.

As soon as we were finally able to leave Whangamata, we got to experience what living on the road was like – and we loved it. We’ve travelled from one end of the country to the other and everywhere in between and are currently in Southland. After that, who knows where?

Initially the plan was to buy a plot of land and build on it, but a year on we still love the lifestyle so much we have no intention of stopping. Like many people we’ve met along the way, the only regret is not doing it earlier.

Life is so simple now and our living costs are ridiculously low. My mortgage was once $1500 a month; now we spend just $3000 a year on camping fees! I work as a freelance writer and Gareth is a photographer/filmmaker, which pays the few bills we do have and means we can work from the van but the opportunities we have come across are endless.

Apart from the general simplicity of a life with no stuff, the best thing about living on the road is the people you meet. So many interesting and wonderful people, from all countries and walks of life. Age, nationality and background mean absolutely nothing when you live this way. Some of our dearest friends are in their 70s and we feel so blessed to have met them.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the novelty of waking up in some of the most incredible places either. Watching the sun go down over Lake Wakatipu is an unbelievable sight. It’s something money can’t buy, yet we get to sleep on the waterfront for free. Imagine how much it would cost for a view like that in a motel!

The hardest part is without a doubt being away from our families. I miss having a place where they can come and visit – that’s the only part I truly miss about not having a house. But at the same time, living the way we do opens up a whole new world to them too.

Hand on heart, I’d encourage anyone to experience the world this way even if just for a little while. If I kick the bucket tomorrow, at least I’ll feel I have really done something with my life.

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