Couple Turns Tiny Van Into Their Dream Home
| LAST UPDATE 05/12/2022
After years of working 9-5 and pouring their paychecks into expensive rentals, Courtnie and Nate were unhappy. They wanted freedom. So, they bought a 60-square-foot van and embarked on a DIY adventure.
In 2015, Nate and Courtnie both took up jobs working as valets in Huntington Beach, California. To their surprise, they shared an instant connection that would soon evolve into a deep and loving relationship.
Court quickly felt drawn to her coworker. "What attracted me the most to him was his work ethic," she said. "I always felt a sense of calm when he was around even before we were together because I knew he had things under control." And before she knew it, they were both head over heels for each other.
Different Yet The Same
Over time their relationship developed, and Court and Nate couldn’t believe how perfectly they fit together. Despite their many differences, they were deeply compatible, and somehow even their opposing traits and beliefs complemented each other and co-mingled in a harmonious way.
It just felt right, and the young couple couldn't believe their luck in finding each other. "I do believe we were made for each other," Courtnie insisted. "Nate's calm, easy-going, and level-headed nature perfectly balances my stubborn, fiery, and uptight personality."
A Need For Freedom
Despite these complementary differences, Nate and Courtnie did share some important similarities. In fact, their passions and life goals aligned perfectly. They both wanted the freedom to travel and get out into nature and wanted to find a way to work and explore. Then one day, they had an idea.
"Nate and I would spend all of our time daydreaming about getting a van and turning it into a home so that we could have more freedom," Court recalled. "Freedom from expensive rent, freedom from living paycheck to paycheck, freedom to explore more." But it wouldn't be easy...
Just One Problem
Court and Nate shared a lofty goal, but there was one thing holding them back… they had no money. They knew they wanted to give van life a try, but reality seemed to be getting in the way. They began brainstorming ways they could make it happen despite their financial setbacks.
Over time the young lovebirds came to an exciting decision. "We had zero money saved up, but one day we decided to just go for it!" Courtnie admitted. They quickly sold "just about everything in our apartment" and took out a loan so they could buy a Ram Promaster 2500 High Roof van.
But they still didn't have enough funds, which left them with one option to sustain their new DIY project - moving out of their expensive, southern California apartment. "The only way we would have been able to afford to build our van the way we wanted to was if we didn't have rent to pay each month," Court recalled.
It was an awkward start to their DIY adventure, as they were left with an unrenovated van to use as a shelter. It would have to act as their home and their in-progress DIY project. "We stuffed our clothes and other essentials into bags, bins, and boxes and loaded them into our empty cargo van," Courtnie shared.
"A 60 Square Foot Construction Zone"
This new project meant that Nate and Courtnie had to live in their "empty cargo van" for almost an entire year! "We spent the following 8 months living in a 60 square foot construction zone," Court recalled. For most, living and sleeping amongst their own renovation would be unthinkable. But they were 1 step ahead of everyone...
They planned their movements carefully to accommodate both living and working. "Each day, we'd move all of our stuff onto the sidewalk (including our mattress at times) so that we could build things on the inside," Courtnie elaborated. The couple was going to do the entire renovation themselves, so it was a helpful pattern.
A Huge Undertaking
As if living in the van wasn’t complicated enough, the couple quickly realized they were taking on a gargantuan task. The DIY van conversion was going to be a lot of work. But with their limited budget, they had no other options. It was the only way they could get the perfect custom-made van under the circumstances.
They got to work, diving headfirst into renovations. "We had no idea what we were doing when we started," Courtnie explained. "Nate would spend hours and hours researching and learning how to complete each step of the build during the day, then we'd both rush off to work valet at night."
Insulation And Windows
The first step was to insulate the van, as Courtnie and Nate planned to travel across the country through various climates and weather systems. They laid down polyiso foam board on the floor of the van and placed a solid plywood subfloor over the top. For the walls, they used a mix of polyiso and sheep’s wool.
Because they had chosen a cargo van as their future home, there were no windows beyond the driver's seat in the front. So they began installing windows on the sides and the back of the van, as well as a sliding window on the roof, which would be directly above their future bed.
Next up was the carpentry for their little home on wheels. This meant covering the previously installed insulation so they could have finished walls and a ceiling. Nate also built custom cabinets and a countertop for the kitchen, as well as drawers and framing for their appliances and overhead storage.
Nate explained more of his impressive woodworking process, saying, "For all of our cabinet joinery, I used butt joints with pockets holes to glue and screw the pieces together. There are better ways to do this, but being a beginner, I felt this was the best method to use to make simple, strong joints for our cabinets."
The First Road Trip
Month after month, Courtnie and Nate toiled away on their future home, still working as valets and spending all their free time working on the van and sleeping inside it. "We worked full time while living in our empty cargo van... It was a long and somewhat uncomfortable process," Courtnie admitted.
But as time went on, their efforts began to pay off. They were even able to take a two-week road trip down the California coastline to celebrate their hard-earned progress. Nate and Court took their little house on wheels all the way from Orange County to Oregon.
Expanding the Family
Despite the joy of traveling in their new home, they still felt like something was missing. And that something was… a third member of their little family! Nate and Courtnie decided to adopt Tonkins, a gorgeous Doberman-Labrador. "Our sweet little boy. We waited so so long for you," they gushed on their Instagram.
The truth was that they were never able to have a pet while living in a rental, and part of choosing a skoolie life was so they could finally have a dog of their own. And although the addition of Tonkins was ultra heartwarming, it begged the question: could all three family members live comfortably in their van-home?
Some of the people who followed Courtnie and Nate’s journey via Instagram had this question in mind when Court announced the news. Many were skeptical that Tonkins could live a happy and healthy life from a van - but the couple was adamant that they made the right choice.
"Although some people don't think we should have a dog because of our living situation, I know in my heart that he needed ME," Court shared with her followers. "I'm ALL in, I'm dedicated, and I can't wait to see what the future holds for this good boy." For them, Tonkins was a vital part of their journey.
Eight long months had passed since the daring DIY duo began work on the Ram Promaster van, and it was finally finished! Courtnie and Nate’s new home was fully formed and fully equipped - a viable living space in just 60-square meters of wood and metal.
It’s hard to believe looking at it from the outside, but on the inside of their van, they had a working kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living area, and even an office space! The results were beyond amazing, and the couple couldn’t be happier. Let’s take a look inside their mobile home.
First, The Kitchen
The first space seen upon entering Nate and Courtnie's van is the kitchen, just behind the driver's seat. The kitchen uses approximately half of the space of the van, as it's also the area where the couple store most of their belongings. They also keep their water heater in the cabinet below the sink.
The sink was roughly 14-inches deep, taking up the lower middle of the kitchen cabinet. "We went with shaker style doors and drawers for all of our cabinets," Nate explained to their Instagram followers. "This consists of a frame, usually made with 1x3 stock, surrounding a door panel."
The couple still has plenty of storage space for other kitchen essentials. And on the benchtop, they also added a stainless steel propane stove top with two burners, more than enough to ensure they could cook regularly. Below the burner, Nate had also built three extra drawers.
One upside of having a kitchen in a van is that Courtnie and Nate always had to keep on top of house chores - they couldn’t leave food and dishes out on the benches because they’d likely fall to the ground whenever they got back on the road. As a result, the kitchen was always spic and span!
A Mini Bathroom
And of course, many people were interested in what the couple did when they really had to… go. Well, thankfully, on the other side of the kitchen, one can find the couple's slide-out composting toilet and electric freezer and fridge combo. It was tucked away in a base cabinet by the van's sliding door.
The couple had chosen a composting toilet as it was the most convenient way to have a waste facility while living in a van. Not to mention it only needed to be emptied once every 4-6 weeks. "Our composting toilet was a purchase I was hesitant about at first, but now can't imagine living without," Courtnie exclaimed.
As anyone can see, their kitchen is gorgeous and adds a lovely aesthetic to their tiny house on wheels. But the real bonus to this area is the incredible views that can be found just out of the kitchen window. Courtnie and Nate regularly park their home up along the California coastline, giving them amazing views on the regular.
But they aren’t always by the beach. The couple also heads to higher altitudes when they want some fresh mountain air. Not only is it refreshing, but it gives them the opportunity to go hiking with Tonkins, one of their favorite pastimes. Good thing the bus is heated, as it can get cold up there!
As is the case with most van conversions, the bedroom area can be found right behind the kitchen. It took a lot of downsizing to fit all of their belongings into these two spaces, but Courtnie and Nate managed. "I had a big collection of plants, ceramics, and other decorative items before we moved into the van," Court shared.
"I decided to sell everything to make a little extra money to put towards our build," she continued. It also gave them a little extra for amenities and decorations. "We invested in a nice linen sheet set, [and] added as many plants as we could to brighten up our space."
But what about those other living spaces we mentioned? Well, Nate and Courtnie had the clever idea of having the bedroom double as an easy office set-up. All they needed to do during the day was fold up the bed, transforming it into two benches. With a medium-sized table in the middle, they now had space for working and eating.
This meant folding up the bed every day - but they didn't mind. "After I meditate in the morning, we try to make it a point to take our bed down," Court said. "This really opens up our space and makes it easier for the three of us to move comfortably throughout the van." And as time went on, that office space became essential.
Ditching The 9-5
With their mobile home complete, Courtnie knew she needed to make a professional change to better suit her new lifestyle. So she chose to quit the valet job she'd held for 10 years! "It was a job that served me very well for a long time. It allowed me the freedom to travel and be flexible with my time," she told her followers.
Courtnie went on to explain the big decision. "I've always been one to follow my gut instinct and let my intuition guide the way, and during quarantine, I had a lot of time to think and reflect. It became very clear to me that it was time to move on." From then on, she focused on her yoga practice and social media page.
The Living Room
Since quitting her job and going freelance, Courtnie knew she was going to spend much more of her time in the van. But that didn’t mean the bus had to be in office mode all day! When she and Nate were home together, they had a clever idea to transform the office/bedroom into a living room too.
"Recently, we started sliding our table in between the doors and benches when we aren't using it to make "lounge mode," Court explained via Instagram. "The table rests perfectly against the wall so we can still open the back doors without it falling out. It's awesome!"
Decorating The Interior
Of course, it wasn't just enough to have living spaces. To truly make a house a home, decorations are needed. So how did Courtnie and Nate finish off their van in a way that genuinely let their personalities shine through? First, they began gathering interesting items "slowly and intentionally throughout our travels."
They began using these items to sparsely decorate their lovely minimalist home. "I was so excited to 'decorate' the van when we finished our build," Court admitted. "But I knew I had to keep it super minimal and only add a few accents here and there."
The scenery wasn't the only thing Nate and Courtnie had to entertain them - they also had their own little entertainment center! It came in the form of a Nebula Capsule projector, which they could use to watch films and TV. Being just "the size of a soda can" and entirely cordless, it was the perfect option for the van.
"During our build, Nate kept bringing up the idea of putting a TV in here," Court explained. "I wasn't super into installing something that would take up so much precious wall space, so we settled on a projector!" It fit very well into the small space, and the pair plan to eventually buy a projector screen to go with it.
The Shower Setup
After going through their bedroom, kitchen, and small toilet area, one thing definitely stands out. Where do they wash up? The couple shunned the idea of an indoor shower as it took up to much space - instead, they settled for an outdoor shower connected to the back of the van.
All they need to do is hook up the showerhead and accompanying curtain to the doors, and Nate and Courtnie can shower as if they are in a normal-sized home or apartment! Despite its impressive water pressure and portability, the couple still tries to shower at the gym and Court’s yoga studio when they can.
In order to travel and see as much of the country as they could, Courtnie and Nate frequently parked up in free spots around the US. But since Courtney was self-employed, that meant they needed electricity wherever they went. So the couple settled on solar panels and rechargeable batteries for their power supply.
"Our electrical system is powerful enough to sustain us without the need to be conservative with our usage," she noted. "It allows us to power our Vitamix, keep our refrigerator running, charge our phones/laptops/camera batteries, and keep the lights on as needed."
A Dreamy Engagement
One thing that might stick out to people when looking at Courtnie and Nate’s home is just how small it is. Could two people really spend year after year in such a confined little home without getting sick of one another? Well, as it turns out, they could!
Not only did the couple's relationship stay strong, but it grew even stronger - and by June 2020, they were engaged! "From the moment Nate and I got together 5 years ago, I knew we would never be apart," Courtney announced on Instagram. "If he had asked me to marry him a week into us dating, I would have said yes then too."
Tonkins Settles In
It’s clear now that Nate and Courtnie fit into their tiny house on wheels like a glove. But as we know, it wasn’t just the couple who were on board. What about their canine companion, Tonkins? The couple will be the first to admit that when he first arrived, it was difficult.
The pair had to put a lot of hours into training their new puppy so he could be compatible with van life. Thankfully, over time he adjusted well and is always excited to visit new places. "We spend the majority of the day playing outside, but when he's tired, he stands in front of the van door and tries to jump in," Court shared.
A New Chapter
As we know, soon after finishing the van Courtnie decided to quit her job as a valet and start a new journey as a self-employed content creator and yoga instructor. But it wasn’t only her - soon after, Nate followed, using the skills he gained during the van renovation to help others build their mobile homes.
And he quickly found some eager clients. "Today, we are driving up to Northern California where Nate will be helping a lovely couple build out their dream home on wheels," Court shared with their Instagram followers in August 2020. "I'm so proud of him and couldn't be happier to see him do something that he loves."
Though Courtnie can work from the comfort of the van, Nate often needs to be onsite to help with the construction process. In between jobs, the adventurous pair move around the country, exploring in their tiny home. For example, they spent one holiday in the mountains before heading back down to the coast for Christmas.
And even living in a van, they still managed to celebrate Christmas and the new year as well as anyone! The couple managed to deck out their van with festive garlands and Christmas lights, which hung from the back door, giving them a taste of the Christmas spirit while living on the road.
The Journey Lives On
After eight long months of renovating and living in an empty cargo van, Courtnie and Nate now have the home of their dreams. And what’s more, they also have the freedom to travel and explore the country, without spending all of their money on rent or a mortgage.
"It's been a long hard road, but the whole experience of transforming our cargo van into our own cozy mobile home has been so satisfying and rewarding," the couple shared on their website. They'll be living the #vanlife for the foreseeable future, and we can't wait to see where their journey takes them!