What’s It Like to Live in Your Car?

living in your car

Among the biographies of many celebrities is a detail that seems so far removed from their current diamond-encrusted lives it seems almost whimsical: they lived in their cars. Jewel, Hilary Swank, and Drew Carey all lived out of their vehicles while trying to make it in show business, while other famous folks like Lil’ Kim, Jim Carrey, and Dr. Phil experienced homelessness as children living out of cars with their families. For these celebrities and roughly 10,000 Americans who call automobiles their homes, we wanted to know, “what’s it like to live in your car?”

Cars (and campers and RVs) can offer safe haven when none else exists, and many people (and families) turn to them when they have no other options. Living in your car isn’t often comfortable or safe, especially for people living in them out of desperation. But still, people their cars their homes, either to save money, travel more, or pursue their dreams, and we asked for their stories.

So what’s it like and why do some people do it, especially those who might have other options? People with experience living out of their cars (currently and in the past) shared their stories with us. 

living in a car in a city

True Life: I Live in My Car

Nicki: “It’s an adventure”

Nicki Bruckmann is founder of Explorer Chick, an Adventure Travel company catering to women with small active tours, trips and workshops. Whenever she travels, Nicki says, “You’ll usually find me living out of my car!”

Living out of her 2014 white Nissan Rogue is part necessity and part business model: Nicki travels and explores for word. But, as someone who began her own business fewer than two years ago, living out of her car is also a money-saving tactic. She’s been doing it for over a year now and says, “There’s no going back!”

When traveling, Nicki says, “More often than not, I tend to not be in one place for more than a day.” Sleeping in her car means no tent set-up and break down and no searching for accommodations. Instead, Nicki parks at a trailhead or pulls into parking lots of chains known for allowing overnight parking (Nicki prefers Wal-Mart) and she goes right to sleep. In the morning, she explains that all she needs to do is make her coffee (with a Jet Boil) and begin a hike or get back on the road. Nicki does say that planning ahead where she’ll spend the night is an important way to avoid desperate or dangerous situations, and that she can usually get a few hours’ sleep at a rest stop in an emergency.

During her time living and traveling out of her car, Nicki’s system has evolved and improved. “The number one improvement I made was the addition of Taco Bed. After a few rough nights of sleep, I remembered an old gym mat I had as a kid. I called my parents to see if by chance they still had it and they did. It’s about two inches thick and covered in vinyl. It’s incredibly comfy and fits perfectly in my car. Plus, it wipes down easily.”

Other essentials of car living, according to Nicki: remaining clean and organized. She says her next upgrade is figuring out how to put mosquito nets on her car windows so she can comfortably crack them on hot summer nights.

“I always tell people that even if I become rich and successful I’ll probably still live out of my car,” says Nicki. “I love the experience, the adventure, the challenge, and the reconnection to myself. It’s a great experience in living minimally and realizing how little you actually need to survive.”

Nicki says she doesn’t carry any special or additional auto insurance even though she frequently lives out of her car.

i live in my car

Jim: “I moved from Australia and couldn’t afford NYC”

Jim Dailakis is a comedian and writer who spent about a month living out of his Camry back in the 90s. He moved from Australia with standup comedian dreams, but when he and his roommates were abruptly forced out of their apartment, he had just one day to find a new place—an all-but-impossible feat in New York City. So, he turned to his car.

“I’ve always been a minimalist so I really didn’t have that many possessions. Whatever I did have, I threw into my new home on wheels.” He had gigs here and there, but nothing too lucrative, he says, so he spent about a month living out of his car before he was able to find a more permanent home. “The most depressing thing was looking for a safe parking place so I could sleep.” Jim says he usually stayed in hotel parking lots, and was usually woken up by security guards.

Jim says he could’ve packed up and moved home to Australia, where he says he had “a wonderful three-bedroom house,” but he decided to persevere and continue pursuing his dreams. “I kept telling myself, some people have no choice and they have to live this way. You actually have a choice, so do you have the balls to see it through? Knowing that you could leave this discomfort at any minute, will you keep going?” Jim chose to keep going. “I found it very character building,” he says, though he often felt depressed. “I remember being on the New Jersey Turnpike heading towards a peanuts-paying gig in Pennsylvania. I thought to myself, ‘Things may be bad, but look on the bright side, you actually have a car.’ It was at that moment that the check engine light came on.”

After the month living in his car, Jim slowly moved up to more comfortable housing—from a basic one-room outside the city (with only an air mattress to sleep on), to a one-bedroom in the city, to his current spacious two-bedroom apartment, which he finds quite comfortable. Jim says he’s happy he stuck it out in New York, and he’s happy his old Camry spent its final moments housing him—shortly after moving into an apartment, his car “gave up the ghost,” he says.

Teresa: “I have my home wherever I go”

Teresa Roberts lives in the “Button Mobile” (Button being her nickname), which she describes as a box truck (cut-away van) converted into a mobile tiny house.

Why she did it? Teresa has owned homes, rented out rooms and has done “rent free” housing, in which participants exchange something (housekeeping, landscaping, childcare, etc.) for housing, but none of those options feel like home for her. “I have found no stability in any way of ‘conventional’ housing, not even owning my own home. I feel so much more in control of my ‘home’ when I have it wherever I go,” she says. “I feel stable in the flexibility it offers me.”

Teresa says having options and being able to make choices and changes easily outweigh the inconveniences. “Not having a mortgage or an ‘anchor’ to uproot carries more weight in my decision to live this way…[it] ironically actually ‘lightens’ my load.”

if you live in your car

Shayrgo: “It was supposed to be temporary”

Shayrgo Barazi, now an automotive engineer and founder of CarSumo, graduated college in 2009, during economic recession which made it nearly impossible for him to find a job. He moved around the U.S. taking odd jobs, but finding them uninspiring, he decided to drive to Los Angeles in search of a more stable position. 

“I had a little bit of money but not enough to pay for rent in Los Angeles, so I decided I’d sleep in my car and shower at the gym after my morning workout. It was supposed to last a few weeks until I found a job with an automotive manufacturer – or so I had deluded myself into thinking.”

Weeks passed and Shayrgo took a job as a camp counselor position (“that I was terribly unqualified for”) to make cash, but still didn’t have enough to move out of his car.

“The experience was eye-opening in the sense that it made me realize how little I really needed to live on but also made me realize that I really didn’t want to live like that for long. I never slept comfortably, had to use public restrooms, and didn’t eat very well since I couldn’t cook in a proper kitchen.”

After five months, Shayrgo had enough, found a full-time role at a company in Michigan, and left his in-car life. Still, he remembers it fondly: “Despite how rough it was I look back at that period of my life with a sense of longing because of how truly free I was.”

How Does Insurance Work When You Live in Your Car?

What with our love of all things car insurance, we wondered about the legal ins and outs of living in your car. Often people find themselves living out of their cars as a last resort, and so auto insurance fine print might not be at the top of their list. Still, we wondered: Is it actually legal to live in your car? What happens if you are — and your insurance company finds out?

We asked The Zebra’s resident insurance expert, Neil Richardson, for some insight: “The biggest issue is not having a ‘garaging’ address. This is essentially your home address, but someone who lives out of his or her car is considered a transient risk since they have no permanent residence. Insurance companies won’t issue coverage if they don’t know where you’re going to be keeping your vehicle.”

If you’ve already got an auto insurance policy and living in your car is a temporary situation, you might be able to get away with living out of your car for some time with no insurance consequences. However, if you need to make a claim (or you cause damage and the other party files a claim), you could be in trouble. Being dishonest with your insurer is considered fraud, and it’s grounds for a canceled policy and claim denial.

We hope you only ever live out of your car by choice, but if living in your car is a last resort you wouldn’t otherwise choose, there’s help.