13 considerations for living in your car

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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While it’s hard to get exact numbers, it’s believed that the number of people living in their cars is on the rise. Some estimate the population of the vehicular homeless is as much as 100,000[1].

Living in your car, whether by choice or necessity, requires careful planning and preparation to ensure your safety, comfort and well-being. There are also things to consider regarding your insurance. Here's a list of 13 things to consider to prepare for this living situation.

1. Legal considerations

Living in your car is typically legal in most states as long as you avoid trespassing and park only in places you are allowed. It’s still important to research local laws and regulations regarding living in a vehicle full time.

And of course you need to ensure you have a valid driver's license and registration for your vehicle.

2. Safety

One of the biggest concerns with living in your car is your personal safety. You want to park in safe, well-lit areas whenever possible. Parking lots, truck stops and rest stops can be a good option as they are usually high traffic. Just make sure you are legally allowed to park there.

Walmart used to be open to overnight parking but a proliferation of campers and new local ordinances have made some locations outlaw it. Campgrounds might also be an option for overnight parking, although you may have to pay to rent a campsite.

In addition to choosing a safe place as a parking spot, here are some ways you can increase your personal security:

  • Install window coverings, tinting, sun shades or curtains for privacy.

  • Keep emergency tools like a fire extinguisher and first aid kit.

  • Keep your cell phone charged in case of emergency.

  • Always keep your doors locked, even in places that feel safe.

  • Be aware of your surroundings. It can be tempting to wear earplugs if you’re in a high-traffic area, but sleeping without them is safer.

3. Sleeping arrangements

Depending on the size of your vehicle, your living space will be fairly limited. If you’re working with a camper van or minivan, you can fit a larger, more permanent sleep setup. If you are working with the small space of a sedan or hatchback, you may have to work with something you can fold up during the day in the backseat.

If you have the funds, invest in a comfortable sleeping setup, like a camping mattress or sleeping pad. Use appropriate bedding for different seasons (e.g., warm blankets and sleeping bags in cold weather).

4. Hygiene

Personal hygiene is one struggle of living out of your car because you don’t have access to running water. One option is to get an inexpensive gym membership where you can use the shower and bathroom facilities. This is also another reason truck stops are a good option as they often have showers for a fee. And Walmart parking lots or other stores (if allowed) can also give good proximity to public bathrooms and a place to purchase toiletries.

For times when you can’t be close to civilization or have access to running water, carry personal hygiene items, such as baby wipes, hand sanitizer and a portable toilet.

5. Storage

Another issue of part-time or full-time car camping is that even if you’re a complete minimalist...the materials just for living can quickly fill up your small space and make it uninhabitable.

Maximize storage space with organizers, bins and shelves. Keep essential items organized and easily accessible. For larger items and sentimental items you don’t need on a daily basis, see if you can leave them at the home of a friend or family member. Or, if you can swing it, rent a storage unit.

6. Clothing

Pack appropriate clothing for various weather conditions. Layers are great, so you can regulate temperature during the night.

Laundry is obviously an issue as dirty clothes can build up quickly. Consider laundry facilities or laundromats for washing clothes.

7. Food and water

It can be easy to rely on fast food when you don’t have easy access to refrigeration or a way to cook food. This can start to weigh on your health and wallet though.

Another option is to stock non-perishable food items with a long shelf life. A camp stove can come in handy for heating things up and making simple meals. There are some that are powered with solar panels or can plug into your car’s cigarette lighter.

Also, make sure to carry an adequate supply of drinking water and replenish regularly.

8. Electronics, communication and internet

Use a power inverter or portable power station to charge devices. You don’t want to rely on your car battery as you need to keep that working. Invest in a portable fan or heater for climate control.

As mentioned in the safety section, it’s critical to have a reliable phone and maintain a way to charge it. You need to be able to reach people in case of emergency. 

If you need a permanent address for a job application, consider getting a PO box from the post office, so you can still receive mail.

Finally, access to the Internet is important. Explore options for mobile internet or free Wi-Fi access. Public libraries are a good place to start. Consider a portable hotspot or a smartphone plan with tethering.

9. Maintenance

Your vehicle is now your home, so it’s doubly important to keep it functional. Regularly maintain your vehicle to prevent breakdowns.

Address any issues promptly to avoid costly repairs. Of course, this is easier said than done, as car repairs can be costly. Do your best to fix what you can, when you can.

10. Waste disposal

Living in your car means trash can build up quickly, with your front seat serving potentially as your dining room, office and more.

Try to keep trash organized until you’re able to dispose of it responsibly and legally. Use designated waste disposal facilities or bins.

11. Emergency plan

Even if you choose the safest parking space, things can still happen. It’s wise to develop a plan for emergencies, including breakdowns or medical issues. Carry emergency contact information and important documents.

Also, make sure people know where you are. Share your location with someone you trust for safety. Consider joining online communities or support groups for car dwellers.

12. Car insurance

Auto insurance is mandatory, even if you’re struggling. However, if you are living in your car, you are likely already violating one of the tenets stipulated in your insurance policy. This will mean that any claims will likely be denied and that you will be dropped by the insurer. 

The issue is you also need a permanent address to get car insurance coverage. This is because car insurance companies use where you live as a rating factor to determine how much to charge you. A PO box won’t help you in this case, because they specifically need to know where the car will primarily park and be driving.

If your policy expires while you are living in your car, you will need to find a semi-permanent address to park your car. Some insurance companies will accept a temporary address like a friend or family's members home, provided you do plan to park your car there nightly. Keep in mind if you travel too far from this listed address or your insurance company discovers you aren’t regularly there, they can drop your coverage or deny a claim.

13. Future plans

Living in your car is usually one of two things. Either it’s a choice, and you’re living the van life dream. Or, more likely, it’s a circumstance you’re experiencing outside of your control. If it’s the latter, you may feel like you’re in survival mode constantly and unable to focus on getting out of vehicular homelessness.

Creating a budget and looking for ways to take control of your circumstances can help to maintain sanity. Set goals and a timeline for transitioning out of car living, if applicable. Look for local support services or travel to where services are available. Save money and work towards a more permanent housing solution.

Wrapping up

Remember that living in your car can be challenging, and it's important to prioritize your safety, health and well-being throughout the experience. Consider seeking assistance from local organizations or shelters if you find yourself in difficult circumstances.