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Van lifers find ways to get around San Diego's hostility

Try parking in Encinitas, Oceanside, or Carlsbad

Fiesta Island van meet, 2019
Fiesta Island van meet, 2019

On April 16, van lifers from around the U.S. trekked into San Diego County as National Park Week kicked off a weeklong, presidentially proclaimed event. For the following seven days, 400 national parks throughout the country, including Cabrillo National Monument and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, hosted events, special programs, and digital experiences.

Max Serpe, 25, and his 28-year-old girlfriend — trekked from Virginia Beach to our beaches last month.

Van lifers convert their vans into small living quarters mimicking an RV by adding amenities like running water for their sinks and showers, beds, refrigerators, toilets, and a cooking area.

Before this week's national park event, San Diego County was already a popular destination for van dwellers around the U.S. The pleasant weather year-round makes for a good refuge for snowbirds in the winter and Zonies in the summer. On top of that, beaches make for a compelling aesthetic for younger van lifers living their best lives on TikTok and Instagram.

Max Serpe, 25, and his 28-year-old girlfriend trekked from Virginia Beach to our beaches last month. They drove over 2,500 miles in a Mercedes Benz Sprinter 170 van.

"It's a mixed bag," Serpe said April 18. "In the areas where we are allowed to park overnight, it's wonderful. Locals love to come up and have conversations with us; we tend to spend more time outside the van."

But then, some San Diego County conventional home dwellers and business personnel aren't so welcoming to the couple's extended 23-foot van. "The laws here have created a 'closed-door' culture, where we have to keep to ourselves to avoid tickets. It makes us seem less friendly, and it lessens the experience for locals and van lifers alike."

Serpe is a software developer by trade who has a couple of hacks for van dwellers driving into America's Finest City. First, to save — about $80 per night parking at a local RV park or about $165 a night (on average throughout the county) at a hotel — he parks their white-colored van on Encinitas, Oceanside, or Carlsbad streets, for free.

"The key is to stay in residential areas away from streets or large public area facilities," he advised. "And never stay in the same spot two nights in a row."

Seacoast and Elm, Imperial Beach

But some vanners sleep through the 72-hour parking limit allotted by the city, and "ticket raids" are reportedly done on large van groups parked by the waterfronts. One vanner quipped about a ticket he just received: "But 35 bucks is still cheaper than a hotel .... don't let it discourage your adventure! Just pay the ticket; it's easier than wasting energy fighting something you won't win."

Serpe told me that they hadn't received a parking ticket yet, and suggested, "If you're having trouble finding a place to stay, call local establishments, such as gyms, that you can support in exchange for parking. Half the nights, we stay at a gym in Vista."

Most local gyms are affordable and have showers, clean bathrooms, wi-fi, movies and on-the-minute newscasts, tables where you can set up a laptop and meet clients in person or on Zoom, and safe parking lots. They also provide access to exercise equipment, where "You'll most likely find a great community in the process!" Serpe continued.

A small percentage of van lifers mess it up for the majority, as they leave trash on overpasses, chop up bikes in public parks, and argue with stationary home dwellers.

Serpe is a law-abiding vanner; he continued, "It feels like there is an attitude of, 'I paid X million dollars for this property, and I don't want you just to be able to stay next to it for free.'"

It's not just stationary house dwellers that are upset with the vanners. "We were at a Target in North Country and had just bought over $100 worth of storage items from the store," Serpe said. "We came back out to the parking lot, started to place items in the bins, and within ten minutes, someone in security threatened to call the cops if we didn't leave. This was in the middle of the day, and we were paying customers."

Many van lifers offer San Diegans cash on Facebook and Craigslist to park in their driveway or property to avoid harassment.

Serpe posted on the San Diego Van Life Facebook page last month. "Hey, all! My Girlfriend and I are new van lifers in San Diego; I love it here. Only been here for a few days, finding parking to be trickier than we are used to (tickets, etc.). So we're looking for an off-the-street spot we can rent for a few nights a week ..... Thanks!"

"Were you able to find a parking spot to rent in San Diego?" I asked him.

"I could not find a spot to rent in San Diego," he responded. "but I have found a few temporary locations that work well. In addition, I have been asked to move during the daytime hours at certain stores."

There are over 650 members on the San Diego Van Life Facebook page. It's a community where old-school van owners meet with new school van owners and van life fans and provide one another with tips on the lifestyle within San Diego County.

One member on the van life page recently downsized from an RV to a small-sized van "because we were constantly harassed by cops and other enforcement." Other vanners provided one another with secret places to park and sleep safely. Property owners here offer vanners space to park for an undisclosed fee.

On April 18, I took a quick stroll by the Imperial Beach pier, where I noticed two vans parked in the adjacent parking lot. The sign on top of where you insert the cash payment reads in part, "$2 day or night for up to 8 hours."

The popularity of the nomadic-vanner lifestyle took off during the pandemic as it was an escape from the mandated lockdowns. Then, the #vanlife hashtag went viral on the Tik-Tok, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube platforms, sharing how significant outdoor activities are to healthy mental health. And let us not forget the amount one saves when they move into a van and no longer have to pay the $3000 per month rent for a one-bedroom apartment and more for its accompanying utility bills.

All the hubbub on van living snowballed into an uptick in van sales. According to a CarSalesBase.com analysis, new commercial van sales increased by 23 percent in the first half of 2021 compared to the previous year.

And used van prices — according to Manheim.com, the self-proclaimed largest wholesale auto marketplace — surpassed the other automobile types with a 61 percent price increase from December 2020 to December 2021.

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Fiesta Island van meet, 2019
Fiesta Island van meet, 2019

On April 16, van lifers from around the U.S. trekked into San Diego County as National Park Week kicked off a weeklong, presidentially proclaimed event. For the following seven days, 400 national parks throughout the country, including Cabrillo National Monument and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, hosted events, special programs, and digital experiences.

Max Serpe, 25, and his 28-year-old girlfriend — trekked from Virginia Beach to our beaches last month.

Van lifers convert their vans into small living quarters mimicking an RV by adding amenities like running water for their sinks and showers, beds, refrigerators, toilets, and a cooking area.

Before this week's national park event, San Diego County was already a popular destination for van dwellers around the U.S. The pleasant weather year-round makes for a good refuge for snowbirds in the winter and Zonies in the summer. On top of that, beaches make for a compelling aesthetic for younger van lifers living their best lives on TikTok and Instagram.

Max Serpe, 25, and his 28-year-old girlfriend trekked from Virginia Beach to our beaches last month. They drove over 2,500 miles in a Mercedes Benz Sprinter 170 van.

"It's a mixed bag," Serpe said April 18. "In the areas where we are allowed to park overnight, it's wonderful. Locals love to come up and have conversations with us; we tend to spend more time outside the van."

But then, some San Diego County conventional home dwellers and business personnel aren't so welcoming to the couple's extended 23-foot van. "The laws here have created a 'closed-door' culture, where we have to keep to ourselves to avoid tickets. It makes us seem less friendly, and it lessens the experience for locals and van lifers alike."

Serpe is a software developer by trade who has a couple of hacks for van dwellers driving into America's Finest City. First, to save — about $80 per night parking at a local RV park or about $165 a night (on average throughout the county) at a hotel — he parks their white-colored van on Encinitas, Oceanside, or Carlsbad streets, for free.

"The key is to stay in residential areas away from streets or large public area facilities," he advised. "And never stay in the same spot two nights in a row."

Seacoast and Elm, Imperial Beach

But some vanners sleep through the 72-hour parking limit allotted by the city, and "ticket raids" are reportedly done on large van groups parked by the waterfronts. One vanner quipped about a ticket he just received: "But 35 bucks is still cheaper than a hotel .... don't let it discourage your adventure! Just pay the ticket; it's easier than wasting energy fighting something you won't win."

Serpe told me that they hadn't received a parking ticket yet, and suggested, "If you're having trouble finding a place to stay, call local establishments, such as gyms, that you can support in exchange for parking. Half the nights, we stay at a gym in Vista."

Most local gyms are affordable and have showers, clean bathrooms, wi-fi, movies and on-the-minute newscasts, tables where you can set up a laptop and meet clients in person or on Zoom, and safe parking lots. They also provide access to exercise equipment, where "You'll most likely find a great community in the process!" Serpe continued.

A small percentage of van lifers mess it up for the majority, as they leave trash on overpasses, chop up bikes in public parks, and argue with stationary home dwellers.

Serpe is a law-abiding vanner; he continued, "It feels like there is an attitude of, 'I paid X million dollars for this property, and I don't want you just to be able to stay next to it for free.'"

It's not just stationary house dwellers that are upset with the vanners. "We were at a Target in North Country and had just bought over $100 worth of storage items from the store," Serpe said. "We came back out to the parking lot, started to place items in the bins, and within ten minutes, someone in security threatened to call the cops if we didn't leave. This was in the middle of the day, and we were paying customers."

Many van lifers offer San Diegans cash on Facebook and Craigslist to park in their driveway or property to avoid harassment.

Serpe posted on the San Diego Van Life Facebook page last month. "Hey, all! My Girlfriend and I are new van lifers in San Diego; I love it here. Only been here for a few days, finding parking to be trickier than we are used to (tickets, etc.). So we're looking for an off-the-street spot we can rent for a few nights a week ..... Thanks!"

"Were you able to find a parking spot to rent in San Diego?" I asked him.

"I could not find a spot to rent in San Diego," he responded. "but I have found a few temporary locations that work well. In addition, I have been asked to move during the daytime hours at certain stores."

There are over 650 members on the San Diego Van Life Facebook page. It's a community where old-school van owners meet with new school van owners and van life fans and provide one another with tips on the lifestyle within San Diego County.

One member on the van life page recently downsized from an RV to a small-sized van "because we were constantly harassed by cops and other enforcement." Other vanners provided one another with secret places to park and sleep safely. Property owners here offer vanners space to park for an undisclosed fee.

On April 18, I took a quick stroll by the Imperial Beach pier, where I noticed two vans parked in the adjacent parking lot. The sign on top of where you insert the cash payment reads in part, "$2 day or night for up to 8 hours."

The popularity of the nomadic-vanner lifestyle took off during the pandemic as it was an escape from the mandated lockdowns. Then, the #vanlife hashtag went viral on the Tik-Tok, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube platforms, sharing how significant outdoor activities are to healthy mental health. And let us not forget the amount one saves when they move into a van and no longer have to pay the $3000 per month rent for a one-bedroom apartment and more for its accompanying utility bills.

All the hubbub on van living snowballed into an uptick in van sales. According to a CarSalesBase.com analysis, new commercial van sales increased by 23 percent in the first half of 2021 compared to the previous year.

And used van prices — according to Manheim.com, the self-proclaimed largest wholesale auto marketplace — surpassed the other automobile types with a 61 percent price increase from December 2020 to December 2021.

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