Housing

How people are turning to converted vehicles and DIY homes to beat UK's housing crisis

People are increasingly turning to vans and buses as a result of housing shortages in the UK

A man stands with his hand on his hip beside a green and white bus

Drew Alan with ‘Dodge’. Image: HONEY-BLUE STEVENS

Buying a home is an unrealistic ambition for more people than ever. The situation is notably worse in Devon and Cornwall, where wealthy people have bought second and third homes while locals struggle to get their foot on the property ladder, or even find somewhere to rent.  

As a result, DIY home projects abound in the area, from converted horse boxes to lorries and buses. 

Drew Alan says that he, his wife and their four young children were living in a “mouldy, old two-bed static on a cultish and controlling Christian community farm near Troon”. They took on a caretaker’s lease at the pub they now run in Camborne, Cornwall to try and get a secure roof over their head. But there was a snag. 

“The brewery offered us a zero-deposit, zero-contract, temporary management role to keep the pub open while they look for a fully qualified, long-term contracted landlord who would be prepared to put down a £6,000 deposit,” Alan says. “That would mean when we leave we would be referred to the homeless team.” 

Taking back control of the situation, the family purchased a bus. Named Dodge, after its manufacturer, the converted vehicle is an E-reg lime-green single-decker, now with enough beds for all, living space, kitchen with a sink and hob, and a shower and toilet. The family recently moved in having secured a patch of land of almost 1.5 acres.  

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“I spoke to the council about our situation and our bus as a solution. They gave us permission and advised that we speak to landowners, farmers, campsite owners to rent us some land for us to live on,” Drew says. 

Despite the threat of eviction, the family feel the situation has worked in their favour by allowing them to live more independently. With an average house price of £1,113 a month, renting a three-bedroom property is extortionate for those living on a lower income, such as the Alan family. The bus will save the family hundreds of pounds each month. 

There is currently no legislation on inhabiting a converted vehicle. But is the increase of homemade homes just a sticking plaster measure? Alice Wilson, expert on tiny homes, says: “It is not sustainable in the sense of being able to provide the volume of affordable housing that we need in the UK.” 

There is “a need for 145,000 new affordable homes each year to 2031,” Wilson adds, citing recent data from the National Housing Federation and Crisis. “Whilst converted buses or vans can be a cool thing and even ideal for some, this just isn’t the case for most people.”’ 

Leon Chick and his girlfriend have also felt the strain. “While rent is ridiculously high, I’m more than happy to suck it up for the sake of a roof over my head,” he says. “But the main reason we are in a van is because we just can’t find anywhere to live.”  

The couple, who have a dog and a cat, have been unsuccessful partly because some landlords won’t allow pets. “The amount of people applying to each property is just ridiculous,” Leon says. “And it doesn’t help that landlords are still reluctant to accept pets so the number of places we can apply for is even smaller. I think we must have applied for well over 100 places in the last few months, been accepted for viewings at less than a quarter of them and obviously been successful at none.” 

The pair chose to convert an old LDV Maxus to live in to avoid falling into homelessness. While they are still applying for housing, if they were to find a bigger and more reliable van, they would grab the opportunity again. 

While it is cheaper long-term to live in a converted vehicle compared to paying rip-off rentals, there are other expenses to consider. “Everyday things you don’t think about like laundry, which is now £20 a week outgoing,” Leon explains. 

“Imagine asking a family of four to live in a Volkswagen with no toilet or shower, or being a wheelchair user, or the many of us who can’t or don’t drive,” Alice Wilson says. “For the minority who want to live in a van, I think they should be allowed to. For the many hundreds of thousands of others who are in housing need, I think affordable social housing should be made available.” 

Honey-blue Stephens is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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