The Cost of an Alternative Housing Lifestyle

costs of alternative housing

(It may be cheaper than you think).

As with any type of home, there is an initial investment. Take renting an apartment, for example, you have your initial security deposit, first month’s rent, and possibly last month’s rent, and you could have a few other fees like a pet deposit or parking fees. The total for rent and all of the initial deposits and rent can range anywhere from $700 – $2,000, depending on the rental rate of your unit. 

So how could you take that initial security deposit and turn it into a full-time home that you own, bringing you the option to travel, pay off debt, and live a simple life (if you want)? The answer for many could be alternative housing. However, we are not just discussing costs of the housing types; we’ve done that in many other articles, see the following: 

How much does alternative housing cost?

How much do unique alternative housing options cost?

What does it cost to build a house and alternative housing options?

We want to focus on the costs of living in and maintaining a lifestyle once your housing type is secured. Let’s dive in. You’ll be surprised at what we find. 

We searched recreational vehicles in our local area in Wisconsin to get a current range of prices as of June 2022 on used tow-behind campers, RVs, camper vans, or other vehicles you could convert. This is what we found: 

Truck top camper – $2,500 – $4,500

Pop-up camper – $2,500 – $16,000

Tow-behind camper – $800 – $29,000 (brand new)

5th-wheel – $10,000 – $30,000

RVs – $3,500 – $275,000

As you can see, those prices are all over the board; however, the options didn’t look that bad on the lower end. Out of curiosity, we looked up tiny houses to see if any were being offered. There was a used one for $10,000, and the offer to custom-build anywhere from $53,000 – $84,000. There were also box trucks that you could convert for $40,000, unfortunately not exactly budget-friendly.

What are you to do if you’re looking to save money and build or buy an alternative housing option? 

While this depends on your current lifestyle and job situation, there are options. You can try to find cheaper housing that would allow you to save up for a year or two until you can afford to build or buy a tiny house. According to the current figures, the average cost to build a tiny house is $20,000— now, you could spend less using recycled and reclaimed materials. You could spend more if you’ve decided this will be your home indefinitely. 

You can also stay with friends and family and offer maid or butler services in exchange for room and board. Some may only have a couch to crash on, but if they’re willing to let you stay and save, it may be an option. 

You can look into staying at a long-term stay motel. Depending on where you live, they can often run between $40-60 a night. If the weather is nice and you can plan your build for the summer-fall season, you could consider camping for a few months. This also runs between free-$40 a night in most locations. Check out for more info on free camping sites. 

Not so alternative housing to save money 

If you are considering a dialed-back lifestyle but a tiny house, traveling home, or camping options are not your style. You can look into manufactured homes, also called mobile homes. These give you a little more of a permanent structure, while it does have the ability to be moved to another mobile home park. 

They are typically between 900-1300 square feet, and to buy used can be anywhere from $3,000 – $60,000. Again that seems like a large range, but we’ve purchased mobile homes in the past, fixed up all of the problems, sold them rent to own for $14,000-$16,000, and had tenants pay them off in 5 years. They now own the homes and only pay the lot fees of $300-$350 a month. In a mobile home park, you can also find homes to rent, which can run between $600 – $1,200 a month. 

Renting is probably the best way to save while working on your alternative housing build. Again, to give you accurate pricing, we took a sample from our current area and found both one and two-bedroom units renting for $500- $1500. Some were houses, duplexes, apartments, and single-rooms people were renting. You really can find anything in your price range. If those prices are too high, consider finding a roommate who can split the costs. 

Budgeting and overall cost of living

This will vary depending on the cost of living in your area, and we know inflation is starting to show up in the cost of restaurant food, gasoline, groceries, and utilities. We just can’t get away from it right now, so here are some good budgeting tips to keep you fed and warm or cool depending on your weather while being able to get to and from work. 

While you may be making less as a tipped server, your tips on good days might often bring you over that mark. The federal minimum wage in most states is $7.25/hr. $7.25 comes to about $290 for 40 hours a week before taxes. If you do the math, $290*52 weeks in the year means you make roughly $15,000 before takes. After taxes, that is about $13,500, which means you have about $1,100 to work with each month. 

Now, that doesn’t seem like much when the housing department recommends that your housing costs shouldn’t be more than 30% of your income. So you are looking at $330 in rent or, off your gross income, $375 in rent. What can you do when even a 1-bedroom unit runs for $500? 

Step 1 – You need first to understand where your money goes, so track it. Keep track of every dollar spent for the month. That could include rent, gas, eating out, snacks, movies, or other entertainment. Whatever you spend money on, write it down. With the big picture of your month in hand, you can move on to step 2. 

Step 2– Split your expenses into necessities like food and housing – budget about 50% of your money on that. So while $330 in rent can be tight, $425 plus another $60 in heat and water, plus food of $65 a month, is doable.

30% should go toward your debt and an emergency fund, while the remaining 20% gas and any of your other costs. 

Big picture that can look like this: Income $1100

50% rent+food+utilities = $550

30% pay debt, save for emergency or retirement = $330

20% pay gas + other costs = $220

Step 3– Yes, you need to keep a handle on the extra expenses, so they don’t creep into the items you need to pay, like rent, but on the surface, they look doable. Even minimum wage doesn’t look so difficult with a good game plan. And with alternative housing, the $100 a month can go toward building supplies for your new home. 

What does living cost after you move into an alternative housing option cost? 

We have found that many people can live comfortably on a houseboat with mooring costs, parking an RV, or getting a permanent pad for their tiny home for about $1,400 – $2,500 a month. 

While this is slightly above minimum wage, you could consider some ways to save even more by maybe taking on a second job (something fun and flexible like dog-walking or house-sitting), taking on more responsibility at your current job for a higher wage, finding a job with better pay, becoming a digital nomad and working remotely from a location with a cheaper cost of living. By saving a little more and getting a handle on your expenses, you too can afford to live an alternative housing lifestyle. 


Eva is a freelance copywriter specializing in all things real estate, B2B, PropTech, ReTech, CRETech. Owning rental property herself, Eva's love of real estate has turned into a passion for alternative housing options and educating people about the different types of housing available.

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