Today, more and more people are exploring alternatives to traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ houses than ever before.
A person’s home is an expression of who they are, a place to call their own, decorated with carefully chosen items and furniture which reveal much about the owner’s character. Your actual choice of dwelling can say even more.
Alternative living can offer a freedom of personal expression seldom found on the housing market, but what exactly does it mean?
What is alternative living?
Alternative living describes a scenario in which a person’s primary dwelling is something outside of the typical understanding of a suburban “home”. From mobile homes to horseboxes, tiny homes to canal boats, there are countless ‘unconventional’ accommodation options.
The uprise in lifestyles such as Vanlife since the hashtag was first used in 2011, is seen by many as problematic, a symptom of the struggling economy and a necessary solution to the housing crisis.
In an article about young people living in vans, containers and tiny homes, the BBC states:
“About 40% of young adults cannot afford to buy one of the cheapest homes in their area in the UK, with the average deposit now standing at about £26,000.
But they also face “unaffordable” rents across most of Britain, according to recent research”
A new dream
For many millennials and Gen Zers, the typical dream of owning your own home just isn’t viable and the reason for choosing to live alternatively is borne of necessity. Rising house prices and lack of income forces some to adopt a lifestyle they might not have otherwise chosen. The idea of stepping away from convention and opting to live life differently is an absolute last resort.
But for a growing number of individuals, this new wave of alternative living is a breath of fresh air and a chance for freedom.
An intentional choice
Alternative living offers a simpler way of being. A life view that looks less at possessions and more at experiences. One which prioritises LIFE.
The concept of downshifting is one in which a person gives up a stressful, frenetic fast-paced lifestyle for a slower, more sustainable one. (Note that in this instance I mean sustainable as in on-going, not as in eco friendly – although that is often something that goes hand in hand with a downshift. Many people who choose to live alternatively choose to do so to enhance their appreciation and connection with the natural world and this often goes hand in hand with sustainable and eco-friendly sensibilities.)
Choosing to ditch the conventional and live a life they have crafted for themselves is a pull hard to resist for a generation of people who are starting to question the normal/mainstream way of doing things.
You only need search #vanlife on Instagram or do a search on Pinterest to see how the idea of full time living in a van has become desirable rather than last resort, and the popularity of YouTube channels such as ‘Living Big in a Tiny House’ showcase the vast creative potential of people all over the world who are opting to live more with less, in dwellings ranging from simple yurts to elaborate shipping container designs.
Related reading: An introduction to Slow living
So what alternatives are there?
From cute retro V-dubs to Mercedes Sprinters, Luton box vans to lorries. There are many ways to kit out a vehicle for full-time living and no shortage of people doing so! The Vanlife movement is thriving and the community is strong. The ability to travel and see the world whilst taking your home with you is hugely appealing for many and an excellent option if you are able to work remotely. Regular meetups and festivals such as Camp Quirky have become a staple in the van-dwellers calendar.
Related reading: Vanlife with Children
It’s estimated that there are more than 15,000 people living afloat full-time on the rivers, canals and coastlines of the UK currently. Liveaboard boats vary massively in style and size, from narrow canal boats, converted tugs, houseboats to yachts. As with other alternative living solutions, the sky is the limit when it comes to unleashing your creativity on your boat conversion!
Boatlife offers an obvious appeal for adventurous types, sailing, travelling and exploring wherever the wind takes them – but it is a lifestyle just as easily suited to those who need to stay close to land, who might opt to live aboard their floating homes in a marina.
There are a variety of mooring options available for both leisure and residential use, but different councils will have different policies, so be sure to research your chosen area if you are looking for a base.
Alternatively, on the inland waterways you might choose to register as a continuous cruiser, allowing you free reign to live aboard your boat, tying up along the towpath and moving on every couple of days or so.
You can find further details about waterside mooring from Canal and River trust of England and Wales.
One of the main appeals of being able to tow a caravan or small tiny home is that you can bring your home with you, but still maintain a feeling of having a home base.
Unlike Vanlife, which is typically more transient in nature, caravan/trailer homeowners often opt to park up at a single spot for a longer period of time, having a defined living space separate from their vehicle.
Bear in mind, however, that you probably will need to move your caravan at least a couple of times a year to keep within the legal boundaries in the UK.
Some opt to live in caravan parks. Typically these types of parks cater for those in the retirement bracket so you might have to do some hunting around to find one which will accommodate year-round living to the under 50’s.
You can also opt to buy a static caravan in a holiday park, however, these types of arrangements are usually seasonal.
Some parks will allow you to stay longer than others, but even with those that offer 12 month seasons, the understanding is that you won’t actually spend your full year there. It is supposed to be a holiday home after all, not a residential one.
If your situation allows, holiday park living can combine quite nicely with van life – you can find yourself a nice balance between spending summers in your holiday home and the ‘off-season’ travelling. This allows you the best of both worlds, with the ability to travel and still having an affordable ‘base’ back home.
Alternatively, some live in caravans on land they own or belonging to friends or family. Always check with your local council first, as some have rules restricting usage – you may not have any problem siting your caravan for example, but then find you can’t actually sleep in it!
Yurts, tents, benders and other canvas-based options combine the flexibility of nomadic living, shelter from the elements and a close connection with nature.
This romantic take on alternative living is perhaps not for the faint-hearted, as toileting, heating and showering options are often limited. That being said, the word ‘tent’ often brings to mind something far grungier than the striking and frankly, palatial yurts on offer. Many wood-framed canvas structures are far roomier than you might suppose and can easily accommodate fully functioning wood burners.
Fast becoming one of the most coveted forms of alternative living – even your grandmother would have a hard time disapproving of these sweet little houses! Often built on trailers and designed to be towed if necessary, they are pint-sized, pretty and offer a tempting take on downsizing
Tiny houses have been popular in the States for some time, but they are now starting to garner interest in the UK, with like-minded individuals coming together to form collectives such as the Tiny House Community Bristol, aiming to encourage and educate people on the environmental benefits of simple, small space living.
Companies such as Tiny House UK offer beautiful tiny homes in a range of styles and sizes, as well as trailer bases if you fancy having a go at building one yourself.
Finding land for your tiny home can be tricky, but generally follows the same rules as caravans. You may be able to park up at campsites and move your home as necessary or find a kindly friend, farmer or relative who’ll let you park on their land.
This is a relatively new concept in the UK, but one well worth exploring. One Planet Development is an exciting initiative in Wales which promotes sustainability, environmental responsibility and land-based living.
It enables people to build a small permitted eco-development on agricultural land. Building materials should be locally sourced and sustainable, and the dwelling needs to be fully off-grid. You also need to establish a profitable land-based business within a certain time frame.
Accepted developments include mushroom farmers, willow weavers, meat, dairy or vegetable farmers and beekeepers. There are quite strict guidelines to adhere to if you want to be a successful applicant, but the One Planet Council can help you.
Why have one home when you can have many? Some people are opting to become professional ‘house-sitters’, moving in and looking after other people’s property, and sometimes pets, while they are away. This provides the owners with the security of knowing they haven’t left their home unguarded and the house sitter with somewhere to stay and a new area to explore each time they move on.
Careful forward planning is needed to ensure you always have somewhere lined up of course!
There are some great online forums and Facebook groups devoted to alternative ways of living, as well as some excellent Youtube channels and podcasts to get you inspired!
- The Alternative Living Group on Facebook is a very active group, with discussions covering a broad range of alternatives to conventional bricks and mortar homes.
- The Alternative Living Podcast by full-time Van dwellers Bee & Theo offers tips and suggestions about life in a van and world travel.
- Channels such as Exploring Alternatives, Florb and Tiny House, Giant Journey on YouTube cover a wide range of interesting and inspiring alternative homes.
Ask anybody living in an outside-of-the-box way and they will most likely tell you that the benefits far outweigh any negatives.
The truth is that ANY way of living has both pros and cons. For those who choose to pursue an alternative path, downsides will differ depending on which type of residence they have chosen, but common areas to consider are:
- Legalities – Are you aware of the regulations set out by your local council and can you to abide by them? Do you intend to stick to the letter of the law or are you happy to reside in a fuzzy, grey area of unofficial agreements with landowners?
- Commitments – Do you need to be tied to a certain area for work or school? Lifestyles such as Vanlife are ideal if you are able to work remotely – but if you need to stay in one place, will you be able to find park ups consistently in the area of your choice?
- Amenities – Consider how you will access water, heating and toilets. If you are planning to live in a caravan, camper or boat, heating and cooking sources are often gas-powered. Will you have space to carry extra fuel in colder months? Electricity might be solar-powered or you might need to hook up to on-grid sources. Water storage will be limited – are you happy to forgo daily showers?
- Criticism – You need to be aware that it is hard for most people to understand why someone would choose to live in a way that for many, seems utterly unfathomable. The tide is shifting…but slowly. For most people, the norm is still very much the 9-5, the big home, the fancy car. You WILL receive criticism if you opt to live alternatively. Can you brush aside the scorn of others, knowing that this is the right choice for you?
Helping loved ones understand your motives
It is not a new thing for people to make an obvious, intentional choice to change their lives.
For as long as there have been well-paying jobs and stylish apartments in the city, there have been people leaving those said things to relocate to the countryside and live a simpler life in a sleepy village.
This sort of behaviour is nothing new and is often applauded, a vision of the “Good Life”, hailed with sentiments such as:
“They are so brave! How wonderful! Living the ‘good life!’, What a dream! I wish I had the guts to do that!”
But do the same thing and give up everything to live in a yurt? Or build an off-grid eco-home? Maybe convert a van and travel? A few might congratulate you, but overall you’re more likely to be met with scepticism, worry or outright contempt.
“You’ll have no fixed abode! Isn’t that homelessness? Is that legal? Is that safe? What if you change your mind?”
So what do you say to well-meaning individuals who only have your best interests at heart?
Telling your immediate family that you have decided to live alternatively is unlikely to be easy unless you grew up in a commune. The best you can do is be honest. Explain how you feel. Explain that you are choosing this lifestyle – it isn’t a kneejerk reaction to a situation but a well thought out and planned change of pace and direction.
Show them examples
Back this up by offering examples of other people who are living an alternative lifestyle. Working from a place of inspiration rather than fear can really help family and friends to get on board.
For a lot of us, there was a pivotal moment which set us on this path – a story which inspired us. If you were inspired to do this because of someone else’s story, share it! Get family members watching the same videos you have been watching or show them pictures of what you hope to achieve. (NB. Choose carefully…be aware of what might trigger the opposite effect of the one you are hoping for – this could be the time to glam it up a bit and not showcase the grittier aspects of alternative living, whatever your own personal preference is!!)
Ask them what it is that concerns them about your decision and be ready to answer. Remind them that nothing is irreversible. Life is all about the choices and the chances you take. If things don’t work out, you can always return to a more “conventional” lifestyle!
If your situation allows, you could always take a slower approach. It is not uncommon for people to make the transition to alternative living gradually, for example, by continuing to rent “normal” accommodation whilst spending more and more time in their chosen alternative dwelling, be that a van or cabin in the woods.
These part-time alternative dwellers get to test the lifestyle and see if it suits, whilst also demonstrating to family members and friends that it is a viable way to live. Even the most stalwart of conventional living supporters can see that there is very little point pouring money into renting a house you are never at.
Do your research
Learn as much as you can about your chosen lifestyle before embarking on it, this will enable you to field awkward questions and also be prepared for any difficulties which may not have occurred to you.
Read, watch, study, reach out with queries on social media – people are usually more than happy to answer questions from others who are looking for genuine advice.
Remember it’s your journey
Ultimately, we don’t like to feel we may disappoint or hurt those we love, but if all else fails, remember that this is your journey, and your choice alone to make.
Very often the idea of something, the fear of the unknown is the hardest part. You will find that people adjust to your new lifestyle when they see you living it and realise that you are still exactly the same person you always were, only hopefully, a happier version!