When I First Moved to San Francisco, I Lived in My Car

What started as a fresh start in San Francisco turned into an exercise in proving to myself what I need… and what I don’t need.

When I first came to San Francisco in 2016, I didn’t have a renting situation set in stone (to put it lightly). Before making the 28-odd-hour trip from Austin, I had thrown everything deemed necessary in the back of my ’08 Prius and trashed the rest. While I had a job and somewhat of a soft savings pillow to fall back on, I wasn’t interested in too quickly surrendering it all to an Outer Richmond studio space while I was still finding my footing. At that time, too, San Francisco was in the midst of its Tech Bro era — and the nose-bleeding rents followed in tandem.

For those first three months in the city, I technically had a roof over my head, but that roof had a carpet-like liner and cardboard underpinnings. My first weeks of Bay Area living were spent embracing a half-hearted attempt at #VanLife—or, more specifically, an excursion into #HotelPrius.

Yes, I lived in my car. In a city with exorbitant rent prices, it can be a tempting move to make. So for those intrigued by the idea of swapping your rent check for the vehicular life, I’ve compiled all the most important quirks to know about when it comes to car living — or “stealth camping” as it’s known in some circles — in the Bay Area.

Your car matters

I couldn’t fathom doing this type of money-saving minimalism in, say, a Honda Civic Coupe or any other two-door car. Space is at a premium. Hatchbacks — or “liftbacks,” as a Prius is marketed as — work the best. Not only will you have ample space in which to organize your belongings, but also you’ll have perhaps the best luxury that car dwellers crave: sleeping on a flat and elongated surface. (Unless you’re four-foot-nothing, sleeping in the backseat of any car will contort your knees and torso in unnatural ways.)

A 24 Hour Fitness membership is a lifesaver

By far the number-one question I got asked during this entire excursion was “You don’t look ‘homeless,’ so how do you stay clean and dress well?” The answer was always my 24 Hour Fitness membership.

Dn’t fall prey to the Whole Foods hot bar

Admittedly, one of the major speed bumps of automotive dwelling is how you’ll feed yourself in a healthy and cost-effective way. Not having a working stove and countertop can be as financially crippling as it is troublesome.

But don’t let convenience cost you a pretty penny—which a trip down any hot bar will surely do.

Park under the radar, and be a friendly neighbor

The laws around car living are blurred from state to state, but here in California, it’s generally perceived as a perfectly legal way of living—“it’s your car; it’s your home.” However, that doesn’t mean you can (or should) “park up” shop anywhere you feel like.

The rule of thumb boasted by other four-wheel-living ilk is to never park overnight along resedential streets, private businesses, or properties. Your best bet is to find evening respite at Walmart, 24 Hour Fitness, and uncovered shopping-strip parking lots. Streets that hug along parks, too, are often safe spaces for getting shut-eye.

Some sage words

Now a renter in Nob Hill, I frankly miss those days of halfhearted #VanLife now years removed from them. As someone who has the fortune to work 100 percent remotely, it was a vocational quirk I was able to take full advantage of.

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