Is it illegal to live in your car?

You can live in your car as long as you follow the local laws and city ordinances. It's important to maintain your auto insurance by finding the best rates for your lifestyle.

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Rachel Bodine graduated from college with a BA in English. She has since worked as a Feature Writer in the insurance industry and gained a deep knowledge of state and countrywide insurance laws and rates. Her research and writing focus on helping readers understand their insurance coverage and how to find savings. Her expert advice on insurance has been featured on sites like PhotoEnforced, All...

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Written by Rachel Bodine
Feature Writer Rachel Bodine

Dan Walker graduated with a BS in Administrative Management in 2005 and has been working in his family’s insurance agency, FCI Agency, for 15 years (BBB A+). He is licensed as an agent to write property and casualty insurance, including home, auto, umbrella, and dwelling fire insurance. He’s also been featured on sites like Reviews.com and Safeco. He reviews content, ensuring that ex...

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Reviewed by Daniel Walker
Licensed Auto Insurance Agent Daniel Walker

UPDATED: May 4, 2022

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Things to Remember

  • Living in your car is typically allowed in most states
  • You’ll need to find a legal place to park your car before you can sleep in it
  • You can protect yourself and your car by maintaining a current auto insurance policy, as well as your license and vehicle registration

Every day, more Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to afford housing, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. If you’re one of the many Americans considering living in your car, there are several legal and safety issues to contemplate. While living in your vehicle for an extended duration may not seem ideal, it has become a necessary and even preferred arrangement for some people during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the popularity of #vanlife videos, more people have become interested in living in their car (at least part-time) to either save money or travel. Living out of a vehicle can offer a sense of freedom and give you more time to do what makes you happy. Whatever your reasons, it will be a smoother transition if you’re prepared and have a general idea of what to expect.

In the United States, it is legal to live in your car, but many cities have laws against it in some circumstances. This article examines the legalities as well as the pros and cons of living in your vehicle.

Where is it legal to live in your car?

Living in your car is typically allowed in most states, as long as you follow the local loitering ordinances and avoid trespassing on private areas. You will need to find multiple locations where it is legal to park your car, whether you intend to remain for a short time or long-term. Spaces can become overcrowded or less safe as time passes, so it would be wise to have more than one place where you can seek shelter. Your safety should come first, so weigh the risks before deciding on a location.

You don’t want to make a habit of parking on residential neighborhood streets or in store parking lots where you could be towed, ticketed by the police, or even arrested. However, it is legal to stay at open campgrounds and designated overnight rest areas like truck stops. State and national parks are well-maintained and popular destinations where it’s legal to reside as long as they’re open. Perhaps a family member or friend will allow you to live in your car either on their land or in their driveway. If possible, you could also purchase your own land and try your hand at homesteading.

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Where can I legally sleep in my car?

Once you’ve found a legal place to park your car, you’ll also be able to sleep in it. The reality is that it may be difficult to sleep if you’re in an area with heavy traffic or loud noises. Unless you have tinted windows, you won’t have much privacy while sleeping. Consider purchasing dark window shade coverings to prevent strangers from peering inside your vehicle.

The shades will also come in handy to keep the sunlight out if you nap during the daytime. Ear plugs will be another helpful tool to buffer any noise that could detract from getting rest. Never sleep with your vehicle running. While you may need to run it for brief durations to heat or cool the interior, carbon monoxide poisoning can be lethal, so don’t doze off with the car turned on.

You will need insulated blankets and warming pads to prevent hypothermia during cold months. Remember to always keep your doors locked for additional protection, even if the area appears safe. Purchase a flashlight in case you need nighttime lighting. A small portable cooler is also a necessity if you plan to store perishable food and drinks in your vehicle. Meals that are easy to prepare, such as cold-cut sandwiches and bagged salads, will provide nutrition and are simple to store in a cooler.  As long as you maintain a positive outlook, you should be able to handle any situation that may arise.

How to Live in Your Car

Safety concerns can be a major issue when living in your car, but finding a safe area to park in is not the only potential problem that you must consider. If you have a lot of personal belongings, your car can quickly become cluttered and uninhabitable. Rent a storage unit, or ask friends and family if you can store your packed possessions in their basement or attic. It will be easier to use your vehicle as a dwelling if it is free of clutter and nonessential items. Another good idea is to establish a post office (P.O.) box where you can receive mail and have an address to include on job applications or correspondence.

If you own any small, valuable items such as jewelry or family heirlooms, invest in a safety deposit box at your local bank. You don’t want to become a target of theft by leaving expensive items unsecured in your car. It will be easier to remain organized if you keep your necessities and all of your belongings in a designated place. Toiletries, clothing, and bedding gear can be placed in the trunk until you need to use it.

Some unhoused people alternate between motel stays or purchase a gym or community center membership for access to restroom and laundry services. Maintaining your physical appearance is important whether you’re employed or applying for jobs and attending interviews.

Living in your car can quickly turn into a sedentary lifestyle which may have negative effects on your body. Starting a gym membership will not only give you access to shower facilities but provide exercise equipment that you can use to remain mentally and physically fit.

If you need access to Wi-Fi or the internet, hang out at coffee shops or the public library where you can handle your business and engage in social interactions to keep your spirits up.

Keep a journal to write about your time spent living on the road. You will be amazed by what you can learn when you document your experiences and goals. Determine how long you intend to live in your car and what objectives you need to meet if you want to find permanent housing. It can get lonely on the road.

Reach out to friends and family, or find a network of supportive agencies that can provide counseling or other assistance to support your mental health. Many churches, nonprofits and government agencies offer services to aid the homeless and those in nontraditional living situations.

How to Take Care of Your Car

You can protect yourself and your car by maintaining a current auto insurance policy, as well as your license and vehicle registration. Accidents can occur even while your vehicle is parked, so it makes sense to remain up-to-date on your auto coverage.

You will also draw less attention to yourself and reduce the likelihood of being issued a ticket if you’re not operating a car with expired tags. If your policy has lapsed, contact an auto insurance agent to find the best rates possible.

Ensure that your vehicle receives regular maintenance, so that it remains in good working condition to provide warmth and security. Have the oil changed regularly and keep the fluids topped off when the service lights illuminate.

Keep your door locks and windows functional, so that you will be less exposed to the outside elements. Having a running car in good working condition will help you remain employed and able to quickly move to a new location.

Once you’ve decided that living in your car is a viable option, it’s important to do everything you can to maintain a safe environment. Each person’s situation is different, and only you can decide how to best handle challenges along the way.

Take your journey one day at a time and look for resources that will make your life easier. Remember to keep a low profile to prevent drawing the attention of police and others who might cause trouble. Follow the local laws and keep your car insured to avoid citations and fines.

Taking wise steps to find affordable car insurance can help relieve some of your stress during uncertain times. The right insurance company can provide the discount you need to keep your car on the road and remain focused on your goals.  Enter your ZIP code to find the best insurance rates for your car’s year, make, and model.

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