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“We split our time between van life and renting in the city”

Mallory Dunlop and Daniel Tossos are high school sweethearts who bought a sprinter van in 2020. Here, they break down the cost of their DIY renovations and the perks of owning a van while renting full-time

By Mallory Dunlop and Daniel Tossos, as told to Tara De Boer| Photography by Brent Gooden
“We split our time between van life and renting in the city”

Mallory Dunlop, a 30-year-old dancer, and Daniel Tossos, a 30-year-old musician, co-own a work-in-progress 2018 Ram ProMaster van that doubles as a living space for road trips and a mobile hotel at dance competitions. Here, the high school sweethearts explain how they’ve slowly renovated their home on wheels to make part-time van living feasible.


Mallory: Daniel and I met in high school and started dating in Grade 11. We were friends first—I never wanted to date someone I went to school with. But, when I switched schools for my final years, Daniel asked me out. It was great timing.

Daniel: We’ve been together since then, so we’re true high school sweethearts. As of this month, we’ll have been together for 13 years. For the past four years, we’ve rented an apartment in East York. It’s the area we both grew up in, so it’s our home.

Mallory: We got engaged last year, on my birthday, at Awenda Provincial Park. We were just sitting by the campfire. It was very low-key.

Daniel: We haven’t been in a rush to plan the wedding, but we’ll get to it eventually.

Mallory: We co-own a dance studio in Leaside called Hive Dance. I was a competitive dancer as a kid and danced professionally until the pandemic. Now, we run classes for kids from September to June and have a competitive team for the more serious dancers.

Daniel: I’m a musician—I play guitar and piano. I was teaching music full-time before we started Hive. These days, I’m mostly focused on the administrative side of the studio.

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Mallory: Being business partners has added a whole new level to our relationship—we work so well together, and it brings us closer.

Daniel: We make a great team. I like that we can bounce ideas off of each other.

Daniel and Mallory inside their van, which they're decked out with DIY tiny living hacks

Mallory: We’ve always loved the idea of tiny living. I love interior design and am fascinated by all the ways people build non-traditional homes. Initially, we wanted to buy a tiny house and hitch it up to a trailer. We even travelled to tiny house festivals around Canada.

Daniel: I was drawn to tiny living for the cost-saving aspect. I thought it would be cool to own something, and buying a bigger house seems pretty far off for us. We watched a lot of Tiny House, Big Living on HGTV for inspiration.

Mallory: We had even contacted a few builders. But we quickly realized that we hadn’t thought about all the logistics of living in a tiny home in the city. We had nowhere to put it. So we started looking at alternatives. In the end, van life appealed to us because it was way more practical. Vans are mobile and easy to park, and financially, it would allow us to keep our apartment as well.

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Daniel: In 2020, we bought a lightly used 2018 Ram ProMaster. We got it from a dealership in Vaughan for around $40,000. It had only 1,000 kilometres on it. It was very clean and had that new car smell.

Mallory: But it was completely empty and had no windows.

Daniel: I was overwhelmed by the amount of work it needed. Since our business takes up so much of our time, we knew the renovations would be a slow process. We’ve been tackling upgrades one at a time. When we took our very first trip, which was to a weekend-long dance competition in Collingwood, we hadn’t done much of anything yet. It was just an air mattress on the floor. But even that, compared to camping, felt like a huge upgrade. It was comfortable and dry. We were excited to get to work on improving it, though.

Mallory: We are not builders in any way. At the beginning, we watched a lot of YouTube videos about how to build the interior of a van.

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Daniel and Mallory's bedroom inside their van

Daniel: Luckily, my dad is an experienced builder. He helped us get things going.

Mallory: We did our first round of renos in time for a three-week trip to Lake Superior. We put in insulation, cut out side windows and a skylight, and added our ceiling fan. Cutting holes into the van was pretty stressful, but in the end it all went well.

Daniel: Every single step involved a ton of research. For electrical, we installed and set up solar panels ourselves. That was as far as we could get on that front. Then we hired a company to put together our inverter and connect the solar power to everything else.

Mallory: That was a huge upgrade because we were able to get our mini fridge. It opens from the top, like a chest, and is super energy efficient. We also installed a gas heater. We still had no kitchen at this point.

Daniel: We used a camp stove and a jug of water. We were washing our dishes in a bucket.

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Mallory: We knew we wanted a bathroom eventually, so we put in the walls for that, though we haven’t gotten around to finishing it yet. We added a proper double bed, which has our “garage” space underneath that holds our paddleboard. Then, for our next project, we put in a couch and added some upper cabinets for storage.

Daniel: And then we tackled the kitchen area, which is almost finished now. It has running water and a water heater, which is so great. Now we have hot water to do our dishes. We also have a 40 gallon water tank.

Mallory: We still use the camp stove because it’s quite small, which saves on counter space. We also have an electric kettle and a coffee maker. We’re able to fit a week of groceries in the fridge, and we tend to do a lot of meal prep. We’re both vegan, so it’s just easier to make our own food.

Daniel and Mallory's sink is rigged up with hot water

Daniel: We don’t have a water filter, so we buy water bottles for drinking water. Overall, the renovations have cost roughly $30,000. I had zero experience going into this, but I’ve learned a lot. You might even say I’ve become handy, which is super convenient for our business. I’ve become the guy who gets called when something needs fixing.

Mallory: We don’t have Wi-Fi, so if we have to do work, we’ll find a coffee shop to sit in. We are looking to get a cell booster, though. Something about the metal walls blocks our cell signal.

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Daniel: Mallory will sometimes stick her phone through the skylight.

Mallory: We probably spend around $600 in gas and $100 on groceries per week. We’re in the van for a few months each summer, when we travel, and we rent our east-end apartment year-round. We go on trips when we can, whether that’s just for a weekend or over the holidays. We often stay in it overnight when we go to dance competitions.

Daniel: It’s our very own mobile hotel.

Mallory: We’ve always loved going on road trips. Before the van, we’d travel in our little Mazda with our tent and all this camping gear. It was pretty crowded.

Some of Daniel and Mallory's decor

Daniel: It also involved so much planning. We had to book a campground every night and stick to the schedule. With the van, we’re able to head out and find our way as we go. The itinerary is much less strict.

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Mallory: If we find a spot we love, we can stay there as long as we want. We just came back from the East Coast. We went from Quebec to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and then Newfoundland, which was awesome. It was a full month, which is the the longest we’ve been away in the van so far.

Daniel: The van is great because you feel like you’re at home—even in the middle of nowhere or in a secluded forest. We don’t save on general living expenses, since we also rent a place, but we save on accommodations when we travel. I’d say the main downside is not having a washroom in the van. Having to find places to stop can be annoying.

Mallory: Same with showering. Right now, when we want to rinse off, we need to find water to jump into. We love swimming, so it’s not so bad. We are in the process of building a shower, though. I am so excited to be able to shave my legs in a hot shower.

Daniel: Van life works well for us since we’ve lived together for so long. It’s close quarters, but when we’re in our apartment, we’re pretty close to each other anyway. We’ve learned to enjoy every aspect of life together.

The curtain is where Mallory and Daniel's shower will be

Mallory: We like each other, which helps us handle the small space.

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Daniel: We have a few more renos we’d like to do. We’re going to put in cabinets for our clothes. Currently, we have a big hanging net for them, and it’s a mess.

Mallory: We’ll probably get a swivel table to make the seating area a bit more comfortable.

Daniel: It’s been cool to experience each upgrade along the way. Like, suddenly, one day, we had running water.

Mallory: It makes you more grateful for the things that you have. Every year, it’s more luxurious. We love the lifestyle, being able to do both city life and van life. We love nature and getting away, but the city is also our home.

Daniel: I’m not sure I’d want to live in the van full-time, like through a full winter in Toronto. If we were able to drive south for the season, that would be a different story.

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Mallory: Next summer, we’re headed out west. I have a huge list of places I want to go—Lake Louise, maybe Vancouver Island. I am so excited to see the mountains and the tall trees.

Daniel: We would also love to go to the States. We’ve never brought the van down there, and there’s so much to see.

Mallory: The van is definitely here to stay, and we’ll be using it for plenty more adventures in the future.

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