The short answer is: No, you don’t but it’s fun and it does have its advantages compared to an apartment or a house.
My housing story is as follows. During grad school I lived in dorm with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. This is not a big deal when you sleep from 3am to 10am. I usually had everything for myself. The cost of this was ~$270/month (I’m trying to remember past exchange rates) for a small but really well designed room with a table, a bed, a sink, and lots of storage. This was 10 minutes of walking from my job.
I then moved to the US and got the entire top floor of a duplex. This was my first experience of “supersized American”. It was possible to do sprints in the living room without running into a wall. It was furnished with garden furniture. I met DW shortly thereafter and we started living in each others homes. The cost was $400/month and this was 20 minutes of walking from my job.
Since this was a waste, we rented a 1000sqft house half a year later. We lived there for the next 2.5 years. This cost $660/month divided by 2. It was an old house which had been standing empty for a couple of years before we moved in, so pretty much everything in that house broke while we lived there but the landlord was quick to fix it. It was 25 minutes of walking from my job.
Anyone noticing a commonality? (Price and distance).
Then I got a job in CA. We now had a 1500sqft (maybe larger) with 2 bdrms and 1 bthrm and an attached garage. In CA style, we parked the car outside and played hockey in the garage. This also had a landscaped garden which cost a fortune (several hundred dollars per month in water) to keep alive in the dry climate. It was $1400/month plus significant utilities. It was also 100 minutes of walking from my job. I got a bike.
The trend was broken.
I did not really feel I was getting my money’s worth and the landscaped garden was really hitting me in a sore spot (tons of work, finite CA water supplies,…). Vacuuming took an hour, etc. Man, almost every room took an hour to clean by itself. There was simply too much maintenance and too little adventure. And I was paying a premium for that?!? After this experience/experiment, I decided that I would never want a McMansion or a house in suburbia within the constrictions of a home owner association.
I started thinking about living aboard a boat. It sounded exciting, but DW wasn’t buying it. I was a little bit worried too. What if the head (toilet) was operated wrongly in the middle of the night—then we would wake up with screaming bilge pumps and step into knee high water? No, clearly I did not know enough about boats.
Tiny houses (tumbleweed) sounded exciting. Small housing and the possibility of home ownership while maintaining the flexibility to move around in our professional careers (moving every 2-3 years gets old as soon as you hit 30 at which point, I guess, you’re old too ). DW wasn’t buying it.
Instead we bought an RV after some initial preparations and this is where we are now and where we have been for the past year. It is or was 50 minutes of walking (15 minutes by bike) from my job and it cost ~$280/month/person (rent+utils).
Lately, we have been thinking about buying land in New England (Maine or New Hampshire). As shelter is calculated the same way as a latte(*) in terms of how to calculate the true cost of recurring expenses, we could replace our current situation with real estate costing up to $150000 or so. If we buy something (in cash of course) less than this amount we would come out ahead.
(*) I drink coffee, but I would never buy coffee “out” unless in dire circumstances. The last time I bought coffee was in Denver airport at 6am in the morning after a 6 hour night flight.
In conclusion: If you want to retire extremely early, you do not have to live in an RV like we do, currently, but you should make paying only $200-400/month/person for shelter+utilities your highest priority. As you can see above there are many ways to do that (and also one way to not do it).