[this is a reprint of a feature article I wrote for our local newspaper, published June 1, 2015.]
by Carrie Caverly
In the land of “McMansions” where the average house size has swelled to 2,600sf, a petite countercultural version of home is rolling into the neighborhood: the Tiny House.
“Drawn by the prospect of financial freedom, a simpler lifestyle and limiting one’s environmental footprint, more buyers are opting to downsize—in some cases, to space no larger than 300 sq. ft.”—Tiny House Nation reality TV show.
Small living quarters are not entirely novel, or inherently hip, but they are enjoying wild popularity. No longer the sole realm of online bloggers, tiny houses are all over the media, featured on Oprah, in Forbes magazine, CNN, the BBC, and a slew of local news stations. There are two documentary films now: Tiny: The Movie, streamable on Netflix, and Small is Beautiful: A Tiny House Documentary, with select screenings starting in April 2015. There are three reality TV shows: Tiny House Nation, Tiny House Hunters, and Tiny House Builders. Fortune magazine lists micro dwellings in the top 5 home trends of 2015, saying “micro and tiny are huge.”
In case you’ve missed the hype, a “Tiny House” is exactly what it sounds like: a (very) tiny house. Usually less than 200sf and only 8’-0” wide, tiny houses are typically built with conventional framing methods and resemble quaint wooden cabins. Built on dual-axle trailers, they are exempt from zoning and building codes. Highway towing restrictions constrain the height to 13’-6” and width to 8’-6”, though you could build up to 14’-0” wide with a towing permit on moving day.
What’s being called the “Tiny House Movement” is described by some as revolutionary, anti-establishment, and anti-American-Dream. Other tiny house enthusiasts resist the idea of being a “movement” at all, and definitely don’t relate to being revolutionary or anti-establishment. They’re just trying to simplify their lives and live within their means in a progressively unstable economy.
Perhaps the desire to own your home, regardless of size, is the essence of the elusive American Dream. “I believe the ‘movement’ is about ownership. We want to own a house, albeit a small one, and we want to own our time. I don’t think working as hard as I do that the majority of my income should go into someone else’s pocket,” one tiny house enthusiast commented on popular tiny house blog http://tinyrevolution.us.
Their diminutive size means that tiny houses cost more per sq. ft., but also allow the inclusion of high-end design features usually reserved for luxury homes. The typical tiny house candidate wants to save money and build their own house, often with salvaged materials, and there are a myriad of tools available to assist them. Workshops, websites, blogs, and plans (not just blueprints, but extensively illustrated guides) all empower laypeople to build their own tiny house.
We decided to design and build our 204sf tiny house in February 2012 as a step toward financial freedom. I created a blog at the same time, http://clotheslinetinyhomes.com, which generated much-needed moral support and over 820,000 views in the past three years. We saw that a tiny house would allow us to live inexpensively while saving to build a house, debt-free. In fact, a tiny house seemed to be the only way to save enough money to get into a house without a mortgage.
We lived in our tiny house full-time for almost two years, cumulatively, and while I can’t conclusively credit the tiny house for the accomplishment of our goal, saving $1,000 a month in housing costs certainly didn’t hurt. Though challenging, tiny living was a revelatory design experiment; cutting back to the bare minimum we were able to see the basic essentials required in a house.
So, are tiny houses the cure to what ails us financially and environmentally? Or are we just fascinated by extremes . . . craning our necks to gape at a train wreck?
Rising housing costs coupled with stagnant wages and an unstable job market have forced 20-and-30-somethings to find creative ways to live within their means. Insecure retirement funds (20% of Americans nearing retirement age have zero money saved) are requiring Baby Boomers to cut expenditures quickly. Two out of 5 tiny house owners are over the age of 55.
A tiny house can be had for $30k-$60k ($10k-$20k if you build it yourself). Meanwhile, the median purchase price of a house in the US is over $206k ($350k in Denver) and with interest on your 30-year mortgage you’ll pay double the purchase price. Average monthly rents are $1,400, while a place to park your tiny house, including utilities, will only cost you $300-$400 a month. At 10% the size of an average American home, tiny houses definitely have a smaller environmental footprint.
How do you fit in a tiny house?
First, get rid of 95% of your stuff. Then, maximize every inch of that 200sf space. Build drawers on the floor behind cabinet toe kicks, sleep in a loft, and have a folding dining table. Wash your dishes by hand in a tiny sink and cook on a 2-burner RV range.
Also, it wouldn’t hurt if you were like Vancouver student Samuel Baron, interviewed for a BBC story: “Between work and school, I’m rarely home,” said Baron. “My suite functions as a place to simply store my possessions, and for sleeping, because I live in a neighborhood that has plenty of coffee shops, restaurants and pubs.”
Drawbacks of a tiny house? Well, there’s the obvious: they’re too small. And the less obvious: they might not be legal . . . and if they are, you may not be able to find a place to park them. And the awkward, but unavoidable: everyone poops and it’s not like you’re rolling down a train track in India . . . you have to find somewhere to put that stuff.
Are Tiny Houses too small?
We decided our tiny house was definitely too small for two people. “If I was single . . . I could totally live in this tiny house!” We took turns bringing up that helpful point during arguments. Would we have been arguing if we weren’t cramming two adults’ personal and professional lives, plus one small (but hyper) dog into a space the size of a bedroom? Not about our tiny house. It gets irritating bumping your elbows on walls and each other, knocking your head on the ceiling, removing and replacing four things every time you want to get the toaster out. Or eat dinner.
Are tiny houses legal?
Yes. Sort of. It depends. The wheels allow tiny houses freedom from local zoning and building codes. This exemption doesn’t mean they aren’t built to code though; quite the opposite. Most tiny houses are constructed to specifications beyond building codes, sturdy enough to withstand the earthquake and hurricane-like forces inflicted while barreling down the interstate at 75 mph.
So it doesn’t matter what the local minimum square footage requirements are; those apply to houses, and, technically, tiny houses fall in the realm of the DMV (who has no idea what to do with them). They’re not actually an RV either (you’ll find that out when you try to get insurance or move to an RV park), but if your neighborhood allows RVs to be parked on lots, then you could park a tiny house there. Could you live in it full-time or call it your primary residence? That depends on your local jurisdiction.
Many tiny houses find homes in the backyards of friends, family, or generous strangers. Some property owners are installing RV hookups on their land to generate a little extra income by renting out an RV space for $300-$400 a month. A tiny house’s quaint aesthetic definitely helps them gain acceptance to the neighborhood. Other tiny housers buy rural land away from prying eyes and have an off-grid vacation cabin. “Where to park?” is the question that stops a lot of tiny house enthusiasts in the planning stages. Search Craigslist and you’re bound to find a few brave souls, house in tow, searching for a place to park their brand new tiny home.
Without the convenience of connection to a sewage system, finding an alternative means of disposing of human waste is one of the biggest challenges tiny housers face. The blog I wrote about tiny house toilet options is the most viewed post on our site: 50,000 views in three years. Our search for an alternative toilet seems like a comedy sketch now, but it was not at all funny at the time. I vented all the gory details on our blog and found we weren’t alone in our struggle.
Some people instantly know they would never want to live in a small space, with or without another person. Others are more curious . . . more open to the idea of extreme living, or at least willing to weigh the pros and cons and see that a tiny house may be the best route to financial freedom. Either way, tiny houses are a very brave solution to very real and pervasive economic problems.