Tiny Houses: Still the American Dream, Just a Little Smaller

Understanding the smaller, eco-friendly alternative to bigger houses.
By: Geoff Williams
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Have you ever admired a dollhouse and half-wished you could live there? This may be the next best thing.

In this age of credit crunches, subprime mortgages and rising energy costs that make McMansions almost as reviled as Hummers, maybe it was inevitable that a tiny house movement would start to take off.

If you’re drawing a blank, tiny houses are typically 64 square feet to 774 square feet, and some environmentalists and enthusiasts argue that they’re the perfect antidote to our housing problems. After all, it costs less to buy a tiny house — not to mention furnish, heat and cool it. If you want the simple life, you can’t get much simpler than this.

If the idea appeals to you, and you think you might want to ditch the idea of living large, here are some things to consider first:

The Cost

Tiny houses cost a fraction of what a bigger house costs, but the math will still surprise you: $15,000 to $45,000. Others might go as high as $90,000. It depends who you hire to build your home, what the materials are constructed out of and what amenities you want. But many of the tiny home builders take great pride in their work and argue that the craftsmanship and quality of the materials dictate the higher prices.

And while $90,000 may seem astronomical, the homeowner is still making out like a bandit when paying for maintenance costs. “We waste a huge amount of space, heating huge giant vaulted ceilings in those McMansions, ” says Brad Kittel, 53, who owns Tiny Texas Houses in Luling, Texas. “In these cases, the vaulted ceiling is your bedroom, which is a good thing.”

Kittel’s specialty is building tiny houses out of salvageable material. The wiring, insulation and plumbing are all new, but everything else from the shingles to the hardwood kitchen floors to the front doorknob was salvaged from a previous home or building. And he takes great pride in what he salvages. He’ll devour the hundred-year-old wood from a house built in 1930, but he won’t touch a home that was built in, say, 1994. Because chances are, the house isn’t made of anything of value.

“There are too many hazardous materials,” says Kittel, citing sheet rock (also known as dry wall), vinyl and plastics as some of the usual suspects. 

Are They Safe?

Kittel, who began building tiny houses in 2007 after 12 years in the salvage business, initially began constructing his houses on piers, or perhaps more commonly known as stilts by laymen. He changed his mind about the merits of piers after one of the houses was picked up 15 feet in a tornado and tossed on its side. Even then, the only damage was two broken panes of glass. Now, he plants his tiny houses firmly in terra firma. “These are 20,000 to 30,000 pounds,” says Kittel. “They aren’t going anywhere.”

Indeed, true tiny houses are not mobile homes, and one could argue that they make a smaller target during a windstorm. It would also likely be easier to exit, in the event of a fire, and one might imagine that they may be somewhat safe from burglars, who are likely to conclude that a tiny home wouldn’t have much of value to steal. There’s also no chance of a thief sneaking into a tiny house without the owner noticing. And if there’s a dog on the property? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Your Mindset

It sounds like a nice notion, living in a way that makes a smaller footprint on the environment, but one shouldn’t rush into this, cautions Michael Janzen, a 40-year-old Sacramento bank executive who has a blog called Tiny House Design and is planning on building a tiny home to move in with his wife and young daughter. But he recognizes that one tiny home may be too cramped; so he may well wind up doing what Kittel often recommends: live in two, or even three tiny houses.

It may sound odd at first, but it’s working for Angi and Mark Morse, 33 and 35, who since July have lived with their 3-year-old and 9-month-old in two yurts in Snohomish, Washington. Yurts are a cousin of the tiny house — they’re felt-covered, wood lattice-framed dwellings that look a little like round tents. Angi, a part-time family therapist and Mark, a substitute school custodian, spent $5,000 on a used yurt that they found on Craigslist, and pay $900 a month on their other yurt, which they will have paid off in five years. Angi didn’t want to say exactly how much that second one cost, but she said that they can range from $9,000 to $20,000, depending on the extras.

They built a deck underneath each yurt, which lacks running water but has an extension cord, bringing electricity from the nearby barn. They’re located on Angi’s father's property, and it seemed like a much better proposition for the young family than remaining in their one-room apartment or buying into a house that they couldn’t afford, not that bankers haven't been very generous about doling out mortgages. But Angi may not have taken it anyway. “I think being able to not worry about that high mortgage payment every month is really freeing,” says Angi, who adds that she wishes they had taken the leap and bought a yurt sooner.

But a tiny house — or yurt — isn’t for everyone, which is why Janzen cautions that if anybody is considering the idea, he would first suggest simplifying things before moving.

“Downsize your own life,” suggests Janzen. “You know, maybe we’re like fish, and we all grow to the size of the tank. So I’ve been trying to get rid of my stuff ... reducing debt, reducing the objects we have, the things we have to take care of, to start immediately getting what the benefits of downsizing in a house would be.”

He adds that if you can start living in less of your home and you can get to the point “when you begin to find yourself knocking around in a big, empty house or apartment, then you begin to get closer to the question we all could ask ourselves: how much do you really need?”

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale). His two-story house was built in, um, 1994

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