When life seems too complicated, some people advocate this solution: Move into a smaller home to have a bigger life.
For some, the tiny house movement has become a way of life, adjusting to a smaller space and fewer possessions, with a goal of saving money and focusing on relationships and experiences.
“It’s just a tool to do what you want to do and get done in life,” says Ryan Mitchell, who lives in a 150-square-foot home he built himself in Charlotte, North Carolina. He decided to go tiny as a way to cut back on expenses and have more control over his life after being laid off from his first human resources job more than five years ago.
“I realized at that moment that hard work, a master’s degree and working hard and meeting my goals were not going to give me job security,” he says. “I didn’t want to be that vulnerable again.” He is now self-employed, has published several e-books on tiny houses and runs the website The Tiny Life and a co-working space in Charlotte.
The average size of a new home built in 2014 was 2,453 square feet, up from 1,660 square feet in 1973, the earliest year for which U.S. Census data is available. Only 8 percent of homes completed in 2014 had fewer than 1,400 square feet, according to census data.
Despite the trend toward building larger homes, interest in tiny homes is still growing, says Elaine Walker, one of the founders of the American Tiny Home Association and publisher of the Tiny House Community website, which includes links and information about how and where to build a tiny house.
Financial freedom is one reason for the growing popularity of tiny homes, and a significantly lower price tag is a big part of that appeal. Walker paid about $45,000 to have her tiny house built, and Mitchell spent about $25,000 to build his own home.
“People aren’t going to foreclose on it because you’ve paid for it,” says Walker, who owns a 117-square-foot house that was built in New Hampshire, traveled to California and is now in an Orlando RV community of tiny houses. “As we see the aging of the population continue, it’s going to become more of a necessity.”
The small home movement takes in people with a variety of motivations: young people who want to get out from under student loan debt, people who want to have less impact on the environment, people who can’t afford more and older people who seek to downsize in retirement.
There are really two kinds of tiny houses, and some are bigger than others. The tiniest houses are less than 200 square feet and are, in effect, stylish recreational vehicles, built on wheels and able to move from place to place. There are also a handful of tiny house “eco-villages,” which are essentially communities of small houses clustered together.
The movement also encompasses homes of less than 1,000 square feet, built in a conventional manner and meant to stay put. Some of the most appealing versions of these small homes include ingenious design features to maximize the use of the space.
These smaller homes, along the lines of those popularized by Sarah Susanka in The Not So Big House series of design books, aren’t always cheaper than existing, larger houses, particularly if they use high-end materials or custom design features. Still, smaller homes usually mean lower utility bills and less money spent on stuff you buy but rarely use.
In fact, living in a small space requires you to rethink your entire relationship with stuff.
“Living in a small house is challenging because you don’t have as much space to hide your clutter,” says Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, author of “Living Large in Our Little House: Thriving in 480-Square Feet with Six Dogs, a Husband and One Remote and How You Can Do It.”
She and her husband, Dale, moved from a 1,100-square-foot house in Kansas City, Kansas, to a 480-square-foot vacation cabin in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas with their six rescue dogs eight years ago. They had intended to build a larger house on their land, but financial setbacks spurred them to rethink their plans.
“It’s never been our thing to decorate a house,” Fivecoat-Campbell says. “We like to be boating and fishing and hiking and kayaking.”
Here are eight factors to consider before you build or buy a tiny house:
Where will you put your home? This is the biggest obstacle for most people. You might be able to build a cottage as an accessory unit on a lot with a larger home or in a rural area with a liberal zoning code. Or, you might need to build it on wheels and keep it in an RV park. “People should really know where they’re going to keep it before they build it,” Walker says.
Do you want to build a home with a foundation or a house on wheels? A traditional home will have to conform to the building codes for stick-built homes. A mobile home should meet the standards of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association if you want to tow it or put it in an RV park.
Consider your family size and lifestyle. While Walker and Mitchell both live alone, neither recommends a home as tiny as theirs for a couple or family. Walker, who has three adult children, estimates you need at least 100 square feet per person. “I wouldn’t want to be in a tiny house with a husband and children,” she says. “Teenagers want to be able to have a friend over and still have privacy. Parents need some alone time.” Fivecoat-Campbell decided they needed a bedroom separate from the living space because her husband stays up late and watches TV. The couple eventually built a 320-square-foot building for her to use as an office. Don’t forget about space for pets. Walker found her tiny house was not big enough for two dogs and two cats.
Try before you buy. Fivecoat-Campbell recommends renting vacation cabins of various sizes and designs to see how you like living in a small space. Camping is another way to determine what you really need to get by.
Know that outdoor space is important. Porches, decks and room to roam outdoors become more important when your indoor space is limited. Fivecoat-Campbell has a covered front porch, a large deck and acres of land. “The winter times are harder because you can’t get outside,” she says.
Plan for utilities. If you park your tiny house in an RV campground, you likely will have access to electricity, running water and sewage disposal. If you build or park on your own land, how will you handle sewage disposal, water, power and Internet access? Mitchell uses city water and generates electricity from solar panels. He uses a composting toilet, but on his blog he lists some of the challenges with that technology. Many municipalities have rules about required utilities, so consider the cost of incorporating them into your home when crunching the numbers on housing expenses.
Build to standards. Building codes exist for a reason, as do the codes for recreational vehicles. Any home you create will need to stand up to hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes or the stress (and cost) of towing it on the highway. Find out what codes are required in your area and build to those.
Consider your goals. If your motivation is strictly to save money, investigate other alternatives as well. In some areas, buying or renting an existing house or apartment may be cheaper. Before you commit to living in a tiny home, know it’s a financially sound decision and you’re doing it for the right reasons
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