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Why Tiny Houses Make Sense

Going small and dumping unnecessary possessions will help protect us from housing crises in the future

Posted on Mar 23 2015 by Gabriella Morrison

With past housing booms and crashes and the potential, if not probability, for history to repeat itself, many of us in the tiny house world understand these risks and the need to protect ourselves from future housing crises by living tiny.

We were recently directed by Ryan Mitchell from The Tiny Life website to an informative article which covers housing trends, the economy, and where things are headed. The author, Richard Florida, points out that another perfect storm for a real estate crash is brewing (much like the 2008 crash).

We were personally affected by the ’08 event as we were in the middle of a green residential development project when the bottom fell out of the real estate market. As such, the news of another potential crash brings with it a familiar sense of concern. In the article, the author reports that “When it comes to housing, sometimes it seems we never learn,” and that “a spate of reports shows that families are having a harder and harder time paying for housing.” At the crux of the problem is the fact that “Americans continue to want more space in bigger homes.”

Somewhere along the line we began to build bigger and bigger houses. The promise of the American “dream” is alluring and as material costs have decreased over the years, our ability to get more for our money has become an irresistible temptation, leading us to build as big as possible. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average house size in the United States (now about 2,600 square feet) has increased 61% since 1973.

Interestingly, the average household size has decreased in that same time period (meaning that fewer people are living under the same roof); however, the average square footage per person (now about 1,000 square feet) has nearly doubled. Does one really need 1,000 square feet in order to be comfortable? And is it worth the extra cost and stress?

Protect yourself by living tiny

The cost of this increase in square footage has been significant not only to our resources and planet but also to our pocket books. By building houses we can actually afford, we secure housing for the rest of our lives.

According to newly released data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Americans spend, on average, more than 33% of their income on housing. How much time each week could you save if you didn’t have to give 33% of your income towards your housing? How many hours away from home, your family, your hobbies, does this represent? For most people, two out of their five work-week days go towards their housing payment alone.

Consider that most people are living in spaces much bigger than what they actually need, and that the same level of comfort can be achieved in much smaller spaces with good design. Paying 33% of your income is insane!

It is clear from the recent studies that Florida cites in his article that more and more people are struggling to make their housing payments. A CNN article on America’s unsettling comfort with personal debt notes, “Americans haven’t become much better at keeping track of their personal finances since the recession began in 2008.″ In the article, Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, says, “American consumers are not showing improvement in these areas.”

Compounding this debt issue is the fact that mortgage underwriting standards have become even more lax.

Why not build something you can actually afford?

The trend towards larger housing continues and 2014 marked the largest average home size on record in the U.S. The average cost of new house construction in the U.S., according to the National Association of Home Builders, was nearly $250,000 in 2013 (not including land).

By rough calculation, the average down payment on a construction loan is 20 percent, or $50,000. Now consider that the cost to build our hOMe tiny house was just over $33,000. You see where I’m going with this: Why not build a totally functional, beautiful, and safe tiny house for $17,000 less than the down payment of the average construction loan?

It doesn’t take a genius to understand how tiny houses can bring back equilibrium to our spending habits and economy. Not only do tiny houses cost significantly less to build, condition, and maintain, but they also make more mindful consumers out of us. There just isn’t space for unnecessary items.

As such, we can’t go out and spend money blindly. The lessons we personally learned from the ’08 real estate crash were in large part what motivated us to break from the shackles of high housing costs and to downsize into our 207-square-foot tiny hOMe. Now, no matter what happens with the economy, one thing is certain: we will always have a beautiful roof over our heads. There is nothing tiny about that luxury.

This blog originally appeared at TinyHouseBuild.com, a website run by Gabriella and her husband Andrew.


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Image Credits:

  1. TinyHouseBuild.com
  2. TinyHouseBuild

1.
Mar 23, 2015 1:22 PM ET

Challenges
by Alan B

I like tiny houses, but the biggest problems are location, electricity, water and wastewater.
Location is tricky since bylaws do not typically allow small houses so you need to find someone who will let you live on their property.
Electricity is easier since you can run an extension cord from someone's house, but that does limit how much juice you have available, and billing gets tricky.
Water is harder because no city will let you tap into the municipal supply for a small house
Wastewater is the hardest, no city will let you connect to a sewer legally.
There are ways around these things but its not simple. Laws need to catch up to allow things to get a lot easier for these amazing houses.


2.
Mar 23, 2015 4:15 PM ET

Edited Mar 23, 2015 4:20 PM ET.

How is a Tiny House Different from a Travel Trailer?
by Kevin Dickson, MSME

The Tiny House movement has captured the fancy of millions.

But homes like this have been available for decades, with limited success and market share.
I get that tiny houses look cooler, but that doesn't make them more practical for real living.

trailer house.jpg


3.
Mar 23, 2015 4:29 PM ET

Are they green?
by Martin Holladay

Tiny houses use a lot of materials, and have a lot of exterior surface area, per unit of floor area. It's unclear whether this approach is green.

Of course, if you jam a bunch of tiny houses together to form a big multifamily apartment building, you end up with a much more efficient use of resources, and much less surface area (per apartment) exposed to the exterior weather. That's why multifamily housing is greener than a tiny house (and also greener than a standard single-family home, for that matter).


4.
Mar 23, 2015 5:40 PM ET

Greener no doubt, but that stove!
by norm farwell

Other cultures have figured out how to live smaller (and greener) without sacrificing quality of life, so it's heartening to see this alternative. From a consumption standpoint, downsizing to a tiny house will likely mean a significantly smaller carbon footprint for occupants due to:
--Far less embodied energy in construction (9 tons of material in the trailer versus maybe 60 tons in a conventional house.)
--Smaller heat/cool load (going from 2000 to 200 square feet will more than offset the less favorable surface area to volume ratio and possibly lower insulation levels)
--The fact that space limitations will tend to encourage decreased material consumption over the life of the building. (The couple claims to have gotten rid of 90% of their junk).

But I'd rethink that stove. It looks like there's no hood. An unvented combustion appliance in 200 square feet? Yikes. I guess you cook with the door open.


5.
Mar 23, 2015 5:51 PM ET

Edited Mar 23, 2015 5:55 PM ET.

@ martinTheir heating usage
by Alan B

@ martin
Their heating usage is amazingly small, i am told people have used 1 BBQ propane cylinder a month in winter (i am skeptical but who knows). They also use a lot less construction material, and less opportunities for energy guzzling appliances because they won't fit. That said it is still about occupant behaviour, this just makes it harder to use as much, especially if all the juice you have is coming from an extension cord that will trip the fuse at 15A, and if you trip it at night you can't reset it till the morning or possibly till the home owner comes back after work.

@norm
I wonder about that too, if built tight the CO2 will build up quickly, i would want a very small HRV if i lived in one of these houses.

@Kevin
In a lot of ways its not, but these houses are designed for year round living, the are insulated and are a lot more attractive (which should not matter, but as we have seen with people latching onto passivhaus a shtick goes a long way).


6.
Mar 23, 2015 6:08 PM ET

Edited Mar 23, 2015 6:28 PM ET.

They are called mobile homes
by Peter L

This is not a site built home. It's pretty obvious that it is a mobile home/RV that would require it to be parked in a trailer park or some camp ground. In the picture is pretty apparent there is a trailer with wheels and tires underneath it.

I for one do not want to live in a place where casting calls are done by Maury Povich and Jerry Springer. Living in such tight quarters will even test the most proven of marriages. Women and men like their space and alone time, being jammed into 315 sqft of living space will not appeal to about 98% of the population. Add kids to that equation and it will be a recipe for disaster.

I'm sorry but this will not take off as a viable option for people. It might work for a niche audience but that is about it. So many issues like where do you get water from, building codes, sewer connections, electricity, property ordinances, land rights, etc.

What do you do when a severe thunderstorm hits?? RVs and mobile homes are the 1st to get tossed around in high winds. That structure is not anchored into a foundation. Unless it has footings and is buried into the earth, good luck surviving being in that type of structure during a small tornado EF0-EF2. Even a microburst will topple that head over heels.

As far as the "housing crisis" goes. Residential homes are not the plague and many people have made a lot of money on buying and selling residential homes and are millionaires today. It's not all fear, gloom and doom as is being portrayed in this article. Yes, there was the RE collapse back in 2008 but if you actually study what happened in detail, the real blame went to the banking industry and their loan process and the banking industry's greed.

My parents came from Europe, saved money and bought a home for $40k and then 15 years later sold it for $160k. That was a nice 400% ROI. Yes, I understand that is not always the norm and the average increase is about 5-10% per year but it is an investment nonetheless. I can buy a small mobile home for $33k. I am well aware of this as are thousands of people in the US living in trailer parks. Nothing new here.


7.
Mar 23, 2015 9:30 PM ET

Forgive me... this popped up
by Peter Rogers

Forgive me... this popped up on my Facebook feed recently, and I can't help but be reminded, so I thought I'd share: http://thelapine.ca/man-living-in-micro-home-sadly-not-getting-laid/


8.
Mar 24, 2015 1:02 AM ET

Peter L is right
by Malcolm Taylor

They are mobile homes, but tiny house builders resist admitting admitting that because then they would be subject to the same restrictions on where they could be located, the standards they would have to be built to, and the necessity for effluent storage tanks, electrical connections etc. - and like trailers they depreciate rather than gain value.

They also avoid them being seen as houses because they would then have to meet meet building code provisions - including important safety ones.

Unfortunately the numbers work against tiny homes. Too many of the fixed costs of building, that is the land, site development, and services are not proportionally smaller when you build one. The common way around this appears to be to avoid dealing with them, so they are often located on land not zoned for additional dwelling and not hooked up to water, sewer or electrical the way other houses are.

Given that it's hard to see how they represent a viable alternative to conventional houses.


9.
Mar 24, 2015 12:23 PM ET

Conratluations!
by But Why?

You are living in my dining room....and my dining room is too small.
"Why not build a totally functional, beautiful, and safe tiny house" Functional for what? A weekend of camping maybe but not for living. Beautiful??? Compared to what? It got it all going on compared to a pop-up camper, I'll give you that. Safe? Hardly. You can't consider a "home" safe if the authorities tell you in the event of a storm to NOT stay indoors. Hard to say a "home" is safe if your average high school football team could tip it over.


10.
Mar 24, 2015 2:15 PM ET

What's wrong with tiny houses?
by stephen sheehy

Nothing. It is a great solution for a subset of the population that wants attractive, inexpensive housing. The tiny house featured is lovely. Just because I want more space doesn't mean some people wouldn't prefer to own a house that's small, but cheap to build and heat. My architect designed, custom built home is less of a solution to the nation's housing needs than the half-dozen tiny homes that could be built for the same money.

Those of us of a certain age remember when people got a job in their community and kept it. Now, there's no loyalty between employers and employees. People move a lot. Being stuck with an expensive fixed asset like a house can limit career choices. Why not build a little house and bring it a long when you move?

There are lots of places without zoning codes or building codes, where these houses can go.

A house that is mobile isn't always the stereotypical mobile home that get blown over by a tornado, any more than the modular homes Phil Kaplan w rites about in today's blog are the same as the ugly double-wides I wouldn't be caught dead in.


11.
Mar 24, 2015 11:31 PM ET

Here's the Story of one Couple's Nightmare Battle
by Kevin Dickson, MSME

When you don't have a foundation or utility hookups, the authorities can harass you.

https://www.change.org/p/routt-county-planning-department-stop-the-routt...

The cool thing is they are making some positive progress, perhaps by introducing a new zoning category.

Totally not worth the effort, however, in most jurisdictions. Too many neighbors will unfortunately fight against you.

Sure, you can go further out, but transportation costs will eat up any savings achieved by living small.
http://gizmodo.com/the-horrible-reality-of-tiny-houses-revealed-by-portl...


12.
Mar 27, 2015 7:13 PM ET

Better yet
by James Morgan

This:

airstream.png


13.
Mar 29, 2015 10:06 AM ET

Another reason they make sense
by Jerry McIntire

The affordability, the time freedom with less maintenance and cleaning to do, and the much-reduced impact on the environment mentioned by the writer are all attractive to me. In addition, the money saved makes photovoltaic and other off-grid technologies more affordable which insulates you further into the future from rising heating fuel, electric, water, and sewer costs. For speculators, being without a mortgage doesn't appear sensible. For those who want a secure place to live and who would like to decouple from the the dislocations and bubbles caused by high-flying real estate prices, tiny houses are quite sensible.


14.
Mar 29, 2015 2:57 PM ET

Edited Mar 29, 2015 2:58 PM ET.

A bit of confusion
by Malcolm Taylor

I think we are talking about two different things. Smaller units, whether freestanding or as part of a larger building, may well make sense and have a lot of positive attributes. Putting them on wheels creates a completely different beast - which as many posters have pointed out, makes them indistinguishable from manufactured trailers or RVs.


15.
Mar 30, 2015 5:30 PM ET

What's in a name?
by Brian Godfrey

I think they seem more like very custom "mobile homes" rather than travel trailers. As one who has been looking into the possibility of moving into an RV for the early part of our retirement, I'll say that most travel trailers are setup for sleeping lots of people. You can find them with plenty of room for a comfortable couch and a small office area, but none have those. Instead they have bunks and uncomfortable settees that make up into uncomfortable beds that a single person or couple will never use.

Maybe the RV industry needs to get involved in the tiny house movement and offer a few of their trailers that are designed and laid out for long-term living. Some of the powered RVs are designed like that, but they are amazingly expensive.

As for where to put them, I can't see why they would be treated any different than a manufactured "mobile home" or "manufactured home". (The marketing name for these "trailer houses" has changed a few times throughout my life and I have no idea what they are called now.) I assume you'll have to license them and tie them down and so on.


16.
Mar 30, 2015 6:44 PM ET

Edited Mar 30, 2015 6:46 PM ET.

About confusion
by Brian Godfrey

I agree with Malcolm. Permanent structures and wheeled ones are apples and oranges. I think the biggest value to the wheeled ones is that they are a relatively inexpensive way for the tiny house world to try out features, layouts, equipment, techniques, etc. What is learned from them can then be applied to more permanent structures which will "wear well". It would be a real bummer to buy a tiny lot, build a permanent tiny house on it, then realize that some design decision made it practically unlivable. Like you made the space for the bed an inch too short or the gas range puts out so much extra heat that you can't stay indoors or there isn't any storage room for your Parcheesi board or who knows what else might go wrong until it's happened.


17.
Mar 30, 2015 6:56 PM ET

Tiny, small, etc.
by Brian Godfrey

BTW, the email newsletter with a link to this article also had a link to one about a "small" house. And they called 1200 SF "small". Sorry, but that ain't small. I grew up in a 960 SF house along with two parents, three other brothers, and a small dog. We had to re-arrange the living room to stretch the dining room table out for holiday dinners, but we could actually seat 12 around that table and six around the kitchen table.

Extremists tend to pull the norm one way or the other. I think another thing these tiny houses might do - if done well - is ratchet down everyone's expectations to the point where 1200 SF is no long considered "small". Personally, I think 350 SF will always be too small for me, but the last 1200 SF house I owned was spacious for two people and had raised a family with two kids before I bought it. I think 900 to 1200 SF is a realistic place to set our sights for the average person or couple to live in through their lives. (I bet most of the tiny house dwellers are very young.)


18.
Mar 30, 2015 9:25 PM ET

Laneway Houses
by Malcolm Taylor

The city of Vancouver has started allowing small houses at the rear of lots facing lanes. They offer a variety of choices for lot owner as rentals, suites for parents or grown children, or an alternative for the owners to live in while renting the main house.
http://www.lanefab.com
http://www.smallworks.ca


19.
Mar 30, 2015 9:55 PM ET

But where?
by Edward Shannon

"There are lots of places without zoning codes or building codes, where these houses can go"

As an architect, I am always intrigued with more efficient models for housing, but I would like to challenge the writer who wrote this.

Can they go in a typical (safe) suburban neighborhood? One that has good schools, parks, and convenient to shopping? Can they go in an urban neighborhood? one that has public transportation available? - a necessity for affordability?

Most urban (and suburban) neighborhoods have pretty sophisticated zoning in place. This prevents someone from building a factory next to a school or in your back yard. It prevents a next door neighbor from erecting a 50 foot tall billboard on their own front yard. It typically stipulates minimum dwelling and lot size, so your next door neighbor doesn't subdivide up his property into 16 small, narrow lots to accommodate a community of tiny Houses.

The tiny houses I have seen in the media are usually on sparse, remote lots - something that typically works against the affordability the author is striving for.

As an architect, I feel neighborhoods are very important - sometimes more so that the architecture itself. While I commend the efforts of those who want to downsize and minimalism, it is unlikely these will ever be built in most neighborhoods, unless the neighborhood allows for dwellings on accessory structures. Instead of going to the extremes of trying to build Tiny Houses, i feel the "Pocket Neighborhood" concept should be considered by those wishing to live more simply in less. Here is a link to one site promoting this innovative way of living in more dense context without resorting to multi-family solutions.

www.pocket-neighborhoods.net/designpatterns.html

pocket-neighborhood-single-cluster.png


21.
Mar 30, 2015 10:13 PM ET

Edited Mar 31, 2015 11:13 AM ET.

Trailer House
by Peter Bradley

This is just a very small trailer house with a different aesthetic. In other words, "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." Small houses have a legitimate place, provided they are small houses not glorified travel trailers. A "small house" should be built on a foundation suitable to the climate, have the necessary utilities, meet the appropriate building codes, and fit in with the neighborhood in which it is located. Please show us houses like this, small and otherwise.

Peter Bradley


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