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10 Big Questions About Tiny Houses

This tiny house looks at home in the fall. Tammy Strobel Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License
This tiny house looks at home in the fall. Tammy Strobel Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License

Houses in the U.S. get bigger all the time. The typical house was 2,690 square feet (250 square meters) in 2014 — the largest ever, according to U.S. Census Data. (The average home was 2,095 square feet or 195 square meters in 1995.) But along with that ballooning trend — or perhaps because of it — there's been a movement toward the polar opposite — the tiny house.

There isn't a textbook definition for a tiny house, but the website Tiny House Design notes that these pint-sized structures tend to have the following features:

  • They are usually 300 square feet (28 square meters) or less — other sources say the limit is 500 square feet (46 square meters)
  • They're built using conventional building methods but are around the size of an RV travel trailer.
  • They're usually built on a flatbed trailer so they are portable.

They're also often built by their owners. People attracted to tiny houses tend to build or purchase them because they're cheaper than standard houses, leave less of an environmental footprint and allow their owners to have more time and freedom to do other things besides home maintenance.

TV shows such as "Tiny House Hunters" and "Tiny House Nation" have popularized the trend. You also can buy tiny-house-building kits or get information about styles and house plans from the internet.

And tiny houses are not just for eco-conscious dwellers. In Madison, Wisconsin, tiny houses are being used in a social experiment to help the homeless. About six 98-square-foot (9-square-meter) home have been built on a site that once housed an auto body shop. The shop itself was remodeled to house bathrooms, showers and a store for residents of the "village." People from other states and several foreign countries have visited to see how the village is faring; the new residents and their neighbors, so far, are pleased [source: Erickson].

You might be intrigued about living in a tiny home. Before you take the plunge, here are some questions to ask.

10
How Much Do Tiny Houses Cost?
People visit a Tumbleweed Tiny House at the 2012 Maker Faire in San Mateo, California. Jon Callas Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License
People visit a Tumbleweed Tiny House at the 2012 Maker Faire in San Mateo, California. Jon Callas Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License

An enormous advantage of purchasing or building a tiny home is the modest cost. In 2015, the average size of a newly constructed single-family home in America was 2,802 square feet (260 square meters), according to a survey by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). And its sales price? A staggering $468,318, the highest amount since the NAHB began surveying home builders in 1995. (The building cost was $289,415) [source: Taylor]. And that's without calculating the interest you'd be paying on a 30-year mortgage.

The average cost to build your own tiny house, in comparison, is a mere $23,000, while a professionally built home runs about $30,000-$50,000. That's probably why 68 percent of tiny home owners are mortgage-free, while only 29 percent of traditional homeowners are [sources: The Tiny Life, Tiny House Design].

Many tiny home owners have built their own quarters for less than $10,000. One man built his tiny house for just $8,000, sourcing a lot of free and cheap building materials from Craigslist. And those 98-square-foot (9-square-meter) homes built in Madison for the homeless cost a mere $3,500 each [sources: Erickson]. Many Americans pay a lot more for their cars than tiny-home owners pay for their houses.

9
Can You Build A Tiny House Anywhere?
A roof goes up on a tiny house. Stone Soup Institute Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License
A roof goes up on a tiny house. Stone Soup Institute Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License

Nope. This is one of the biggest hurdles. Most municipalities have zoning codes, separating commercial spaces from residential areas, as well as specifying where a house can be set on a property, and minimum and maximum acceptable home sizes.

In the city of Atlanta, for instance, the city code says that no single family house can be built that is less than 750 square feet (70 square meters) [source: Blau]. A tiny house is considered to be in the recreational vehicle (RV) category and the city doesn't allow you to live in an RV for more than 30 days at a stretch. Sometimes you can petition for a variance to such requirements, but it may not be granted. Tiny house enthusiasts are trying to change the laws in several cities and states.

In the meantime, one option is to see if a mobile home park or campground will accept your home. This may be challenging; sometimes long-term parking of a structure at a mobile home park or campground requires the home to meet standards set by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association or Modular Home Builders Association, and your home might fall short [source: McIntire].

Another idea is to place your tiny home in the backyard of a family member or friend, as many zoning ordinances allow such "accessory dwelling units," also known as granny cottages, in-law units and backyard cottages.

The ideal scenario may be to find a parcel of land that's not subject to any zoning regulations. There are some out there, although they tend to be in more remote or rural areas.

8
Are Tiny Houses Sturdy and Safe?
This tiny house interior shows a ladder without rails going up to the sleeping loft. Some say this is hazardous. Tomas Quinones Used Under Creative Commons CC By -SA 2.0 License
This tiny house interior shows a ladder without rails going up to the sleeping loft. Some say this is hazardous. Tomas Quinones Used Under Creative Commons CC By -SA 2.0 License

A tiny house is typically built by the homeowner on a flatbed trailer, which is then parked on a piece of land. In this regard, it's similar to an RV or trailer, and more susceptible to Mother Nature's whims than a traditional home. But bad weather aside, the main point to keep in mind is that there's little regulation of tiny homes. They're not subject to the building codes of regular houses or even the regulations of RV construction [source: Alter].

Tiny house builder Rich Daniels pointed out some safety must-haves for a tiny house, even if they're not required by law. Since the beds are usually in a lofted area, there should be a sturdy railing alongside the home's stairs or ladder, and some kind of barrier in the loft so you don't roll out of bed and onto the main floor below. The window in the loft should also be large enough for escape, should the ladder or staircase be blocked.

Air quality and ventilation are also important issues. Tiny homes are often heated via a wall-mounted propane tank, and contain gas stoves. Since the homes are made of combustible materials, this creates a potential fire hazard. It might be safer if a tiny home is heated electrically — though it can be more complicated to set up. And do check that there's controlled ventilation so you always have enough oxygen inside [source: Alter].

7
Can Families Live in Tiny Houses?
Lulu (no last name given) stands outside one of the two tiny houses she shares with her daughter. This one is used as a bedroom and office. The other has the kitchen and living area. Nicolás Boullosa Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License
Lulu (no last name given) stands outside one of the two tiny houses she shares with her daughter. This one is used as a bedroom and office. The other has the kitchen and living area. Nicolás Boullosa Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License

Plenty of families are living in tiny homes and loving it. The tiny home community says a lot of it has to do with thinking creatively. Perhaps your family can build several tiny homes clustered together. One contains all the bedrooms, for example, a second the kitchen and a third the communal living area. Or one home could be for the kids, one for the adults and a third the communal space. You can also make your tiny house on the larger side — say 500 square feet (47-square-meters) [source: Mitchell].

The two biggest issues when it comes to families and tiny homes are the extra bedding space required and the larger cooking area needed. Again, creativity goes a long way. Rather than automatically adding bedrooms to your tiny home plans, perhaps you can purchase a living room couch and easy chair that convert into beds. Or the kids' bedroom can contain bunkbeds or a trundle bed. For cooking efficiency, make sure to incorporate a can rack or two in the kitchen if you use a lot of canned goods in your meals, or a freezer if you freeze a lot of items [source: Mitchell].

Families may also incorporate the great outdoors as part of their living space by setting up a dining/patio table and chairs in the grass next to their home.

6
Where Do You Put All Your Stuff?
This tiny house uses every inch of space available for storage. Tomas Quinones Used Under Creative Commons CC By -SA 2.0 License
This tiny house uses every inch of space available for storage. Tomas Quinones Used Under Creative Commons CC By -SA 2.0 License

Most people would have to get rid of some belongings before moving into a tiny house. But a tiny home can be outfitted with more storage space than you might think. You can create storage space under bench seats, couches or even flooring, accessed via a trap door. The same thing can also be done with space in your ceiling. The area beneath your cabinets that's covered by the toe-kick can also be transformed into place for stuff via sliding drawers [source: Piro]. Don't forget to use up walls, too. Hang pots, pans and mugs; any hanging baskets can double as shelves.

You can also use the space outside your house for storing. One tiny-home owner parked a cargo trailer near his home, using it for larger-item storage as well as overflow from his house [source: Mitchell]. Another built an outside deck, adding storage space underneath [source: Tiny House Basics]. A third used the steps leading to the front door and put a hinge on the treads so items could be stowed inside each step [source: Tiny House Talk]. Some people rent a regular storage unit to stash away out-season-clothes and rarely used items.

But beyond all that, you may want to use tiny house living as a chance to declutter and see how much you can do without. It can be a way to simplify your lifestyle, buying less and borrowing more.

5
What Are the Biggest Benefits of Living in a Tiny House?
A tiny house sits next to a pine tree. Tammy Strobel Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License
A tiny house sits next to a pine tree. Tammy Strobel Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License

One big plus is the corresponding tiny cost of home ownership. A 300-square-foot (28-square-meter) home clearly costs less to heat, cool and light than a sprawling, 3,400-square-foot (316-square-meter) McMansion. Even better is the possibility of living in a home sans mortgage. Many tiny homes cost the same, or less, than the typical down-payment on a larger pad. Yet small doesn't necessarily mean modest. Putting down granite countertops or hardwood floors in a tiny home is a very different proposition than putting them in a spacious mansion.

But it's not all about the bottom line. Many tiny-home enthusiasts are looking to leave a smaller footprint on the environment, which is easily achieved by living in a home that's smaller than many people's master bedroom. A small home also means less time spent cleaning and doing household repairs, so there's more time to laze around, travel, read, watch TV and visit family and friends.

Tiny-home dwellers often cite the increased intimacy achieved by living in a small space, too. No kids scattering to their respective bedrooms, never to be seen until mealtime. Interaction happens frequently and regularly. And if you have to move for a job — or just want to do some extended travel — you can take your house with you [sources: Levin, Miller].

4
What Are the Biggest Drawbacks of Living in a Tiny House?
As you can see, the kitchen space is very cramped in tiny houses. Tomas Quinones Used Under Creative Commons CC By -SA 2.0 License
As you can see, the kitchen space is very cramped in tiny houses. Tomas Quinones Used Under Creative Commons CC By -SA 2.0 License

Remember what we said about increased intimacy? That goes both ways. We all need some alone time, too. Finding it can be nearly impossible in pint-sized quarters. And if you have kids, will there be enough room for their friends to come over and play? Can you ever host sleepovers? One couple sold their tiny house, located in a rural area, because it was too isolated from the nearest town (when storage space is limited you're even more reliant on being near supplies). Plus the area lost its internet service [source: Willett].

Where to park your tiny home can be a huge hassle. Maybe the building and zoning ordinances in your favored city prohibit tiny homes. Often, municipal officials aren't even sure what the regulations are in this regard, as tiny homes are such a novel concept. There have been cases of people having to give up a tiny house as the city wouldn't allow them to keep it. Another factor is mobility. As you get older (or have a health challenge) it may be harder to climb the stairs to the loft where your bed is [source: LaVoie].

Perhaps the biggest negative to tiny-home living comes in the court of public opinion. Lots of people will think you're plain weird if you choose to live in a tiny house.

3
Why Not an RV, Instead? Or a Cabin?
A U-Haul van tows a tiny house to its next destination. Tiny houses don't tow as easily as RVs. Matt Harriger Used Under Creative Commons CC By -SA 2.0 License
A U-Haul van tows a tiny house to its next destination. Tiny houses don't tow as easily as RVs. Matt Harriger Used Under Creative Commons CC By -SA 2.0 License

It might seem easier — and cheaper — to move into a trailer or cabin instead of building a tiny home. Tiny-home buyers have their reasons why they prefer their dwellings.

Unlike an RV, a tiny home looks (and feels) much more like a traditional home. And that's important if you're going to be living in it full-time. In addition, many trailers aren't that well insulated. Although tiny houses are often found in more temperate climates, those using them in colder areas say it's relatively easy to create a well-insulated small home [source: Tiny House Talk].

Since many tiny-home enthusiasts are also passionate about the environment and healthy living, many say another benefit of a tiny house as opposed to an RV is that you can create a home out of the materials you'd like. No messing with materials that release potentially harmful particulates, like volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. RVs have the edge, though, if you like to move around — they're much lighter to tow. Plus they attract less attention than a tiny house [source: Tiny House Talk].

What about cabins? Some argue tiny homes and cabins are pretty much the same thing, assuming the "cabin" you're thinking of isn't really a giant structure. But if they're both the same size and the cabin is set on skids, not a foundation, there really isn't much difference. Similarly, some tiny-home fans assert the concept can also encompass houseboats, treehouses, converted buses and yurts [source: The Tiny House].

2
What's the Resale Market Like?
Visitors check out a tiny house interior at the Maker Faire. Jon Callas Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License
Visitors check out a tiny house interior at the Maker Faire. Jon Callas Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License

When it comes to teeny houses, the resale potential is not very good. One major reason for this is simple: Only a tiny slice of Americans are interested in living in a tiny home. If there isn't a huge supply of buyers, there won't be a lot of demand, and prices will stay flat. Resales are also affected because many banks don't consider tiny homes real homes, and so won't offer a mortgage for their purchase. While most tiny-home owners pay for their homes in cash, a fair number do need help with financing. Even when banks do consider tiny homes true homes, they may not be willing to go through the effort to draft a mortgage if your loan is small — say, $30,000 — because they wouldn't make enough of a profit by doing so [source: Rafter].

But the news isn't all dire. Tiny homes can be sold. As with selling any home, though, there's some strategy involved. Small-home buyers are looking to downsize, yes. But they still want a home that feels roomy, and incorporates space-saving features. So if your place is on the market, make sure to showcase your storage space. If you don't have that much, you can add to it with easy-to-install space savers such as hanging pot racks. It also helps to create an inviting outdoor living space, which actually helps the inside look larger, too. And since many tiny-home buyers are interested in energy efficiency, make sure your home has those features, or add some before putting it up for sale [source: Colley].

1
Are Tiny Homes Just a Fad?
This tiny house, called Fantasia, takes up just one space of a car park in England. Martin Cooper Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License
This tiny house, called Fantasia, takes up just one space of a car park in England. Martin Cooper Used Under Creative Commons CC By 2.0 License

It's anyone's guess as to whether the current boom in living small is here to stay. But here are a few reasons why teeny quarters might remain popular in America.

City planners are big into the concept of urban infill these days, which is how to cram more people into already-occupied spaces. Newly created micro apartments, or micro units — essentially studios — are being snapped up all over cities like New York and Washington, D.C. It's not a stretch to imagine incorporating tiny homes into unused spaces in urban areas, like those vacant patches of land that pop up in cityscapes — it's already happening in D.C. [source: Cater].

And small homes have special appeal to cash-starved young people starting out and retirees looking to stretch their savings. With both these groups growing in size, the tiny-house market might grow along with them. A bonus: Both kids and retirees could park their tiny homes in their parents' or kids' backyards, as it's legal to place a "backyard cottage" on your lot [source: McCrea].

Those who think tiny houses are just a passing fad will point to the fact that houses have been getting larger in general, as we said at the beginning of this article and that just 1 percent of all home buyers purchased homes 1,000 square feet (93 square meters) or less in 2014 [source: National Association of Realtors]. We'll just have to wait and see whether tiny houses stay around.

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Author's Note: 10 Big Questions About Tiny Houses

I cannot tell a lie. I live in what some would describe as a McMansion. I can't remember exactly how big our home is, but it's somewhere around 3,400 square feet. We built such a large home because we wanted each of our three children to have their own bedroom, for one thing. In our previous home, our two girls shared a room and it didn't go so well, since they have opposite personalities and living styles (early-to-bed, night owl; neat freak, slob; loud, quiet). Since I was working out of our home, I also needed workspace that wasn't a laptop on my bed. We also wanted a guest room for my aging parents, who regularly traveled a fair distance to visit.

But today our kids are grown and my parents live nearby. Our house has far more room than we need, and we're constantly giving items away in an effort to downsize. At some point, we will look for smaller quarters. During my research, I combed through photos of many extremely attractive tiny homes. It's tempting to think of the freedom I'd feel with few belongings to worry about. There's just one problem: I can't figure out where I'd put the piano.

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