So You Want To Go Tiny

There is much buzz around tiny houses lately which I think is great. However, what you see on TV doesn’t tell the full story. There is much more to living in a tiny house than simply building one. It’s not only a lifestyle change, but also requires much creative thinking about where to put it. If you’re interested in a tiny house and/or joining the lifestyle/movement, here are some things that I considered, or should have considered, before making the move.

Why do I want a tiny house?

Short Answer: I wanted a cheaper housing alternative that I could potentially move to another city if desired and that I could rent out to supplement my income while traveling.

Longer Answer...

After taking time off to travel and such, I had one thing on my mind when I got back home…ok two things…1) how do I replenish my bank account and 2) what can I change in my current lifestyle that will allow me to do this more frequently? The answer soon became clear: minimize living expenses. After living in San Francisco, my rent was half of my overall living expenses and there was no way to ever recoup that cost. As I’ve explored much of the U.S. I thought I had finally nailed down where I wanted to live, so I could stop renting and invest in real estate. My plan was to buy a 3 bedroom house in southern California, rent out two of the rooms (plus mine while traveling) to pay off the mortgage, let the house appreciate and reap the benefits. There was just one problem. Houses are freakin’ expensive! Especially in SoCal. You have the down payment, mortgage, interest, property taxes and maintenance costs. These add up and even if I was able to have renters, how long did I need them before I could go back to living on my own or start a family? Would these costs offset the cost of renting and actually guarantee a positive return on investment? Nothing is certain and I have seen friends “stuck” (in many ways) with their house/mortgage.

Coming across tiny house living sparked an idea. After reading Walden and being relatively minimalistic by nature, this seemed to me like a natural move. A tiny house offered an inexpensive way to own so I could avoid being in debt for many years, lead a more minimalist lifestyle, have the ability to move my house permanently or temporarily, and presented a unique opportunity to contribute to the house itself. I spent a lot of time really thinking about this.

Ponder: Decide early your motives and how strong your convictions, otherwise a tiny house might not meet your needs.

What do I need to change to live in a tiny house?

Short Answer: Luckily for me not much, but I did have to think carefully about what was my minimum comfort level and to get rid of things I was no longer using despite any attachments to them.

Longer Answer...

While living for a couple months in California before the long portion of my trip around the world, I decided to conduct an experiment. I lived in a small 1 bedroom guest house in someone’s backyard with a very small kitchen, living room, and teeny bathroom. I slept on an air mattress, had two end tables with a guitar stool, cooked almost every meal, and had my laptop and guitar. I didn’t mind it, even had family visit (not sure they enjoyed the experiment as much). Of course, I wouldn’t live like this forever, but I discovered that I could live more simply than I thought and still be happy and comfortable.

When I moved into my tiny house, I got rid of a bunch of stuff I wasn’t using, clothes I wasn’t wearing and purchased only those things that could fit in the house and I would use frequently. Everything had to be a combination of function, multi-use, modularity, and style. The loft was a bit of an adjustment, but I’ve gotten used to it. Opting for a composting toilet as a personal experiment to be more eco-friendly and eventually start a garden, is something I’ve had to get used to but is no bother and it doesn’t smell up the house.

I’m not much of a host, but if you like to entertain, a tiny house is certainly doable, but you’ll have to make some comprises and really think about the design. Other than that, moving into a tiny house was a pretty smooth transition for me. Some of this I contribute to very careful planning and consideration of my stature and the space available to move around and store things. I never thought about anything as a compromise but a new way to try out something, an experiment basically, and one that could be changed if necessary.

Ponder: Decide what you need to live, then decide what you need to be comfortable and lastly decide what you can give up. Think of it not as compromising, but as experimenting to improve.

Where will I put it?

Short Answer: Ideally my own plot of land, but ended up in a mobile home park.

Longer Answer...

Initially I thought I could just buy a piece of property and put the house on it. Worst case I’ll park it in an RV park. This is an oversimplification and it’s a bit more complicated. Property is more expensive than I thought, especially to live somewhere that has a lot going on (in my case Austin). There are also zoning laws, so you can’t just buy a lot in a housing development or even generally in a residential zone unless the county zoning requirements allow it. Tiny houses being so new, most counties in the U.S. do not allow such small residences, so some people will put theirs in a friend’s backyard. Some will buy a normal house, rent it out exclusively and live in the backyard in the tiny house. Obviously getting a plot of land you own is the best option, but usually it means you’ll be living out in the countryside. On the RV park front, most require insurance and/or RVIA or ANSI certification to ensure your house doesn’t take down the electrical system or catch on fire and putting others at risk. This is important to consider when choosing a builder, or even if you are building, if you want this option. I live in a mobile home park that is a mix of tiny houses, RVs, and manufactured homes. We are also starting to see tiny house villages/communities popping up, but only in a few select cities across the U.S. I got very lucky with timing, but it can be a long, arduous process figuring out where to put your house. Make sure to have a backup plan BEFORE you start building!

Ponder: In what setting would you be happiest (i.e. urban, country, community) and investigate those options through exploration, your builder, or a realtor. Your city/county’s zoning rules and where you park your home will determine any regulations the house must meet in order to park there.

Am I going to build it myself or find a builder?

Short Answer: Initially I was going to build it (with some help of course), but unfortunately I realized I didn’t have the skills, tools, time or money. So I found a fantastic local builder (TexZen).

Longer Answer...

I had every intention of building the house myself and looking for some locals to lend a hand when needed. I started to research designs and companies and created my own tiny house design. I quickly realized a few things when I thought about actually building the house though.

  1. Skills. I don’t have any building skills and didn’t feel super comfortable sleeping in a structure I built nor towing it down a highway. While definitely up for learning, the time it would take to do so would be a huge time commitment.
  2. Tools. I don’t have any tools and would have to rent or buy.
  3. Lodging. I didn’t have anywhere to live in the meantime so I needed money to stay somewhere.
  4. Money & Time. I needed money to at least pay for the materials, which meant I needed to get a job which meant I wouldn’t be able have a lot of free time to actually build the house which then comes back to money. Simply being able to afford a place to stay while the house was being built which furthermore meant spending more money on rent and thus defeating the purpose of my attempt to live more cheaply. You may have friends that will let you crash for a short time, but likely not a couple months.
  5. Expertise. Aside from general house building, tiny houses are quite specialized and require additional considerations since they are small and mobile. I didn’t have this experience or knowledge first hand.

It made much more sense for me to hire a builder, at least for the shell, to help actualize my design. I would be able to get tips from people who have done it before and most importantly to learn. I still contributed from a design perspective along with decisions made and had time to work a regular job so I could make it all work financially.

Ponder: Determine if you have the resources (time, money, expertise, drive, patience) to do it yourself. It may actually cost you more in terms of money, time and sanity to build yourself and it will guaranteed take longer than you think.

How much will it cost?

Short Answer: It depends.

Longer Answer...

Tiny houses cost anywhere from $10K to upwards of $200K. They are so dependent on what you want, materials used and how it’s built that it’s not helpful to provide specific numbers. I started by researching a few companies to get a baseline for comparison then calculated actual appliances/materials costs. The delta was a decent estimate for labor. On average, materials typically seem to cost between $20-$40K. If you expect to have the house built professionally, double that number to account for labor. Depending on the customization, expertise required, etc. it may be closer to 3x if you want to be more conservative and hire better contractors. You will see a lot of DIY (do-it-yourself) tiny houses that boast a price tag of only $20K, for example, but this is often reclaimed materials (including things like trailers, windows, roofs) and entirely built themselves. So the cost essentially reflects only materials and no labor. I’m certainly not bashing this, as I think it’s a fantastic use of money and certainly the cheapest way to do it. However, the average person will likely need to work with a builder (at least at some point during the project) who will have their own ideas for materials and labor, which by the way is also highly dependent on where you live. Or you may end up buying a “turn key” house that’s completely finished and delivered to you with little to no customization at all. I think half the fun of living in a tiny house is knowing that it’s unique to you and there is no other one exactly like it. Part of your soul and creativity lives in the house with you.

Put money into structure (framing, roof, windows, door, insulation, trailer). Don’t just go to a used trailer company or the junkyard for materials that are expected to support your entire house! Other things can be upgraded, but once the house is stood up and covered externally and internally, it’s a huge undertaking, not to mention expensive, to change anything. Be very decisive on where you want anything that connects to electricity (including outlets), water and sewer. Once the interior walls are done, it will be very costly to change!

Ponder: Structural elements (framing, roof, windows, insulation, trailer) cannot be easily upgraded, so spend money on quality there. Decide what’s most important to spend a bit extra, where you can cut costs, and what can you do yourself. Since the space is small, you can go with higher quality materials since you don’t need as much of it.

Who is going to live in it?

Short Answer: Me and maybe eventually a partner.

Longer Answer...

My tiny house is designed and built for me with the potential for a partner. If I were to have kids, a new tiny house would need to be constructed. This is very important and dictated the design of my tiny house, including size, spacing and amenities (e.g. compositing toilet may be an adjustment or no go for the ladies). I designed for my life at the time with consideration for the future, but not an “in case of” mentality. If my lifestyle changes, so will the house I live in.

Ponder: A bachelor pad will differ from a couples house which will differ from a family home.

Is this temporary or long-term?

Short Answer: Both.

Longer Answer...

I plan to live in this house until I need to upgrade, downsize or move into a more permanently designed house. I have in mind a more house not on wheels, but when and where is yet to be determined.

Ponder: What need does the house satisfy (e.g. temporary for work, long term for raising a family, bachelor pad forever). We grow over time. The house can grow with you or you can outgrow it.

Do I want it to be stationary or mobile (on wheels)?

Short Answer: Mobile.

Longer Answer...

There are a few advantages to having a tiny house on wheels (THOW). Most obvious is the ability to travel with your house (if it’s small). No foundation means relief on property taxes in some states as it is typically classified as an RV. Since I’m not 100% decided on my permanent residence I opted for a THOW, but when I find a plot of land in a place I want to stay awhile, I will opt for a tiny house built on a foundation. Nothing says you have to have a tiny house on wheels, it just seems to be the most popular and most flexible right now. One con of a THOW is that you are limited by the height (13.5′) and width (8.5′) which can restrict the design. Most people then extend the length to make up for this limitation. Of course, it may be indispensable to have the ability to move the house (i.e. bad neighbors, job change, change of scenery, zoning changes, etc.).

Ponder: Don’t get a THOW just because that’s the most popular solution, decide if you really plan on moving the house. Building a tiny house on a foundation vs. on wheels expands your design options significantly. If you’re not sure, a THOW is a safer choice, especially considering where you plan to park it.

How often do I expect to move it?

Short Answer: Rarely.

Longer Answer...

This is important because it determines your sizing requirements. Anything too long or too high will be a pain to tow, especially if you’re the one towing it. You see a lot of vans, converted school buses, or short “single story” tiny houses that make it much easier to travel with over one designed primarily to be stationary with the option to move.

Ponder: Each time you move, you need to pack everything up so nothing moves/breaks, re-level/setup the house, unpack. This needs to be done if you are moving the house 1 mile or 1000 miles.

What is the minimum I need to have built before move-in?

Short Answer: Shell (roof, windows, door, insulation), sleeping area (loft), bathroom (shower, sink, toilet), closets (empty), kitchen (fridge, sink, cooktop, cabinetry), lighting, A/C+Heater, electrical, plumbing, flooring.

Longer Answer...

I’ve lived in enough apartments to know my general routines and needs. I had no idea what living in a tiny house would be like and what I might want to change, so I had the minimum possible built to be comfortable and those things I was firmly decided on before I moved in. This included things like the shell structure, roof, insulation, windows, electrical, plumbing, appliances, kitchen, bathroom, loft, stairs, flooring. I left the entire middle living space open to conjure up whatever ideas I had to keep it open and modular as I got used to the space. I have been able to gain space and put in some things like a folding table of my own design, bench seating that can be converted into a couch/bed. If you’re certain of what you want or you don’t care, make a list of what’s most important and then let the house evolve over time. Tastes change, your situation will change and you’ll think of things you hadn’t initially.

Ponder: Not everything needs to be finished for you to move in. Take some time to experience the new house and it will spark ideas and changes. You can also spread out your money/financing this way.

What skills/attributes do I have to contribute to the process?

Short Answer: Design, 3D modeling, product research, engineering, hard work, enthusiasm, willingness and interest to learn.

Longer Answer...

I am not an architect but I understand engineering, design, spatial relations and 3D modeling. So for me, I was able to create the design and much of the specs required to actually get the house built. If I didn’t, I would have asked the builder to do this. If I had carpentry skills and tools, I may have opted to build the house myself (or at least finish out the interior) and may do so for my next tiny house.

Ponder: Be honest with yourself on what you’re good at, where you’re lacking, and what you’re interested in figuring out. Partner with someone to fill the gaps.

What time can I commit?

Short Answer: Nights & weekends.

Longer Answer...

Because I needed to work a 9-5 job, I had only nights and weekends to contribute. This was basically spent on design, adjustments and research.

Ponder: How much time can you realistically contribute, what other things do you have going on, where are you staying in the interim, how are you funding your project?

Do I want to be on or off-grid?

Short Answer: Initially on, but I want the option to be off.

Longer Answer...

I knew initially I would be plugging into the grid for sure, but I ultimately want my house (and lifestyle) to be completely sustainable, so off-grid is a planned future project and I designed the house to be extensible towards this goal. For example, I have a composting toilet, use propane for the water heater, and my electric appliances can be handled by a generator or solar power. The roof is pitched so solar panels would fit. The septic only drains water, so it’s easier to get rid of the water waste.

Ponder: Off-grid offers more options for both permanent and temporary tiny house placement, flexibility to travel and cost savings, but you will need to be more conscientious regarding resource usage (water, gas, electricity).

Gas, electric or hybrid?

Short Answer: Hybrid.

Longer Answer...

I initially wanted all electric, but the water heater had to be propane. I wanted a tankless water heater for unlimited, immediate hot water in addition to space savings but no company that offered an electric one would recommend or cover it in a mobile home. The only thing I could see being useful on propane otherwise was the range, but after using induction abroad there was no question for me about getting an induction cooktop. You need electricity for many things in your house (e.g. lights, fridge, A/C, etc.) so if you have to pick, why not just go all or mostly electric, especially if you’re on-grid. For off-grid, you have solar options. Propane would help off-grid to supplement resource usage if you wanted to spread it out among your appliances. In my research appliances other than ranges and water heaters were either not good or unreliable. Cooking is a personal preference, but after having induction I wouldn’t use anything else. Also, it will initially cost extra to support propane because you need to install the gas lines and run through the house and to the source. I only have a single propane line right next to the water heater that uses it, so it was very easy to install.

Ponder: Consider any off-grid capabilities you need, gas supported appliances available, what you like to cook on.

Electrical: 30A or 50A; 110/120V or 220/240V?

Short Answer: 50A, 110V. Note: This is not a standard configuration for a mobile home.

Longer Answer...

First off, I am not an electrician. I did some research and tried to remember back to the high school and college physics. A standard electrical configuration in most RV/trailer parks is 30A/110V or 50A/220V. The latter supports bigger RVs with higher power requirements. This might allow someone to run multiple A/C units, a microwave, water heater, and TV all simultaneously. Amperage matters for how many things you want running simultaneously, so I calculated the amperage of each of my appliances and then calculated what was required to operate several combinations of them simultaneously (e.g. A/C on while taking a shower and washing/drying clothes). I decided I could probably live with 30A, but 50A would allow some buffer. Then I researched which voltage my appliances came in and the vast majority of what I wanted were 110V. So naturally my configuration became 50A/110V. However, the electrical post at my spot is wired for 30A/110V and 50A/220V (standard for RV parks). So I actually use an adapter to convert my 50A plug to a 30A plug which actually means I’m only actually running up to 30A. The key thing with the power source is the voltage which is what runs through the house. Hooking up to 220V would fry all my appliances!

I would probably not recommend my configuration, especially if you’re looking to move into an RV park or a place that has standard configurations. However, you can potentially add a new electrical connection that is 50A/110V which I may do eventually, but to my surprise I have not had any issues operating on 30A and that includes running my A/C unit, cooking, and doing laundry all simultaneously. **This stuff is super complicated and dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, so be sure to work with an electrician!

Ponder: Calculate your power requirements, specifically the amperage required to operate individual appliances as well as those that may be used simultaneously. Research appliances available and what voltage they support. It’s much better to be one consistent voltage throughout the house. Consult an electrician!

Do I ever want to rent it?

Short Answer: Yes.

Longer Answer...

Renting will help support travel primarily but I also think it will be a cool way to give back to people looking to stay in a unique dwelling, not to mention it’s cheaper than a hotel. It’s also a great opportunity for those considering a tiny house themselves to test it out. This means you should think about how will you lock up your stuff when away, is there anything valuable/breakable you could risk getting damaged, proper insurance, smart locks, wifi, etc. I don’t know if/when I will actually rent my house, but I will have minimal adjustments to make if/when the time comes.

Ponder: Think about guest conveniences, protecting your valuables, and safeguarding any expensive/breakable items.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me and if you’re looking for some design help, I’m available for hire!

Leave a Reply