Let’s talk about tiny houses. You may have spotted them while flipping through HGTV or scrolling Instagram. So just what is a tiny house? Literally speaking, it’s a housing unit with 400 square feet or less of living space. But it’s much more than that. It’s a means to significantly reduce financial costs, an approach to living more simply and for some, a way to enjoy the comforts of home without being rooted in one place.
Some tiny house dwellers reported struggling with living in a confined space through the lockdown stage of the COVID-19 pandemic — but then, who didn’t? Yet Technavio, a global technology research and advisory company, predicts the tiny house market will grow by $3.33 billion by 2025, with most of that growth happening in North America. Even multibillionaire Elon Musk has reportedly joined in on the tiny house action, moving into a $50,000, 400-square-foot unit in Texas, according to Architectural Digest.
Whatever your reasons are for being interested in tiny house living, we’ve put together this primer to answer your fundamental questions. You’ll get insight on hot topics like affordability, zoning, and insurance. You’ll also hear from tiny house expert Ryan Mitchell, whose blog, The Tiny Life, and whose multiple books offer advice backed by more than a decade of tiny house experience.
What is a tiny house?
The International Residential Code defines a tiny house as a dwelling with 400 square feet or less in floor area, excluding lofts. To put that in perspective, the median size of a completed single-family home was 2,261 square feet, according to 2020 U.S. Census data.
Whether it’s 100 square feet or 400, a tiny house contains all the fundamentals — a kitchen, bathroom and a living area — just on a smaller scale. Some tiny houses are built on a foundation, while others are on wheels so their owners can relocate with relative ease.
Here’s a big thing to know about tiny houses: they can’t be reduced to mere square footage. Choosing to live in a tiny house means opting for a certain way of living.
“A tiny home is anything that declutters your life and simplifies what you have to the point where you are no longer serving your stuff, and your stuff is no longer controlling you,” is how Brent Heavener, author of the coffee table book, Tiny House: Live Small, Dream Big, and creator of the Instagram feed @tinyhouse, put it in an interview with The New York Times.
A brief history of the tiny house movement
When bigger is so often considered better, how did tiny house living become a movement? Super Tiny Homes traces the history of the movement all the way back to the Stone Age, but let’s skip ahead to the late 1900s, when architects like Lester Walker and Sarah Susanka began writing about the virtues of smaller homes.
Interest in tiny houses (also known as micro homes) continued growing in the 2000s, when the small structures built by the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company drew more attention. The movement accelerated after the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, making downsizing an appealing option for people like Mitchell.
Deciding to go tiny
Mitchell, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, had just earned a master’s degree and was six months into a new human resources job when he was laid off, another casualty of the financial downturn. After seeing a photo of a tiny house, he decided to build one as a way of reducing his monthly living costs.
Constructing his solar-powered 150-square-foot home took him about 18 months of nights and weekends and cost $25,000. “It just makes your entire financial picture dramatically different,” says Mitchell, who has lived in his tiny house since 2012. He created a checklist to help others build their own tiny house.
Websites like his, plus reality TV shows like Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunters, have increased interest in the scaled-down life. “When I started, no one had even heard of tiny houses,” Mitchell says. “Now, it’s just largely in the collective consciousness of what the tiny house is.” The COVID-19 pandemic, like the financial crisis, has fueled additional interest, Mitchell says.
The advantages of going tiny
A smaller house is, by and large, cheaper. If you’re a prospective tiny house buyer, that may be welcome news as the median home sale price hit $363,300 in June 2021, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).
Compare that to $45,000, the cost of the average tiny house, according to HomeAdvisor. Your specific cost could run between $8,000 and $150,000, depending on factors like whether you’re building on a foundation or making the home mobile, as well as your chosen building materials and design.
Another cost savings: utility bills, since you only need to power a small space. And because many tiny houses are built to maximize energy use, your utility costs might be even lower than you expect. Or, if you take your tiny house off-grid, as Mitchell has, you can eliminate some bills altogether.
By moving from a rented apartment to a tiny house, Mitchell says he’s reduced his monthly housing costs from about $1,500 to $50 (for costs including internet, utilities, insurance and general maintenance). “Fifty dollars a month, and I have a place to live, which is just incredible,” he says.
Here’s another way tiny houses are uber-affordable: they limit how much you can buy. “It’s like living in a haiku,” said Susanka, the early proponent of smaller living. “You have to be aware of every single thing you bring into your house,” she told AARP. “Tiny living really teaches you to live more freely. Everything becomes a treasure.”
Love to shop online? You might need to find another hobby, because in a tiny house, there’s not as much room for stuff. It’s another reason your bank account will be sure to send your tiny house a thank you note.
Smaller carbon footprint
A smaller house means a smaller carbon footprint. According to the American Institute of Architects, a tiny house produces 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each year, far less than the 28,000 pounds produced by an average-size home.
In fact, according to Technavio’s market report, a key factor driving the popularity of tiny homes is the desire for environmentally efficient houses.
The disadvantages of going tiny
The minimalism forced by a tiny house can be a disadvantage, too. Your tiny house may not have room for a washer and dryer. Or anything larger than a mini fridge. If you’re not used to visiting a laundromat or going to the grocery store multiple times a week, you may be in for an adjustment.
Limited locations and zoning regulations
Finding a legal site for a tiny home can be stressful. According to the American Tiny House Association, “too few legal places to live is the biggest problem in going tiny.”
For example, if a tiny house is on wheels, it may be considered an RV. Many states do not allow full-time RV living anywhere except an RV park, according to Tiny House Society, which maintains an overview of state-by-state regulations. If it’s on a foundation, it might be considered an accessory dwelling unit, so it must be situated on property that contains another existing residence.
As you explore your options, it’s a good idea to check your federal, state, and local ordinances.
Building codes may present another challenge. Jurisdictions may require, for example, that ceilings be a certain height, or call for a window that is large enough to be used in an emergency. “A lot of progress has been made,” Mitchell says, citing the International Residential Code’s inclusion of language about tiny houses. “It is still a challenge.”
Mitchell, whose house is technically not sanctioned, says his advice to aspiring tiny house dwellers is to share building plans with the municipality to discuss what you have in mind, since they might be open to making exceptions.
It’s possible you might not need a mortgage to fund your tiny house. After all, the total cost of a tiny house can be equivalent to a down payment on a standard home. But if you do require financing, convincing a bank to underwrite a loan for a tiny house can be difficult, especially if your home is on wheels. In Mitchell’s experience, most people do not take out a mortgage to build or buy a tiny house.
But there are other options beside cash. Small, independent banks may be more open to lending tiny house money. Some tiny-house builders have lending programs you can consider. You can also look into options like personal loans, RV loans, crowdfunding and home equity loans.
What to consider before you go tiny
A smaller living space can mean less space to clean, but you might end up spending more time cleaning, as one tiny house blogger discovered. That’s because with limited space, a tiny house can look cluttered far more quickly than a larger home.
It’s also important to think about your belongings. If you have a passion for playing piano, a larger living space may be ideal — unless you can make the switch to a clarinet. Perhaps most important, who will be living in your limited space? It may be easier for an individual to live in a tiny house than it is for a couple, or a couple with children.
Severe weather conditions
If you live in a part of the country that experiences hurricanes, tornadoes, heavy rain, or earthquakes, it’s prudent to take some steps to prepare your living space. Tips from The Tiny House website include following existing guidelines for mobile homes, installing hurricane shutters, and anchoring your house.
If being able to entertain guests in your home is a priority, you might need to rethink your tiny home plans — or be prepared to slash the guest list. Not having a guest room is a challenge, Mitchell says, but he’s solved the problem by offering to pay for hotel rooms for his out-of-town guests, a cost he can easily afford with the money he saves each month on housing expenses.
Will you be purchasing insurance for your tiny home? If you’re acquiring a mortgage, your lender will likely require it. Some companies offer tiny home-specific insurance, which might be worth exploring. Insurance might get a bit more complicated if your home is mobile and qualifies as an RV.
But most tiny house owners forgo purchasing home insurance, since the financials don’t add up, Mitchell says. “If anything, I would say take what you would be paying in insurance and just put it into your bank account, because you’ll pretty soon eclipse what the cost of a house plus the deductible would be, so you kind of self-insure in a sense.”
Utilities and internet
Depending on your tiny home’s location and setup, hooking up utilities and setting up the internet might be no different than what you’d do in a standard house. If your house is mobile, or if you choose to set up camp in a place that’s “off grid,” things might get a bit more complicated.
Remember: others have figured it out, and so can you! Composting toilets, solar power, and rainwater collection are all options, according to Tiny Home Builders.
As for the internet, depending on your situation, you could get wireless access from a nearby location, use your phone to create a hotspot, invest in a longer range antenna, or buy it from a wireless satellite provider.
Try before you buy
Interested in a tiny house test drive? Spending a few nights in a tiny house can help you decide if you’re ready to shrink your living space. Airbnb says their platform has 6,000 tiny houses available in North America. Other sites, like Glamping Hub and Tiny Home Vacations, offer similar experiences.
Making a tiny move
Deciding to move into a tiny house requires being mindful about your desired lifestyle. “It’s just a tool, at the end of the day,” Mitchell says.
For Mitchell, the house is one step in a long-term plan. He’s already used the money he’s saved from living simply to buy a plot of land, and he plans to build a small (rather than tiny) home. “The tiny house is a stepping stone, and what it lets me do is figure out what’s important, what’s not, what do I really need?” he says.
If you decide a tiny house is right for you, you’ll join a small — but proud — minority. According to the NAR, less than 1% of all homebuyers purchased a house under 1,000 square feet.
Will you be one of them? If you’ve decided that you’d like to pursue the tiny house lifestyle, a top-rated HomeLight agent can help you navigate this big decision.
Header Image Source: (Andrea Davis / Unsplash)