Tiny Houses: Living Large in Small Spaces

By Colleen McTiernan

Photo courtesy of Tiny Home Builders

We Americans love our space. According to United States Census Bureau data from 2016, the median size of a new single-family house was 2,422 square feet. That is a 46 percent increase in size from just 30 years ago. So why, when our living space seems to be getting bigger and bigger, have we developed such a fascination with tiny houses? From HGTV’s “Tiny House Hunters” and “Tiny House, Big Living” to the wealth of tiny vacation houses popping up on Airbnb and other rental sites, these 100–400 square foot living spaces sure have made a big mark on the housing scene.

Why go tiny?

Although talk of tiny houses can be traced to the transcendentalists (remember reading “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau in high school?) and beyond, the current interest in tiny living seems to have begun in response to the housing crisis of 2008. With a lack of affordable housing, the low construction costs and reduced energy bills associated with tiny homes began to look more attractive.

Dan Louche, founder and owner of Tiny Home Builders, was drawn to tiny homes after his mother’s Tampa home was severely damaged by a hurricane. “I couldn’t afford to buy her a new home, so I was trying to figure out all my different options,” he said. That’s when he saw a story on PBS about a woman who had built herself a tiny home. “All of the sudden the light bulb went off and I thought, ‘Man, I could do that.’” It took him about four and a half months and $16,000 to build, but his mother’s house became one of the first tiny houses in Florida. Now our state has one of the highest concentrations of tiny home builders in the country.

Rose and John Garland, recent Florida transplants, became tiny house owners after deciding that an RV just wouldn’t be the right fit. “It was a hedge against the economy,” said John. “We had the mortgage on the house up on the mountain, and we said if all heck breaks loose, at least we got something.” The Rose Tree Tiny (the name of their home) cost the Garlands about $49,000 all together, and they were so happy with the end result, they decided to sell their big house and go tiny full time. Their energy bill jumped down to about $30 per month, and their debt went down significantly, which is what attracts so many people to tiny living.

Who tends to go tiny?

Louche said that the majority of tiny house owners tend to be older or young couples. In fact, childless couples under the age of 30 make up about 80 percent of his business. It is not necessarily as suitable for families due to the space constraints. However, for younger people who may need to move as new opportunities arise, Louche said that tiny houses on trailers provide the perfect alternative to conventional housing. “You can get a house for the price of a car [and] you can move it if you have to,” he said. “If you buy a house, you’re realistically looking at being locked in that house for five years just to cover the real estate expenses.”

Building a tiny house of your own

The size of your tiny home will depend on whether you are planning to build a mobile tiny or lay down a foundation to build upon. If you want a house on wheels, Louche said that the widest you can go is 8 ½ feet and the longest is 32 feet, which puts you under 300 square feet. If you are laying down a foundation, you have more flexibility with the size of your house, with most ranging from 400–600 square feet.

“The tiny house movement, up until the last two years, was primarily DIY,” he said. “That shifted lately with the TV shows and the popularity gaining, you have a lot more people that are buying made houses.” If you do want to build one yourself, Louche recommends reading as much as you can about tiny homes and attending workshops before starting on your own. You can find more information about tiny house plans at Tinyhomebuilders.com.

If 100 percent DIY seems intimidating, you can always go the route of the Garlands. They had a company build the trailer and the stick-built shell for them, but Rose’s designs and John’s woodwork are what give the Rose Tree Tiny its charming personality.

Your final option is to purchase a move-in ready tiny house. A completed tiny house from Tiny Home Builders with appliances included can cost anywhere from $37,000 to $66,000.

But what about my stuff?

While finances may be the No. 1 motivator for making the switch to a tiny home, Louche said that a desire for simplicity is a close second. “You don’t need a tiny house to live a simpler life, but a tiny house will force you to live a simpler life,” he said. People have a tendency to fill the space they are given, so downsizing from a conventional house to a tiny can certainly be difficult. After years of traveling with the military, Rose and John had collections of items that reminded them of their time abroad that they had to part with. “The hardest part of tiny living is letting go of your stuff,” said Rose. “But living in a tiny house is liberating. Your pocketbook understands, and it gets happy.”

The Homeowners

After traveling in the Rose Tree Tiny for three weeks, Rose and John Garland settled down in Branford, Florida. They continued to live in their tiny home for four months before they realized that they would need more space to accommodate all of their visitors.

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