Big Leap to a Tiny House Lifestyle
Why going ting may be a bigger pain than it’s worth for the money you save.
Every time I walk in the third bedroom of my house I’m struck by just how much useless crap I’ve acquired in 36 years. Our third bedroom is our junk room – that room in your house whose only purpose is to hold all of the stuff you don’t really need and rarely use, if ever. It’s that room that frustrates you to no end because it contains all of those projects you started but never finished, all those hobbies that didn’t quite come to fruition, and all the old memorabilia that you swear will be meaningful and important when you’re old and grey.
In other words, your junk room is filled with a bunch of mostly worthless junk that you’ll probably never get around to needing but that you can’t seem to bring yourself to toss. And while you’re busy not tossing that stuff, whatever big plans you had originally for that space are probably just as useless too. Our junk room was supposed to be turned into a combination dance studio for me and music room for my hubby. The chances of those plans actually happening are ridiculously slim to none.
So when I started researching tiny homes for the latest infographic we developed for Consolidated Credit, I’m not going to say that the idea of downsizing to a tiny home didn’t have distinct appeal. Simplify your life, finally get rid of all that crap and downsize your space so that you can’t accrue more, and reduce both your carbon footprint and financial obligations. All of that sounds great. Sign me up.
Second thoughts on going tiny
Of course, then sensibility kicks in and points out all of the challenges my household would face just trying to go tiny if we went in that direction.
- Could I really get rid of all my stuff?
- Where would I even start?
- Wouldn’t I eventually miss everything I just gave up?
And that’s just the larger metaphysical lifestyle questions, to say nothing of the practical challenges like financing and finding space that we’ll get to later. But even before getting to those practical issues, I find myself already having second thoughts.
My first big moment of pause in jumping on the tiny house bandwagon came when looking at interior pictures of the tiny kitchenettes in all of them. Tiny houses have little room for appliances. One or two burners and a small oven if you’re lucky. I’m a foodie fanatic and a rampant at-home chef. I like walking into my kitchen and just creating something out of whatever I have in my fridge and pantry. I have tons of spices, keep loads of meats and produce in our fridge and our pantry is usually packed.
But with a tiny house, I’d be limited in both space for ingredients and cooking devices. Simplifying my home would also simplify my meal plans, and I’m not sure I could take that indefinitely. And make no mistake, drastically switching your lifestyle and giving things up, you ARE going to miss things and you’ll have to find ways to compensate for those losses.
I know this from experience, because when I up and moved to Japan for a year I had to figure out clever ways to make up for the loss of my western lifestyle. I had western food delivered and friends sent me western media recordings. And with that I knew I’d eventually come back to the U.S. so the loss was only temporary. Moving to a tiny house means you plan to make the downsizing permanent, and that could be too hard to bear once you get into it. That may explain why many people are upsizing back to traditional house sizes after trying out tiny for a period of time.
The first and most important question you have to ask yourself and your household is can your lifestyle FIT into a tiny house? Are your hobbies conducive to tiny house living? Can you find ways to adjust around that lack of space?
Our current house is 1,613 sq. ft. – which by average house sizes in the U.S. is actually pretty reasonable (average home size in the U.S. is 2,100 sq. ft.). So that’s not just cutting a piece of tchotchke here and there. The average tiny house is 186 sq. ft. and at most, they’re usually less than 500 sq. ft. So I’d have to cut my possessions and my lifestyle by more than two thirds. Depending on how you live and like to spend your time, getting rid of that much crap might be down near impossible. It’s really depends on what you do.
So, for instance, if you’re a writer and all you need is a laptop and quiet space, then tiny house living should be fine. Passionate about yoga? That’s good – your yoga mat takes up tiny space in your tiny house and you can exercise outside in the fresh air. Play piano? Yeah, that’s probably not good for tiny unless you can find somewhere else to play. Is sewing your thing? Well, a tiny house might be a problem, because you’ll have limited space to store fabric, but you may be able to get around this by sticking to a single project at a time and if you can avoid hoarding fabric scraps.
Drilling down on the practical side of tiny house ownership
But even if you can give up your large-house lifestyle and downsize as much as you need to downsize to make tiny home living a viable option, that doesn’t mean it’s doable. Where you live, work and how your finances look TODAY can have a big impact on whether you could find a workable way to go tiny in your life.
And that’s true for one big reason: You can’t just buy a piece of land and put a tiny house down on it.
Most municipalities have minimum size requirement code restrictions on housing. Meaning your house has to be a certain size to avoid fines and problems with the city. If you put your tiny house on wheels you can park it in a backyard as long as there aren’t HOA restrictions, but that means there will be a traditional foundation house on the property too. So in my case, I could just knock my house down and put up a tiny house in its place.
The solutions to this challenge often put you way out of town. You either have to find a tiny house community or find an RV park or campground that allows for long-term stays. I live in Miramar, Florida and work in Plantation, both in Broward County.
- The closest tiny house community is in Orlando, Florida – that’s over 3 hours away.
- There are 2 RV parks that currently allow for tiny houses – one is in Okeechobee which is almost 2 hours north, while the other is in Homestead which is over 2 hours south.
So downsizing takes me from a 20 minute commute to work each way to a commute that’s over 2 hours each way IF the traffic gods smile upon me every day. If they don’t, I could be in the car over 5 hours every day making my commute. Ugh. No thanks.
What’s worse, when I was looking for those tiny-house allowable parking places, two locations nearby have changed their policy within the past year. Meaning you may park your tiny home somewhere and then the RV park changes their policy and you have to move.
Tiny houses only save big once you move in
And still, even if I could cut my possessions down to a third AND convince my boss to make me a mostly work-from-home employee to avoid an outrageous commute, I still wouldn’t be able to go tiny right now. I just don’t have the finances for it.
Tiny houses are great for your budget once you get moved in – if you have a mortgage at all, the payments will be low and you’ll pay off the debt faster than you would with a traditional mortgage. Utilities are also extremely low, and even your food budget might be less if you maintain gardens or keep animals on the property around your tiny home.
But the upfront costs can be problematic. Most mortgage lenders don’t finance tiny homes, due to minimum loan amount or minimum square footage restrictions. Finding a mortgage for less than $50,000 may be next to impossible. That means you have to find other ways to finance your tiny home.
The top ways of doing that are self-funding through savings, asking family members for loans or putting it on a high interest credit card. Homebuyers are basically right back to facing the same challenge that they had generating a down payment on a regular home or setting themselves up to lose money on high-interest credit card charges. Effectively, unless you have the savings for it most of the options for financing a tiny home are hardly favorable.
And you also have to consider the cost of the land. If you don’t get into tiny house village or RV park, then you still have to purchase the land where you tiny house sits. That can be expensive – particularly in urban areas. I called my Realtor® Andrew Dittoe of Acadia Real Estate to find out if there would even be any land available in Broward to serve a purpose like this.
“In my opinion there’s just not any significant advantage to going that small here in Broward,” Dittoe explains, “the reason being there’s not a whole lot of land for it and land here tends to be expensive. In fact, vacant land can cost up $250,000.”
I also had him check for properties available in Broward for less than 500 sq. ft. The only properties that fit that description were efficiency units, rather than free standing homes with a yard. I swore I’d never go back to apartment living, so that idea isn’t feasible for me, although if you’re in an urban area and don’t mind sharing walls with your neighbors, this could be a practical solution to downsizing without moving out to the boonies.
“I don’t think going that small is feasible for most people, but I do see people simplifying from the grandiose,” Dittoe adds. This sentiment may be supported by the fact that tiny house movement is at least in part a reaction to the McMansion craze of real estate just prior to the market collapse.
If that’s true, then the real takeaway from this trend may not really be about going ultra-tiny for most of us. Instead, it’s really just about reducing to a more basic simplified life and matching our housing to our practical, real-world needs instead of just getting however much house we can afford and envisioning “big plans” for spaces we don’t have allocated for a specific purpose.