The Problem with Tiny Houses. ~ Jeb Tilly

Via Jeb Tilly
on Feb 26, 2014
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A guy in Durango has a tiny house for sale. He’s asking $27,350.

The house as he describes it offers about 120 square feet of space, not including its loft. It has all kinds of neat-o features, like a beetle-kill dining table; light fixtures made from old salsa jars; vinyl windows; some funky stairs and an aromatic cedar counter-top.

The house sits on a two-axle trailer (many tiny houses are built on wheels to bypass housing codes and residential covenants such as minimum house size, conforming to egress, etc.) It’s wired to be “grid-tied”—meaning it needs to be hooked up to a city’s electric, water and waste systems—and comes with no couch, heat source or toilet. The buyer has the option of choosing those.

It’s a sweet looking house. Very modern. Corrugated tin and wood exterior. Its real allure is its promises of simplicity, financial freedom and environmental friendliness.

“The Tiny House movement is grounded on the basis of simplifying one’s life, owning a simple yet comfortable shelter outright, not having a mortgage, having the flexibility to move the house around, and I would add, being more in touch with one’s surroundings,” Durango Guy says. “If you are familiar with the Tiny House movement, you shouldn’t have any doubt that Tiny Houses are one of the most ‘green’ ways of living that currently exist.”

It’s easy to feel kinship with Tiny Houses.

Ronald Reagan laid the foundation for the Tiny House movement nearly 30 years ago. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 encouraged home ownership and mortgage debt in place of consumer debt through incentives like the mortgage interest tax deduction, and the ability to borrow against home equity.

Houses became banks, and Americans started building them bigger than ever before. The availability of riskier and riskier loans made it easy for anyone to own a house, stimulating demand. By 2000 houses were an obsession. Home prices were rising at 10% annually*—so was square footage—from less than 1500 in 1929 to nearly 2500 in 2010**. Square footage per person more than tripled—from 290 in 1950 to 927 in 2010—as families shrank in size and houses grew***.

At the same time, household income for middle class Americans flattened. Between 1967 and 2000 it rose less than half-a-percent annually*, and between 2000 and 2012 in declined about nine percent.**

The net effect was that the nation became house rich and cash poor.

When the economy exploded in 2008, overstuffed McMansions and their mule-like owners, saddled with stuff and debt, became symbols of the crumbling American Dream. Cue the clamor to reduce.

But do Tiny Houses like Durango Guy’s really deliver on their promise? His is built from mostly new parts, at a cost of $227 per square foot.

To be functional, it requires a grid of new infrastructure: a cheap lot somewhere for an additional $100,000; a well and septic system for $50,000; a minimal solar set-up or plugging into the city’s electric grid for several thousand. Plus it needs a truck to haul it—another $10,000. Of course, he could dock at an RV park and use their “grid,” but that would make the house nothing more than a $37,000 RV.

It’s also worth asking whether 120 square feet of space is livable in the long term.

Analyses of square footage per house, divided by country, indicate that people can be comfortable with much less than the current US average of 2300***, but even Hong Kong, the smallest at 484 square feet* per home, is four or five times the size of the Tiny Houses that attract so much attention today.

It seems people the world over find it uncomfortable to live permanently in a truly tiny house, especially if they expect their lives to include spouses, children or even pets.

There’s a big difference between a “not so big house” (to borrow Sarah Susanka’s phrase) that meets residential code and is designed for sustainable long-term living, and a 120 square foot trailer. To me this makes Tiny Houses like Durango Guy’s luxuries. They’re more likely to be second homes or studios than primary residences.

Discussions of quality, price, or the “right” number of square feet seem to miss the bigger, and in my opinion, more important point: isn’t it cheaper, simpler and greener to buy something used?

I have an RV.

I bought it in April of 2013, because the work I do often requires me to be in California. My RV is a Toyota Dolphin, built the same year that Reagan passed his tax reforms, on the frame of a two-wheel drive Toyota pickup truck. It’s about 180 square feet, not including the loft, which holds the full-sized bed.

It’s quite simple: my RV holds a couch that folds out into a guest bed; a two-person dining table; a little kitchen with a sink; a four-burner stove, and a propane-electric fridge. It has a shower, a toilet and a bathroom sink. Two 100-watt solar panels provide all interior electric power, including outlets for computers and iPhones and water pump.

Gray and black water tanks capture all my waste water, which means I don’t need to be grid-tied (although I could be if I chose).

I can park anywhere and be totally functional. Oh, and my RV came with a little four-cylinder motor, so I don’t need a truck to haul it anywhere. Motor, solar panels and all, it cost $4700, giving it a cost per square foot of $26.

$227 per square foot versus $26 per square foot. If financial freedom is the goal, the choice is clear.

With the exception of the solar panels, which I installed, my RV is 100% reclaimed. Its parts are all original.

This is important to me because it means I didn’t consume anything new to create the living space, and actually saved something from the landfill.

The same can’t be said for many Tiny Houses.

Drive anywhere in the west and you’ll see the carcasses of old RVs and trailers dotting the landscape. Browse any real estate website and you’ll find old houses no one wants. Some are in working shape or could be made to work with a pretty small investment and a bunch of used parts from a resource yard. Of course those things don’t have the media appeal or cool factor of a tiny house.

There’s a quote I love from a book called A Pattern Language:

“When you build a thing, you cannot build it in isolation. You must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole.”

If you believe, as I do, that the world faces a crisis of consumption, the real work is in repairing and reusing what’s been broken or thrown away. That seems to me a simpler, greener, and ultimately cheaper choice than buying something new—even if it’s small.


*, **, *** Erin Cammel
United States Census, Bureau of Labour Statistics
** Advisor Perspectives
*** Apartment Therapy
* Shrink That Foot Print

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Editorial Assistant: Bronwyn Petry/Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photos: courtesy of the author


About Jeb Tilly

Jeb Tilly lives in a very well-used house west of Boulder, Colorado, and writes online at Damnation Ranch.


18 Responses to “The Problem with Tiny Houses. ~ Jeb Tilly”

  1. kimberlylowriter says:

    Thank you for this. Very well-written. Everyone is in love with tiny houses, but they do have their drawbacks like you point out.

  2. LynnBonelli says:

    We've been exploring the "tiny house movement" but have been leaning more toward a reclaimed "tiny house"..perhaps built out of pallets, an old shipping container or other reclaimed building material. That's IF we can't find something suitable (already built) in the area we choose to live (eventually). But we really, really want the smaller footprint (and square footage) of a tiny house…and we prefer it to be somewhat off the grid. We currently live in a 32 foot Class A RV (bought used and redecorated/renovated with almost all reclaimed materials) and have learned to enjoy our 232 square feet of living space (as well as the amount of time it takes to clean now…about 20 minutes for the entire interior). It's been a fun 2 years of learning to live with less, fight the consumerist urges and break out of old habits. But we've built new habits and hope that whenever it is we decide to get off the road (we travel fulltime..and yes, there is a lot of gas involved…one major downside) we can continue to live in a small space. Great perspective and information in the article. Reclaimed all the way!!

  3. karen katz says:

    I downsized after a divorce from a 3000 sq ft house to a 1600 sq ft condo-and I love it!….my two college age sons still live with me, but after they are up and out, hopefully in 3-5 years, I can see downsizing even more-I gave away a lot of stuff, and I could easily see living in something 40-60% smaller. I am also getting close to my sixties, and not being so tied down to things is wonderful. It's funny when I talk to people my age or even 20-30 years older-their sense of self is kind of tied in partially to what they have or own….I try to tell them that they will feel freer and more alive with less stuff to take care of, but many don't believe me.

  4. Sandy says:

    I agree totally…I have never thought that the really tiny homes are a viable solution for any real long term living. I do think that small homes are much more functional in the 300-500 range. Parking one of these in the backyard of someones house just doesn't embody that free and easy living. Now give me some wide open spaces, a mountain or valley and a small ONE story house and now you're talking!

  5. Kacie says:

    Totally valid points, but really…who cares? So they built a more expensive tiny house- let them. Plenty of others build them from nearly 100% reclaimed goods. Are tiny houses "actually" possible for long-term living…who is anyone to say? For some folks (from individuals to singles) they may be life long homes, for other- totally short term or a "means-to-an-end" situation. People seem to constantly be commenting on tiny homes saying they aren't realistic for long term living situations, but who says? I personally love RV's, but wouldn't live in one full-time back home in the Midwest. If I wanted a super small space (which I do) I'd total go for a tiny house. You can't compare an RV to a tiny house, and they aren't meant to be. And the $100k + $50k for land & septic….? Clearly that depends on where you live- it would be 1/4 of that (if I wanted it- I'll be going compost toilet and water tank route) here in the Southwest. There are lots of angles to all living situations, but it's getting pretty obnoxious to constantly read articles that only pin one small corner of them, tacked down with a lot of assumptions.

  6. M Boyle says:

    Great article, well written and fun to read. But……what this article does not address is the notion that one can build their own Tiny House and you cannot (technically) build an RV. You're right, the cost to buy a Tiny House can be prohibitive but that's why I'm building my own. I can build my own 24 foot model, with all the comforts of a full size house, for around $15,000. With regards to the "where to park it" question, most of them are in un-used spaces and/or backyards. You don't necessarily have to own land to own a Tiny House and that's the beauty of it for those of us that aren't quite ready to settle down. Don't have a truck to pull it? Rent one, for a day or so, to get it where it needs to go. (you don't move them THAT often because they're so heavy!) Also, those of us who love to get our hands dirty, designing and building a Tiny House is a BLAST and there is a large community of supportive people with awesome ideas on how to do everything from building stairs, to sewing curtains. For the record, I "rescued" a 1963 canned ham RV trailer in 2011, gutted it, and now use it for Glamping. My Tiny House parked next to my vintage TV on a lakeside lot owned by my significant other will be the best of ALL worlds. What's not to LOVE about that!?

  7. frank says:

    I guess tiny houses are not for the typ of person who can not change a tire on there own car. being resourceful is part of living small. you can not approach living small with the mind set of your former consumer like living style. that includes purchasing everything at retail prices instead of finding it either used or in the trash or how ever cheaply you can get them. as far as a truck for $10,000 ? what about a U-Haul truck for a day or 2 ? and a piece of land for $100,000? we all know there's cheaper land out there. you may just have to keep your intentions to your self untill you figure out how to skirt certain local zoning laws. some states they are real pricks and in other states/county's they are more liberal .were there is a will there is a way.

  8. Sonia says:

    Brilliant insights! And great real-world math check. For me no bath and grid tied would be two turnoffs – and immediately lower value of it. I’ve seen too many solar powered, grid free or grid/no grid designs with needed amenities (like a bathroom) to buy something like that.

    For me the big missing piece though it community. I love independence, and frugality that a properly sourced tiny home can offer but unless you seek or live a nomads life I think many folks would feel unrooted and wanting more connectivity with neighbors and such.

  9. Polly says:

    I enjoyed reading this. I too always felt those claims of the new build tiny house people regarding sustainability etc were silly. They are costly and if shipped they are even less appealing from a green point of view. I'm glad to see people try to think smaller. We need to start somewhere and this was as good and entertaining a place as any. Now we can pick up the ball and run toward greener options but with this lesson of smaller vs gold 'ol American gluttony!

  10. Joanne says:

    The one point missed by the author is the lack of proper insulation on modern RVs as well as the "cheapness" they're built with that is not suitable for long term living. We downsized to an RV, bought it outright and live on our Inlaws massive property (kids included). Door knobs, sink handles, window openers, they've all popped off and require frequent repair. We don't live in a cold part of the states however we get a dusting of snow and it's hell heating this thing up. We're looking to purchase a run down hobby farm to improve or build one of our own small houses. I can't tell you the feeling of keeping 3/4ths of each paycheck and having no bills besides the few hundred we give our Inlaws and the cost of food and propane. We own our cars outright. We Americans have to stop attaching our happiness to status and possessions. You can still have an elegant, beautiful, classy space under 1000 ft I'll tell you. We feel more connected to our family in this small space too. We've been here a year and I can't imagine EVER going back to the suburbs.

  11. I agree with this article: the tiny house movement appears to be an upper middle class thing and works best as a second home or a flight of fancy. It costs a lot to create the infrastructure for a tiny house, you could do better with a well designed not-so-big house. As a realtor in a rural part of Southern California I see the problem with older smaller homes is functional: not enough electric plugs, old fashion lighting, not enough insulation, not enough bathrooms – they're not cost effective, oh an usually there's not enough storage space, closets are too small or nonexistent. Houses built during the boom years 2000-2006 are HUGE square footage wise, but also poorly designed. What do people do with all that space?

    What we need is more of the well designed small homes. As soon as one comes up on the market it is purchased the same day – everything else hangs out for months. How about houses that set right on the property to take advantage of natural sun? Homes with solar panels? Homes with one bathroom per bedroom plus a half ? Homes with a mud room entrance? I think you can have all that around 1000 square feet and call it good

  12. Dianne says:

    I enjoyed your article very much – as well as some of the thought provoking comments. After a 30 year stint in the interior design field, I still find myself scratching my head over poor space planning! As you seem to know ( and kumari de silva) it's just not that tough to figure out! Thanks for your thoughts, well – except you did mess up on the $100,000 land price!

  13. As I sit here reading this all comfy in my Tiny House (the one used for the over photo, actually) I can't help but think that Jeb misses the point to some degree. Sure, a lot of what he says is true, and he makes some great points worth discussing, but he keeps trying to compare them to RVs, which is silly. The only thing they have in common is the wheels and perhaps the size. RVs are built to be three season, occasional residences – by law. They have poor insulation, and their utilities aren't designed to be used as rigorously as a home's or even a sailboat's. But the biggest difference is that a Tiny House feels like a home. It's solid, it is well designed, often nice to look at, and is nourishing to the soul. On the other hand, an RV feels like a cheap 80s dorm room.

    His argument about the grid is somewhat moot once you learn that Tiny Houses are primarily off the grid. While a lot do have running water and electricity, most don't have septics, and mine is 100% off the grid (as are many I have visited).

    Moreover, no one has ever suggested everyone should live this way. The Tiny House movement is only right for some people at some points in their life. And to suggest that because people don't want to commit to a lifetime of living tiny means that the concept is flawed is silly. The bigger picture is that the Tiny House movement created this conversation we are having about home size, and thus in my mind they have already proven themselves worth the $224/sq ft. (for the record, that is a terrible measurement to use, as if cost per square foot tells you anything about quality of life or materials. For the record, many people make Tiny Houses for half that).

  14. Matthew says:

    I keep hearing about people who build a tiny house and the live in it…for a while…then upsize. Even that guy who made his living writing books about tiny houses no longer lives in one. That said, it would work fine for me. RV's suck. They are shoddily constructed, badly insulated, and cookie-cutter designed. They key to a tiny house being better than an RV is that they are bright and well insulated homes of ons own design. I would like a piece of land for he land, not the house. A house I can move around means I am not tying up land with permanent infrastructure.

  15. Zoe says:

    The house that was used as an example… is a bad example. I know for a fact that that specific house has been for sale for quite a while, due to its price and impracticality. Most tiny houses do not need to be hooked up to the grid in order to be lived in. A big part of building a tiny house is having an opportunity to not be attached to the grid and to be self-sustaining. Many tiny houses have composting toilets that don't require water and pretty much the same sink and shower systems as a RV. Lots of them use propane appliances and have solar panels, if one is lucky enough to find a good deal.
    Another thing is; many tiny houses are parked in northern areas, where winter is harsh and living in an RV would not be a smart choice. RVs are not meant to be heated throughout the 5+ months called Winter.
    Tiny houses give you an option to move. You can have the stability of owning your own house, without the stress of having to sell and re-buy should you need to relocate your life. Anyone that wants to move their tiny house once a month should just not have a tiny house. The whole structure would become weaker with a lot of road time.

  16. arrielle_p says:

    I really like tiny houses but not as tiny as like what's on the photo. But thanks for pointing out the problem. 🙂

  17. AJC says:

    Haven't thought of it that way before…Very good points; however, living in a metal box trimmed out with plastic and old degraded insulation is a bit different than what you can create with a bit of know how and imagination. Good writing should encompass more than a single point of view, and getting people to downsize their new homes in a big way is a very worthy goal.

  18. Max101010 says:

    Great writing