The Incredible Lightness of Shrinking

The tiny-house movement wants to change the way you think about housing

Back Longreads Aug 18, 2015 By Steven Yoder

In the past five years, 57-year-old Elaine Walker has lived in four cities: Washington D.C., two in Northern California and now Orlando, Fla. And in all four, she lived in the same house.

That’s because it’s a farmhouse on wheels. Walk up the front steps and you’re on a real front porch with room for a table and chair. Inside, light suffuses the place through six good-sized windows. There’s a walk-in closet and a sleeping loft with room for a queen-size bed and a stained-glass window. In the kitchen sits a microwave and half-size refrigerator/freezer, racks for spices and dry goods, an almost-full-size sink. Best, it’s got a million-dollar view fronting a lake in the Orlando RV park where it lives … for now. All of that in 117 square feet. In the coldest months in D.C. and California, it costs Walker $50 a month to heat.

She’s part of America’s fast-growing tiny-house movement. Now, an active group in Sacramento wants to create space in the region for tiny homes, but it will require changing zoning and building codes to accommodate smaller lifestyles.

Playing by New Rules

Architect and builder Jay Shafer, whom many people credit with starting the movement, defines a tiny home as any dwelling that uses space ultra efficiently. That means mini-accessory apartments and micro-condos make the cut too. For others, tiny has a defined limit of usually no more than 400 square feet.

Sacramento’s tiny-house fans have converged through a Meetup group called Living Simply in Sacramento, which has 136 members and gets together once a month to swap stories and ideas.

Adherents come to the movement for a range of reasons. For Walker, it’s in large part the freedom of relocation. Her latest transition to Florida happened because her mother lives there and needs help, so Walker took her house and moved.

Poll: Could you live in a tiny house?

Lynda Morgan of Rancho Cordova is looking for freedom of the financial kind. Now in her early 50s, Morgan says she’s always rented and wants her own home but doesn’t like the idea of being anchored to a mortgage. She’s looking to get into a 350- to 400-square-foot home in the next few years.

“People who come to the meetups are so enthusiastic about the freedom that comes with a tiny house,” says Albert Brutko, a 49-year-old computer network engineer who helped run the group. “I’m meeting these people in their 20s and 30s. They’re looking at traditional housing that’s so expensive and what they’d have to sacrifice to pay a mortgage. They don’t want to play by these old rules.”

Brutko knows those constraints well. He owned a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house on five acres in Placerville until the market crashed and he had to short sell after taking a pay cut.

“I’m meeting these people in their 20s and 30s. They’re looking at traditional housing that’s so expensive and what they’d have to sacrifice to pay a mortgage. They don’t want to play by these old rules.” Albert Brutko, computer engineer and tiny-home enthusiast

The cost of tiny houses largely eliminates those financial pressures. They cost $23,000 on average, according to a 2013 survey of 2,600 tiny home owners by The Tiny Life blog. (If you hire a contractor to do all the work, the price tag is higher, normally $27,000 to $68,000 depending on the features, notes one tiny house blogger.) Almost 70 percent of tiny-home owners report having no mortgage, compared with less than 30 percent of typical homeowners. And 65 percent of them have zero credit card debt, compared with 53 percent of other Americans.

Micro Goes Macro 

If the tiny house movement has an Independence Day, it might be the day Shafer decided to build his first tiny house in 1997. At the time, he was living in Iowa out of an Airstream while working as an adjunct art professor and grocery clerk. He knew he’d never be able to pay a mortgage on what he was earning, and he wasn’t happy with how poorly his trailer held heat. So he took two years to build his first micro-house.

From there he launched a tiny-home-building company, Tumbleweed. The first year, he and a partner sold five sets of plans and built one home. By the time he left in 2012 to start Four Lights Tiny House Co. near Santa Rosa, Tumbleweed was selling 400 sets of plans and building 50 houses yearly.

In the last two years, the movement has perhaps hit its adolescent growth spurt. Last year, two tiny-house cable TV shows started airing. The documentary film “Tiny” screened at the 2013 South by Southwest festival. A tiny house jamboree happening in Colorado Springs next month already has well more than 6,000 registrants. Tiny House Lending, an online matching service, claims to connect borrowers with private consumer loans of up to $100,000 to finance the cost of construction. And in January, two entrepreneurs opened what may be the country’s first tiny-home planned community in a former KOA campground southeast of Fresno. Called Lemon Cove Village, its spaces are leasing for $450 to $600 a month, and it’s licensed for 55 homes.

The move to micro-housing is spreading to big cities, too. Apartments of 350 square feet or less are showing up in expensive cities like San Francisco, Boston and New York. Three years ago, design/build firm Zeta Communities used its factory in North Highlands to build micro apartments that size for installation in Berkeley.   

Tiny home entrepreneurs are breaking ground in Sacramento, too. Two designer/builders — Matthew Piner of EcoLogic Builders and Roderick Bedingfield of Building Inside Out — have teamed up to plan and construct a 176-square-foot prototype that Bedingfield will live in. (Bedingfield says his only non-negotiable was that it include a bathtub.) They’ll use the prototype to launch a tiny-home-building business they say will have unique features, like offering no sweat equity options for customers who want to save money.

Related: Who buys tiny houses and why?

They’re not the only players in the Capital Region’s tiny-house business. Laz Reinhardt, who owns Reinhardt Construction, recently launched River City Tiny Homes.

SMUD is helping power the trend locally by putting on an intercollegiate competition designed to promote innovation in tiny-house design. Thirteen teams from schools around the state, including two local schools, are competing to build homes from 100 to 400 square feet, with entries judged on factors like architectural design and energy efficiency. It will culminate in an open house next October at Sacramento State. One team is working on a model that has a roof deck and barbecue, says SMUD’s Suzette Bienvenue.

No Parking

If tiny housers are to 2015 what house flippers were to 2005, they still have to contend with a key problem: parking. Most of these homes are on wheels, which slots them into the category of RVs. Sacramento County, for example, bars people from living out of RVs. And for those who want to put a house on a foundation, even in the county’s unincorporated areas, the dwelling has to be at least 20 feet wide. That likely makes anything under 400 square feet off limits. Tiny lots aren’t possible either since county regulations require 5,200 square feet per dwelling.

Similar rules hold elsewhere. In San Joaquin, Placer and Yolo counties, permanent houses have to be on a foundation, and regulations bar people from living full time in an RV. The minimum lot size in San Joaquin County is 5,000 square feet, and in Placer it’s 10,000.

For now, micro-home owners are doing what they can to navigate the rules. They’ve put up a Google map where friendly landowners around the country can mark their properties as a safe place to park. And Shafer is about to release a model that can toggle from wheels to a foundation and back and meets building codes for all of the major types of structures. That means, at least in places that ban people from living out of an RV, tiny homes could pass muster.

ReLated: A behind-the-scenes look at the construction of a tiny home

Last year, Walker launched the American Tiny House Association to track local regulatory developments that affect tiny homeowners and lobby for changes. The association has put out draft recommendations calling for the creation of single-family residential zones that have micro-lots measuring 30 by 50 feet. They’d also like to see jurisdictions create special zones for cooperative housing communities that allow multiple houses on a single, full-size lot.

Piner and Bedingfield say they’re in the early stages of planning something like that locally: a sustainable, tiny-home, gated community with off-the-grid houses, its own food production and even small offices for those who work offsite.

Until that happens, Bedingfield has the problem of figuring out where to put his house when it’s finished. He’s had several people tell him he can park on their property, but beyond that it’s hard to say where he might land more permanently.

For tiny housers, the incredible lightness of shrinking is worth the uncertainty. In May, Brutko moved into a 230-square-foot studio in the Bay Area. He’s shed a lot of his stuff and is down to a bed and dresser and a few small boxes of mementos. And even that feels like too much: “I’d like to be able to ship my stuff by UPS if I move again,” he says. 

Thetinylife.com provides a variety of resources for people interested in the tiny-house lifestyle, including a guide to building codes, a variety of floor plan kits, how-to videos and more. Tinyhouseblog.com and tinyhousetalk.com also provide tips, community forums and access to plans and resources.

Comments

Frederick Fazil (not verified)October 17, 2015 - 2:32pm

Very interesting article. Me and a friend of mine are staring a non-profit in Arizona to house and help young ladies coming out of the foster care systems. Many times they lose their way and we hope to be the bridge between their foster lives and their new lives. The tiny house idea for them is the brain child of my friend Angelese Calderon.

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