July 13, 2015 — Some people dream of retiring in an expansive home with plenty of room for hobbies, friends and grandchildren. And others can’t wait to downsize, get rid of 40 years of accumulated “stuff”, and live in a manageable-sized home. This article is dedicated to those interested in the latter, especially to the folks who want to take it to a small extreme. The end of this feature had many resources to find out more about the tiny homes movement along with examples of – from TV shows to a Netflix documentary.
The average new single family home has grown and grown. In 1978, according to Wikipedia, it was 1,780 square feet (165 m2), but, despite a decrease in the size of the average family, the average home had bloated to 2,662 square feet by 2013.
Small… and then there is Tiny!
The small house movement generally refers to houses of less than 1,000 square feet. Tiny houses take that further, and are less than 400 sq. ft., with some as small as 80 (and that is tiny – 8 x 10). Another name for the idea is “pocket” homes. Sarah Susanka, who published “The Not So Big House” in 1997, is credited with starting the recent countermovement toward smaller houses. Of course the grandpappy of the movement is Henry David Thoreau and his book “Walden”.
The movement towards small and tiny is just that when it comes to market share – only 1% of home buyers acquire houses of 1,000 sq.ft. or less. Small houses are often used as accessory dwelling units (or ADUs), to serve as additional on-property housing for aging relatives or returning children, as a home office, or as a guest house. Wikipedia cites typical costs of about $20,000 to $50,000 (2012).
The movement has a significant following. There was A Tiny House Conference in 2014, and now there are even television shows like Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunters. According to Thetinylife.com over 2 out of 5 owners of tiny homes are 50 or over. There are even some communities dedicated to tiny homes.
To Go.. Or Not to Go
Some tiny houses are on wheels. Although they are often compared to RVs, tiny houses are different because they are built to last as long as traditional homes, and use traditional building techniques and materials. The big advantage of building on wheels (usually on a trailer chassis) is that the home is transportable, should your circumstances change.
Adding it up for you
Living in a tiny or small home does have lots of advantages. But they also have enough drawbacks that they don’t appeal to everyone.
Economy – Tiny and small homes have lower up front costs. They require maintenance to a smaller area, and use less energy to heat and cool.
Self-sufficiency – Their reduced scope increases the likelihood that you will be able to take care of things yourself.
Environmental friendly – Smaller homes need fewer resources to build and maintain, besides reduced energy consumption.
Life simplification – With a smaller home you will have less stuff and fewer things to take care of and worry about.
Resort or vacation use – Where a shorter stay is involved, having a tiny home can make a lot of sense.
Like we said, most people would probably not be happy in a less than normal size home.
Cramped and crowded – When occupied by more than 1 person for an extended time, we can imagine cabin fever setting in. If used by a single person, if one person in the couple works outside the home, or where the climate permits lots of time out of doors, they might be more attractive.
Zoning regs – Many municipalities and districts frown upon tiny homes, since they can add significantly to population density and have an effect on property values. They might be in violation of existing zoning regs. Consult local regulations before you get too far in your planning.
Company/grandchildren – A tiny house is not conducive to visitors or visiting grandchildren. But then, that is what hotels and Air bnb are all about.
Not always for older folks – Although 2 of 5 tiny home buyers are over 50, these homes are not for older people. In every tiny home we have seen the “bedroom” is a sleeping loft, reached by a very steep ladder. Those midnight bathroom breaks can lead to a “break” of another kind.
Two of older Blog Posts, especially Is a Money Pit Going to Ruin Your Retirement, recently had quite a run of interesting comments about tiny homes. We have reprinted many of them below to give you a feel for what people are thinking about.
Comment from Jennifer:
Your enthusiasm for park models and the Tiny house movement had mostly gone over my head UNTIL they arrived in Washington, DC. I found some great websites for some upscale Tiny homes about 400 Sq feet with lofts and I fell in love with them. My favorite is Wheelhaus. They are based in Wyoming and will park your home for you anywhere–of course they charge for that. I love their homes so much that I was hoping to find a place where others were of the same quality and not a mish mash of styles. I really want to feel secure and safe if I choose to live this way. How many parks did you investigate and since these are technically RV’s I realize that property tax cannot be accessed in most states.
Elaine: Has anyone tried mini homes…either mobile or stationary? I know this was mentioned before, but anyone actually lived in one? This would work for me, but I am wondering about the challenges and expenses. I think “parking” one permanently (like mobile homes) might mean you would be in the middle of nowhere.or paying high rent
Jennifer: I too am sold on the tiny house movement. I like a well designed upscale looking one (check out Wheelhaus). The problem is where to park it. It would be nice it there were safe park model communities where all the tiny homes were of the same quality and look. A gated community would be even better. Now one can often sees a nice park model parked next to a junky looking one of lesser quality and design or a trailer. If you can find a place to park it for a reasonable price, possibly even off the grid, then half of the problem is solved. The idea is that if it is on wheels or can be moved then you would not be charges property taxes–at least that is what I have read. If anyone knows of great communities for these park model tiny homes please give a shout out.
Perhaps there is a tiny house community that is charming and has amenities and perhaps a shared green space for gardening with amenities as well. Security or a gated community would be high on the list form me as I am a single woman. I also feel the community should be appealing with high quality tiny homes.
Elaine C: I’m also interested in the tiny house movement. I’ve lived in less than 400 sq ft in the past, and it worked for a variety of reasons. I agree that parking the mobile tiny house is an issue, because many places haven’t caught up to more alternative living styles.
A tiny house in retirement for me represents freedom to pursue my passions, less housework and financial overhead, and an alternative lifestyle that not only embraces but also relies on community because one cannot stay in a little box (no matter how charming and loved) without going stir crazy. For me, expansive space means being outside in nature or community gathering places, or strolling through a farmer’s market, or quietly writing in a snug corner of a quiet cafe – expansive within my mind. Having all my needs met in a small sustainable structure could permit me a better ability to live expansively outside its walls. Some tiny houses I’ve seen online even manage to create a minimalist feel to them, which for me is better than ice cream.
I agree there’s a market for resort tiny homes in a beautiful location with expansive community gathering places that bring people together to share and be neighborly, either for a week or for a lifetime. Someone could make a lot of money – maybe I should write a business plan. I’m looking for those communities online so I can go visit, because I think staying in a tiny place before actually committing to one is a good idea
Carol: We are also wondering about that possibility. As a permanent place or possibly buying permanent little smaller and have a ‘tiny’ house as a getaway.
Jan Cullinane: One reference for the “pocket community” concept is from the architect and author Ross Chapin. More than 40 have been built throughout the US. Go to: http://www.rosschapin.com.
Pat: I’m interested in “Tiny Homes” less than 1000 sq. feet. Not mobile, prefab or converted buses, trailers etc but built on a foundation in warm climates. Why do over 55 plus or retirement communities have to have 1500 or more square feet? Or is the problem that builder’s don’t favor these homes because they are not money makers?
Max: The tiny homes are not as big of a money maker. If you think about what the real cost of building a home is, it is the kitchen and bathrooms. I think most 55+ buyers want 3 bedrooms or 2 bedrooms with an office space. Likely want 2 bathrooms as well. So, when you are building a kitchen and 2 bathrooms, the rest of the house, aside from electrical and HVAC, is just drywall and air, which is cheap. If you can get more square footage, many times there is more profit.
On another note, I don’t think the market for tiny homes is very big (no pun intended). Our research shows that people don’t actually want less space, they just want less maintenance. So I think the sweetspot for a lot of these homes is actually around 1800-2000 SF, so long as they can be easily maintained, by having communities that take care of the outside work and landscape maintenance. In my experience, people who have lived in larger houses don’t want to downsize that much….for instance, my parents and many of their age ~60 friends live in ~3500-4000 SF homes from when they had kids, and now they are looking for 2500-3000. It all depends on where you are coming from. In the south, people tend to live on larger lots with bigger homes. Downsizing is all relative.
Ted: Watched the TV show. I didn’t work hard my whole life to live out my final years in such a small box. I wasn’t surprised that college students were shopping for one, since presumably it’s more desirable than a dorm room. (But not by much….in my opinion.) I wouldn’t be surprised to see Habitat for Humanity and similar charities construct them for the homeless.
On the other hand, I guess I could see a possible market for a community of tiny houses in a resort area, if the community had really great amenities (not for full-time living, but ok for sleeping). The competition would probably be small condos or apartments , trailer parks and RV parks.
We think whether you choose to live in a tiny home or shudder at the idea, it is a fun movement to learn about. Might be even more interesting to tour some to see the ingenious ways their owners and builders have saved space.
For further reading:
The Retirement Piggy Bank You Might Not Have Considered
The Tiny House Movement
Wikipedia – The Small House Movement
Tiny House Blog
Tiny House Nation (TV series)
Tiny: A Story About Living Small (Documentary on Netflix)
Low Income Retirement: A Discussion
Is a Money Pit Going to Ruin Your Retirement
Tiny House Community
Comments? What are your thoughts about a tiny or small home in your retirement future? Could you see yourself living in one, or not. Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.