I had a really nice commenter ask if I had any suggestions for her about building a tiny house as a debt-free housing option. I started to reply and then decided to make it it’s own blog post so it wouldn’t be buried. Hopefully this helps some of you! For reference, the commenter mentioned she is a single mom with four kids in the North Carolina area. So if anyone has any additional help/advice for her, please leave it here!
Also, I want to note that the “you” is not directly at the commenter, it’s the Universal, Rhetorical You.
(ETA: Any time I say “tiny house” I’m referring specifically to “tiny houses on wheels.”)
So you want to build a tiny house?
I feel like I adequately explained the building code/shady neighbor/non-financial risk of living in tiny houses in this post (LINK) so here, I’ll be only talking about financial gain and savings since the commenter specifically mentioned tiny house living as a way forward for a debt-free living situation.
First off, I’d recommend to ANYONE embarking on a tiny house journey to check out Macy Miller over at MiniMotives for any questions and her huge blog full of content. She has a small baby and is pregnant with her second and managed to successfully build her tiny house (pre-kids); they have lived in it happily for 2 years (they are about to add a little addition to make room for the second baby). She is very open and honest and a LOVELY, wonderful human being who will always make time for you if you are also a nice person.
Here are questions that every single tiny house adventurer should ask themselves and answer HONESTLY, before building.
Are you absolutely, 100%, positively certain that building a tiny house is the ONLY way to have a debt-free living situation?
Have you checked around on Craigslist for a rental situation that’s low-cost?
Have you considered an arrangement with family?
Have you truly calculated the real cost of living in a tiny house?
Our situation: we built the tiny house for $22k and it still needs flooring, cabinets, and finishing touches. We bought land for $17k that needed $3k in improvements (bit of tree clearing, land-leveling, wire-running even though the big cost of having a full power and internet pole installed was already taken care of), would have spent another $2k on a rainwater situation and likely still would not have collected enough rainwater from our small roof to live off of (so cue having to pay a company to fill our tanks monthly). Our toilet would have been a simple composting bucket, but if we’d wanted a septic tank and a well drilled, that would have easily been another $10,000, at least (the land is on solid bedrock).
Let’s do some hypotheticals. Before someone gets on me for “Well in MY TOWN, a one bedroom apartment is X money.” Great, plug in your own numbers and do your own math, and PLEASE factor in the gasoline and wear and tear cost for commuting if you end up renting further outside the city for code reasons or because that’s where the RV parks are.
We could not find a rental situation close enough to town for work and commuting (even though my husband works at home; I have a part-time job in the city). RV parks would not allow hand built homes but if they had, it would have been $400/mo. We rent a 1 bedroom, 650 s.f. apartment here for $730. Let’s pretend that the RV park would have allowed us to park there, or that we’d somehow found a backyard in HOA-central to rent for the same price from a nice family. That’s a $330/mo difference; and the utilities would be somewhat similar. Let’s say the tiny house would save $50/mo in utilities costs, BUT keep in mind that where we live, we would have easily spent that money on gasoline driving (we have a very fuel-efficient car, too) because the RV parks are outside the city. For the sake of my exercise, I’m calling it square.
There’s a $330 difference between tiny house rental situation and living in a finished, built apartment.
The house, finished, would have cost us in dollars (not accounting for time) about $28,000. How many years would we have to live in a tiny house versus an apartment, assuming the apartment AND RV parks stay about the same price, JUST to break even?
Seventy-four months. Six point two years.
That’s nothing! You say. Consider that it takes most people 30 years to pay off their houses!
Great, sure. But over a 30 year average period, houses GENERALLY appreciate in value. Tiny houses do not. They just don’t.
But we’ll ignore that fuzzy math right now. Besides, I actually see a bigger issue. Six years ONCE THE HOUSE IS BUILT (so likely 8 years from this moment, at least): where do you expect to be personally? Just a best guess. I’m mostly talking children here. If you don’t want kids, I think that’s awesome, too, so ignore what I’m about to say.
IF you have children or are planning on children: what does the tiny house look like 8 years from now when you break even on your money spent? Can one kid, born today, fit into a tiny house with one or two adults from age 0-8 until the break even point? I think possibly! Sure! Why not?
Two kids? Three? Four? Five? Maybe! Every family and every tiny house is different. As kids get bigger and they take up more space, they need more privacy. For some this could just mean a curtain on a bunk bed. For others they may need a bit more.
Can a five-person family realistically grow into a tiny house on a trailer over 8 years? Two years to build. Six more in rental difference to make up the money. Or WHATEVER your numbers are: does it truly work out?
Life is unpredictable. We did not realize when we started this that three years later we would want different things from life. But kids are predictable in pretty much only one way: they will get older. They will get bigger. Almost without exception.
BUT you say!!! I will build my house for seventy two pennies and two shillings by scrounging for materials! My house won’t cost $28,000!
Let’s talk time.
Macy Miller built her tiny house for $12,000 and it took her nearly two years; she also had no kids at that point and could dedicate her after-work hours to hunting for free and low-cost materials. Do not underestimate the amount of time and gasoline money scavenging takes. There will be a LOT of hours committed to the task, which is why most people just end up shopping at Lowe’s.
Free things cost time. Free things still cost money.
Building a tiny house if you have NO HELP from people like handy friends (who have their own lives whether they have skills or not to help you; don’t over-estimate the amount of time they are able and willing to volunteer) will take a minimum of 1000 hours. That includes research time, which will be the bulk of the project, honestly. Like you get to the roofing part, and then it’s 20 hours of researching WHAT material and HOW to put it up, then buying the materials (you will drive to the store 8 times at least because you will need something and have forgotten it) or FINDING the materials on Craigslist…
Our house cost us in cash $22,000 and we only got to drywall finishing. So no flooring or cabinets or refrigerator. This does not include the over thousand (!!!!!) hours my husband spent building it. 1000 hours is, if you work every single weekend for 8 hour days both on Saturday and Sunday and NEVER take a weekend off to do ANYTHING like breathe or grocery shop or go to church or hang out with friends, is 62 weeks. That’s one year and three months, every single weekend, 16 hours a weekend. 8AM-4PM if you don’t stop for lunch, peeing, or drinking Gatorade. That is YEAR ROUND: through scorching summer, snowy winter, thunderstorms, etc. I don’t know what the weather is like where you live. You should think about it.
I think 1000 hours is extremely conservative if you’ve never built before.
If you try to pay someone to build the entire house: be sure to read reviews and get personal references for the builder. If you choose to be the contractor and sub-contract out (pay someone to do the framing, then someone else to do the electric, then the plumbing, etc), realize that this in and of itself is another full-time job. MANAGING construction people is a difficult thing, which is why contractors exist. Calling, getting estimates, trusting people, waiting for them to show up, hoping they will do a good job, articulating what you want exactly, then shelling out money for it…ALSO, we called many sub-contractors throughout our project, and only ONE of them followed through (the roofers). A tiny house is just not enough work for most professional workers to consider worth their time.
It’s a cruel irony.
If you’ve made it this far in this blog post and you truly still believe that a tiny house on wheels is a simple solution, do not build one. I am completely serious.
If you’ve made it this far and are sobered but still think it’s a good idea, just not a simple one, then here is my advice to you:
1) If you are building it yourself, save ALL of your money up front. All of it. I would estimate at least $25,000 that is solely for the tiny house, in a separate account. Not for emergencies. Not for paying taxes. Not to dip into if you lose your job. Solely for the tiny house.
2) If you’re scrounging for materials, fine, but do an experiment for a month: every weekend, go on CL and find something cheap or free you want to buy/acquire. Then actually go get it. Do this for 10 items and add up your time and mileage. Some of these will end in no financial gain; some will be losses. CL can be great but it’s a part-time job all on its own. People will flake on you, cancel on you; an item will be gone before you get there, etc.
Tiny houses are NOT the fast-track to having a debt-free living situation.
Everything in life has a cost, whether it’s in time or money.
Tiny houses have not been granted some cosmic exception to this rule. If you save money by getting free materials, you will use up more time. If you save time by buying retail, you will use up more money.
For us? We would have been much further ahead financially if my self-employed husband and I had used those thousand-plus hours of tiny house building and all the thousand more we collectively spent agonizing instead on making extra money through side jobs. We would be miles ahead financially of where we are right now and even in the long run, still including money spent on renting a boring, finished apartment from The Evil Corporate Man.
(Side note: If you think “I have neither the time nor energy to get a side job” then you DEFINITELY do not have the time nor energy to build a tiny house.)
If you are relying on the tiny house as a safe, stable living option that is needed in the next 24 months, you are setting yourself up for an early, stress-related death.
Never underestimate the power of a stable living situation on your psyche.
There are people for whom apartments are not stable situations. But the tiny house build? Will take WAY longer than you think it will (years, not months), and you will be unstable that entire time.
I think this needs to be emphasized more than it is in the tiny house community: building and living in a tiny house is RISK. Well, life is risk, you say. Great. Sure, it is. If you’re smart, life is calculated risk. And even a cute, adorable tiny house on wheels is risk. It’s riskier than a foundation-built house. You are at the mercy of neighbors and codes much more so than in a “regular” home.
IF you can find a parking situation BEFORE YOU BUILD, IF you can save all of the money BEFORE YOU BUILD, IF you have the time and stamina to take on a project that will take at least two years to finish, IF you can do all of that while raising children/holding a job/having friends/brushing your teeth: you are awesome.
If you made it this far and are thinking a tiny house isn’t for you, you are awesome too.
Everyone is awesome. Except for the person reading this who wants to tell me how negative and boring and stupid I am.
You, Internet Sir, are NOT awesome.