So you want to build a tiny house?

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.

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14 Responses to So you want to build a tiny house?

  1. Casey says:

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes, YES. A million times yes.

  2. Adam says:

    All fair points worth considering. Although, I do not agree with many of your final conclusions.
    When we, my girlfriend and I built our tiny house I was thrown many pragmatic questions that needed answers, but learned how to work through them.
    Our tiny house was built in one summer, from plans we made up that spring/summer, when we started the build we had less then $2k. Long story short, it was our (fiscally minded) goal to build a tiny house, and so we lived outside for months and built our home.
    Humans are very capable of stepping up to the task at hand. Especially when the end result could be a home that is sized for more freedom.

    • Sure! And I’m glad it worked out so well for you.

      My goal in posting this is that 99% of the people on the internet in the TH community start a build and it takes 18 months on average IF they finish it. But it seems like there’s a lot of shame when people DON’T finish or don’t remain in the house, and they just quietly slip off the web into oblivion. There’s also a lot of No True Scotsman fallacy tossed about in the community. “No TRUE tiny house builder would spend that much money/take that long, etc.”

      Most of the tiny house stuff I see online (and I’ve been reading since 2008) is all positive. “Oh I did this in a month or two” – and then I find out later with private convos that they didn’t have a job to go to, they had significant help from experienced friends or family, etc. And there is NOTHING wrong with that, but I think honesty would go a long way. Because everyone’s situation is different.

      This is not something that most people want to confront. They want the cute, styled photos of a finished tiny house and the daydreams of “free” living. It’s work to get there, as you know, since you built one!

      Two single people building a house in one summer is very different from a single parent with four kids taking on the build.

      I’m tired of sunshine being blown up people’s asses in this community, as well as the mentality of “If I did it this way, so can you.” Nope, not the case. It’s just not. I’m not bagging on you for your choices, either, or saying that you are lucky or anything like that. You made choices and made it work. YOU found a way to make it work for YOU in one summer for $2k while living outside, and that situation is not DIRECTLY transferable to others. No more than someone else’s situation could be directly transferable to YOU. And it’s disingenuous to imply otherwise.

      And what is freedom? Freedom for you is debt-free living in a very small space for the two of you. Freedom for me is not having to finish the tiny house and not having to live in the middle of nowhere, reliant on a car. Freedom for someone else might be a house on a foundation with a huge backyard.

      Like I said, I encourage people in the post to plug in their own numbers and circumstances when considering the build. If you can do it with six banana peels and a staple gun over a long weekend, then the financial payoff will be huge. But I’ve found very, very few people who can actually do it that way.

  3. Jessica says:

    I want to like-like-button this. A tiny house is such a great dream, but so much more complicated than it seems, or probably should be. Kudos for giving a realistic point of view based on a whole lot of experience.

    • I really think there’s a lot of BS on the internet about tiny houses in particular. People like to think (like I said) that they are some cosmic exception to the rules of construction, money, time, and energy, just because they are “so cute.”

      I’m craving honesty from more people on the Internet (like you!). I thought I’d do my bit and walk the talk.

  4. “Never underestimate the power of a stable living situation on your psyche.”

    O.M.Geeeeeeee. This.
    holygoodness. just this.

    • :-D

      It’s just so true. It’s quaint to think about like, camping or living temporarily on a bus or in your unfinished house to really “Rough it” or bootstrap it or whatever, but man. It’s just too much.

  5. Diane says:

    I think for me the huge, insurmountable hurdle is the fact that tiny houses are really vulnerable due to being in such a legal grey zone. I can’t even imagine how devastating it would be to put so much time, money, and effort into a home, and then not be able to live in it, or not be able to live where I’d like to, because of neighbor complaints and building codes. I know there are people who are making it work, which is fantastic, and they are pushing the envelope for others, but I’ve read several stories of tiny house dwellers who have had to move several times… that sounds too stressful for me.

    • Yes, I completely agree. Those stories seem to be shoved under the rug in the tiny house community, but I think it’s a real worry. All about measuring risk – and I think some people tell themselves they are more comfortable with the risk because the TH is so cute. But in reality, for many people, being told to move out of it would be a devastating loss financially as well as emotionally.

      • Diane says:

        Yes. The finances of moving, the stress of finding another place (never knowing if you’d have to leave it too), would be too much for me. I need a home situation that is likely to be more predictable.

  6. Paul says:

    Wonderful and well written. I am 58 yo, divorced and all my kids age grown and on their own. I have built two houses and fixed many more. I have been looking at tiny homes and have read or viewed 80 percent of what is on the internet as to tiny house on trailers.

    Never much of a bad word!! Some day I may have a woman as a partner again, and all i can think of is sleeping on the first floor and who is climbing over who to get to the bathroom. I do not think I have many loft days left in me, ok a few for a special grand son. And no mater how i try, two pairs of jeans and two t shirts do not make a wardrobe.

    Thinking about it there is a 3 to 7 thousand dollar heavy duty trailer sitting under me so i am in the motor vehicle laws instead of real estate or real property laws.

    and there just are not many places you can put one, legally i mean. most places say no or 30 days, so every day if u break the law it is someone who is mad calls the zoning officer.

    usually you have to go further out into rural areas and farms to find a place to park it, u would like a good high mileage care to get u to where ever

    i can solve all the design problems and do a good job on controlling costs, but finding a place to park it and live in it is much different. so if not many places to put it the trailer is only to avoid codes but restricts where u can put it.

    which leads me to believe that it is the zoning and codes that are messed up and a tiny house is just a band aid on a large wound.


    • which leads me to believe that it is the zoning and codes that are messed up and a tiny house is just a band aid on a large wound.

      This is a great perspective and I think spot-on. What we need are reasonably sized homes ranging from 600-1200 s.f. that are code-approved and on a foundation. The loft issue is also well-noted. I have health issues even though I am young and I really think there are days I would not have been able to get up into my own bed.

      Thanks for the comment; always nice to know that someone “gets” what I’m saying!

  7. brydanger says:

    Good for you!!
    While I’m a huge proponent of the tiny house movement, i think you’re spot on about the fact that there are a lot of hidden truths and false expectations put on those who decide to take it on. Tiny Houses are fantastic. They are perfect for doing what they should do- showing the masses that there is an alternative. A smaller and simpler lifestyle that is very much possible and can be done by anyone.

    But… it’s also fair, and valid, and important to point out that it is far from an option for the masses, a “simple” solution or lifestyle, a scalable lifestyle…or even yet a legal or feasible solution to our larger housing problem. It’s unfortunate that those who undertake the daunting project of designing, building and seeking a place to temporarily (or permanently) park their own tiny home should also have to deal with negative pressures from the community that should instead be supporting them in the process.

    My wife and i looked ever so briefly into building our own tiny home on wheels, but for many of the reasons you spoke of above we chose to go a different way. We were comfortable with the build process and timeline. Size wasn’t an issue for us as we had lived in van for the year prior and if we truly wanted a tiny home we would have simply continued living in the van with the ability to move literally anywhere (which obviously isn’t practical in a tiny home on wheels).

    What we didn’t like the idea of living illegally and always wondering if a neighbor would complain and the city would force us out (and we weren’t willing to move outside the city we love). We also didn’t love the idea of only partially being responsible for our own power, water, waste etc. Luckily, we owned our own home but also hated the idea of wasting a 3bedroom house for only 2 people used to living minimally… Luckily, here in Portland the planning/zoning allows a designation for ADUs (accessory dwelling units), which allow all the benefits of tiny homes but without some of the unanswered questions (and apparently without the stress and expectations of the TH community).

    We chose to convert our garage into a home for us… and it became a legal and acceptable answer to living small and simple that would ensure our investment grew in value over time and ensured that it couldn’t be stolen or taken away from us by neighbor complaints or zoning regulations. For us, its perfect!

    Good for you for living on your own terms. For experimenting and pushing the envelope,and for being willing to admit that it wasn’t for you (and to take ownership of it against popular expectation). Good luck in your new home, in your writing and in life!

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