A tiny house might be an af­ford­able op­tion

There’s a quirky an­swer to the hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity is­sue – so long as you don’t need lots of el­bow room

Money Magazine Australia - - CON­TENTS - RICHARD SCOTT

So you want to be a home­owner? Well, good luck: with Aus­tralian house prices jump­ing 3.7% since Jan­uary and the me­dian price in Syd­ney, for in­stance, sit­ting at an eye-wa­ter­ing $995,804, you might for­give younger peo­ple for aban­don­ing all hope. Yet, should you be will­ing to lower your ex­pec­ta­tions – and, cru­cially, your square-me­tre count – you could own your own place for roughly the cost of a fam­ily car.

In Tem­plestowe, Vic­to­ria, Fred Schultz, 56, built his house from scratch for just $33,000, plus $12,000 to take it off-grid. Con­sid­er­ing the me­dian Melbourne house price is $710,000, that’s a sav­ing of $677,000, pro­vided, of course, that you have a piece of land to put it on. Made of cor­ru­gated steel with a plan­ta­tion pine in­te­rior, Schultz’s house is just 5.4m long and 2.5m wide – about the size of a Toy­ota HiLux – and 4m high. He squeezed in a kitchen, lounge, com­post­ing toi­let and bath, plus a loft area for sleep­ing. He has so­lar power, rain­wa­ter tanks and an al­co­hol-fu­elled stove.

So what is a tiny house?

A tiny house is slightly smaller than your av­er­age one-bed­room apart­ment. Gen­er­ally, any prop­erty with a to­tal in­ter­nal floor space of 40sq m or less is con­sid­ered tiny. If you’re handy, you can build one your­self but there are com­pa­nies that ei­ther cus­tom-make them or send out a kit. Many, like Schultz’s, are mounted on be­spoke trail­ers, al­low­ing you to change your view on a whim.

Who do they suit?

“Any­body look­ing for a semi-per­ma­nent, low-rent hous­ing sce­nario,” says Lara No­bel from the Tiny House Com­pany. “Most in­ter­est comes from sin­gles and younger cou­ples. But tiny houses can also cater to down­siz­ers or those look­ing to add a granny flat or rentable space to their ex­ist­ing prop­erty.” Lo­gis­ti­cally, a tiny house presents a chal­lenge for larger fam­i­lies, and lim­its in ac­ces­si­bil­ity may not suit the el­derly or in­ca­pac­i­tated.

Can I build my own?

“Why not?” says Schultz. “The tiny-house move­ment isn’t a new oc­cur­rence; it just be­came pop­u­lar. Na­tive Amer­i­cans lived in teepees for cen­turies, the Inuit peo­ple had igloos, in­dige­nous Aus­tralians had stone huts. Peo­ple have al­ways had smaller dwellings. The only dif­fer­ence now? They didn’t spend 35 years of their lives pay­ing them off.”

What will it cost?

Schultz’s house may have cost him $45,000 in ma­te­ri­als, tools and labour (he brought in pro­fes­sional in­stall­ers and plumbers) but that fig­ure, he warns, doesn’t tell the whole story. “Of­ten peo­ple over­look the cost of be­ing off work for a year, or the amount of fam­ily sup­port re­quired to com­plete a project of this mag­ni­tude.”

Work­ing with sal­vaged or do­nated ma­te­ri­als (Schultz utilised the on­line clas­si­fied site Gumtree) can cause a headache, too. “Just the process of gath­er­ing, col­lect­ing,

trans­port­ing, de-nail­ing, cut­ting and straight­en­ing wood can use up all your time. There’s a lot to fac­tor in.” An artist and for­mer chemist by trade, Schultz spent 18 months build­ing his lit­tle house, plus “sev­eral years” of plan­ning it.

DIY or pre-build?

If you don’t have the time or the skills, it might be cheaper (and safer) to con­sider a pre-made ver­sion. For ex­am­ple, Bris­bane’s the Tiny House Com­pany sells a range of por­tals, from sin­gle ser­viced rooms ($54,000) to stu­dio-style houses ($79,000) built on flat-deck trail­ers. The tiny house model mea­sures 2.5m by 7.5m with a 3.5m ceil­ing, and in­cludes a bath­room (grey-wa­ter toi­let, shower), kitchen (stove, sink) and lounge space with re­tractable bed. It takes be­tween two and three months to build and is reg­is­tered to be towed on the road.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the com­pany sells a “shell” house ($49,000) for those who fancy a semi-DIY project. This comes wa­ter­tight and lock­able but all in­ter­nal fitout (elec­tri­cal, plumb­ing, cab­i­netry) is up to you.

Where can I put it?

That’s the tricky part, says Anthea Di­gia­ris, as­so­ciate and ac­cred­ited prop­erty law spe­cial­ist at Slater and Gor­don. “In Aus­tralia dif­fer­ent mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have dif­fer­ing rules and reg­u­la­tions in terms of plan­ning re­quire­ments, zon­ing and build­ing per­mits. It can be a bit of a mine­field.”

If you own land and you pro­pose to build a tiny house on the land you should con­sult with your lo­cal coun­cil. Coun­cils reg­u­late how your land can be used, in­clud­ing the type and size of a build­ing and even the ma­te­ri­als. Ad­di­tional zon­ing reg­u­la­tions may re­quire a min­i­mum size for res­i­den­tial dwellings.

And if I have no land?

No prob­lem, says No­bel. “So­cial me­dia, and Face­book in par­tic­u­lar, can help con­nect those want­ing to rent out spare space from be­tween $40 and $100 per week. Oth­ers may plan col­lec­tively to pur­chase ru­ral land; many park for free with friends and fam­ily.”

Schultz be­gan leas­ing land from a mate, but af­ter buy­ing his two-bed­room house he now keeps his orig­i­nal tiny house in the gar­den.

“A huge stick­ing point is length of habi­ta­tion, since liv­ing on some­body else’s land is con­sid­ered ‘camp­ing’,” he cau­tions. “It varies by state but in Vic­to­ria the max­i­mum time you can stay is only six weeks. But, ar­gues Di­gia­ris, the rel­a­tive nov­elty of the tiny house move­ment has meant that in many re­spects the law is yet to catch up and adapt.

If you lease or li­cence a space from a third party which will be used to build or park a tiny house, you should get in­de­pen­dent le­gal ad­vice and doc­u­ment any lease or li­cence agree­ment in writ­ing.

Tiny house or granny flat?

“An an­cil­lary dwelling or granny flat may be a prefer­able al­ter­na­tive [to a tiny house] as their con­struc­tion may not be re­stricted by min­i­mum size re­straints but may how­ever be sub­ject to max­i­mum size re­stric­tions,” says Di­gia­ris. How­ever, an­cil­lary dwellings gen­er­ally need to be on the same lot as the main dwelling. “You may not be able to build your tiny house on an empty lot if you clas­sify it as an­cil­lary.”

What if I don’t tell coun­cil?

“With a fixed tiny house, they can by rights de­mol­ish the en­tire struc­ture if the ap­pro­pri­ate per­mit ap­provals have not been ob­tained,” says Di­gia­ris. “It’s quite se­ri­ous.” If you are rum­bled – through a build­ing in­spec­tion or neigh­bour dob­bing you in – the coun­cil will serve a no­tice on the landowner. You’ll then have 30 to 60 days to seek the ap­pro­pri­ate per­mits. Fail­ing that, your case will be taken to a tri­bunal and your new tiny house may, po­ten­tially, be razed.

Try­ing to sell a prop­erty with an un­law­ful struc­ture can also get you into hot wa­ter down the track when it comes to per­mits and dis­clo­sures.

“It’s just not worth cut­ting cor­ners,” says Di­gia­ris. “If you’re caught out, it be­comes a much big­ger prob­lem to fix ret­ro­spec­tively.”

How do I get started?

Be­fore ditch­ing all your worldly pos­ses­sions, it might pay to do a lit­tle test-run of liv­ing small. On Airbnb you’ll find plenty of pint-size cot­tages, yurts, bun­ga­lows and tree houses all over the coun­try.

Many com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Schultz’s (Fred’s Tiny Houses), run work­shops of­fer­ing ad­vice on how to build or where to put your tiny house.

Schultz’s top tip for those plan­ning to down­size? Have a plan: “De­sign is ev­ery­thing in a tiny house, even more so when it’s on wheels. You need to know what your needs are, not just per­son­ally but, in my case, as a cou­ple and as a fam­ily. It’s a game of com­pet­ing pri­or­i­ties, and of mil­lime­tres and kilo­grams.”

Height is ac­cen­tu­ated to com­pen­sate for the lim­ited width in this clev­erly de­signed 18sq m tiny house on wheels.

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