A Lit­tle Place Called Home

Amer­i­cans who em­brace the tiny house move­ment dis­cover a new kinds of home­owner free­dom

RSWLiving - - Features - BY BETH LUBERECKI

John Weisbarth, host of FYI net­work’s Tiny House Na­tion, talks about what it re­ally takes to down­size in Amer­ica, from 2,000 to 200 square feet—no kid­ding!

If you’ve ever watched an episode of FYI net­work’s Tiny House Na­tion, it’s prob­a­bly made you think. Could you ever live in a space that small? Could you pare down your be­long­ings enough to make it fea­si­ble? Would you even want to give up all the com­forts of a larger home? While tear­ing down in or­der to build big­ger is a com­mon oc­cur­rence here in Florida, there are also plenty of peo­ple in the state and around the coun­try in­ter­ested in go­ing smaller— way smaller. We’re talk­ing liv­ing space of 500 square feet or less, some­times as lit­tle as 100 to 200 square feet. The tiny house move­ment is tak­ing hold, for rea­sons vary­ing from fi­nan­cial to en­vi­ron­men­tal. “The word has got­ten out about it more, and peo­ple see it as a vi­able op­tion,” says John Weisbarth, host of Tiny House Na­tion.

THE BEN­E­FITS

The eco­nomic ben­e­fits of dra­mat­i­cally down­siz­ing can help spur folks into think­ing small. Af­ter get­ting burned dur­ing the re­cent hous­ing cri­sis, some home­own­ers don’t want to have a big mort­gage and siz­able prop­erty to main­tain.

“A lot of peo­ple be­came dis­en­fran­chised with the Amer­i­can dream that had al­ways been sold to them, that big­ger is bet­ter,” says Weisbarth. “Af­ter hav­ing the rug pulled out from un­der­neath them, they took a dif­fer­ent look at what that dream was.”

That proved true for a lot of baby boomers who lost value in both their homes and re­tire­ment ac­counts dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion. “The down­turn made peo­ple want to find a way to se­cure their fu­tures and re­tain some sense of in­de­pen­dence with a lack of vul­ner­a­bil­ity,” says Elaine Walker, a found­ing mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Tiny House As­so­ci­a­tion and a tiny home owner her­self. “They want to find a way to live fru­gally for greater piece of mind.”

A tiny prop­erty nat­u­rally costs much less than a 2,000-square-foot home, mean­ing sig­nif­i­cantly lower monthly mort­gage pay­ments—or even none at all. “If you don’t have that amount you’re pay­ing ev­ery month, what­ever it is, you have that much more money in your pocket,” says Weisbarth. “It’s a real mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor for a lot of peo­ple.”

But it still takes a fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment to build a func­tional tiny home and find a place to put it. “It does have costs as­so­ci­ated with it,” says Walker. “You still have to pur­chase or rent land. It’s got this ideal of free­dom as­so­ci­ated with it, but I think there’s more re­spon­si­bil­ity than is some­times billed.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal rea­sons can also com­pel home­own­ers to shrink their space. A tiny house has a much smaller lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive foot­print, and many take ad­van­tage of so­lar power and other off-the-grid re­sources. Their size also makes them cheaper to op­er­ate than a larger home.

“It’s re­ally hard for peo­ple to imagine how ef­fi­cient a well-built, well-in­su­lated, new home is,” says Kevin Casey, founder and CEO of New Av­enue, a Cal­i­for­nia-based com­pany that works with clients around the coun­try in­ter­ested in smaller houses. “Lots of peo­ple see these mas­sive re­duc­tions in heat­ing and cool­ing costs.”

Across the board, life tends to get much sim­pler when your abode’s more minis­cule than mega-man­sion. “When it comes to up­keep and main­te­nance, it hardly takes any time at all,” says Weisbarth. “Straight­en­ing your house is a mat­ter of 15 min­utes in­stead of half a day. What could you do with what you gain in more money and more time? Pretty much any­thing you want.”

Ev­ery­day liv­ing also gets much eas­ier. “Peo­ple re­ally seem to ap­pre­ci­ate hav­ing ev­ery­thing closer to­gether and in sight,” says Casey. “They en­joy cut­ting out the ex­tra stuff. It’s or­derly, lower stress and lower has­sle.”

It’s very log­i­cal es­pe­cially when the space is well thought out. “The key to mak­ing tiny work is smart de­sign,” says Weisbarth. “A place for ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­thing in its place. It cuts down on clut­ter, and you free up time for what’s im­por­tant to you.”

THE RE­AL­ITY

So is tiny house liv­ing right for you? Even the gung-ho con­verts fea­tured on Tiny House Na­tion some­times seem to take a step back when they re­al­ize just how diminu­tive their dwellings will be.

Walker knows first­hand what it’s like to live in tight quar­ters. She built her own trans­portable tiny home in 2009 and resided in it in New Hamp­shire and Cal­i­for­nia. She’s since moved to Lake­wood Ranch, Florida, to help care for her par­ents and is tem­po­rar­ily rent­ing out her tiny home, which is now sit­u­ated at an Or­lando-area RV park. She plans to go back to it one day and un­der­stands what it re­quires to go small.

“It takes a per­son who doesn’t need to ac­cu­mu­late a lot,” says Walker, who also runs the web­site Tiny House Com­mu­nity. “It takes some­one who has a min­i­mal­ist view on things and doesn’t at­tach im­por­tance to their pos­ses­sions.”

Weisbarth has worked with young home­own­ers, older cou­ples and fam­i­lies on Tiny House Na­tion and has found that they all share cer­tain traits. “The uni­fy­ing fac­tor is just an en­thu­si­asm to re­ally make that leap,” he says. “It re­minds me of that en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit where peo­ple go, ‘I’m go­ing to take this leap, and I know that if it doesn’t work it’s not go­ing to kill me.’ It’s fear that holds peo­ple back, and these are peo­ple who let their pas­sion trump that fear card.”

Weisbarth will be the first to ad­mit that what’s de­picted on Tiny House Na­tion def­i­nitely isn’t for ev­ery­one. “What we do on our show is ag­gres­sive for sure,” he says. “Some­one go­ing from 2,000 to 200 square feet is mak­ing a big jump and it is not easy. But through our show peo­ple can look and say, ‘ Maybe I don’t need 4,000 square feet; maybe I can get away with 2,000. It’s still a lot of space, but it’s half the space. Maybe I can get away with less.’”

The op­ti­mal ver­sion of “less” varies from per­son to per­son. “I be­lieve there’s such a thing as ‘right sized liv­ing,’ but the sweet spot de­pends on a lot of dif­fer­ent fac­tors,” says Weisbarth. “We’ve done a cou­ple of foun­da­tion builds for 500-square­foot houses. And maybe I’ve just spent so much time in 200-square-foot places, but 500 square feet never looked so big and lux­u­ri­ous! My wife and I and our young son, we could do that for sure. But my wife’s not en­tirely con­vinced yet.”

But Weisbarth could be on to some­thing. “I could ar­gue that around 500 square feet is pretty close to per­fect for most peo­ple,” says New Av­enue’s Casey. “We had a client who built a 600-square-foot house who calls it par­adise.”

THE POS­SI­BIL­I­TIES

Florida has po­ten­tial to be a prime mar­ket for the tiny house move­ment. One thing work­ing in its fa­vor is its siz­able pop­u­la­tion of baby-boomer re­tirees, many of whom are look­ing for a sim­pler life­style and smaller liv­ing space.

“I think it would work great in Florida,” says Weisbarth. “It’s a no­brainer for empty nesters who have sud­denly found them­selves with a big house af­ter all their kids are gone. It just makes sense.”

Most of New Av­enue’s clients are over 50 years old, and the com­pany gets a lot of in­quiries from Florida. Its cus­tomers build smaller-sized homes for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. Some live in them from the get-go. Oth­ers add the pe­tite pads to their prop­er­ties with plans to tran­si­tion to them down the road and pass their main house on to their chil­dren. In the mean­time, the small struc­tures can be used as guest cot­tages, in-law suites or liv­ing space for their adult chil­dren.

“Over 80 per­cent of our clients are baby boomers who have a long and ac­tive re­tire­ment plan ahead of them,” says Casey.

“A lot of peo­ple be­came dis­en­fran­chised with the Amer­i­can dream that had al­ways been sold to them, that big­ger is bet­ter.” — John Weisbarth, host of Tiny House Na­tion

“They don’t plan on be­ing alone in a big, old house. They’re look­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent. They’re try­ing to get some­one to share their prop­erty with them by cre­at­ing two units where there used to be one.”

Casey sees this as a vi­able op­tion for many Florida re­tirees, who might be wid­owed or only spend part of the year here. “If they have some­one around like a ten­ant, they’re not leav­ing their house va­cant for six months of the year,” he says. “More than half of our clients are sin­gle se­nior women, and they would love to have a 22-year-old liv­ing in their back­yard for peace of mind and ex­tra eyes on their prop­erty.”

Rules vary from mu­nic­i­pal­ity to mu­nic­i­pal­ity when it comes to adding smaller homes to ei­ther prop­erty you al­ready own or newly ac­quired pieces of land. If the tiny house is on wheels and trans­portable, it can some­times be tricky to find a place to park it for the long term.

From what she’s ex­pe­ri­enced, Walker sees RV parks as a great place for tiny homes, and Florida cer­tainly has plenty of them. But is­sues still need to be worked out when it comes to keep­ing more-per­ma­nent res­i­dences in a place that tends to be for tran­si­tory trav­el­ers.

Some com­mu­ni­ties have rules about min­i­mum sizes for new foun­da­tion-built homes, which can make con­struct­ing su­per-small ones dif­fi­cult. But Walker hopes to see more places em­brace the ben­e­fits of re­duced-size res­i­dences and thinks Florida could help lead the way.

“I do see com­mu­ni­ties be­com­ing more ac­cept­ing of it, but there’s a long way to go,” she says. “But I think it’s in­evitable that it will be more ac­cepted na­tion­wide. There are a whole lot of folks get­ting older who will need af­ford­able hous­ing.

“We may see some new planned com­mu­ni­ties where they’re al­lowed,” she con­tin­ues. “And tiny houses on wheels be­ing al­lowed to stay in RV parks per­ma­nently or be back­yard ac­ces­sory struc­tures to an­other per­ma­nent res­i­dence. We need more homes to be al­lowed to be in back­yards where gen­er­a­tions can stay to­gether.”

And while the tran­si­tions de­picted on TV can some­times seem ex­treme, the gen­eral con­cept of less liv­ing space isn’t so rad­i­cal.

“The idea of tiny houses is not a new idea; they used to just be called houses,” says Weisbarth. “In the last 50 to 60 years, homes have got­ten big­ger and big­ger and big­ger. But at the end of the day, the pen­du­lum is start­ing to shift in the other di­rec­tion, and the idea of scal­ing back is one I think ev­ery­one is look­ing at.” How tiny you go is up to you.

A tiny house has a much smaller lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive foot­print, and many take ad­van­tage of so­lar power and other off-the-grid re­sources.

“The key to mak­ing tiny work is smart de­sign. A place for ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­thing in its place. It cuts down on clut­ter, and you free up time for what’s im­por­tant to you.”

— John Weisbarth, host of

Tiny House Na­tion

John Weisbarth, host of the TV show Tiny House Na­tion on A&E’s FYI net­work, helps home­own­ers down­size and ad­justto liv­ing in less than 500 square feet.

Elaine Walker’s tiny house (mid­dle) has trav­eled the coun­try and even made a layover in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. as part of a show­case on liv­ing small.

Tiny homes come in all shapes and styles from tra­di­tional (be­low left) to boxy with a slight pitched roof (above). Left photo: Elaine Walker’s par­ents en­joyed play­ing house in their daugh­ter’s cot­tage-in­spired home with its doll­house porch.

Tiny houses of­ten com­ple­ment larger fam­ily homes, serv­ing as back­yard quar­ters for in-laws or adult chil­dren. Be­low: John Weisbarth on the job.

Depend­ing on the home, some tiny houses can be picked up and eas­ily moved, but one thing’s for sure, the owner can’t be at­tached to a wealth of pos­ses­sions.

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