A Little Place Called Home
Americans who embrace the tiny house movement discover a new kinds of homeowner freedom
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 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.”
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.”
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.