Olga Zeveleva
April 2018.

What's so great about tiny houses, who lives in them and why?

2 answers

“Tiny house” is an actual term for a very small house that stands on a trailer base. There are more and more of them all the time, they are very trendy.

The demographic of people who live in tiny houses is surprising: I’ve heard of a 40 year-old with three kids wanting to live in a tiny house - a situation that does not appeal to me. The majority of people who do this are millennials, but I have also head of people retire into them. For example, someone could have lived in a big house, then they figure they don't need so much space, they sell the house, get a tiny house, put it on some land. Some people also use tiny houses as cabins or vacation homes. If you look at the people who have been on the TV show about tiny houses, I would say about 70% use the tiny house as their main home, and 30% use it as a cabin.

Photo: Ben Hardesty. Transporting the tiny house.

A few years back, my wife Geneva and I didn’t know where we were going to end up, and we wanted something we owned. From conception to starting construction of our tiny house, about 5 months passed, because my wife was about to graduate from her master’s program, we were about to move for her to start her law degree, and we were talking about what we wanted all of that to look like. So it wasn’t that methodical. But then again, nothing in life seems to be.

We spent about $25 000-$30 000 building the house. But we did all the work, so we didn’t pay anyone for labor. I don’t know what electricity and plumbing would have cost, because my wife’s dad did all the plumbing and a friend did the electric. And I have a friend who is a framer, who did the rough framing for us, and everything else we did ourselves.

Photo: Ben Hardesty. Taking the tiny house through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.

We started framing it in Chesapeake, Virginia, where I grew up, then we took it up to New Jersey to finish the interior, all the way up the Eastern shore, to my wife’s parents’ place. The house is on a trailer base, so you transport it on a truck. The craziest thing about the preparation process was taking the house through the Chesapeake Bay tunnel on a truck. I was terrified before the tunnel. I knew we were within the legal parameters, but it still made me very nervous - until we got about 200 yards from it, I saw the house next to a semi-truck, and realised we were going to make it.

After the interior of the house was completed in New Jersey, we moved the house to my cousin’s cousin’s land in Virginia, close to where my wife goes to law school. We have a jackpot situation, with water and a sceptic we could join. We pay the hosts a minimal fee every month for using their land, and for the utilities.

Photo: Ben Hardesty. Interior of Ben and Geneva's tiny house.

One of the hard things about building our own tiny house was figuring out our electric, plumbing, and water, but we were fortunate to join our hosts’ sceptic and water line. A lot of times you need someone to pump out sewage, for example. Some people collect rainwater, which we don't do, partly because we built this house very quickly.

The other hard thing is that occasionally I hit my head in the loft when I wake up.

A lot of people’s tiny houses are 24 feet, but I wanted the extra 4 feet in ours for a normal-sized bathroom. The deck we built here later also helps a lot.

I think one of the great things about living in a tiny house is making a smaller environmental footprint. I wish we were solar, but that was too expensive for the time we were building it. We do everything LED with lightbulbs, we have an air conditioner. It does get really cold in the winter, but the house is easy to heat.

Photo: @tinyhousebasics Instagram. Example of a tiny house in Kansas.

If you’re looking into building a tiny house, my advice would be to find a place for it first - that’s the key thing. That is actually quite challenging. Friends of mine who wanted to build a tiny house spent two years looking for a place to put it, and in the end they didn’t even end up building one because they never found a place. It would help if you bought or had access to a plot of land which already has electric and plumbing, or you could go with solar. And do think through your space well, you don’t have a lot of it.

Sometime down the line, I would like to try doing something creative like this in three shipping container units.

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A "tiny house" is a trailer-sized small house on wheels, with an area usually under 500 square feet (46 square meters).

My husband and I have lived in our tiny house for a year and a half in Virginia, just outside Charlottesville. We called it the Taj Masmall for a while, but that name didn’t really stick, so now we just call it the Tiny House.

I’m a second year law student, and my university is a 20 minute drive from the farm on which our Tiny House currently stands. For now, this is idyllic.

Photo: By Geneva Hardesty. Ben and Geneva's Tiny House.

We decided to build a tiny house in November 2014; it took us five months to begin the process, and then it took about one year to build it.

I had been reading about them in advance and was really interested in the environmental aspects, and I liked the minimalism of it. We knew that I was going to go to law school and we would be living on one income, so were looking to keep some costs down, which kind of backfired because we spent a lot of money on this; we could have actually used that money to cover rent for some time. But the house itself is an asset, and I'm happy we decided to try this out. But even though I did some research on tiny houses in advance, for us this was still a little but more of a whim than it should have been.

Before this house, Ben and I hand’t even lived in the same state together, so this is the first house we shared, and we moved into it at the start of my law school degree. And we still like each other! Although I have to say, building the Tiny House together was a bigger relationship stressor than actually living in it together.

Photo: Geneva and Ben's Tiny House, which currently stands on a farm in Virginia. The house you can see behind the Tiny House belongs to their hosts. The deck in the front is a new addition.

Over the year that it took us to build it, we did the basic parts in Virginia on Ben’s parents’ land, and then we took it up to New Jersey and did the interior there, on my parents’ property, on weekends when we weren’t working. So we worked on it on both of our parents' properties, which was fun. My dad is a contractor, and he has a lot of useful skills that were helpful, especially plumbing. His good friend is an electrician, so they had a lot of fun helping us with putting together those interior parts.

We used my dad’s truck to transport the house, which stands on a trailer base. Now our Tiny House is on the property of a Virginia farm, the owners of which are distant family members who were happy to host us.

For us, the house wasn’t ever going to be something we would drive around the country with, although a lot of people do that. I think that if that's what you are looking for, it may be easier to just get a camper that is designed to be hauled around the roads. In our case, we were looking to move the house here and then decide where we’re going after that, kind of hopping from one main place to another main place. This farm in Virginia has worked out really well for us, and if we move somewhere else that’s not a big city, we would bring the Tiny House and put it up there.

Photo: @tinyhousebasics Instagram. An example of the interior of a tiny house.

We are not entirely sure, but our rough estimate is that we spent about $25 000 to $30 000 on building the house. Of course, for the amount of money we spent on this, we could have paid rent for two years in Charlottesville - but at the end of the day, I would do this again.

We based our blueprints on the Lucy Tiny House in New Zealand. We changed the plan a little: we extended ours four feet out and put the bathroom on the end, and we planned to also install a washer-drier, which we haven’t done because we have access to our hosts.

In a lot of the houses, you’ll see some really crazy design elements, like packing a lot of stuff into spaces and having secret pop-out elements. That felt a little bit more kitchy than we wanted, we were looking for it to be more house-like, so we have a nice-sized kitchen and a nice-sized bathroom, and our living space is just the couch. But that’s all we need.

Video: A virtual tour of the Lucy Tiny House in New Zealand, which Ben and Geneva used as an example while building their own.

The size constraint of tiny houses can be frustrating. I think at one time the most people we’ve had inside our house at one time was six, and we don’t own very many things.

Our energy drain comes out to about $5 a month, which is unbelievably low (compare that to about $150 in average single-family houses). Water usage is lower, the footprint is small. The house is easy to heat and cool. Everything in the house is electric except for the hot water heater, which runs on propane.

We faced some challenges when building the house together. I had zero constructions skills, and Ben had some. But one of the hardest things for me (and this may sound ridiculous) was when we were doing the wood paneling up in the loft. It’s gabled, and getting the right angles on the wood paneling was the hardest problem I’ve had to solve. I must have wasted around $100 in wood paneling because I kept making mistakes. I went to law school, I don’t do math, and trying to get the proper angle and slope and length was really difficult. 

For plumbing, we have to have a white pipe that goes down into their sceptic system, which was already here on the host property. We don’t have plumbing problems - our shower pressure is super normal, our toilet flushes just fine. I installed the toilet, it’s one of those button flushes, and we had a small problem with that, which wasn’t related to the fact that we live in a tiny house. For a year, you had to hold the button down for 15 seconds to make sure it flushed, and we thought it was a water pressure problem. And after a year and a half Ben decided to look at it, and it turned out there were these prongs in the canister flush, and the prongs weren’t long enough. It took two minutes to fix.

We did run into a problem this winter with freezing temperatures. We were gone for almost four weeks over Christmas, the power went out and it didn’t stay warm enough, so our hot water heater broke and our pipes froze. We should have drained the water from the hot water heater, but we didn’t expect it to get so cold in our absence. It was below zero a lot this past winter, and we were fine the rest of the time.

We also recently discovered that when I was insulating, I did a garbage job, and most of the house wasn’t properly insulated. So Ben just insulated it this week, and I’m interested to see how much warmer it is next winter. We have a space heater that warms things up, and we wear slippers all the time, which helps.

Photo: @tinyhousebasics Instagram. An example of the interior of a tiny house.

If I were to offer tips to people who are looking to build a tiny house, I would say this: think about your space carefully. We spent weeks talking about our kitchen and where everything would go. We bought IKEA things only for the bathroom; our stove is from a random website for small apartments; and when we built a deck, that was a game-changer for sunny days.

Also, it turns out it’s not easy to find land for a tiny house. The general consensus is that you should not build a tiny house until you have land to put it on. We were lucky because we emailed a cousin, and their cousin who has a farm near my law school was interested in the concept of tiny houses, so we moved here and we pay a set fee every month, which is very minimal, plus utilities, which are also very low. 

A lot of people buy tiny houses from a company called Tumbleweed, but recently many new companies have started building them. Tiny houses have become really popular, there are even several hilarious TV shows about them - Tiny House Hunters, Tiny House Nation

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