The 9 Tips Tiny-Home Dwellers Want You to Know If You’re Thinking of Making the Move

published Oct 25, 2022
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Credit: Lincoln Barbour via Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

Tiny homes showcase concentrated versions of the owner’s personality. Maybe this person loves mid-century modern design, so there’s a lot of dark-stained wood throughout. Or perhaps this person feels at home in the outdoors, so there are plenty of windows present for peeking into the wilderness. Or maybe this individual loves sleeping, no matter how small the space is, so there’s still room for a comfortable bed. 

Whether you’re building a tiny home as an ADU behind your fixed address, or you’re hoping to take your tiny home on the road, it’s important to personalize this abode to your particular vantage point on the world.

If you’re thinking of taking on this project, I talked to people who have done this themselves about what you need to know — from planning out a space down to the furniture size, to figuring out if it’s possible to bring along a bunch of souvenir mugs. Read on for their nine most important tips. 

Do your research long before anything else happens. 

Jewel Pearson of Tiny House Trailblazers says she spent 18 months researching laws and best practices before hiring a contractor to build her tiny home on a 28-foot trailer. She says that taking that step paid off, because she didn’t need to make any last-minute corrections or changes during the construction phase. 

The only thing that surprised her was the actual cost of the 17 windows needed to make her dream house filled with sunlight and views. “I definitely spent money on quality windows because that’s not something you want to skimp on,” Pearson says. 

Skip the loft — seriously. 

Kim Lewis knows a cute little loft is very popular for a tiny house, but she doesn’t think you need one. While these nooks look good, she says they’re not very comfortable. Adults can’t stand up in them, they can be hard to access, and they’re not safe for anyone who’s unsteady on their feet. 

“They make the space feel smaller,” she says. Lewis cemented her reputation as a tiny house queen during her eight seasons as the interior designer on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” and a stint as the design consultant with “Tiny House Nation.” Lewis, who’s based in Austin, Texas, and her husband Joey spent two years in their Joshua Tree-inspired tiny house, and recently completed a bright, Southwestern-style Airstream called Casita Coyote.

Instead of building a loft for sleeping, it’s better to figure out how to create a bedroom where you have more room. If a loft is unavoidable, use it for storage. 

Hire experts to do the hard stuff.

When Zeena Fontanilla of Maui Tiny Home and her husband chose their solar panel and backup storage battery system, they thought the salesman knew what he was talking about. But it turned out that they didn’t buy enough panels, so they constantly drained the battery. The upgrade cost another $10,000. So, they definitely learned this lesson: Always hire experts to do specialized jobs — particularly ones that cost a lot if repairs are ever needed.

“Talk to someone who is actually specializing in what you need, rather than finding some random company,” Fontanilla says. “The best part of this tiny living community is there are so many people on social media [to supply referrals].” 

Plan for potential storage as you build.

“Before you start closing in the frame of the home, look at the bones of your house and see where you can capture space,” Lewis says. She and her husband had a 12-by-30-inch space above the bathroom, which became storage for a skateboard and books. And one of the coolest storage spaces in Fontanilla’s tiny Maui home is the set of drawers her husband built under the stairs to their loft. Doors on the front keep the home visually tidy, which is a major win. 

Say hello to storage drawers. 

Most big appliances just don’t work for a tiny house. And you probably don’t need as much indoor cooking space as you think, says Fontanilla. She finds storage drawers to be more efficient than boxy cabinets. 

Though she opted for a mint green Smeg, Lewis likes refrigerated drawers for ADUs and tiny houses. Lewis and her husband spent $2,000 on their kitchen, which included creating a custom island with drawers and cabinet storage that can be converted into a dining table. Another bonus of open shelving is that it forces you to keep everything neat — there’s no room for too many mismatched souvenir mugs.

Make sure your furniture is multipurpose.

You know the phrase “The struggle is real?” While Lewis and her husband Joey lived in their tiny house, they often said “the shuffle is real” because their surroundings needed to be flexible. “The sofa and the bed are the same thing,” Lewis says. The struggle will definitely be real, they say, if you don’t determine which items can serve dual roles. “Change your mindset so things become convertible,” Lewis says.

Make your home match your routine. 

Fontanilla says to walk through your home so you can figure out what your routines are. Where do your keys go? The mail? Your coat? “Otherwise you start to create little piles,” she says. “Even three pieces of mail thrown on a table look messy.” 

Before you move into a tiny home, get rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy. Marie Kondo was right, especially when space is tight: You don’t have room for clutter.

“When you fill your home with all the things you love, that creates an atmosphere within your home that’s pleasing,” Fontanilla says. 

Use the outdoors as your living space.

To make your home feel more spacious, Lewis is a fan of sliding doors or an accordion wall that folds up, like the La Cantina doors she chose. Decorate the patio or deck with armchairs and a table, so it feels like an extension of your indoor layout. Vaulted ceilings, skylights, high-inset windows, and sliders are all ways to make your little house feel larger.

Trust your gut. 

Since tiny homes and ADUs are so personal, you may have a much better idea of what you want than a contractor, who is used to building conventional homes. That was Pearson’s takeaway, after her contractor had her second-guessing her carefully design plans. 

“Building is a very male-centered space and it was challenging as a woman dealing with that,” she said. “The professionals always feel like they know best, but you know yourself.” Of course, that doesn’t apply to safety and structural issues, but when it comes to aesthetics, you do you.