The 8 Most Googled Tiny House Questions, Answered by Tiny Home Dwellers

updated Jul 3, 2019
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Traditional homeowners and renters alike are looking at tiny homes now more than ever. According to a 2018 National Association of Home Builders poll, as many as 63 percent of respondents would consider living in a home with less than 600 square feet of space.

But amid the fervor for tiny homes and their surrounding community, the lifestyle can get confusing. What’s legal? How much do tiny houses actually cost? How livable are they, really?

I’ve corralled eight of the most Googled questions about tiny homes and spoke with real owners, builders, and dwellers for real answers. (At time of assigning, these were the full questions with the most search volume monthly.) Here, they clear up some of the uncertainty.

1. How much does it cost to buy a tiny house?

Jenna Spesard began building her tiny house on wheels in 2013, and finished it the next year. Since then, she’s documented her life as a part-time tiny home dweller on Whidbey Island (an hour north of Seattle, Washington) on Tiny House Giant Journey.

She breaks down her build’s total cost on her site. Spesard says that the average tiny home costs around $25,000 in materials, plus a varying rate for labor. Her tiny home cost $31,160 in materials, plus around $3,000 to $8,000 in labor (she had sponsorships, though, to help cut down on the cost).

She notes that trailers and rental costs for land can add a bit to that estimate, too. For example, custom-built trailers from Tiny House Basics, a Clayton, California-based company that builds and sells more than 450 tiny house trailers annually, start around $2,500 and can go up significantly based on size and towing capacity.

2. Which states allow tiny houses?

“We have customers in every single state that are successfully living tiny,” says Joshua Engberg, co-founder of Tiny House Basics.

Along with Shelley, his wife and co-founder, Engberg keeps in touch with many of their customers, collecting real time data and trends about the lifestyle. He says that, as time goes on, states and municipalities are figuring out how to regulate and permit tiny houses.

3. Is it illegal to live in a tiny house?

Though tiny homes are becoming more accepted, they’re also becoming more regulated. However, this can mean a lot of confusion for tiny-home owners, as zoning codes will vary by state and town.

While both of the tiny house dwellers I talked to live in tiny home friendly-areas, others aren’t so lucky—and often find that out after they’ve spent the time and money building a custom tiny home.

For example, a family of four in Bend, Oregon was evicted from their tiny house on wheels this past winter. Though they owned the property the tiny home was parked on, the home itself wasn’t up to city code. Bend has a “cottage code” that allows between four and 12 homes of no minimum size to legally exist if they’re clustered around an open space. Additionally, since the family’s home didn’t have a foundation, it fell under RV code, which is an entirely different set of (confusing) rules. They were living in it full-time, and therefore were breaking city code.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident. Tiny home laws can be hard to navigate, but that’s something leading advocacy group the American Tiny House Association is working on. They keep tabs on changing policy across the country with a running list of regulations to determine what exactly is legal where.

4. Are tiny houses worth it?

From a sheer cost-saving perspective, both Engberg and Spesard consider tiny houses to definitely be worth it. They’ve both saved significant amounts of money just on rent, and Spesard has even been able to live debt-free.

Additionally, since many tiny homes are custom builds, they’re designed directly to address a homeowner’s wants and needs. Spesard says that living in a tiny house has been an incredible experience personalized to her taste and lifestyle.

However, they’re not always as inexpensive as they seem—and since they’re designed and built based on the homeowner’s needs, there is a lot of room for hidden costs.

5. How does tiny house plumbing work?

Plumbing looks a bit different depending if the tiny home is mobile or stationary: Tiny houses opting to use the RV setup can hook up to a septic connection that’s fairly common at RV parks and certain campgrounds. For a stationary home setup, a standard household sewage pipe can connect and drain into the regular sewer system or an established septic tank on the property.

In Spesard’s case, her mobile home was built with options to attach to the existing power, water, sewer grid. However, she can exist off-grid with a composting toilet along with water tanks and propane appliances.

In terms of indoor household plumbing and fixtures, many tiny homes can use those seen in a standard household, says Engberg. However, other tiny homes need appliances that are smaller and more specialized. And though they do save on utilites in the long run, these appliances can actually cost more than traditional ones.

6. Does a tiny house have to be on wheels?

A tiny home does not have to be on wheels. However many prefer a tiny house on wheels because it allows them mobility. In some cases, it might be easier to build and live in, too. If a home is stationary, it’s more likely to be under different zoning codes and permitting restrictions.

However, some are working around tiny home rules with accessory dwelling units (ADUs). They’re smaller living spaces—often the same size as a tiny house—that share the same space and lot as a primary house, either as a stand alone space (i.e. a guest house in the backyard, for example) or an add-on (i.e. a new apartment over the garage).

7. Does a tiny house depreciate?

On average, tiny home owners pay more per square foot when building (about $300 compared to $100 in traditional homes). And like any home purchaser, owners will want to see that return on investment. However, the market isn’t always so nice.

“When we built ours, we never built for profit,” Engberg says. “However, every month after we recouped our $50,000 build cost, we’re money ahead.”

However, like most purchases, tiny homes rely on supply and demand:

“Tiny house shows came on a few years ago and everyone jumped on the bandwagon, so I could have sold it at that point (for a profit), but the bubble is starting to burst a bit,” Spesard adds.

If the home is on wheels, you can expect some sort of depreciation scale similar to a car. However, since stationary home sales are dependent upon a buyer’s personal taste and needs—and since many are custom-built, this can pose problems and cause a home to become functionally obsolete.

“It’s such a creative thing, like a piece of art,” Spesard says. “It’s worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it at that time.”

8. Are tiny houses safe?

Both of our dwellers offered a resounding yes, but deeper research illustrates some underlying issues.  

Since they only need to buy materials for a small amount of space, tiny house owners are able to build to a much higher standard with better quality materials where traditional homeowners might opt for more inexpensive builder-grade. (This may be why the cost per square footage or tiny homes are higher!)

But you’re still working with a tiny space, which poses its own problems. Toxins, like smoke from cooking, could accumulate faster than in a regular home due to poor air circulation and pose a fire hazard. Moisture control tends to be another issue, too, as small spaces don’t lend much condensation release and can cause mold issues.

On the plus side, though, homeowners say these small spaces are quite resilient. 

“Here in the Bay Area, we’ve even been through a couple of small earthquakes and because we’re not attached to the ground, we didn’t feel anything,” Engberg says. “We’re adamant about proper framing and built to the International Residential Code, which now has an appendix for a classification of tiny house.”

Spesard has fared pretty well in most weather conditions, having traveled all over the country with her home. She notes her on/off-grid construction makes her very self-reliant and comfortable. She has a wood stove for cold days and tends to avoid locales that are too hot in the summer as she doesn’t have air conditioning.

“A hurricane could hit my home and it’ll still be there,” she adds.

Now that all your logistical questions about tiny homes have been answered, you might be wondering what it’s actually like to live in one. Here, what “Tiny House Nation” doesn’t show you about living in a tiny home.

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