Should You Build a Tiny House?

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Ready to Build Your Own?

Now that I have finished building my own tiny house, many people have asked me if I would do it again. Honestly, I’m on the fence about that. However, it really doesn’t matter what I would or wouldn’t do. The real question is whether should you build your own tiny house and I believe that’s an extremely personal question. What I would or would not do should have no bearing on your decision. What might impact your decision, however, are some of the tiny house truths I have learned during my own journey.

I’m reminded of a story that my wife, Sheila, likes to tell about a college friend of hers. Shortly after delivering her first baby, this college friend called Sheila to tell her about the experience, saying, “They all lied to me! I’m telling it like it is. There’s nothing beautiful about it!” Evidently, the whole childbearing experience was a little messier than she was expecting. I won’t say there’s nothing beautiful about building or owning a tiny house because there is. However, when you attend a workshop, they make it seem like it’s going to be this wonderful experience that will be delightfully challenging while simplifying your life, helping the environment and just generally making the world a better place. They don’t really tell you about the difficulties and challenges you will encounter, because if they did, you might not buy a trailer or the set of plans they are selling. Since I’m not trying to sell anything here, I feel like that puts me in a unique position to tell you the truth about building a tiny house so that if you decide to build your own, you won’t finish it feeling like someone lied to you.

Before I start, let me say that I think there are probably three primary things to consider when deciding whether to build a tiny house.

  1. Finances. Although building a tiny house is much less expensive than building a big house, it still doesn’t cost nothing. The materials alone will probably cost you between $20K and $25K. If you want to pay a company to build it for you, it will cost you between $55K and $65K. That’s probably more money than most people have in the bank. The tiny house companies can help you with financing if you purchase a house from them, but getting financing to build your own tiny house might be difficult.
  2. Time.  If you build it yourself, it will  cost you about 1500 to 2000 hours of  time. For most people, that means 1-2 years of working evenings and weekends. That time will save you between $30 and $40K which means that the effort you put into building a tiny house is worth about $20 an hour. In other words, if you can make more than $20 an hour doing something else, you might be better off (at least financially) paying somebody to build your house for you.
  3. Experience. I’m not just talking about what kind of building experience you already have, but what kind of experience you want. I was lucky enough to have both the time and the money to either buy a tiny house or build it myself, so my final decision came down to one of experience. I didn’t have any building experience, but for some reason, I decided I wanted to have some. I’m not sure exactly why, but I think it’s because I was hoping I would be able to use that experience in the future to help other people who wanted to build their own tiny house. I haven’t really had a chance to do that yet, but I suspect that if I do, my own experience will become even more valuable to me.

Although time, money and experience are major factors involved in building a tiny house, there are other things you should consider. These are things I did not know before I started building my tiny house and things that if I had known, might have changed my decision or at least my expectations.

First of all, there are the plans. I have already made a long blog post on this which you can read if you want more information. For the sake of this entry, let me just say that you can buy your plans for multiple different companies and no matter which one you pick, the plans will probably be expensive ($800-$1000) and not be very good. When it comes down to it, all of the tiny house companies are really focused on putting on workshops for the thousands of people in the country who think they want to build a tiny house, not for the few dozen who actually do. If you are an experienced builder, you can probably work around the issues in the plans, but if you have no experience, you might find dealing with the plans to be more than a bit challenging and frustrating.

If you wait a bit, it’s possible that the plans will get better. Tumbleweed has been making attempts to improve their plans and has also told me that eventually, they want to provide some kind of instructions to go with the plans. They mentioned something like those helpful pictures like you find in those IKEA instruction manuals. I find the pictures and those IKEA instruction manuals to be pretty frustrating, so I’m not sure how much of an improvement this would be. However, any additional time spent on, or information included in their plans would probably be welcome.

Regardless of how the plans do or do not it evolve over time, you should be aware that building a tiny house is still going to be a pretty big challenge. For me, it was the most difficult thing I have ever done. It was more difficult than riding my bike 518 miles in 40 hours. It was more difficult than getting a bachelors degree in engineering from MIT or a masters degree from Stanford. I really was not fully prepared for how difficult it was going to be. It’s not just challenging to figure out how everything goes together, it’s difficult to keep motivating yourself. There were days when all I could do was sit inside my partially built tiny house staring at the walls in despair over how impossible it seemed to make any more progress. There were days I wanted, oh so badly, to just quit. On some of those days I actually considered setting fire whole thing just to get rid of it. To be fair, there were also some delightful days. There were some days (not many) when I made more progress than I thought I would and days when I did something that made the house so much more beautiful than it was before that I would enjoy looking at what I had created for weeks afterwards. One thing is for certain: if you’re going to build your own tiny house, you should expect both very good and very bad days.

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My Tiny House In Middle of Street After an Attempted Theft

Talking about very bad days leads me to my next challenge about owning a tiny house: theft. I know it seems great that your house is on wheels and can be moved anywhere you want. However, having a house on wheels means that somebody can drive away with it which is exactly what they did to my house in the middle of my build process (more about that here). Lest you think that this is an isolated incident, I discovered soon after that I’m not the only one to have had their tiny house stolen. Luckily, everyone I know who has had their tiny house stolen has also eventually gotten it back (my thieves did not get more than a half a mile from my house). However, the experience does not leave you unchanged. For Casey Friday, the theft of his tiny house was the final straw in a long series of challenges he experienced during his build process (many of which I also experienced) that made him give up his dream and sell his partially constructed tiny house for the cost of the raw materials. For me, the theft of my tiny home was just an eye-opener. I always knew it was possible, but I just didn’t think it would happen. I also never thought about what the impact would be to me if it actually did happen. The impact was much bigger than I would have expected or predicted. Everyone has had things stolen from them and it never feels good. However, in the end, most of the things we have stolen from us are just things. With enough money, we can just buy another one. If you have the misfortune of having a tiny house you built yourself stolen, you will quickly realize that you can’t just buy another one. If somebody steals your tiny house, they are not only stealing $25K of materials, they are stealing 2000 hours worth of your time. I have never been in a situation in my life before were somebody could steal my time. It’s pretty much irreplaceable time because I know that if anyone ever successfully stole my house, I would never find the motivation to spend 2000 hours building another one. In the end, my house and all the time I put into it would  just be gone forever, which is a disturbing thought for me, even now. As long as I own my tiny house, which I hope will be for a very long time, I will always be worried about somebody stealing it and having this masterpiece creation, the most difficult thing I have ever done, just disappear from my life forever.

I know what you’re thinking. If it’s possible to have your tiny house stolen, you should just get insurance for it. That way if it disappears, you may lose your masterpiece, but you will at least get your money back. Unfortunately, that’s what I thought as well and it turned out to be wishful thinking. After much painful research, I eventually discovered that you cannot buy insurance for a tiny house, especially when you have built it yourself. We tried and tried, but no insurance company would touch it. Something that is not really a house and not really a vehicle just doesn’t fall into any kind of category that insurance companies know how to deal with. I have been told that if you buy a tiny house from a company like Tumbleweed, it will be RV certified which means that you might be able to get insurance for it. However, I think even then, the insurance will be limited and will not cover basic things like theft (I still fail to understand the point of insurance that doesn’t cover theft). Anyway, before you start your build process, I would strongly recommend doing some research into the insurance situation and based on what you find out, ask yourself honestly whether you could deal with what the insurance company would or would not give you if you ever lost your dream tiny home to theft, fire, a tree branch, towing accident or who knows what else.

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Assuming your house survives all of those things and you find a place to peacefully settle down in your new tiny home, the next thing you have to worry about is eviction. In the workshops, they will try to tell you that putting a tiny house on a piece of property and living in it falls into this gray area of county zoning that is technically legal because your tiny house is on wheels. They will say that county regulations prohibit you from living in a a recreational vehicle for more than 30 days in a row so if you move out for just one day every month, you’re OK. The reality is not quite so rosy. Most likely, your county will not  view things quite the same way the tiny house companies do and if the county finds out about your tiny house, they will probably ask you to leave. At that point, you can try to fight them, but I know of no one who has done so successfully. The problems usually arise when a neighbor notices the tiny house and reports it to the county. After that, you’re pretty much sunk. Jonathan had this happen to him on a piece of rural property he purchased specifically for the purpose of parking his tiny house. He was unable to fight the county and eventually had to give up his dream of tiny house living. Jenna and Guillaume have been evicted from two different places in Colorado.  They eventually solved their problem by hiding their tiny house somewhere where nobody can see it and hoping for the best. Unlike Jonathan, they don’t own the property they are parked on so if they get another eviction notice, they can just move and try again somewhere else. Suffice it to say, tiny house evictions really do happen and are something you should consider and be prepared for.

Having now frightened you with all of the realities and difficulties involved in building a tiny house, let me mention that there are things you can you do to make the situation easier on yourself or to minimize the risks involved. First, I recommend doing your research in advance. Look into insurance. Check the regulations in your county about owning or living in a house on wheels. Find out what the real situation is in advance. Don’t wait until you’re done building your tiny house to figure those things out. Next, think about security (I wrote a post about that here). Since you probably won’t be able to replace your tiny house if it gets stolen, make sure it is as difficult as possible for somebody to steal it. Take the wheels off and put it up on jack stands. Put a good lock on the tongue and chain the axles to a big tree or to a bolt cemented into the ground. Pay for a GPS tracking device and hide it in the house. On top of everything else, try to put the tiny house somewhere where nobody will see it. Doing that may solve your problems with the county as well. As long as no neighbor sees it and reports it, the county will most likely not come looking for it. I know you will be tempted to show off your masterpiece, but in general, the more out of sight you can keep your tiny house, the better off you will be. Finally, be good to yourself during the build process. Don’t push yourself too hard or try to stick to an unrealistic schedule (I actually recommend not having a schedule at all). If you are feeling run down, depressed or frustrated about a problem that seems unsolvable, remember to give yourself a break. I was frequently amazed by how often a really great solution to a really difficult problem would simply pop into my head if I simply took a little bit of time off.

If all of those suggestions don’t make you feel a little bit better about the challenges involved in building a tiny house, then let me also point out some of the really great things about building a tiny house. First of all, finishing your tiny house is a pretty amazing feeling. Even finishing little parts of it can be pretty satisfying. The day I raised my walls, the day I installed my first wall of exterior siding, the day I finished installing my roof and my house was watertight and the day I finished my front porch were all particularly memorable days for me, days in which the character of the house was completely changed. Accomplishing something of this magnitude and knowing that you built it with your own two hands is a pretty amazing feeling.

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The House After Installing my First Wall of Exterior Siding

Perhaps even more rewarding than completing my tiny house were the friendships that my tiny house brought into my life. It’s impossible to embark on a project like this without attracting really interesting, like minded people. I will always be grateful for the people who have joined me on this incredible journey, from our property co-owners, to old and new friends who helped me with the build process or loaned me tools, to brothers and sisters in arms who are building their own tiny house here in my home town. The people I have met on this journey have turned out to be some greatest people I have ever met and I am seriously lucky to call them my friends. For some reason, the kinds of people who are interested in building a tiny house just seem to be really good people. I now think that anybody who is even remotely interested in tiny houses is probably somebody worth knowing.

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Thanksgiving Dinner with Tiny House Friends

So now we return to the original question which is whether you should or should not build your own tiny house. That is still a decision you’ll have to make for yourself but hopefully one you now feel better able to make. If you have read all of this and still want to go through with it, more power to you. My purpose here was not to discourage you from building a tiny house, just to make sure you knew what you were getting into before devoting such a huge amount of your time and money into such a project. Building a tiny house can really can be a very meaningful and rewarding experience. If you know what you’re getting into and decide to do it anyway, I think you have a good chance of success and if you set your expectations correctly, I think you also have a good chance of enjoying the experience. No matter what happens, I can guarantee you that if you build a tiny house, you will have experiences unlike those most of the rest of the world has. Some of them will be good and some of them bad, but all of them will be memorable and no matter what happens, those amazing memories will always be yours.

If you have gotten to the end of this blog entry and are thinking maybe building a tiny house is not for you, then don’t feel bad. Give yourself some credit for figuring out the truth now instead of in the middle of your build when it might have transformed your tiny house into a very large burden. No matter what you decide, the fact that you even considered building your own tiny house means you’re probably a person worth knowing.

If you are one of the few who have built your own tiny house and can think of other things that people might want to consider before starting their own build process, feel free to share them in the comments below.

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6 Responses to Should You Build a Tiny House?

  1. cinemaneah says:

    Nice post Russ, I fully agree with your observations but I would see the labor costs differently. I look at this way. If I hire my friend Dana the journeyman carpenter and master cabinet maker to build my house instead, he charges $75/hour here in the Bay Area. Let’s say, being a pro, he can do it in 300 man hours (the 3 Amish brothers in the Tumbleweed video apparently make an entire house in 2 weeks, so that seems reasonable 3 men X 40 hours each X 2 weeks is really 240 hours). So I would pay $22,500 to Dana and so that is actually money out of my pocket, because I have to shell out the cash, and work my day job to generate it.

    So it seems logical to use $22,500 to calculate your hourly rate if you DIY. So 1500 into 22,500 is $15/hr and if you take 2000 more like 11.25/hr. That being said we used evenings and weekends and holidays to work on our houses. It is not a fair comparison to say “if you can make more than $20 an hour doing something else, you might be better off (at least financially) paying somebody to build your house for you.” There are no monetary trade-offs for most people where they can actually recoup money for the time spent on the house. Very few of us, if any, tiny house builders are taking time off of work to build (meaning unpaid leave). And since most people are salaried, no chance they can say to their employers “hey boss, can I work and extra 1500-2000 hours this year and get paid for it too?” I wish. I’m an independent contractor and still can’t get that many extra paid hours in a year! In reality I still have my $22,500 and I am building my own house. Indeed, I’m actually banking it because I didn’t shell it out.

    So I just don’t see how one can slice the DIY as anything but a huge savings. So I see my tiny house DIY time as getting paid minimum wage, and getting paid to learn new and cool and empowering things while I’m on the job. And technically it is tax-free wages too 🙂 Indeed, it does pay to build it yourself; just not in lieu of your professional day job of course. And like you said on your point about experience in the sense of gaining it, that is a huge part of it for me and why even though I knew much of these caveats going into it from reading other blogs, it didn’t deter me.

    • Hi Gregory,

      Thanks for your comments. You make some interesting points. However, I am inclined to stick by my original statements. Maybe it’s just my own ego at work, but I have trouble believing that anybody can build a tiny house for the first time using only 15% of the hours it took me, no matter how experienced they are. I still think subtracting the cost of materials from what Tumbleweed charges for a completed house is a sound way to estimate the cost of labor. My feeling is that anyone who tells you they can build a tiny house for 300 hours or $22,500 is most likely going to end up over budget, over time or under quality.

      As for being able to do something else with your time: I spent an average of 20 hours a week over the course of two years on my tiny house. That’s basically a half-time job. If anybody is motivated enough to build a tiny house, they are more than motivated enough to hold down a part-time job in addition to their full-time job if they want to. That said, I did neglect the taxes aspect. To end up with $20/hr, you probably need a salary closer to $30/hr. However, if you have a part time job that pays that and do it for two years, you will have enough money to pay somebody else to build your tiny house. But in the end, as you and I both said, it all comes down to weighing financial and time resources and limitations against what kind of experience you want.

  2. cinemaneah says:

    Oh, one other point I would add. Do the homework first on your land purchase or place where you want to park it. This is the biggest issue I see with most Tiny Housers. They naïvely assume their house will be so cute and original no one will complain. To avoid the eviction and zoning issues I would encourage people to before they even buy the first nail, find their land and visit that county’s planning and zoning offices. Show them your plans, ask them about the rules, limitations, restrictions, and any other requirements and see what they say. It is possible that even though the rules may stipulate against you living in your tiny house on the property for various reasons not explicit to Tiny Houses but the closest they can find, you can petition the city for something called an allowance. It is essentially a permit to build or occupy as a one-off, special exception to existing codes. People do it all the time when they do additions to their house if they obscure someone else’s views say with a taller roofline addition.

  3. Nicole says:

    A great read, thanks!

  4. Trail Tara says:

    Nice to read about the pros and cons in equal measures 🙂

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