“If you believe that having a tiny home will lead you to a more focused and purposeful life, you probably also believe that buying a Slap Chop will lead you to eat salad every day.”
Welcome back to the enormous mansion that is my overness with tiny homes. It’s so large and spacious here! You can twirl through the front door like Julie Andrews, arms outstretched, lungs full of crisp alpine air, yodeling your appreciation for an efficient and well-designed 1,200 square foot home.
The first five points we discussed last week were mostly logistical. We raised questions about such issues as financing, insurance, time-management, and other such boring topics.
The final five points we’ll discuss today get down to a deeper, more emotional level. What is the purpose of a home? Of family? Of travel and adventure? Such topics are of essential importance to people considering the tiny house lifestyle. And in order to explore them to the best of my ability, I’m going to share AN EMBARRASSING PERSONAL ANECDOTE before the end.
So if you don’t agree with this article, go ahead and read it anyway because you’ll be rewarded with a story that depicts me in very unflattering terms!
Let’s get right back into it, shall we?
Claim #6: Take your home on the road
“Forget your grandpappy’s Winnebago – mobile homes have come a long way in the last decade. If the lifestyle of your dreams includes a new stretch of open road, clear blue skies and fresh scenery on the horizon, then a tiny house on wheels could be your ticket to happiness.
Even if you have a standard tiny home, remember that modern technology means that your structure can be relocated on the back of a trailer and plunked down with the help of a crane wherever your next adventure takes you. (Try that with a five-bedroom behemoth without breaking a window or two…)”
Reality: Traveling with a tiny home is a logistical nightmare
Let’s consider a few things.
- Depending on the dimensions of your home, you may not be able to travel on all roads or park in all spaces, especially ones where clearance is an issue.
- You may need a special commercial license to drive your home around.
- You must also make sure you’re compliant with the trailer regulations of each state you pass through. Make sure you get your weight certified at a truck weighing station, approximately 100% of which are closed 100% of the time.
- Towing your home requires a vehicle—a large, likely energy-inefficient vehicle, plus its insurance and fees.
- Insane amounts of gasoline are expended in the process of hauling an aerodynamically unsound structure for hundreds of miles.
- Most cities have laws prohibiting you from sleeping inside your vehicle on a public street.
- Most campsites have regulations about how long and how frequently you’re allowed to visit. You are also well advised to call ahead of time to clear your size, amp, and water tank size. You many need to bring your own sewage rig for grey water.
- Many RV parks that accommodate tiny houses are booked solid year-round, but especially during popular travel periods.
- Wherever you travel, finding an electrical hookup may be a challenge, so you should be prepared to go without.
- When you haul, you must make sure your tongue weight is balanced.
- When you park, you must level your house.
- When you drive, you must secure everything to keep it from falling down, rolling around, and breaking.
- When you drive at night, you must mount special lights so motorists can see you.
- Tiny home tires must be replaced every four years. More, if you travel frequently.
- If you travel through an area with different regulations, you may find yourself being ticketed or cited, even if you’re in compliance with your local laws and just passing through.
- Finally, tiny homes can be stolen. Envision everything you love, hitched to the back of a thief’s truck and driven away.
… Am I crazy or does all of this sound like the opposite of relaxing?
Also reality: Is that the point of travel?
I don’t travel very often, mostly due to a combination of cheapness and homebodiness. But when I do, I want to turn the liberation dial to eleven. My light packing skills are LEGENDARY. Or if not literally legendary, I really feel that they deserve to be. If I’m going somewhere for less than a week, I’m going with a medium size purse and that’s it. I don’t even have to drop my luggage off, I’m ready to hit the ground running. (NOTE FROM PIGGY: I can confirm. Kitty once visited me for a long weekend saddled only with Hermione’s little handbag from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)
Traveling, to me, is about leaving the comforts of home behind and seeking strange and new comforts at your destination. Traveling with your home on your back like some kind of cosmic turtle, strikes me as a completely unnecessary burden. Wherever you’re going, you’ll find that stuff—or you’ll find that you didn’t need it after all.
To be fair, this is a very personal thing. People travel for very different reasons. If this tiny home travel preparation to-do list was mine, I would save myself the stress and cancel my vacation altogether. Especially when the purpose is defeated by me still being at home.
I concede it could be a fun way to live for someone with a very particular lifestyle. That person has to be fully prepared for the amount of time, money, research, and expertise-building that goes into traveling with your entire home.
Also reality: There are cheaper ways to travel
One last point, on the subject of relocating a nonmobile tiny home. Depending on how far you move, it could cost thousands of dollars. And there is no guarantee your home won’t be stolen or damaged in the process. Moving something that large can create serious unseen structural damage. You’ll also have to go through the expense of buying/obtaining new land and installing new sewage, water, electrical, and communications systems.
It can be done, and perhaps it gets easier with practice. But I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s cheap or convenient to do. You can cut the costs of traveling if you are flexible—and it’s hard to be flexible with a 10,000 pound backpack.
Claim #7: Inspire your creativity
“Living in a tiny home often means designing your space from the ground up, and that translates to complete control over your design and the layout of your belongings. Spend some time imagining what life would be like in a small house. Let your imagination run wild. You might be surprised by how keenly you can express yourself, if you take the opportunity to choose your ideal surroundings.”
Reality: This is true—but it isn’t unique to tiny homes
A full-size apartment, condo, or house offers an identical opportunity, on a scale that is both grander and more flexible.
Also reality: Narcissism, thy name is Customization
I’ve always been confused about why anyone would build a tiny house when they could just buy any secondhand RV or trailer. It’s certainly greener and more economical, even if you need to make a few utilitarian changes like improving insulation or making mechanical repairs.
You can certainly get creative within such spaces with conventional decor choices. You can paint the walls and hang artwork and pick out whatever color towels you want.
So what’s the deal? Why don’t people go the tiny house route instead?
I have an unflattering suspicion this has to do with class.
The tiny house movement is not exclusively white—but it is overwhelmingly so. (There have been some interesting discussions about why that is, and they touch upon extremely painful topics which are well worth discussing, though outside the scope of this already vast dissertation.) For white people, living in a conventional trailer, doublewide, camper, or RV is a historical marker of being lower class, i.e. “trailer trash.”
Tiny homes act as class signifiers. Like large diamond wedding rings, they announce: “I am not lower class, I have good taste and can afford to imbue my home with fashionable accoutrement. Do not mistake me for white trash! My choices are driven by a bohemian sense of personal aesthetics, not by lack of available alternatives! Can’t you tell by looking at my whitewashed walls, distressed wood, peace lilies, and stainless steel appliances?!”
You can design your own personalized tiny kitchen and equip it with your own tiny Carrara marble countertops, but don’t pat yourself on the back for your “creativity.” When you realize you cannot keep up with the Joneses, you have to stop trying to play that game altogether, not switch to keeping up with the Clampetts.
The Clampetts don’t have a choice. You do. And it is incumbent upon you to find a way to exercise your creativity that doesn’t turn poverty and lack into chic status symbols.
Some people live in campers because their lives are fucked up and the social safety net utterly failed them. They don’t get to “choose their ideal surroundings” or “express themselves” through their poverty. Think about that as you trick out your tiny house with an elevator bed.
Claim #8: Have it all your own way
“Tiny homes often fall below the minimum size requirements specified in building code legislation around the country. This means that you can have your tiny home exactly the way you want it without a bunch of bureaucrats sticking their noses into your business and telling you what you can and cannot have.”
Reality: Die in a fire
I believe this response calls for History Lessons with Piggy and Kitty.
Restrictions on dwelling sizes helped protect immigrants and other vulnerable populations from being exploited by unscrupulous landlords. (This is why slums went away in the nineteenth century. We fought them with that legislation you’re looking down your white nose at.)
Although you may be comfortable with your 150 square foot house, you’re comfortable with it because you’ve consented to it. If this size became the standard, and was the only option available to poor people, I hope to god you’d be up in arms about it. And there is no convenient way to make sure that doesn’t happen shy of universal standards of construction.
Among other health issues, air quality is a big concern for tiny homes. They are often built with maximizing insulation in mind in order to reduce heating and cooling costs to the bare minimum. But humans weren’t meant to live in air tight environments. Too much moisture trapped in the air allows bacteria, mold, rot, and pests to proliferate. All of those things can cause serious health issues.
This is a potential issue with typically-sized houses, but unfortunately most mechanical aids for household ventilation (like HRVs and ERVs) are too large for tiny homes. Inexperienced home builders may be wholly unaware of invisible problems like these. It’s easy to misattribute a chronic respiratory infection and painful rashes to colds or stress when the culprit lives inside the walls.
Yeah, sometimes building codes can be a bit of a pain in the ass. I just spent over two months and over two hundred dollars getting certified to own six chickens on my large suburban lot. I get it. It feels excessive, restrictive, and stupid.
But code inspectors aren’t villains in an 80s comedy. They aren’t throwing up roadblocks for no reason, like the tiny town in Footloose. Building codes exist for a reason and that reason is almost always environmental health and human safety. In my example, they want to know who’s keeping chickens so that they know if those chickens are pooping too close to a groundwater source. They also want to know if people are abusing said chickens, running cockfighting rings, or storing food that’s attracting animals and concentrating rabies vectors in one place.
Bureaucracy isn’t fun, but restrictions exist for a reason. A home that’s built unwisely could literally kill its inhabitants.
How would you feel if the DIY electrical panel you’re so proud of caused a spark that ignited your home? How about if it spread and eventually caused 146 people to die screaming?
Houses require some degree of regulation and expertise to ensure that they are built in such a way as to minimize the risk of injury or death. Writing such reasonable limitations off as nanny statery reveals a lack of understanding of the historical context of building codes.
All I’m saying is… if you’re against standardized housing codes, I hope you’re also against limitations on neighbors coming to beat the shit out of you when your house makes them sick.
Claim #9: Kiss the mortgage scam goodbye
“For as long as I can remember, it’s always been my dream to trade my time for meager wages at a nine-to-five job for a minimum of thirty years so that I can hand all my money over to a mortgage lending company… They SO deserve it! And I totally trust them not to screw me over with a deceptive clause written into the contract in dense, complicated legalese that no one can comprehend without the help of an expensive lawyer. They wouldn’t do that…”
Reality: So how are you paying for your house?
Man, where do I start?
The false dichotomy strikes again.
Tiny homeowners have chosen to swallow ~*the red pill*~ and are now able to see the world for what it truly is. “Mortgages are just like… totally a scaaaam, maaaan!” Homeowners are their country cousin, easily duped out of all their ha’pennies by a more sinister version of that old guy on the Monopoly board. Ugh. It’s so smug. Not to mention a very wild piece of misdirection.
Working for meager wages, working for thirty years, working nine-to-five, owning a home that’s too expensive, working with a duplicitous lender, having a realtor and lawyer who fail to adequately explain things to you, and not understanding your contract of sale all have nothing to do with the size of your home.
Now let’s get down to the issue itself.
Most tiny homes are not technically homes. This means they’re not eligible for mortgages. Some banks let an RV loan slide, but others reject tiny homes as not-vehicular-enough. Personal loans are one more possibility, but they tend to have ultra-high interest rates—two to three times that of mortgages. This means that lots of tiny homeowners pay for their homes in cash, either from savings or on loan from a family member. And the solution to issues in our mortgage industry isn’t “Live in a rustic wheeled broom closet bought with your mom’s cashed-out 401(k).”
As we discussed in the travel section, tiny homes need a place to sit at least semipermanently. So tiny homeowners must be either buying land for themselves (a feat that requires a mortgage), renting land (wasn’t the whole point to avoid renting…?), or parking it on a friend or family member’s property (must be nice).
Also reality: Houses are investments… kinda?
Human dwellings are expensive.
Unless you want to live and die like Christopher McCandless, you cannot escape from that reality.
For example, my home cost a hair under $300K. (For context, I should say that’s half the average sale price in the nearest metro area and $80K less than the average for my town. In our local market, that counts as cheap.) I bought it despite the fact that I was pre-approved for a loan of half a million dollars. I bought what I needed, not what I could stretch to afford. Although I’ve only owned the home for a year and a half, I’ve poured an extra $23,000 into it—saving me close to $44,000 over the life of the 30-year loan compared to a minimum repayment cycle.
“But Kitty!” you cry, “That’s so much money! Wasted on a huge house you don’t really need!!”
Nah, brah. Don’t even worry about me. The home has also appreciated in value during that time. Sitting still, doing nothing, it’s become $19,000 more valuable in under two years. I also get to reap the rich and totally bassackwards tax rewards that come with my lovely low rate mortgage.
Knock on wood, my traditional home is printing money for me.
Much as you dislike the concept of a mortgage, think of it this way: the amount of interest you pay is within your control. I’m forgoing some comforts to make my extra payments. And you’re trying to do the same thing too, if you’re a tiny home owner. But my way gives me lower tax bills, faster and more reliable asset appreciation, and ample elbow room.
Finally, there is nothing in a home buyer’s contract which should surprise, scare, or confuse you. I think the author is overstating for dramatic effect, like those infomercial actors who struggle heroically to hold and/or pick up things. If you can’t understand what you’re reading, ask your team of professionals to help you—it’s literally their job. Or don’t make any large purchases, including a tiny home. Because one day you’ll have to sell it and you’ll be the one stuck writing those contracts.
Claim #10: Connect with your loved ones
“Living in a tiny home means that you and your loved ones will spend more time together, and even if you work each other’s nerves now and then, that will always be a good thing. Instead of barricading in separate rooms and burying your noses in a screen, you and your family will actually share your lives with one another.
You’ll get to hear about their day and what’s on their mind while you make dinner together. You’ll spend more time cuddling in the hammock, or tossing a ball around in the garden. You’ll play music, get wrapped up in a board game and lie outside at night gazing at the stars. Life is short, so spend as much of it as you can with the people you care about most.”
Reality: Kill your loved ones
Okay, here comes the embarrassing anecdote.
I love my partner. A lot. I’ll leave it at that, because it’s impossible to try to articulate the finer points of how much you love someone without sounding corny and hyperbolic. He is easily both the best friend and best roommate I’ve ever had. (Piggy = the solid first alternate.)
That said, we’re an incredibly close team. We both work from home, so we spend our days together. Our favorite way to spend an evening is alone together, at home, cooking dinner and watching something on Netflix. We share the same friend group, so if we’re going out, it’s almost always together. We’re a single car household, so we drive everywhere together too. Our close relationship wouldn’t work if we didn’t enjoy spending tons and tons of time together. And even living in cramped apartments, we’ve always felt nothing but joy in each other’s company.
… That was, at least, until we had to live together inside an RV.
We were only going to be there for a month. We were volunteering for a friend’s fledgling performing arts charity, after which we’d return home to our small, densely-roommated city apartment.
In theory, the camper had everything we needed. Inside was a full-size bed, a kitchen, a table with booth-style chairs, a shower, a toilet, a closet, a couch, and even a small TV. Best of all, the camper was parked where a lovely wood met emerald-green rolling meadows. We were even a short drive to the ocean. The property was the site of all the organization’s work, so our commute was a ten minute stroll up a path through the woods. It was idyllic.
I thought that living there together would be enchanting. For the first time in our lives, we had no roommates. No listening to other people through the wall. No more stifling our laughter, media, or sex noises. No dealing with other people’s dirty dishes. No car alarms going off in the night or drunkards arguing outside our window. It was just me, the man that I loved, our adventurous little dog, and miles of the most beautiful, peaceful landscapes the East Coast has to offer.
HAHAHAHA GUESS WHAT GUYS. IT SUCKED.
The lonely light coming from the camper after sundown drew every mosquito and moth for a square mile. We had to keep the doors and windows shut at all times or be eaten alive. We also couldn’t have one partner stay up later than another, because there was no way to light only a part of the space. At one point, I threw a towel over my head while I typed on my laptop to let my partner sleep while I stayed up to work.
The camper was always swelteringly hot. We DID have an AC unit, but it was behind a flimsy wall dividing the bedroom from the living space. All the cold air was trapped inside the bedroom, making it so freezing cold we had to pile on multiple blankets to sleep. Meanwhile all the hot air from our dinner cooking lingered on the other side of the wall until well past dawn.
We had to climb over each other to get out of bed. My partner wakes up multiple times in the night to pee, and my call time was much earlier than his. No matter how we arranged ourselves, one of us would be awakened by the other. Having sex outside was thrilling, but the shine came off the hubcaps when the realities of outdoor sex set in. Bug bites and grass stuck to sweaty backs is only romantic up to a point (that point is where I need to pee afterwards and I’m stuck doing a drip-dry hip-wiggle in the freaking woods).
The toilet, designed to use the smallest possible amount of water, didn’t flush well. Skid marks were a common occurrence. If someone had a smelly dump, the entire camper stunk. We quickly decided to walk ten minutes through the woods to the main facilities and use the toilet there. We did the same for the shower. Its incredibly low water pressure made us feel like we were bathing under a retractable kitchen faucet. The cramped, crumbling shower stall ten minutes away was a huge improvement, even though it had no hot water.
When I was feeling sick, I couldn’t escape the smell of my partner’s cooking. The oil from his pan leapt onto my paperwork, splattered it with tiny translucent stains. It wasn’t that he was messy—it was just that it was 2.5 feet away. EVERYTHING was 2.5 feet away from everything else! After the first week, we lived off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and instant ramen. We just couldn’t handle the inconvenience of squeezing past one another with hot pans in our sweating hands.
And there was just no space. We couldn’t throw a towel or a book down casually, for a moment, without seriously inconveniencing each other. The table wasn’t large enough for both of us to sit with our laptops open. We couldn’t even sit there without banging our knees, despite the fact that we’re both on the petite side. (Piggy, your giant redwood of a husband couldn’t have fit in that camper if he shimmied in in the Uttanasana position.) No one came to visit us—ever.
And friends, during this time my husband and I were awful to each other.
I became my worst self. My self-control dissolved and I became alternately wrathful and depressed. I said I wanted my partner to empathize with me, but I really wanted him to magically make all of my frustrations go away. He became his worst self too. He loves to help me, and when he couldn’t do it, he withdrew emotionally and became passive and disconnected. He was impatient for me to feel better but unwilling to help with the emotional labor. We snapped at each other over nothing and ate sometimes in huffy silence. We had more tearful, pleading conversations in that month than in the first three years of our relationship put together.
As far as “fighting” goes, it sounds pretty mild—and it was. But it was so unlike us. We were so physically miserable that it bled into ever corner of our behavior and summoned strange new behaviors never seen before or since.
Not all of the blame can be placed on living in the camper… but a whole helluva lot of it can.
Also reality: Space is a basic physiological need; ignore it at your peril
When chickens are kept in cages that are to small, they attack themselves and other chickens. Pigs and hamsters do the same. Stress can drive all of them to cannibalize their own kind—even their own young. And they are not the only animals observed doing this. So here’s the riddle: what need is more important to an animal than bearing its young and sending its genes forward into the future?
The answer is: space.
Human beings are animals like any other. And animals thrive psychologically when given an adequate amount of space in which to do simple things like stand up, turn around, walk, run, and fully extend their limbs. Without those adequate amounts of space, animals become stressed out, territorial, vicious, and antisocial.
Designing a home around the smallest possible footprint and saying it “allows you to focus on what really matters” is no different from designing a 10×10 cage for a panda bear and saying it “allows her to really focus on her bamboo.” It places an aesthetic or moral need (toward minimalism, environmentalism, or UGH “nomadism”) over a basic psychological need. And we don’t need Maslow to explain why an upside-down pyramid of needs is a very wobbly structure.
The kinds of problems my partner and I were going through were exceedingly solvable from the relative comforts of our small city apartment. But when we were both hot, dirty, hungry, covered in itching bites, physical cramped, and unable to leave each other’s immediate space, the solutions to all of those solvable problems crumbled in our hands. Every time we bumped our heads or banged our knees or tripped over each other’s shoes, our patience was reset to zero with no chance to recover.
I don’t love strolling down this particular path off Memory Lane, but I think it’s important to share the experience. Just because you’ve lived harmoniously in a small apartment—even a small studio—with your significant other does not necessarily mean you’re prepared to live together in a 100 square foot environment, isolated in the countryside.
Also reality: Leave your family’s identities alone
With that context, I’d like to speak directly to this post’s claims about the perfect life you’ll have together in a tiny home with your family.
There are a lot of arguments here that I dislike and strongly disagree with.
First there’s the tone of luddite romanticism that prefers old-fashioned pastimes over newer alternatives. Stargazing is not morally or spiritually better than watching a movie together. This argument reeks of Grandpa Logic. “In my day, we talked to each other at the dinner table!” Well, in your day, Grandpa, gay family members couldn’t come out to each other.
Stargazing is not morally or spiritually better than watching a movie together.
I don’t make that remark flippantly. Not everyone is the same. And if your family—particularly your children—feel you have set expectations for them, they are less likely to feel understood and embraced by you. An extroverted child in a family of introverts may feel incredibly alienated by life in a peaceful rural setting. The introverted child who loves nothing more than locking herself in her room to get lost in a book can feel incredibly pressured by parents who expect outdoorsy communal living.
In other words: your tiny house is a gigantic imposed set of expectations.
Your family will be happiest and healthiest if you let them be who they are as individuals. Don’t try to press them into a mould of what you think a wholesome family looks like, especially one that’s based off hobbies and dynamics you don’t currently have. If you aren’t part of an exceptionally close family right now, physically pressing yourselves into each other isn’t the answer. If you aren’t spending time together or getting along well, deliberately adding a blanket of animalistic stress over your family home is cruel and unfair.
If you aren’t part of an exceptionally close family right now, physically pressing yourselves into each other isn’t the answer. If you aren’t spending time together, or getting along well, deliberately adding a blanket of animalistic stress over your family home is cruel and unfair.
If you’re upset over the fact that your family members sometimes like to be alone or spend time doing hobbies that you don’t understand or respect, I think what you need isn’t a tiny house. It’s therapy. And if you don’t get it, your kids will need it instead.
Many people who touch on this kind of argument seem to think that a major change in lifestyle will prompt a domino of changes in other areas—all positive! You’ll spend more time outside, in nature… become healthier… get closer to your family… develop new skills… fix your finances… in other words, you’ll enjoy life more.
I counter that it’s far easier to try working on those issues separately and directly, starting TODAY, in whatever size dwelling you currently inhabit. Hoping that building or buying a tiny house will do all the emotional and practical labor of lifestyle changes for you places too much weight upon the non-load-bearing shoulders of a single structure.
Friends, I am spent.
If you survived these two articles and are still considering getting a tiny house, you might as well do it. For some people, it just isn’t enough to hear the abyss described in fine detail; they must gaze into it for themselves. Send a postcard to the Bitches from your tiny hell.
Maybe I’ve been a bit… premature? Perhaps a bit… unfair?
Lots of people are charmed by the idea of tiny homes, even if they wouldn’t seriously consider the idea of actually living in one. Perhaps the movement and its enthusiasts have viewed tiny homes with rose-colored glasses—but surely the ideas behind it can’t be all bad?
And you’re right! They definitely aren’t!
I’m gonna get back to my high school debate club roots and play both sides of this argument. Next week, tune in for the final entry in this miniseries: a big list of reasons to love the tiny house movement. We’ll talk about a lot of things that I love about the awesome philosophies that underpin the movement, and learn how you can apply them in your life, regardless of the size of your current dwelling.