“I would rather bathe in 10,000 scorpions while singing the entire libretto of Rent than live in a tiny house.”
For a while there, I was ready to breathe easy, thinking that the tiny home craze had finally passed. I saw far fewer think pieces, pins, and aspirational hashtags than I once did. The advent of television shows describing the movement seemed to announce its loss of counter-culture status, typically a sure sign that the end is nigh.
… Then I started writing a financial blog.
Like a recalcitrant UTI patient, I’d stopped taking my antibiotics when my symptoms went away. My reward was the metaphorical equivalent of pissing a mixture of broken glass and lava: boundless renewed fascination with tiny houses.
It’s easy to understand why this is. Tiny homes are singularly appealing to frugal people. On paper, they are everything a traditional home is, but optimized: cheaper, greener, less constricting. But the proliferation of tiny homes has begun the slow process of revealing a less rosy truth.
I think the tiny house movement is already being lowered into its coffin, but allow me to secure the lid with ten big nails. The following list comes from the Tiny House Blog’s Top 10 Reasons to Join the Tiny House Movement. (I selected this list from a hat, more or less. It’s the first entry that popped up when I googled the phrase “reasons to get a tiny house.” Interestingly, the second one is Forbes’s 5 Reasons Buying a Tiny House is a Mistake.)
I’m going to dismantle each one because I’m a neoliberal killjoy and secret corporate shill for Big Housing.
Claim #1: “Save TONS of money”
“Living in a smaller home inherently leads to huge savings. You’ll spend less to heat and cool your home, as well as on general maintenance. You can have a beautiful house to call your own at a fraction of the price of a standard McMansion, whether it’s new construction or an existing home purchase, and your property taxes will be the envy of everyone you know.”
Reality: Cost is a total fucking wildcard
First of all, I reject the false dichotomy imposed by this author. Tiny homes and McMansions are not the only two choices for housing. And when an advocate draws a false comparison like this, you have to question their need to resort to such a rhetorical trick.
One is that the cost of building tiny homes—especially DIY tiny homes—has been historically underrepresented. I’ve seen four-digit budgets bounced around tiny house blogs with breathless awe. I am deeply suspicious of figures like that, and so are serious tiny home builders. Tiny House Giant Journey cites an average materials cost of $25K, which doesn’t include pricier items like appliances. If DIY is not in the cards for you, cheap prefab units start at around $60K; a more high-end, durable, custom-built unit runs closer to double that, ranging between $90 and $140K.
When someone tells you “I built my own house for $10,000,” they are not bragging—they are lying. This is a thing that almost all DIYers do, and it drives me to drink. Even fellow tiny house enthusiasts are fed up with these misrepresentations. A particularly clear-eyed post from The Tiny Life makes the following excellent points:
“I often hear people say ‘I got my trailer for free’ but if you do a bit of digging many will fess up that they then had to reinforce it, get a new coat of paint, and a surprising number had to replace the axles and get new tires/wheels.”
Statements like this coming from a tiny home enthusiast should be taken as a serious warning. The egoes of tiny home builders and buyers are often wrapped up in the total cost of the project. The lower the budget, the more it justifies their choices and earns them cache with people within the tiny house community. This acts as a strong emotional incentive to many to downplay its actual costs.
The Tiny Life extrapolates this fibbing mentality to tools, vehicles, consumables, appliances, build sites, and the cost of land itself. Peel back the curtain on the $10K claim and you’re likely to find $30K worth of unaccounted for additional spending.
Anyone who’s done an extensive home renovation will tell you that costs and timelines almost always extend far beyond what you planned for. And tiny homes, built from scratch, are no different from any other kind of dwelling in this regard. There is no magical property inherent to 300 square foot dwellings that makes them immune from becoming money pits.
Also reality: Tiny homes are poorer investments
Spending money on a home is neither a pure investment nor a pure necessity. As we’ve talked about before, it’s both things at once. Just as it is wrong to overemphasize the home’s role as an investment, it is wrong to underemphasize it.
Buying a modest condo or small starter home may cost more than building a tiny home, but it is also much more likely to endure the years, find a future buyer, and potentially appreciate in value.
A home of modest or average size should be a very flexible structure. My four-bedroom home works well for myself and my husband (and our ridiculous menagerie of animals and rotating cast of semi-permanent house guests); it also worked well for the owners who lived there before us, a nuclear family of two adults and two kids; it also worked well for the owner that lived there before them, a little old lady who’d lived there for 80 years. Just the fact that someone lived there for her entire life tells you all you need to know about the suitability of the structure for all of life’s stages.
Homes aren’t liquid assets (meaning, I can’t pick up the phone and instantly turn my house into cash). But there are varying degrees of illiquidity. A flexible house that would meet the needs of many potential buyers is like an ice cube that you just put into the freezer. It’s cold and it’s crispy around the edges, but its interior is still slushy and flexible.
Conversely, a home that only works for a tiny percentage of interested buyers is worse than solid ice. It’s dry ice. It can hurt you just to hold onto it. Your situation may change suddenly due to a new job, relationship, child, illness, or other major shift in circumstance. If you can’t sell your home easily, you may find yourself stuck in a very bad financial situation.
Let’s say you own a tiny home on a large stretch of land in rural Iowa. You invested $45,000 cash in building your tiny home, and you also mortgage the land it sits upon for $65,000—a total investment of $100K. Now let’s say your father reveals he’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He lives in Chicago. Your tiny home is mobile, but you can’t find a long-term parking spot for it that has the sewage and electrical hookups you need in a downtown area—and besides, it’s more convenient to move into his home to take care of him. You have no idea if this will last for six months or six years. It’s completely open-ended.
So what do you do? You can try to rent or sell your tiny home. But what happens when you cannot find a renter or a buyer? You’re now stuck carrying a mortgage for a home you don’t live in. And you risk damage to your home if, say, an electrical or plumbing problem arrises and no one is living there to observe it.
This kind of situation is common. It happens to people who own average-sized houses too. But people who own average-sized homes have a much wider pool of potential renters and buyers. That’s what makes them a lot more liquidy, and thus a lot less risky.
All this to say: the point of home buying isn’t to go with the cheapest option, but the best option.
“But Kitty!” you cry, “I can’t afford those traditional options! A tiny home is the only thing that fits into my budget!”
Yeah, no. We’ll get to that later.
Also reality: Complete insurance coverage for tiny homes is nearly impossible
There are a number of factors that can make insuring tiny homes tricky.
If your tiny home burns to the ground, or gets stolen, or sideswiped by another vehicle, or half-broken by a windstorm, coverage may only kick in under extremely specific conditions. Do you own the land where the vehicle sits? Was it moving at the time? Has it been on the highway? The answers to all of these questions are the difference between full coverage and the biggest out-of-pocket expense of your life.
So although the home may be cheaper, the financial risk—in several ways—is far greater.
Claim #2: “Live a greener lifestyle”
“Small homes consume far fewer resources – they take less to construct, less to heat and cool, and they occupy less space. We produce more electricity than we use, and offer our surplus to the grid for our neighbors to enjoy.”
Reality: Efficiency and austerity aren’t the same thing
Statements like this really baffle me, because they seem to imply that greenness is the exclusive domain of tiny homes, when they should be the imperative of all homes of all sizes everywhere.
Take my house (please do not actually take my house). It was built in 1917 and was originally insulated with horsehair. Much as I love the idea that on cold winter nights, the heat of a thousand ghost horses keeps me warm… it was not very efficient. So I had insulation blown in from the exterior. Thanks to my state’s amazing energy rebates, it only cost me about $800. My energy usage was cut in half.
Also, the house is heated by a super-efficient pellet stove.
Also, we’re installing solar panels this year.
Also, we got a rain barrel.
Also, also, also.
These and a hundred other small improvements make a world of difference to our household. We produce so little waste that we’ve literally had service people come to see if we’re alright in here.
This all-or-nothing mentality about “green living” really rankles me. Because there is so, so much that the average homeowner can do to make their lifestyle greener that doesn’t feel like an undue burden or sacrifice. You don’t have to live in a shack on Walden Pond to lessen your carbon footprint. The more responsible living is conflated with asceticism, the harder it becomes to integrate the movement’s good ideas into the broader culture.
Also reality: Building new is WAY less efficient than improving existing
And no matter how you slice it, constructing a brand new dwelling is less green than working to improve existing structures. You can salvage, recycle, and reuse all you want, but putting those same materials into an already-built house is almost always a more efficient use for them.
Claim #3: “Save TONS of time”
“If you ask me, there’s nothing worse than spending a day off doing chores around the house like sweeping and dusting, fixing creaky floorboards, and taking that seventeenth load of laundry out of the washer. In a small home, you will cut your cleaning and maintenance down by a huge margin, so you can spend more time doing you!”
Reality: Again, time is a total fucking wildcard
Truly, this is a rich argument for a movement that encourages people to construct their own homes upon massive amounts of acreage.
I suppose it’s possible to spend less time on a tiny home, but this argument again smacks of a false dichotomy. Homeowners are Cinderella, forever humming Sing Sweet Nightingale and washing the sooty paw prints off the marble staircase. Tiny homeowners run a single Lysol wipe over their countertops and breeze out the door on the way to Fyre Festival.
Cleaning and maintenance, like homeownership, is exactly as much work as you make of it. I’ve lived in nine homes with hardwood floors in my life, and “fixing creaky floorboards” has never occurred as a free-floating thought, let alone made its way onto a honey-do list.
Mostly, I hate this argument when it’s used against homeownership in favor of renting, and I hate it again here, because it paints chores as… chores. A horrible, insufferable ordeal that must be minimized at all costs. I think this is a bratty way to think about caring for the things you have the privilege to own. You are extraordinarily lucky to get to own them. Most people will never have the opportunities you do. Meditate on that while you dust your PS4.
Secondarily, I can think of lots of instances where living in an extremely small space would arguably create more work.
For example, a cooktop that’s closer to more things gets more oil on those things and those things require more frequent cleanings. A shirt that has to lay flat to dry is now making a damp mess on your only work surface. You may lose a Saturday figuring out how to repair a composting toilet because no nearby plumber will service one. And land management on a home with considerable acreage can become its own full-time job.
Also reality: Time is money
…And that doesn’t even get into the whole build-it-yourself process.
Again, I’d like to quote The Tiny Life:
“When it comes to finding reclaimed materials, dumpster diving, checking craigslist every day to find all or some of the materials you need, it takes a huge amount of time. You have value, your time is valuable, and you are giving it up to build/source in the place of something else.”
Can I get an “amen”? We’ve touched on this issue as it relates to other topics, and it’s deeply true and important.
I recently used Craigslist to collect eight mismatched wooden chairs for my back patio. I was able to get each one for only $5-10, and I saved a lot of money doing it—but they were in no way conveniently located. I spent hours driving all over the suburbs and countryside collecting them.
Luckily my project had no hard deadline, and I only needed eight things total. The thought of trying to source hundreds of items this way makes me want to make like Oscar the Grouch and content myself with a lidded garbage can.
Also reality: Nothing green can stay
Finally, I would like to note that tiny homes are abandoned at a shocking rate. Reasons cited ranged from endless fights with zoning boards, frustrations with shoddy construction, irreparable loss of utility services, and a general sense of loneliness living in isolated areas.
It does not matter how “green” you construct your tiny home. If it’s sitting in a landfill or rotting on a hillside with permit violations still fluttering on the breeze, you have failed your ideals, your planet, and your fellow man.
This plays into some of the cost-saving arguments as well. If you spent $32,000 to build your own house, good for you. But if you lived in it for only two years, that is a pretty horrible investment. That doesn’t even factor in the opportunity costs of a wasted investment potential, or interest on whatever loan you used to get this money, or the cost of the land it sits upon.
Abandoned homes have few interested buyers. Tiny homes have few interested buyers. Wherever the twain shall meet, it ain’t at the intersection of Immediate Street and Full-Price Offer Lane. If someone buys it for salvage at $5,000, you’ve just spent $1,125 per month to live there.
In almost all parts of the country, you could’ve saved money by renting pretty luxurious accommodations.
Claim #4: “Liberate yourself from the curse of too much stuff”
“How many boxes do you have in your garage that you haven’t even opened since the last time you moved? And when was the last time you used that electric cat-waxer your second cousin twice removed bought you as a wedding present?
By encumbering ourselves with so much stuff, we stress ourselves out, because we have to keep track of it, take it with us wherever we go, and buy a bigger house just so we can have a place to put it all. In a small home, you’ll necessarily have to pare down to the things you really need. That may sound like a burden, but it isn’t – its liberation.”
Reality: If you have to force yourself to minimize, you aren’t minimalist
I once spent the summer at a sleep-away camp. The camp had a no soda policy. I drank 1-2 cans of Coke every single day before camp, and missed it greatly… at first. Then I didn’t think about it anymore. Water was fine. When I finally came home and cracked open a can, I realized it tasted… disgusting. It was an empty habit, not something I drank because it tasted good. I poured it down the drain and never thereafter drank soda again.
This wasn’t an act of willpower. It was as natural and effortless as choosing not to drink battery acid. A brand new neural pathway had opening in my brain, linking the idea of “Coke” with the idea of “bad taste.” That one neural pathway did all the work of changing my behavior for me.
There were ways I could’ve physically prevented myself from drinking soda. I could’ve worn thick mittens that prevented me from griping the can, or duct-taped my mouth shut, or thrown my car keys in a river. But physically restraining yourself from doing something isn’t the same thing as making an internal shift in thinking that makes a new behavior effortless.
If you have to duct-tape your mouth shut to keep yourself from drinking soda, you are still a soda drinker.
And if you have to live in a 250 square foot home to keep yourself from accumulating crap you don’t need, you are still a crap accumulator.
Also reality: filling space is a choice
Owning a three-bedroom home does not mean that the Three-Bedroom Home Police are gonna come peep in your windows and make sure every room in your house has a minimum of thirty pieces of Ikea bric-a-brac.
I own a four-bedroom house, but there are absolutely no “boxes that I haven’t opened since the last time I moved.” The very idea gives me full-body goosebumps.
One of my rooms sat completely empty for a long time. Recently a friend in a bad situation needed a place to stay, and it’s made a perfect mini-apartment for her. Empty space within your home doesn’t have to represent either a burden or a vacuum. It can act as a physical manifestation of all the unknown opportunities that await you in life.
Hobbies. Children. Guests. Businesses. There is space in my home for these things and more.
Finally, I question the green-ness of mandated purging. My basement is full of “might need this someday” things that a tiny homeowner would have to throw away, give away, or keep in a storage unit. If a shelf breaks, or my wall gets scuffed, or a leak develops in a window, I have a shelf filled with nails, screws, duct tape, glue, sealant, spackle, extra paint, power tools, and scrap lumber. They sit harmlessly in my basement (NOT getting dusted or fussed over) until they’re needed.
Point is: my home does not constrain me from hanging on to useful stuff and does not force me to throw away items that still have life in them. That’s a pretty green way of living. It’s also grounded in a more realistic, less idealistic set of expectations about life n’ stuff.
Claim #5: “Make room for nature”
“If you love to garden, nothing could be better than living in a tiny house because you’ll have more space for those delicious veggies and fragrant flowers. Maybe even a pond, or a meadow to have a picnic with the people you love.”
Reality: Okay, but—wait, what?
I mostly concede this point. It’s true that if you own a plot of land, and construct a home with a tiny footprint, you do have more room to garden.
But whaaaat is this about ponds and meadows for picnics? If you want your guests to have a really nice time, which do you think they would enjoy more: a meadow or a guest bedroom?
Also, has this person never sat by a pond before? They aren’t how they look in golf courses and English country manors. Ponds are swampy sex clubs for mosquitos. They are extremely unpleasant to linger near. They require a ton of maintenance to keep them from becoming snake-infested algae-overgrown nightmare swamps. I’m not saying this to pond-shame this blogger; I just want to point it out as more evidence of logic infected by romantic idealism.
Picnics in meadows with cherished friends—if this sounds great to you, perhaps I can interest you in full-time Victorian-era larping?
Also reality: Tiny gardens are totally a thing
If a tiny home with a large garden is possible, a tiny garden with a large house certainly is too.
If both humans and plants can survive in tight quarters, isn’t it common sense which one should make room for the other? Humans are humans. Their spacial needs are far more complex than stationary plants—many of which have an expected lifespan of six months.
Designing a tiny, efficient garden requires just as much research and creative problem-solving as designing a tiny home. There are TONS of cool bloggers and authors who’ve discussed mini-farms in unexpected urban and suburban areas. Go read them.
Also reality: But didn’t you just say…?
Finally, I’d like to point out that this item contradicts some of the other claims presented.
Gardening is a very labor-intensive hobby. It’s time-intensive too, and it can get costly. Plus it requires lots of stuff—shovels, rakes, hoes, hand tools, soil, additives, containers, beds, fertilizer, deer/bird netting, trellises, and cages just to name a few. It is also absolutely not the right hobby for someone who wants to travel frequently.
The point is that even when this list is fair, it’s still a list of possibilities. You may have a lush garden, but you’ll be sacrificing travel and minimalism. No house will give you all lifestyles at once.
Friends, I’ve known for a long time that 4,000 words just isn’t enough space to contain my contempt for this adorably misguided fad. Tune in next week for part two, where I proceed to pull out the precious little hair I have left while deconstructing five more!