“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 the tiny home craze had finally passed. I saw fewer think pieces, pins, aspirational hashtags. The advent of television shows describing the movement seemed to announce its loss of counter-culture status, a sure sign of the end.
… Then I started a financial blog.
Like a recalcitrant UTI patient, I’d stopped taking antibiotics when my symptoms left. My reward was the metaphorical equivalent of pissing broken glass and lava: boundless renewed fascination with tiny houses.
I understand! Tiny homes are appealing to frugal people. On paper, they’re everything a traditional home is, but optimized: cheaper, greener, less constricting. But the proliferation reveals a less rosy truth.
I think the tiny house movement is already being lowered into its coffin, but allow me to secure the lid. The following list comes from Tiny House Blog’s Top 10 Reasons to Join the Tiny House Movement. (I selected this list because it popped up first when I googled “reasons to get a tiny house.” Interestingly, the second is 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.
“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.”
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… and your property taxes will be the envy of everyone you know.” – Tiny House Blog
Reality: Cost is a total fucking wildcard
I reject the false dichotomy imposed by this author. Tiny homes and McMansions are not the only two housing choices. When an advocate draws a false comparison, you have to question their need for such a rhetorical trick.
The cost of building tiny homes is historically underrepresented. I’ve seen four-digit budgets bounced around with breathless awe. I’m suspicious of those figures, and so are serious tiny home builders. Tiny House Giant Journey cites an average materials cost of $25K, not including pricier items like appliances. If DIY is not for you, cheap prefab units start at ~$60K; a high-end, durable, custom-built unit ranges between $90 and $140K.
When someone tells you “I built my own house for $10,000,” they aren’t bragging—they’re lying. Almost all DIYers do this, 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 says:
“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.”
This statement from a tiny home enthusiast should be a serious warning. The egos of tiny home builders and buyers are often wrapped up in the cost of the project. The lower the budget, the more it justifies their choices and earns them cache with the community.
The Tiny Life extrapolates this fibbing mentality to tools, vehicles, consumables, appliances, sites, and the land itself. Peel back the curtain on the $10K claim and you’ll find $30K worth of additional spending.
Anyone who’s done an extensive home renovation will tell you that costs and timelines almost always extend beyond what you planned. 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 pure investment nor pure necessity. It’s both. Just as it’s wrong to overemphasize the home’s role as an investment, it’s wrong to underemphasize it.
Buying a modest condo or small starter home may cost more than a tiny home, but it’s also more likely to endure the years, find a future buyer, and 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 before us, two adults and two kids; it also worked well for the owner before them, a little old lady who’d lived there for 80 years. 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 (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 meets the needs of many buyers is flexible.
Conversely, a home that only works for a tiny percentage of buyers is like dry ice. It can hurt you just to hold onto it. Your situation may change suddenly due to a new job, child, illness, or other major shift in circumstance. If you can’t sell your home easily, you may find yourself stuck in a 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 is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He lives in Chicago. Your tiny home is mobile, but you can’t find a long-term parking spot with the sewage and electrical hookups you need—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.
You can try to rent or sell your tiny home. But what happens when you cannot find a renter or buyer? You’re now 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.
It happens to people who own average-sized houses too. But they have a much wider pool of potential renters and buyers. That’s what makes them a lot more liquidy, and thus less risky.
The point of home buying isn’t to go with the cheapest option, but the best option.
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, gets stolen, gets sideswiped by another vehicle, or gets half-broken by a windstorm, coverage may only kick in under extremely specific conditions. Do you own the land? Was it moving at the time? Has it been on the highway? The answers to all 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.” – Tiny House Blog
Reality: Efficiency and austerity aren’t the same thing
Statements like this really baffle me, because they imply 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 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 efficient. So I had insulation blown in. Thanks to amazing energy rebates, it only cost me about $800. My energy usage: cut in half.
Also, the house is heated by a super-efficient pellet stove. And, we’re installing solar panels this year. Also, we got a rain barrel.
These and a hundred other small improvements make a world of difference. We produce so little waste we’ve literally had service people come to see if we’re ok in here.
This all-or-nothing mentality about “green living” rankles. Because there is so, so much that the average homeowner can do to make their lifestyle greener that isn’t 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.
And no matter how you slice it, constructing a brand new dwelling is less green than working to improve existing structures.
Claim #3: “Save TONS of time”
“In a small home, you will cut your cleaning and maintenance down by a huge margin, so you can spend more time doing you!” – Tiny House Blog
Reality: Time is a total fucking wildcard
This is a rich argument for a movement that encourages people to construct 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 home owners 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 it onto a honey-do list.
Mostly, I hate this argument 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. I think this is a bratty way to think about caring for the things you have the privilege to own. Most people will never have your opportunities. Meditate on that while you dust your PS4.
I can think of lots of instances where living in an extremely small space would create more work.
For example, a cooktop closer to more things gets more oil on those things. You lose a Saturday figuring out how to repair a composting toilet because no nearby plumber will service it. 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 build-it-yourself process.
Again, 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”?
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 money—but it was not convenient, as I spent hours driving all over the countryside collecting them.
Luckily my project had no hard deadline. 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
Tiny homes are abandoned at a shocking rate. Reasons range 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 fluttering on the breeze, you have failed your ideals, your planet, and your fellow man.
This plays into some of the cost-saving arguments. If you spent $32,000 to build your own house, good for you. But if you lived in it for only two years, that’s a horrible investment. That doesn’t even factor in the opportunity costs of wasted investment potential, or interest on whatever loan you used to get the money, or the cost of the land.
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.
Claim #4: “Liberate yourself from clutter”
“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.” – Tiny House Blog
Reality: If you have to force yourself to minimize, you aren’t minimalist
I once lived at a sleep-away camp with a no-soda policy for a summer. Before then, I drank 1-2 cans of Coke every single day. I missed it… at first. Then I didn’t think about it anymore.
When I finally came home and cracked open a can, I realized it tasted… disgusting. 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. My brain began linking the idea of “Coke” with the idea of “bad taste.” That one neural pathway did all the work of changing my behavior.
There were ways I could’ve physically prevented myself from drinking soda. 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’re still a soda-drinker.
And if you have to live in a 250-square-foot home to keep from accumulating crap, you’re still a crap-accumulator.
Also reality: filling space is a choice
Owning a three-bedroom home doesn’t mean the Three-Bedroom Home Police are gonna come peep in your windows to make sure every room 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.”
One of my rooms sat 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 a burden or vacuum. It can be a physical manifestation of all the unknown opportunities that await.
Hobbies. Children. Guests. Businesses. There is space in my home for these and more.
I question the green-ness of mandated purging. My basement is full of “might need this someday” things a tiny home owner would have to throw away, give away, or keep in a storage unit. If something breaks, I have a shelf filled with screws, sealant, spackle, extra paint, power tools, and scrap lumber. They sit harmlessly in my basement 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. That’s pretty green.
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.” – Tiny House Blog
Reality: Wait, what?
I mostly concede this point. If you own land, and construct a home with a tiny footprint, you have more room to garden.
But whaaaat is this about ponds and meadows? If you want your guests to have a 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? 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 from becoming algae-overgrown nightmare swamps. I’m not saying this to pond-shame; 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 a thing
If a tiny home with a large garden is possible, a tiny garden with a large house is too.
If humans and plants can survive in tight quarters, isn’t it common sense which should make room for the other? Humans are humans. Their spacial needs are far more complex than stationary plants.
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.
Also reality: But didn’t you just say…?
This contradicts some of the other claims.
Gardening is a labor-intensive hobby. It’s time-intensive too, and it can get costly. Plus it requires lots of stuff—shovels, soil, containers, beds, fertilizer, deer/bird netting, and trellises just to name a few. It’s also 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.
The final five points 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.
Claim #6: Take your home on the road
“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.” – Tiny House Blog
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 where clearance is an issue.
- You may need a special commercial license to drive your home.
- You must 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 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.
- Most cities have laws prohibiting sleeping inside your vehicle on a public street.
- Most campsites have regulations about how long and how frequently you’re allowed to visit.
- Many RV parks that accommodate tiny houses are booked solid year-round, but especially during popular travel periods.
- When you haul, make sure your tongue weight is balanced.
- Finding an electrical hookup may be a challenge, so you should be prepared to go without.
- When you park, level your house.
- When you drive, secure everything to keep it from rolling around and breaking.
- Tiny home tires must be replaced every four years. More, if you travel frequently.
- When you drive at night, mount special lights so motorists can see you.
- If you travel through an area with different regulations, you may find yourself ticketed or cited, even if you’re in compliance with your local laws.
- 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 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. If I’m going somewhere for less than a week, I’m going with a medium purse and that’s it. I don’t even have to drop my luggage off, I’m ready to hit the ground running.
Traveling, to me, is about leaving the comforts of home behind and seeking strange and new comforts elsewhere. Traveling with your home on your back like some cosmic turtle strikes me as a completely unnecessary burden. Wherever you’re going, you’ll find that stuff—or you’ll find you don’t need it.
I concede it could be a fun way to live for someone with a particular lifestyle. That person has to be prepared for the amount of time, money, and research that goes into traveling with your entire home.
Also reality: There are cheaper ways to travel
Depending on how far you move, it could cost thousands. And there’s 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. You can cut the costs of traveling if you’re 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.” – Tiny House Blog
Reality: This 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 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 why 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 painful topics well worth discussing.) For white people, living in a conventional trailer, doublewide, 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’m 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 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, not switch to keeping up with the Clampetts.
The Clampetts don’t have a choice. You do. And it’s 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 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.” – Tiny House Blog
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 exploitation by unscrupulous landlords. (This is why slums went away in the 1800s. We fought them with 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. And there is no convenient way to make sure that doesn’t happen shy of universal standards of construction.
Yeah, sometimes building codes can be 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. It felt 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 town in Footloose. Building codes exist for environmental health and human safety. In my example, they want to know who’s keeping chickens so 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 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 they’re built to minimize 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.
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 mortgage scams 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… 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.” – Tiny House Blog
Reality: How are you paying for your house?
The false dichotomy strikes again.
Tiny home owners 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. 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, 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 a possibility, but they tend to have ultra-high interest rates. This means lots of tiny home owners pay for their homes in cash, either from savings or a loan from family. 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, tiny homes need a place to sit at least semipermanently. So tiny home owners must be either buying land (a feat that requires a mortgage), renting land (wasn’t the whole point to avoid renting…?), or parking 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.
For example, my home cost a hair under $300K. (For context, that’s half the average price in the nearest metro area and $80K less than the average in 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.
“But Kitty!” you cry, “That’s so much money! Wasted on a huge house you don’t 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.
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 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—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.“
Reality: Kill your loved ones
Here comes the embarrassing anecdote.
I love my partner. A lot. 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 friends, so if we’re going out, it’s together. We’re a single-car household, so we drive everywhere together too. Our relationship wouldn’t work if we didn’t enjoy spending tons of time together. And even living in cramped apartments, we’ve always felt nothing but joy in each other’s company.
… At least, until we had to live inside an RV.
We were only going to be there for a month. We were volunteering for a friend’s fledgling charity, after which we’d return to our small, densely-roommated city apartment.
In theory, the camper had everything we needed: full-size bed, kitchen, kitchen table booth, shower, toilet, closet, couch, and even a 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. And NO dealing with other people’s dirty dishes. It was just me, the man I loved, our adventurous 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 for a square mile. We had to keep the doors and windows shut 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.
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 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 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, and when he couldn’t, he withdrew emotionally and became passive and disconnected, impatient for me to feel better but unwilling to help with the emotional labor. We snapped at each other over nothing and ate in huffy silence. We had more tearful, pleading conversations in that month than in the first three years of our relationship.
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 every 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 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 too 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 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?
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 (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 problems my partner and I went through were solvable from the relative comforts of our small city apartment. But when we were both hot, dirty, hungry, covered in itching bites, physically 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. 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.
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.
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 mold 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, physically pressing yourselves into each other isn’t the answer. And if you aren’t spending time together or getting along well, deliberately adding a blanket of animalistic stress over your family is cruel and unfair.
If you’re upset that your family members sometimes like to be alone or spend time doing hobbies you don’t understand or respect, you don’t need a tiny house. You need 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… 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.
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?
I’m getting back to my high school debate club roots and play both sides. Next week, tune in for the sequel: a big list of reasons to love the tiny house movement. We’ll talk about what I love about the philosophies that underpin the movement and learn how you can apply them, regardless of the size of your home.