From a young age, many of us dream of the houses we’ll own. But those dreams don’t get into the reality of how much houses cost. These days, buying a house means getting a mortgage – which can wind up taking decades to pay off.
“When you look at events like the housing bust – which eventually caused a worldwide economic downturn – you know, people were being forced into more house than they could afford,” says Jay Shafer, who founded the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, based in Sonoma, California.
When Shafer says “more house,” he means it literally – as in, they were just too big. Shafer.
“The banks wouldn’t give loans for houses that were small. These things are really very much a part of what caused this economic downturn, and yet nobody talks about it,” Shafer says.
In recent years, Shafer’s become the face of the “tiny-house movement.” It’s a diverse spectrum of people who live in houses that are so small, they’re often illegal. Yes, there’s such a thing as a house that’s legally too small.
A tiny place to call home
Walt Whitman wrote that: “a man is not a whole and complete man unless he owns a house and the ground it stands on.” I’m thinking of those words as I pull up in Graton, for a tour of Jay Shafer’s latest tiny-house.
It’s just seven by 14 feet – so small, it violates current housing codes. That’s one of the reasons it’s mounted on a trailer-bed: Housing regulations are really extensive, but trailer regulations are practically non-existent.
“Stepping right inside the front door, to the left side we’ve got the kitchen, which is very small – just about four-and-a-half or maybe four feet long. To the right side of the front door, there is the bathroom, which is probably the smallest full bath in the world – as far as I know, anyway,” Shafer explains.
He’s a practiced salesman: he’s given Oprah Winfrey and Anderson Cooper similar tours. The New Yorker calls him “the brainy misfit behind the tiny-house trend” – and he’s definitely the closest thing the movement has to a celebrity.
Shafer often says there’s something “luxurious” about living simply: it frees you up to do what you actually enjoy, since you’re not constantly working to pay for a lot of stuff you can’t afford.
“It’s really about buying less and living with less – living with just what you need to be happy, rather than a bunch of extra stuff,” Shafer says.
So, there’s a philosophical reason to go small. But for others, “it’s more a pragmatic solution to economic and personal need than it is a change in lifestyle of “now I don’t want so much,” says Stephen Marshall, who owns the Petaluma business Little House on the Trailer.
“I get a fair amount of walk-in traffic, because we’re sitting here on the highway in a used car lot. So people notice, and everybody’s sort of enchanted by the idea,” says Marshall.
Marshall says that when many of these people come through, they talk about trying to use less, or be green.
“That’s all the idealistic narrative around little houses. None of those people, not one of those people, out of, say, 30 houses that we’ve sold now, has been a buyer,” Marshall explains.
His clients are more practical. Many of them buy his houses for their elderly parents. That’s where economics kicks in.
On average, you’ll pay about $2,500 a month to move your parents into an assisted living facility. But for around $6,000, Marshall will build you a little house, and you can park your parents in the backyard, and take care of them yourself.
Marshall’s clients aren’t worrying about saving the world. They want their immediate needs met, at the best price.
“It’s sort of reminiscent of a little ship’s cabin,” says Bill Glanting, who built a tiny house in his Bernal Heights backyard in San Francisco. “And I’ll close the door. And it’s nice and airtight and cozy and warm. And you look up here, we’ve got a skylight...
One of Glanting’s sons moved home after graduating from UCLA – he kept sending out resumes, but couldn’t find a job. At the same time, Glanting’s younger son also decided to move home, from Davis.
“I was not about to say, ‘Well too bad, you’re old enough, go out and get a job,’ or something, because that really wasn’t a viable solution. You know, I’m not gonna turn my sons out in the street. But we needed more room,” says Glanting.
Glanting’s main house is already pretty small by many people’s standards: 1,000 square feet. He built his backyard cabana himself, for somewhere between $2,000 to 3,000. It’s an addition, a guesthouse. But others are actually moving full-time into smaller places.
Brenda Daugherty and her partner, Cece Reinhardt, recently moved into an Airstream – one of those vaguely retro, silver-bullet-type trailers. To do so, they’ve had to downsize to meet strict limits – their overall weight can’t be more than 15,000 pounds.
“We shaved 88 pounds in two hours, and we’re very proud,” cheers Reinhart.
It’s not a tiny-house – they’d like one of those in a few years, maybe – but they’re definitely engaging in some tiny living. The trailer is 25 feet long – 160 square feet.
“It took us living in excess many years, kind of the California dream, where we thought we were supposed to each have a car, and we had a big house... It took several years of that and then looking at our bank accounts each month and our savings each month and our retirement and going, ‘Yeah, this isn’t exactly where we wanted to go,’” explains Reinhart.
Slowly, they started to downsize. They got rid of things they hadn’t used in a year, and sold their big house to rent a smaller place. They’re debt-free now, and have begun to save money.
“I think it was a bit of a kick to my ego to actually admit that you don’t need all this stuff, and this stuff isn’t what you thought this stuff would bring you,” says Daugherty.
Talking to Reinhardt and Daugherty, it strikes me that their reasons for downsizing have a lot in common with Henry David Thoreau’s. In the 1840s, he moved into his own tiny house, an experience he described in Walden. Thoreau wrote that “the cost of a thing is the amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
How does my stuff influence the life that I live? How much of my life will I spend paying for that stuff – and how do I actually feel about that?
These are the questions tiny-housers are asking. They’re big ones, and have to do with the meaning of life itself. So it makes sense that, to answer them, these people have started by rethinking the places they live.
Could you permanently live in a tiny house? What are you doing to cut back during this difficult economic times? Let us know on our Facebook page.
This piece originally aired in 2011.