Tiny Homes, Big Limits

Tiny red house in green grass
Tiny red house in green grass

Gaining popularity all over the country for the past few years, tiny homes have found an ironically large place in the hearts of the people of the Pacific Northwest. Maybe it has something to do with how well tiny homes pair with bushy beards and flannel, or that their tiny fridges are just the right size for chilling craft brews. Maybe because tiny homes are known for being environmentally friendly, and since owning a Prius in Oregon is the equivalent of owning a Bentley in other parts of the country, it makes sense that their tiny footprint would catch on in these parts. Perhaps the most attractive attribute of any tiny home is the assumption that it comes with an equally tiny price tag.

How does the cost of a tiny home compare to one of average size? Currently the average home in America is around 2,600 square feet and the median sale price, as of last December, was $224,100. Tiny home prices, however, depend on a number of factors. When a professional builder does the work, purchasers may pay around $40k for a 175-foot house, although costs could be much more or less depending on materials, or given different dimensions. Tiny houses typically cost between $200 to $400 per square foot, which is far pricier than the average American home, plus land is usually not included.

Price per square foot varies greatly by area. Last year, Detroit’s average cost per square foot was $40, much lower than the cost of $180 in Corvallis. Although the cost to build tiny homes varies by area, they tend to be mobile, making location factors less significant.

Compared with most average homes, buyers often opt to build their own tiny homes. Karen Rockwell is the executive director of Benton Habitat for Humanity and is somewhat of a local expert on the subject. According to her, tiny homes are most desirable for those preferring to take part in the construction process. “Often the appeal of a tiny home is stronger for individuals that are interested in doing their own construction, which saves on labor costs,” she said.

As with any project, Rockwell advises knowing your budget. Tiny homes have been on the market long enough to offer many amiable amenities, but as Rockwell says, a great number of them come with great price tags.

“If you are doing the work yourself and are creative about sourcing your materials, you can construct a very affordable tiny home. There are many people that have shopped at our ReStore that are building their own tiny homes and have thoughtful, long-term plans,” explained Rockwell. A quick Google search will confirm her assertion that people are getting creative with their materials, some building their homes out of existing structures like large shipping crates or storage sheds. Using this strategy, buyers have been known to build their tiny homes for under $10,000.

Images in magazines or those that flood the Internet make tiny homes seem picturesque, with their shiny new appliances and crisp loft bedroom linens. Proponents of tiny homes claim that well-considered floor plans can make the 400 square feet seem much more spacious. However the question of tiny homes being sustainable options for couples considering or transitioning to bigger families remains.

Rockwell observed, “Like any home, life happens. Families grow, relationships change, and jobs relocate. Yes, a tiny home can and is a sustainable long-term housing option for many people. But to label it as a ‘great’ option is flawed. I think for some individuals this is a good alternative to more costly and/or larger scale options.” Rockwell offers a number of questions to consider before taking the tiny home plunge, like is your family going to grow? What type of mobility needs does your family have (for example, are you suffering from knee issues that make maneuvers to a loft more difficult)? Do you like to entertain or host people in your home?

Another economical option that many are turning to, when the tiny home becomes too tiny, is the small home or small, smart home. Small homes are usually defined as being 400 to 1,000 square feet (whereas tiny homes are usually under 400) and can be much more economical. They are not on wheels, so they tend to include the land that they are built on and are usually much more in line with the average home when it comes to cost per square foot. A 600-square-foot small, smart home can be designed so that it is still environmentally sustainable, and just a bit larger than a tiny home.

Another consideration when it comes to tiny homes is their being a solution for the chronically homeless. Rockwell disagrees with this though, saying, “I am happy that there is a robust conversation about how to serve this segment of our citizens, however I am not in agreement that tiny homes would be a great fit. In this situation I am an advocate of a small, smart home.”

Rockwell points out that often a tiny home requires loft living or modular furniture (furniture with multiple purposes such as a bed that you unfold at night, but use as a table or couch during the day). There are homeless that have disabilities, so structures need to be more broadly useable.

Tiny homes as a solution for homelessness gained some press coverage when they were used to house people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Problematically, of the proposed 3,500 Katrina Cottages, less than 100 were actually built. People wanted to go back to the lives they were used to, and didn’t look at the Katrina Cottages as permanent solutions. Other cities have tried building homes on wheels with sleeping quarters for homeless populations, but with no running water or electricity, leaving them no place to shower or cook meals. When it comes to housing the homeless, small homes seem a better, more permanent solution than tiny homes.

Whether or not the tiny home movement will continue to gain traction is still up in the air. Rockwell believes that the Pacific Northwest clearly has a need for creative housing solutions, and that individuals who love their own tiny homes will be advocates of their experiences, and in turn address the state’s housing crisis. She anticipates that the movement will morph into something new in the future, something that is equally exciting as today’s tiny home movement, yet more accessible for the segments of our population unable to buy in.

By Hannah Darling