12 Tricked-Out Tiny Houses, And Why They Cost So Much
Earth Day arrived last week, ushering in the usual flood of planet-friendly events–from rain barrel contests to the animated Google GOOG +1.33% doodle featuring the puffer fish and Japanese macaque. Among the most fascinating of the stories, by my count, is the tiny house.
Fueled by backlash from the financial and housing crisis, these homes–typically sized 500 square feet or smaller–are having a moment. Earlier this month the first ever Tiny House Conference in Charlotte sold out, attracting some 170 attendees. Tiny house pioneer Dee Williams, who has spent the last decade in an 84-square-foot home in a friend’s backyard, is currently touring the nation to promote her memoir “The Big Tiny.” Even students at the Savannah College of Art and Design are getting into the game, building an entire floor of 135-square-foot homes inside an old school parking lot.
These home may be environmentally friendly–they force owners to reduce their possessions and, often, to use less power–but they’re not exactly cheap. Tiny houses typically cost between $200 to $400 per square foot. On a square foot basis, that’s far pricier than the average American home–and tiny homes don’t include land.
Take the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, considered the Cadillac of the tiny house world. Tumbleweed prices its 161-square-foot “Elm” model at $66,000, or about $410-per-square-foot. Canoe Bay makes an even costlier model: its 400-square-foot “Escape” ranges from $79,000 to $124,900 (about $200 to $310 per square foot) depending on features. Even midrange tiny homes cost between $20,000 and $40,000–as in the 204-square-foot bungalow by Wind River Custom Homes for $40,000. One builder, Greg Parham of Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses, proudly priced his 136-square-foot “Boulder” at $27,350. As Parham declares on his web site, the total cost is well below the final price tag of competing models.
Still, even the relatively inexpensive Boulder amounts to about $200 per square foot–a price point higher than the median home price in 48 states, according to Zillow Z +1.57%. Only California, where the median price of a home for sale in March 2014 was $268 per square foot, Hawaii (at $420 per square foot) and Washington, D.C. ($428) suffer from higher per-square-foot home costs, data provided by Zillow shows.
But perhaps a focus on per-square-foot misses the point, when (most of) the tiny houses cost so much less than regular ones. The national median price of a home for sale March 2014 was $169,800, according to Zillow, $290,000 for new homes, according to the Commerce department. Those figures are still well above the total cost of even the most expensive tiny house.
Builders say the high per-square-foot price tag for tiny homes is due to packing a bunch of expensive, shrunk-down features–water heater, refrigerator, stove, toilet, air conditioner–in a teeny space. “If we added another 100 square feet our costs would go down,” points out Steve Weissman, president of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. “We still have to have a bathroom, a kitchen, and all of the mechanicals.”
Anyway, the goal of living in one, advocates claim, is a simpler life. “To be out of debt, living within your means, and enjoying your job,” says Kent Griswold, who runs Tiny House Blog. The first blogger to cover the tiny house movement, Griswold now works full-time on his blog, which earns him a six-figure income. The majority of his readers, he notes, are women in their 50s, followed by people of both genders between age 20 and 30.
A diligent tiny home builder, of course, can keep costs down. Williams, the author now promoting her memoir, built her tiny home for $10,000 in 2003. According to Ryan Mitchell of the tinylife.com and the Tiny House Conference, the average cost to do it yourself is $23,000.
Four years ago, Andrew and Gabriella Morrison were living in a four-bedroom dream house, stressed out by the costs and work of maintaining it. Today they live with their two dogs and their 14-year-old daughter on five acres in the hills outside Ashland ASH +0.36%, Oregon. They built–and furnished–their 207-square-foot tiny house for $33,000. “The only thing it doesn’t cover was the mattreses and the toothbrushes,” Gabriella Morrison says.
The Morrisons didn’t scrimp on details they cared about, including a full-sized kitchen with full-size appliances, a regular bathroom and sink, stairs to their sleeping loft, and room enough for their home offices, where they both work on their blog, tinyhousebuild.com. (It’s worth noting that their 17-year-old son is usually away at boarding school in Colorado, and that each of the kids have a teeny house of their own for when they need privacy. Nonetheless, the Morrisons say most of the time their kids’ teenage hangouts take place in the main house rather than the extra tiny houses.)
“Because we’re in a small space, there is no disappearing to the back guest room or the second family room behind closed doors,” says Andrew Morrison. “Our level of communication and family relationships are so much closer and deeper than they’ve ever been. I can’t think of anything more important than that.”
Williams, of the 84-square-foot house, doesn’t live with anyone but seems to find small living equally rewarding. “The best part of living in a little house is discovering that I can now work part time,” Williams told FORBES. “There’s no hefty mortgage or utility bills, no credit card debt tied to fixing the furnace or purchasing a new couch to fill the void in the living room…there is no void in the living room. Now I’ve got time to hang out with my friends, and to go for a long walk in the middle of the day. I have time to hang out with my neighbor’s four year old, and show him how to plant sunflower seeds in the garden. It’s the gift of time; that’s the best part of the deal.”
12 Tricked-Out Tiny Houses, And Why They Cost So Much