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What's the big deal about tiny houses?

There's no place like home, even if it's only 200 square feet. Find out why small digs are gaining in popularity and what makes them so special.

By MSN Money Partner Dec 20, 2013 12:10PM

This post comes from Kentin Waits at partner site Money Talks News.

Money Talks News on MSN MoneyCould you live in a 250-square-foot house on wheels? Many people are doing just that as the tiny house movement gains steam and its proponents share their experiences in small and simple living.

Home for sale © Digital Vision Ltd.Though the definition is somewhat loose, tiny houses live up to their name. Most range in size from between 150 and 450 square feet. Sometimes built on an RV chassis for mobility, tiny houses are otherwise traditional-looking structures, often featuring gabled roofs, shutters and generous front porches.

Most are custom-built, extremely well-insulated and designed to take full advantage of every square inch of space. You can find them on reclaimed urban lots, in suburban backyards and on acreage in the country. And because most tiny houses are truly mobile, they can easily be hooked and unhooked from water and electric services and moved as their owners' needs change.

But tiny houses can't be thoroughly described without a discussion of the broader social phenomenon they're a part of.

The tiny house movement is a social and philosophical movement driven by people who choose to scale back their living space in order to be mortgage-free, reduce their environmental impact, and enjoy a more flexible and mobile lifestyle.

And the price for all that freedom? Costs vary widely based on size and design, DIY considerations and materials used. But according to the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., a leading builder of tiny houses, a 200-square-foot home will set you back about $21,000, not including labor.

When you consider that a traditional home is often our largest single purchase -- one we'll likely be paying off for the bulk of our working years and one that, according to Reuters, had a median price of $199,200 in September -- it's a bit easier to see why the tiny house movement is getting attention and gaining traction.

But what else is driving this movement forward and making people question the commonly held assumption that more room means more happiness? What could entice someone away from all those walk-in closets, man caves, bonus rooms, media rooms and master suites?

Here are just a few more benefits of going small:

Smaller can be smarter

Small, well-designed and well-crafted homes have less space to heat and cool and fewer rooms to furnish and clean. Besides the obvious financial and environmental benefits this offers, smaller houses challenge our priorities about time and energy and can help refocus our attention on relationships with the people around us.

Less space means less stuff

Clutter and small spaces don't mix. To live in a tiny house successfully, you've got to be a master editor. Small spaces demand that we be vigilant in stemming the tide of junk that tends to accumulate in the garages, attics, basements and closets of larger homes.

And what a wonderful thing that is -- to be free of stacks of stuff and surrounded instead only by those things we find to be useful, beautiful or dear to our hearts. It's a "luxurious limit" not afforded by larger homes that have enough nooks and crannies to hold two or three households’ worth of gear and gadgets.

Small houses go where we go

Our society has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. Today, we're more mobile, more likely to change jobs or even careers multiple times during our working years, and more likely to be moving from city to city or state to state in the process. But our housing options haven't kept up. Are we really expected to take advantage of real estate the same way our parents did when the employment reality that finances it has been completely upended?

Tiny houses give us the option of taking our homes with us, avoiding the exhausting cycle of buy-sell-pack-store-move-repeat. Though tiny houses might not be the homes we choose to raise a family or retire in, they can offer a real logistical advantage, particularly for younger singles and couples.

Refined design

Designing a small space well requires an attention to detail that's simply not as critical in a larger home. Built-in versatile furnishings, tables that fold up into walls, Murphy beds, vaulted ceilings with sleeping lofts, and pocket doors are just a few examples of space-saving and design-conscious elements that make tiny houses much more livable.

If you like good design and appreciate well-considered spaces built for maximum utility, it's hard not to be a fan of tiny houses. They reflect the kind of innovative thinking that should go into everything we build.

Granted, living in a tiny house may not suit everyone. I have to confess that I'm not sure I could do it (and I've lived in some pretty cramped apartments). But there's a lesson that these little dwellings and the thinking behind them can teach us: In an era when the relentless pursuit of more is embraced without question, when "better" and "bigger" are practically synonymous, and when the resulting strain on our global resources is leading us all down an unfamiliar path, voluntarily choosing to live small may make perfect sense.

These houses and the lifestyles they reflect are an extreme that can teach us about a more reasonable middle. When you think of it that way, tiny houses are a very big deal indeed.

Can you see yourself downsizing to a tiny house? What do you think the greatest benefit or toughest challenge would be?

More on Money Talks News:

Dec 20, 2013 2:19PM
Small house, huge garage/shop what more do you need.
Dec 20, 2013 2:07PM
Houses that are larger than needed are not only counterproductive to one's wallet fullness, they always caused in me an odd "rattling around the castle" syndrome that is hard to describe but still discomforting. I finally found that discomfort came from my realization that i was living in those houses for others, not for me, and that I truly preferred a more manageable sized house without the curse of "size pretension'. (relax, guys)
Dec 20, 2013 2:46PM

time magazine a few months back had a similar article, about how Texas is the future of america.  Texas has mini-homes going up now in many places. 


the REAL reason for smaller homes is because jobs have disappeared and existing ones shrank in salary potential. 


marking spin will call it cute and frugal.  the sad part is it's akin to camping because that's all some people can actually aford now

Dec 20, 2013 3:03PM
The only problem with tiny homes is that most people cannot give up all of their stuff.  If you look at the space a single person uses in a large home, it boils down to a few square feet; everything else is storage. So tiny homes are perfect for people who want to eliminate clutter and don't mind storing their family items and sentimental possessions.  It's fine if you want to foist stuff on your parents or rent a storage unit, but few people can eliminate possessions.  I also read an article about a woman who lived in one who showered at another person's house.  I don't know about you, but I need a shower.  What I don't need is a neighbor who depends completely upon my shower.  This trend is a good thing.  People need to get back to the idea that they should consider a house that they can afford and later, if they can afford a bigger one, sell the home and trade up.  Singles and couples starting out do not need five bedroom homes.  This leads to foreclosure.  Buy what you can afford and pay it off.  Don't struggle to afford what you don't need and figure you will grow into the larger home.  If you lose your job or get sick, you will have no place to live.
Dec 20, 2013 3:53PM
I've got a family of four with two dogs, perfectly happy in 600 square feet. My parents, on their own, live in about four times the space, and they're miserable- too much to clean, always talking about clearing out the junk that's accumulated over the years but never getting around to it, and each blaming the other. I know it's not for everyone, but there's a lot to be said for living simply and not having a huge pile of crap.

And no, that doesn't make me a bad American, just a bad consumer.
Dec 20, 2013 2:26PM

I can build a pole-type garage about double the size or more 480-500 sq.ft.

Insulated, bath, kitchen, utilities...Heat with wood, gas or electric..

For about the same amount of money..$21,000.

I would have to do some work myself...But they said (above)  it didn't include labor.

I would hire most of the work, and it would be covered pretty close in above price.

Dec 20, 2013 2:16PM
I know someone who has lived in 2 McMansions, both of which were re-possessed. She could not really afford to live in such large homes. After her last McMansion was repossessed, her and her husband went out and rented another huge home. It has six bedrooms and four bathrooms! Even though their kids are grown and they don't need all that space. Every time I've been out shopping with her, her credit cards are denied and she eventually has to pay cash.  She spends money like crazy and is eyeball-deep in debt.   She is almost sixty years old and still hasn't learned. She also refuses to work, she gets disability payments and alimony from an ex-husband.

Hmmm finally houses priced ($21,000) for the vast majority of Americans


as Half of US workers make only $16,000 a year on average this is a perfect price point for those people.


Unfortunately the small house will not generate the consumer respond businesses need to make trillions of dollars a year.


But on the plus size most people will be able to afford them and heating and cooling will be cheaper as you have only 200 sq ft and not 3800 sq ft to heat and cool cost of that should be at least 1/10th what you are paying now.


Now we just have to let India and China import $3,000 cars and the lower class can survive again


Typical culture swing.... Buy the biggest house you can! Now its Buy the smallest house you can!


Buy an average sized  house a little below your means that you can live with that is located in a reasonable area.


Then sit back and watch/read articles like this and laugh...


Dec 20, 2013 3:37PM
The tiny house is an interesting concept, as long as you're not going to have an extended family gathering during the holidays or decide you want to buy a small grand piano (mine is 5' x 5' and takes up a lot of my living room!).

I do admit that a lot of my time, right now, is taken up by throwing out a lifetime's accumulation of worthless junk of which I now wonder why I hoarded in my avg. sized single home with full basement and attic.  I've decided a bare house is much better than a cluttered one!

Dec 20, 2013 4:43PM
My house is 30'x30' (900 sq. ft.) built in the late 1940's.  Pretty typical for that era.  With the basement finished, its perfect for me and the missus.  Our kids are gone, so its just the two of us.  We could easily afford a much larger house but why?  This one is paid for.  The super-size garage/workshop is just a few steps from the sun porch.  Its heated and is perfect for me ('cuz I don't like to watch reality shows or those karaoke singing contest shows that Mama watches on the living room tube every night).   Small House = Lower Taxes and Lower Utility bills.  Saves enough for a bottle of Crown each month.
Dec 20, 2013 2:10PM

The reason they are popular is because of Media hype and Realtors telling people how cool they are....

A new way to squeeze big money, out of people per square foot and tell them they are getting a great deal...BS.

12'x16' or 20'x10' is not a home or house....

Get a travel trailer or motor home....That you can take with you, when you want to.

A hell of a lot better deal...And you may have to spend small amounts on lot rent or a hook-up.

Dec 21, 2013 5:37PM
These tiny homes are gaining popularity more because of necessity (most people can't afford large homes anymore), and in some cases are just preferable to renting.

Where's the happy medium?
Why can't builders get back to building homes like the Levittown homes? - or just well laid out small ranch homes? A small ranch can even have more curb appeal than most of the McMansion plans I see.

Do two or three family members really need a home over 1,400 sq. feet?

I shake my head when I'm looking at plans for new homes to be built that are 2,500+ square feet....yes, some larger families need more space, but many people downsize as they get older and would prefer a right-sized home with a good layout and NO STAIRS as they get older.

Are you reading this builders?

Dec 20, 2013 3:09PM
I'm retired and I love the idea of living small and relatively care-free without a lot of space and 'stuff' to take care of. When I look around my  cluttered house and make an effort to get rid of some of the 'stuff' though, I find it very hard to cull out anything!  Still, I'd like to try it for awhile. Maybe just store all that stuff and see if I can learn to live that way. Sure would be up my mind for reading, meditation, socializing,helping others, and doing something creative like writing or painting.  Wouldn't it be nice if there were big public spaces in a lot of locales for folks living in tiny houses to rent a small studio/office at a very small price--no long term commitment in case you decided to move on? What freedom! 
Dec 20, 2013 2:46PM
this idiot neglected to mention the tax man. most counties here allow 12x12 construction without a permit. we have had several of these as outbuildings two stories high. if it does not sit on a permanent foundation it is not taxed. my understanding is people are putting up more than one of these houses on their property to live in. even if they are a permanent living space you are being taxed on a lot less square footage. as far as the social drivers go I would say this is just another area working people have to get creative about if they want to keep a dry roof over their heads.
Dec 22, 2013 1:19AM
Most comfortable house I ever lived in was a small Cape Cod-style home, with a finished attic.
Add in the finished basement for a kids' playroom, and it was plenty of space for a family with a couple of kids.  Inexpensive to heat, easy to maintain, and plenty of curb appeal.

Dec 20, 2013 5:07PM
I lived in a 24 foot travel trailer for about four years. It was too cramped. It definitely wasn't designed for anything more than camping. I need at least twice the space it had. It was better when I lived in mobile homes. They aren't as efficient as the tiny houses but they have more space. I can get by in 4-600 square feet. The 2-3,000 square foot houses are far too big for my needs. I don't need room for a dozen grizzly bears or a 1,000 inch big screen TV. Go with whatever works for you.
Dec 22, 2013 2:26PM

Why are little tiny houses such a big deal? They're the lap of luxury compared to the street, the overpass, the tarp down by the river.


1945 - 1975: Time, and what a time it was . . ..

Dec 20, 2013 2:00PM

"The real reason people are going smaller is the Government."


Bull. The real reason is the America born out of WWII did what always happens with empire: The society is encouraged to believe, and it gladly and widely accepts, the old lie that it can be profligate forever.


It's never been true, and it wasn't true with America. Somehow - who knew!? - what happened!? - the country got poor.




Dec 20, 2013 3:23PM
I cannot live in a real small house, I tried a few years ago when I retired....bought a 30' Airstream and a new 2500 Dodge diesel and hit the road. Made it about two years and gave it up could not quit thinking about all my tools and hobbies back home. So now I am back home, happy as a hog in mud in a mid size home (3000') A work shop & working on my hobbies.....
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