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The Tiny House Dilemma: The elephant in the (tiny) room.


Let’s start with a show of hands: how many of you have seen or heard about the Tiny House rage currently sweeping the country? Considering the number of shows on TV dedicated to the topic, if you’re unaware of this fad you’re seriously neglecting your TV viewing. No fewer than six such shows are currently airing (ad nauseum some would say) on various low-rent cable channels like HGTV or FYI (formerly Biography). Due to the unexpected success of shows like Tiny House Builders, Tiny House Hunters and Tiny Treasure Homes, they often run in multi-hour blocks, enabling viewers to binge on five or six shows in a row, if they’re so inclined. And a staggering number of viewers apparently are, if the ratings are anything to go by. Chances are there’s one on right now.

For the uninitiated, the Tiny House religion promotes downsizing from a traditional house with its hefty mortgage, unending maintenance, stuffed storage spaces, and permanent location to a very small house mounted on a trailer, capable of being moved from one locale to another and stocked with the bare necessities. Most are custom built by either the occupant or a builder that specializes in the realm. Typical sizes run from 8’X8’ to 10’X12’ and the finished product manages to include a bathroom, kitchen, living room, and bedroom –with lots of overlap. Kitchen and living room, for instance, are usually one space and the “bedroom” is often a tiny peaked loft accessed via a ladder. The bathroom incorporates a toilet and some form of shower in a space no larger than a packing crate. Everything is functional –barely.

The advantages are touted frequently:

  • Cheaper housing enables the occupant to save more money while working less.
  • More free time to enjoy hobbies or activities.
  • No property taxes.
  • Inability to stockpile the “stuff” Americans love to acquire but don’t necessarily need. With no basement, attic or even closets, each purchase has to be considered carefully with questions like “Do I really need this?” and “Where will I put it?”
  • A much simpler lifestyle.
  • The freedom to change locations at will.

I’ll admit the premise is not without intrigue. The mortgage (or rent) is usually the biggest hit to the average person’s paycheck. Plenty of people understand the feeling of working to pay for a house they barely have time to enjoy. Remove that from the equation and suddenly working two jobs or volunteering for overtime becomes unnecessary. With more money available for non-house related activities and a sudden abundance of free time, life can suddenly be devoted to the individual’s true interests: extended vacations, gardening, charity work, etc. Based on ratings for the abundant crop of tiny house shows, lots of people are willing to at least consider living in a broom closet in exchange for freedom from long hours at a job they’re not thrilled with and a wallet crushing mortgage.

But it’s not that simple. Consider the cost of the tiny house. These glorified potting sheds are almost all custom built and they’re not cheap. $30,000 is the low end and the high end frequently tips in to the six-figure range. While they are undeniably cheaper to purchase (or build), the tiny house lacks two features of the traditional home: they don’t appreciate in value and most banks won’t be willing to offer financing. Owning a traditional home for twenty years should result in a home that sells for significantly more than its original purchase price whereas a twenty-year-old tiny house will be lucky to sell for a fraction of its original cost. And even that’s optimistic. In reality finding a buyer willing to pony up for your very unique and well-used tiny house will be pretty tough sledding (hence a bank’s skittishness to get involved).

And how long are you really going to be able to live in a tiny house before you’ve had enough? Three years? Four? Very few people will be able to live in a tiny house as a permanent residence. Getting up to bed at night via a rickety ladder may be kind of fun for a while when you’re in your twenties but in your dotage it will have lost its charm. Want to have some friends over to watch the game? Unless they’re willing to watch through the window while standing in the flower beds, forget it. So in most cases after a few years you’re ready to sell, but instead of making money on the sale you’ll take a sizable hit on your investment. How much? A $50,000 tiny house might sell for $25,000 after a few years. Might. Maybe. If you can find a buyer.

Let’s assume you do find a buyer willing to give you half what you paid. Now you’re ready for a real house again. Really ready. Contrary to a few years before you now find yourself fantasizing about a bathroom you can turn around in and a living room big enough for an actual couch. Having lost $25,000 on your tiny house investment you either dig in to your savings or commit to working harder/longer to cover a mortgage –the very things you hoped to avoid in the first place. Also, the $25,000 loss on your initial investment breaks down in to a real world monthly expense of $694 you’ve been paying for the luxury of sleeping the last three years with a bike helmet on because your doctor has advised against any more blows to your skull after repeatedly hitting your head on the ceiling every time you sat up in bed. You don’t need to be an accountant to figure out that the $700 you’ve been paying (whether you realized it or not) is not much different than a traditional mortgage for a modest “real” home. So while a tiny house may enable you to spend your days tending the garden or mountain biking for a few years while everyone else is working for the man, unless you’re willing to hang on for the long haul, running the numbers at the end of the adventure might reveal nothing was gained, or, more likely, much was lost with little to show for it.

But hang on, our tiny house advocates will counter, you haven’t taken in to account the freedom to move your tiny house to different locations! Well, that’s true. Kind of. Most tiny houses are built on top of common utility trailers. Hopefully the house has been constructed within the listed weight limits of the trailer -and not all of them are, especially those built by the do-it-yourself crowd. And tiny houses are built using traditional materials with lots of wood and shingles and residential windows –all VERY heavy items. While they may weigh in below the supporting trailer’s limits, they are usually pretty close to the maximum recommended load. And this is not a temporary load. This weight is straining the limits of the trailer 24 hours a day –every day. Not good. Further, being built in a traditional manner (they really are tiny houses), the components used are not well suited to the jouncing and heaving of highway speeds any more than the house you’re currently sitting in. Transportation can be a white knuckle affair and damage during transit should be expected. Aerodynamics? You’re joking? Tiny houses with their gingerbread trim, eaves troughs, window boxes and scalloped siding are about as aerodynamic as, well, a house. And houses aren’t known for their ability to slip smoothly through the air. Moving from one end of town to another on secondary roads? If you’re careful you should be fine. Moving from Seattle to Phoenix to take in the warmer climes of the desert for the winter? Not fun and not recommended –for all sorts of reasons.

By now I would assume you are in one of two possible camps. The first group wasn’t enamored with the tiny house phenomenon in the first place and the points raised above just confirmed their original stance. The second group, though, loves the idea of the tiny house and is a bit disappointed to consider a less than rosy way to view the dream. To this second group I would like to offer a defense of my position. I understand the appeal of the tiny house, I really do, but like all major life decisions, considering the pros and cons beforehand can prevent a lot of grief down the road. The slew of tiny house shows currently airing skew heavily toward the “pros” of tiny house living without any consideration of the “cons”. I find this a tad misleading and a rebuttal of sorts may be of value to those willing to consider both sides. 

But have faith, tiny house devotees. All is not lost. In fact, all may be quite well indeed if you are willing to consider a slight variation on the dream of the tiny home. I am talking about an option so glaringly obvious I can’t believe it hasn’t garnered more (or any) coverage in the tiny house discussion. An idea that provides all of the benefits of the tiny house with very few of the drawbacks and I can sum it up for you in one word: RV.

Okay, I’m aware that “RV” isn’t really a word, per se, it’s an acronym but “Recreational Vehicle” just doesn’t have the same pop. But I digress…

Ask yourself what appeals to people about the tiny house idea and then compare it to an RV, be it a travel trailer, motorhome or fifth wheel:

  • Living smaller, simpler and cheaper? Check.
  • Being able to move from one location to another? Check.
  • No property taxes? Check.
  • All the amenities of home in a small footprint? Check. 
  • Cost of ownership significantly less than a traditional house? Check.

And then there are the previously discussed “cons” of the tiny house:

  • Depreciation in value as opposed to the appreciation normally associated with a traditional home? Check: Yep, you’re going to take a hit on an RV just like a tiny house, but when it does come time to sell you’ll find a massive market of dealers, brokers and buyers to assist you as opposed to a few fringe players.
  • Banks are unwilling to provide financing for a tiny house due to its limited appeal on the general market. No check. Banks are as willing to provide competitive financing for an RV as they are boats, motorcycles and cars.
  • Transportation for a tiny house can be dangerous and damaging. No check. RVs are designed, engineered and built to be moved –and they are, from one end of the country to the other and back again if you’re so inclined.

So why aren’t the tiny house people just buying an RV? Well, for some of them the tiny house is a statement of sorts. It’s important to let society know they don’t need the same things as more traditional folk. Telling people they live in a tiny house announces their rebellious streak and provides some shock value (as well as some implied superiority). Telling people they’re living in an RV merely implies they’re camping –even if it is full time. Lots of people reside permanently (and very comfortably) in their RVs and have done so since the dawn of the RV lifestyle and you can’t be living on the fringe of society if your grandparents have been doing the same thing for years. Even though an RV would meet or exceed all the requirements to live the tiny house lifestyle, this group can’t risk the chance that their civil disobedience will be misinterpreted.

For those less beholden to their “rebellious image” a world of possibility awaits –and insisting on a tiny house while eschewing more rational choices really is to find oneself a slave to image –the very antithesis of rebellion if you think about it, an irony rich with contradictions. But for those truly willing to think outside the box –both literally and figuratively- today’s RV market is bursting with choices: gas, diesel, towables, big motorhomes, small pop-ups, tear drop campers and even micro RVs that can be towed by a motorcycle or bicycle. While constructed with durable, weather resistant and lightweight materials and well insulated for maximum comfort, today’s RVs add plenty of fashion to the function with interiors reminiscent of upscale condos complete with granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances and lots of upscale fabrics and leathers. Sheath all of that in an aerodynamic shell and you have a tiny house built with travel in mind, employing decades of design and layout knowledge.

The $30,000-$50,000 you’d expect to spend on a tiny house would be more than enough to buy a well-appointed RV with all the bells and whistles, a factory warranty and you could pick it up today instead of spending months building one yourself or waiting for it to be built. You would also avoid the significant unexpected cost overruns that so many of these tiny house devotees seem to encounter.

But what if you like the idea of spending months constructing your own home? No problem there. Find and buy a vintage RV languishing behind a barn somewhere and bring it back to like-new condition. Reclaimed products are as hot as tiny houses right now and some of these restored vintage RVs are truly works of art –and labors of love. Do it well and do it right and you could make a significant profit when it comes time to sell. You get a chance to create something with your own hands, a tiny house to live in as long as your care to, and then make money when the fun has run its course. Intrigued? Check out the “Flippin’ RVs” show on the Travel Channel and you’ll find a young couple who have made a career out of restoring RVs for a tidy profit.

For those open to the idea of an RV in lieu of the tiny house, I would recommend the following:

  • If you think extreme weather is a possibility, make sure you find an RV designed for four-season use. These units often employ dual pane windows, enclosed underbellies, beefed up insulation, and improved HVAC systems. There are often heat strips mounted to the plumbing supply lines to prevent freezing.
  • If considering a towable, make sure your tow vehicle is up to the task. While any RV on the market today will be engineered well within the safety limits of the trailer on which it sits, this has nothing to do with the tow vehicle.
  • Don’t buy the latest model year. The RV industry has lost its marbles in recent times and model years now arrive sometimes two years ahead of what the calendar says. This is a marketing gimmick enabling dealers to sell the latest units for a premium. Find a discounted previous model year or even a lightly used pre-owned unit. There’s thousands of them on the market.
  • Make sure the mattress is up to your standards. This is one area where manufacturers tend to skimp on quality and if you’re going to be a permanent resident, you don’t want to be dealing with a prison-issue style mattress on a nightly basis. Much preferred aftermarket mattresses are abundant and quite affordable, though.
  • Check out the bathroom for functionality. While these have improved in recent years, many RVs still feature bathrooms reminiscent of airplane bathrooms –and we all know how comfortable those are. Also, entry level RVs often employ a flimsy plastic toilet that should be avoided at all costs. These aren’t designed for daily use. Find an RV with a sizable bathroom you can easily move around in, with a one-piece shower (no seams) and a residential porcelain toilet.
  • Make sure the kitchen works for you. If you’re a budding Anthony Bourdain you’ll have higher standards than most people and should keep that in mind. Some RV kitchens offer either the bare minimum necessities or sub-par quality. This will be more than adequate for some or a constant source of irritation for others.
  • Regarding appliances, more and more RVs come complete with a full sized refrigerator. This is a great feature if you’ll be cohabitating with others but if you’re living solo, this may be a waste of valuable space and electricity. Consider your existing fridge, which is probably a full sized residential unit. What’s in there? A bottle of mustard, half a gallon of milk and a take-out box of Chinese food of an indeterminate vintage? A typical half-sized RV fridge will probably meet your needs just fine.
  • Televisions are another area where RV manufacturers try and save a few bucks. As long as they can advertise that they have a high-def or flat screen tv, they’re satisfied, but the ones they plump for are usually cheap off-market brands from Slovakia or some other dire location. Expect to replace these sooner than later but even good TVs are pretty darn cheap these days. Once upgraded you’ll be able to watch as many tiny house shows as you can handle and then you can join me in my ritual of yelling “Just buy an RV!” every time some tiny house devotee lays out their list of needs to the host of the show.

And that’s my two cents’ worth. I do have one request, though. Am I alone in thinking an RV would be a much preferred alternative to the traditional tiny house these shows are geared around? It seems obvious to me but I have never seen anyone even mention it –which seems odd. I’d be curious to hear if anyone else has considered the elephant in the tiny house room.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Interesting comments and feedback on the tiny house phenomenon may be shared (anonymously, of course) during next week’s article.

This is a great time of year for an RV trip. The weather is pleasant and the kids are back in school. Campgrounds are lightly populated and traffic is manageable. The Labor Day holiday is in the rear view mirror and travels for the next two months can be a delight for those able to partake. Just remember to check your tire pressures before heading out.

This is also a great time for those in the market for an RV. The Fall RV Shows are arriving as are the legitimate 2017 models. Sales and discounts on the remaining 2016 models can be significant –and there are still a lot of them to choose from. Any of these that don’t move soon will likely sit on the dealer’s lot (and books) for the winter. So help your dealer out and take one off his hands -in exchange for a near wholesale price. How’s that for a win-win?

Happy Travels,

The Team