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Dreaming Big, Living Small: 'Tiny House' movement gaining real estate

Published time: May 03, 2012 21:10
Edited time: May 04, 2012 01:10

Dreaming Big, Living Small: 'Tiny House' movement gaining real estate

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When it comes to the American Dream, the success of a man and his socioeconomic status in the world, bigger is better has always been the mantra.

From the estates in Rhode Island to the mc-mansions in California, the more powerful a person was, the more real estate he or she laid claim to. But that might all be changing soon, with a little idea that is making a big impact.

It’s called the tiny house movement and each year more Americans are forgoing the walk-in closets and his and her sinks for something a bit cozier. These houses range from a few dozen to a few hundred square feet and they help owners escape what they call debtor prisons.

“The paradigm here in American has been that bigger is better but in the last couple of years that has proven to not be the case. People are finally realizing at this point that resale value is not a sure thing that used value is so I think it is best to buy the house that you love and not buy anything more,” said Jay Shaffer, founder of Tumbleweeds Tiny Houses.

Since the 1950’s, the size of an typical house has nearly doubled, now averaging 2,349 square feet. With the larger real estate comes a bigger price tag and, for many, that means more loans. When the housing bubble burst, it took with it the dreams and homes of millions of Americans. Foreclosure and for sale signs could be spotted on nearly every street in the US.

But, while some families moved in with their relatives or crammed their families into apartments for rent, others decided to choose a different American Dream, one where they could both own a home and still live within their means.

“During recessionary times we tend to be more conservative and we tend to try to conserve our costs and one of the ways to do that is to seek a smaller home with a lower price associated with it,” said Mark Boud, economist with Real Estate Economics.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Jay Shaffer. He’s the founder of Tumbleweeds Tiny Houses and the owner of one of the smallest houses in the U.S. It’s 97 square feet, has a fold up table that doubles as an office, a two-in-one shower and toilet and a bed in the loft. His house is so small you could cover the entire span of it in just a few strides. But, for Jay, it’s home. Now, he’s teaching others to do the same.

“I came up with the idea for tiny houses because of very personal reasons. I was tired of paying for more apartment than I really needed and more rent and I couldn’t really afford a mortgage and so I built myself a tiny house and I have been designing them and building them for folks ever since,” he confessed.

The best part is that many of these houses are less expensive than the average price of a car. The cheapest project is $99 and ready-made houses cost around $39,000. Like typical houses, these come in many shapes and sizes; they can either come fully constructed or as a do it yourself project. You can even design the tiny home of your dreams.

While they may be convenient, they are also illegal due to zoning laws. Houses that are under a certain size are actually illegal to own, which has caused some problems for Jay’s business.

“In the states here we have laws that prohibit small houses. They are actually created for and maintained by the housing industry,” he said, “so the housing industry actually tells us how much house we have to buy.”

But there are always ways around that.

“The loopholes are just as ridiculous as the laws themselves. So long as you are willing to put wheels in your house, you can live in a small house,” he remarked, “that way they are not considered buildings and do not need to follow building codes and can be as small as we want them to be.”

While economists consider the tiny house movement a fringe market, many admit that smaller houses are trending in the current economy. This is due to a number of reasons: people with tight finances, an increase in single parent households as well as an aging baby boomer population have all begun moving toward compact living, albeit not as small as the tiny house Jay Shaffer lives in.

So, could this be the wave of the future? And, is there anything the US government can learn about this movement and living within your means?

“I think that it’s a better way to live. I think that you appreciate what you have more and I think that it gives you more freedom to do the things that you want to do,” said small house owner Rebecca Wingham.

If it were up to Rebecca or Jay, or the dozens of others choosing to dream big but live small, the answer would be yes.