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Woman in her 50s Builds her own Debt-free Tiny Home

This is a guest story by a Tiny House Talk reader and now a DIY builder who built her own debt-free tiny home


Why in the world would a female member of AARP who has never built a thing in her life attempt to teach herself the skills necessary to build a tiny house?

There are a great number of people talking about tiny houses these days. That was not really the case when I got the idea for my tiny home. My idea stemmed from a logical practical need.

It didn’t begin as some magnificent business plan. It began quietly and simply, a possible solution to a very big and very real need. I’m not an architect. I’m someone who has spent her life seeing problems solved with common sense and perseverance.

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I grew up on fifteen acres and learned the successful creatures in nature are fighters, quick responders, and know how to resource the world around them. The women in my life have always had an incredible gift for taking what some might consider junk and repurposing long before it was trendy, resulting in beautiful, comfortable, budget friendly homes.

The men were equally inventive and resourceful. I don’t ever recall a workman coming to our home. If men in the family didn’t already possess the needed skill, they applied themselves and learned them. In short, I come from a family of doers.

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We figure things out. We get things done. We solve problems. I raised two wonderful daughters in one of the most expensive parts of the country. The year my younger daughter graduated from high school I lost the house. Perhaps many of you struggling to make your mortgage payments can relate.

I spent the next several months living out of campsites. Fortunately for me I love to camp so it was actually a very pleasant way to spend the summer months. Like any other person, I made it to work every day and no one was aware that I was in between residences. Fall finally came around and it was time to go indoors again.

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This is New England, after all! For the next six years everything I owned was in storage and I lived in a tiny shoebox of a room while I tried to regroup and regain control of my life. It took some time to formulate a game plan. It had to be something I could manage on limited funds.

Somewhere along the way I was reminded of the tiny house concept and the idea began to roll around in my head on a regular basis. During this time funds were extremely limited and so were my skills. Each week I bought a tool, or a book. On a really good week I bought both.

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When build time finally rolled around I had a project plan, small pickup truck, trailer I found on Craigslist, enough tools to rival some men’s workshops, many worthwhile reads on construction, and every relevant read on tiny houses. Tiny houses are not for everyone. I could not imagine raising my children in 130 square feet.


But at other stages of life, for some of us, they are the perfect alternative. Thus was the case in my world. My family is scattered, my children independent, and I am single. There are probably as many ways to build a tiny house as there are people who build them, perhaps more.

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I wanted mine to be versatile, aesthetically appealing, comfortable, inviting, and able to work off grid or plugged into a friend’s electric and water. Exploration yielded more fabulous photos, ideas, books, plans, and great connections with others than I could possibly do justice to in a whole host of lifetimes.

I didn’t need the perfect solutions. All I needed were the perfect options for me, my budget, my goals, and my skillset.

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Some of you may be like me. Your skills in math may be severely lacking. I’m a visual person.

What I lack in calculation skills I make up for in reasoning and practical application. My tiny house was built by using defined dimensions. I knew the dimensions of the trailer, knew the legal size constraints, knew the size of my door and windows, knew the safety precautions I wanted to have in place, and knew framing measurement requirements.

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What I didn’t know, I learned along the way. This process should have taken me six months but due to a layoff resulting in a drastic reduction in pay, just as I was about to begin work, it took two years, almost to the day.

What did I learn in this process? I learned that I have paid a whole lot more attention to the skills of others than I ever realized, and I’ve learned from watching. I learned it’s not important to know. It’s important to be willing to learn. I learned to go slow and wait until the answer arrives.

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I was reminded to always think ahead and about the potential impact of a particular design or element choice. I was reminded of the ever important, measure twice and cut once. I was reminded of the value of small but steady consistent progress.

If it was a day I couldn’t work outdoors then I made sure I did something that would benefit my efforts when I again was able to do so. Safety was paramount, even when it cost me extra money and time. Being scared, insecure, uncertain, and getting made fun of have absolutely no bearing on the finished product. Suck it up and push forward. In the end the efforts speak for themselves.

Since completion, my tiny house has been through a blizzard, hurricane, and city traffic on the windiest day of the entire season. Factoring in everything it equated to approximately 85mph winds, and three hours of sustained highway speeds in pouring rain. She has held firm, tight, and dry.

More details of the build process can be viewed at www.coppertinwoodandwill.wordpress.com.

If you enjoyed this story on a 50-something woman’s journey building her own tiny home you’ll love our free daily tiny house newsletter with more!

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Alex

Alex is a contributor and editor for TinyHouseTalk.com and the always free Tiny House Newsletter. He has a passion for exploring and sharing tiny homes (from yurts and RVs to tiny cabins and cottages) and inspiring simple living stories. We invite you to send in your story and tiny home photos too so we can re-share and inspire others towards a simple life too. Thank you!




{ 44 comments… add one }
  • sally May 21, 2014, 1:30 pm

    Thank you for a great story without whining. I get so fed up with folks on these blogs who blather about dishwashers and what they’ve GOT to have, without knowing what it’s like to start over from zero. When you’re thirty, you still have time to screw up and start over several times. When you’re fifty (or way over like me), and get laid off or burn out after taking care of all the older relatives, you don’t have as many options or time to figure out how NOT to run out of money, just in case you live to be 80 or 90 yourself.
    It’s downright terrifying, as I’ve seen on here, with retired people whose pensions aren’t even providing them with the basics and their health doesn’t give them options to earn.
    I can only hope the young people who are sincerely interested in making sure they have SOMEthing for their old age take a few lessons from your story. Anything can happen, as this economy has proven, so plan ahead to take care of yourself.
    I’m fortunate to have acquired rural land over the years that no one else wanted due to the “remoteness” (which is now no longer remote). We have Tiny House people on the property who help out with the livestock in exchange for a free place to garden and live. It works out for everyone, and in fact have taken in a few seniors in their own campers who didn’t want to wind up doing a last gasp in a nursing home. We each have privacy, but all look out for each other, which is another holdover from the “old days.”
    Once again, thank you, and I LOVE your little kitchen window.

    • Shirley May 21, 2014, 5:56 pm

      @ Sally, Thank you for taking the time to share. It sounds as though in spite of the challenges you have had and the concerns you face you have managed to find a solution that currently is working for not just you, but also several others around you. Kudos on your personally creative approach.

  • Doris May 21, 2014, 2:46 pm

    Wonderful house and amazing story. You didn’t let it beat you down. The older I get, the more jaded I become, but you story lifted me up today. Thanks.

    • Shirley May 21, 2014, 5:49 pm

      @ Doris, Not saying it’s easy. It’s hard work but very satisfying. So long as you are breathing the days will come and go. You can either watch the clock tick by or you can pick a project and chip away at it to see where it happens to take you. At least that’s what I do…

  • Lisa E. May 21, 2014, 3:14 pm

    BRAVO!!! Job exceedingly well done!
    And thank you for sharing your wonderful story.
    You’re an inspiration to everyone regardless of age or limitations.

    • Shirley May 21, 2014, 5:53 pm

      Lisa, I have to tell you, one of the things that was a real eye opener when I was doing this was how many young women half my age or younger would stop by and say, “I wish someone would build one of those for me.” They were on welfare or locked into a low income world and somehow saw themselves as different from me. Doing something step by step a little at a time was something so far out of their frame of thinking. It was truly concerning.

  • Shirley May 21, 2014, 4:03 pm

    Thanks to each and every one of you for taking the time to read and comment! I’ll read back through and try to respond to anyone’s individual questions. Glad the story resonated with so many if you.

  • Linda May 21, 2014, 7:16 pm

    Magnificent! What an inspiration! You rock, girl! Well done.

  • Shirley May 22, 2014, 10:11 am

    @ Jeff It was never designed for Kansas. Number 1 it wasn’t built for tornado alley. Number 2 if it was in an open field that was constantly taking open poundings from the winds it would be built on a lower trailer and securely tied/anchored to the ground on all 4 corners and sides. I’m sure you love Kansas but it was never one of my destination choices. Hope this helps.

  • Shirley May 22, 2014, 10:13 am

    @ Linda — thank you!

  • Shirley May 22, 2014, 10:24 am

    @ Jody, the hardest thing for me to overcome was my fear of heights. I am terrified of heights and it doesn’t have to be very high to scare me. I worked on scaffolding instead of ladders. It cost me more but I felt much more secure and safe. Most likely it took me 3 times as long as it should have but it all still got done. Regarding what others think, my kids are my toughest critics. They know I dance to my own beat but they couldn’t wrap their heads around my vision until I showed them some pics to help illustrate my point. Beyond them, others don’t live my life, walk in my shoes, pay my bills, or feel my joys/sorrows/gains/losses so I’ve never had much difficulty disregarding the opinions (especially those unwilling to lend a hand) of others. Hope this helps.

  • Alex May 22, 2014, 12:51 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing with all of us Shirley. You’re a real inspiration.

  • Mary Ann May 23, 2014, 10:07 am

    This 50-something woman is very inspired by you. Thanks for sharing your story. Best of luck and much happiness to you.

  • Kari May 25, 2014, 10:57 am

    Shirley! I am so inspired by you. I have slowly been building my tool collection and skills. I rescue items from the neighbors garbage, read upcycling blogs, am slowly purging our small apartment of things we don’t need, and paying down debt. Your honesty and determination is so exciting! I can’t wait to read your blog. I’m sure it will be filled with encouragement and ideas. I doubt my ability because of physical and money limitations, but your journey has shown me just how amazing one person can be with belief and patience! Bless you!

  • Shirley May 25, 2014, 2:22 pm

    @ Alex, MaryAnn, Kari, and others I may have missed. I have got to tell you that part of what has made this far more for me than I EVER anticipated in the beginning is how many people I have been able to connect with along the way. I have also been reminded of the value of saying something as simple as “thank you.” It means a lot that just as I was given to, I’ve been able to put something together that, in a way some of you find meaningful and useful, I am able to give something back in return. Thank you, Alex and all…

  • Heather May 26, 2014, 12:29 pm

    Just finally got a chance to read this and I, along with all these people on here, am VERY proud of you mom! You have ALWAYS done the best you could with what you had to wrk with to make the best life for us that you could! None of it was easy, but you always give 100% in what you do, and it shows! Although we gave you A LOT of crap about this whole Tiny House thing we thought was nonsense and a waste of needed money, I am glad you ignored us and did it anyway cuz it turned out to be pretty impressive in the end and it’s nice to see how proud of yourself you are when you show it to someone! Your pretty bad a*s mom and I speak for both myself and Erin when I say we are very proud of you and love you very much! Great job Shirlz! ❤️

    • Shirley May 28, 2014, 10:45 pm

      OMG! Heather I just saw this comment! Thank you so much for posting this. You’re going to think I’m such a dope but it made my eyes water! Thank you for taking the time to give me this feedback!

  • alice h May 26, 2014, 4:07 pm

    Now that’s the kind of attitude more people should have! Starting with “I can do it” leads to getting it done a lot faster than wistfully sighing and looking for a rescue. Good inspiration!

  • Lisa Marie May 26, 2014, 8:57 pm

    Shirley! It is so nice to read of another woman who did the unthinkable and built it herself! I relate all too well to your trials of skeptics *trial and error*, and the absolutely beautiful experience of building your own house. I am sorry that you had to lose so much in order to gain it back on your own terms, but suspect that you are happier now than ever? Your tenacity and patience look like they have really paid off – I like that your tiny house is very organic and not a sterile showpiece.

    I converted a school bus to my home last year after swearing off paying slum lords another red cent – I found that getting rid of most of my material possessions was far more liberating that I had imagined, and has left a lot of room in my life for other endeavors. Worth every drop of blood, sweat, and tears – you know what I mean:) I have a Flickr page of *some* of the process: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/sets/72157642280557274/

    What are you going to do next? I wish you the very best!

    Lisa Marie

    • Shirley May 28, 2014, 10:54 pm

      Lisa Marie I just took a look at your pics. You have some mad skills girl!

      • Lisa Marie May 29, 2014, 12:10 am

        Thanks! Having a background as a custom seamstress really helped me envision it and with a lot of the planning and cutting. Had a pretty steep learning curve working with wood, though – fabric has length and width but negligible depth, so there were a *few* miscuts. Really, it all came down to plain, old fashioned determination – something that can not be bought or sold, but that once you find you have it… Well, you know the result – you live in the result of YOUR determination, too! How wonderful.

        You know, it is funny… I used to want to live in a really big house, and have had the opportunity to live in one for the last three months as a traveling yoga teacher. The ironic thing is that, while where I am staying is beautiful and definitely lovely craftmanship of a bygone era, I really miss Grace the Awesome Bus, and cannot wait to return to her in late July. She is so steeped in my energy, so designed to my specific desires, that I don’t think I could ever live in another house that someone else built!

        I am looking into building a more traditional tiny house in the next few years, and would be really interested in what you learned from yours – what you would do differently, what worked perfectly (or close enough), and what you gained as a woman from the whole experience. Blog? Or short essay in response? Thanks so much!

  • Elsie Simmendinger May 27, 2014, 4:26 pm

    Hi Shirl, Bravo, Bravo! I loved the article. Just wish the readers could see how cute your Tiny House looks nestled in the woods where it is now. I am so proud of you. Love Mom

    • Shirley May 28, 2014, 10:53 pm

      Mom, Thanks so much for taking the time to read the article! Really glad you liked the way it all came out! Can’t wait until you can make it up this way again now that everything is done. Naturally I still have more ideas for more touches and next projects 🙂

  • Jennie K May 30, 2014, 1:13 pm

    Very inspiring story 🙂

  • Wendy Porter-Kean June 22, 2014, 8:27 am

    Love, love, love your story, the tiny house and even more..the responses by you!!! You are inspiring to many 50-somethings!! 🙂

  • Elle June 22, 2014, 11:50 am

    Congratulation! You did it. You are an inspiration to everyone. Of course, before you began you KNEW you could do it, even with never having picked up a hammer. I am on this quest myself searching for the right vehicle on which to produce our new home. Never built a thing in my life–not a carpenter, electrician or mechanic. But, I KNOW I can do it. I, too, was reared around people who had common sense, read books, learned and put it into action. If you couldn’t figure out a problem there was always a master around of which to asked questions. They are still all around us and typically enjoy contributing their expertise. You only have to look. I’m over 60 with an ill husband. He’s encouraging me every step. Go baby! he says. I’m not as strong as I used to be, but I’m a lot smarter. Age has it’s advantages, as you know from experience. Excellent work.

  • Scooter November 19, 2014, 12:51 pm

    Shirley, you ARE an inspiration to me, too. When I retire in 4 years I’m going to have a very small house with everything handy on one floor. I’ll have to have help building it, since I have some mobility limitations–hence the name Scooter, but the maintenance and upkeep I am committed to doing for myself.

    I was especially missing my own Mama today–gone 9 years now–and it’s great to read about your steadfastly courageous approach to your situation and to read that your kids “get it!” Ditto, ditto to the others who have found you inspiring and energizing. You go, Girl!!

  • AL November 19, 2014, 1:19 pm

    Shirley,
    You are an inspiration to us all!!! 🙂 I am so happy that you are TRUE to yourself, because, as you said, this is YOUR life & we have to live our lives as we see fit. It takes courage for some of us to remember that & even MORE courage for us to actually do it! I second everyone’s happy thoughts & congratulations to you. You truly rock & deserve the best in life! 🙂 Happy Holidays & Infinite Blessings! 🙂

  • Kathy November 19, 2014, 4:07 pm

    Shirley, have you ever thought about making a living as a motivational speaker? You have got one heck of a story to tell. I admire your gumption and commitment and can-do attitude! And your new house! You go girl!

  • Patricia Crawford November 19, 2014, 4:36 pm

    Best story ever! Love it! You go girl! I too am a 50 something and this story has given me strength to move forward on my tiny house dreams. Thank you so much and your home is just lovely!!

  • Shirley November 21, 2014, 4:59 pm

    Thanks Alex for letting me know these comments were out there and thanks to each and every one of you who has taken the time to respond, most of you giving a thumbs up which is even nicer. It’s great to know there are people who “get it” my vision doesn’t have to be your vision. Not a fan of the fads and bandwagons. I would NEVER have wanted to raise my family in a home this size. Whatever your vision, it all comes back to the old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…”

  • Brian December 19, 2014, 12:42 pm

    Your upbringing and practical application has certainly served you well. I too had an upbringing that was similar and it has served me well throughout my life. Love your home and the thought that you have put into it. It looks so inviting and comfortable. Thankyou for sharing your inspirational story. Cheers from Australia

  • Joe December 20, 2014, 11:18 am

    Thank You for sharing your story,it’s stories like yours that folks can show their kids and hope they will emulate your determination and resourcefulness.
    you are great and your TH looks wonderful. If I might ask about your hot water heater,how do you vent it? It looks like one of those outdoor units.

  • Debbie December 20, 2015, 5:09 pm

    Alex,
    Thank you for showing this one, it really gets my building juices flowing now. I feel like I can do this all by myself now. This woman was a little younger than me, but if she can do it, then I have to do it. Again, thank you for showing this one.
    Sincerely
    Debbie

  • Nancy December 20, 2015, 7:58 pm

    Thanks for posting this one again Alex, I missed it the first time around.
    Shirley, I’m also a 50 something and very inspired by your story and your tiny house, Bravo. I hope you are still happy in your tiny home!

  • Varenikje December 21, 2015, 1:22 am

    Wo, wait a second. Elsie Simmendinger is Shirley’s mom? Sounds like something runs in the family, Shirley!

  • Richard H Chapple Sr December 21, 2015, 1:38 am

    This is one of the best stories I have read to date. This is really inspirational and could be so good for so many people wherever they may be on their life path.
    You choice of colors is so good too!
    Just knowing about tiny homes, tiny home living, is like having an ace in the hole, a bonus card, one can actually count on this option always being available to them. What a comfort to know we can do this now, or anytime and have a safe paid for place to live. And there are tons of bonuses for our friends who use the tiny house option.
    Your story should be repeated often.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Dick

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