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Buying a Tiny House? Read This First!

Are you getting ready to buy your very own tiny house? Now comes the hard part – finding a reputable tiny house builder.


We at PAD Tiny Houses have heard from a number of people lately who bought tiny homes from professional builders, and now need significant repairs within the first year of living. It’s disappointing, but avoidable, so we asked an expert how to have a good tiny house buying experience.

When Derin Williams from Shelter Wise started building custom tiny homes in 2012, he was among the first tiny house builders in the country. Shelter Wise no longer builds custom homes, but does still offer their popular Hikari Box and Cider Box Tiny Houses, and Derin shares his unique expertise on tiny house design and construction through local and online consulting. With years of experience seeing how his own homes and the homes of others have stood the test of time, here are some of Derin’s tips for buying a tiny house.

Hikari Box Tiny House on wheels interior

The interior of the Hikari Box Tiny House, one of Derin’s most popular tiny house designs.

Experience is Everything
Your builder should have a few tiny house builds under his or her belt. The standard remodeling contractor or new construction builder won’t have enough experience to build their first tiny house correctly. They will make mistakes. Some traditional builders will say, “It should be easy,” but it’s not. There are things that traditional builders are not aware of when it comes to building tiny spaces that also must hurdle down the road at 60 mph. There are nuances when building on a trailer, and special attention required to provide a safe and healthy environment.

Your builder should be providing you with references from past clients right off the bat. If not, ask for them. And no, their family and friends do not count as “client references.” And yes, you should still get references even if you saw their work on TV. TV cameras and professional lighting can make a home look amazing, but it may look very different in person, and may not live quite as large as they say. A “luxury” or “high-end” tiny house does not always mean a quality tiny house.

You may also want to connect with the tiny house community in your area on Facebook or Meetup to see if you can get in touch with someone who has worked with them.

Bunk Box Modern Tiny House on Wheels Plans

The Bunk Box Tiny House, a unique and modern design from Shelter Wise

Get a Contract and a Warranty
For goodness sakes, get a legal contract. Emails, handshakes, smiles and warm, fuzzy feelings are not a substitute for a good contract. Your builder should be providing this, and if he or she is not, then find someone who will. You can lose a lot of sleepless nights over debates about what was never written down and signed on, so get it all in writing. If your builder’s contract looks fishy or contains provisions you’re not comfortable with, request an explanation or ask to make changes. Contracts are usually written to protect the contractor, so you may need to speak up to protect yourself. You may even want to have an attorney who specializes in construction contract review the contract – in the end, their fee could actually save you money, and many sleepless nights.

If the builder provides a warranty, does it carry across state lines? If your builder is in Utah and you move your home to California, what happens when you have a plumbing leak or a window won’t close? Ask about distance and timelines for potential warranty-based repairs – and as with the contract, get it in writing. Typically warranties only cover workmanship and do not cover product failure. But let’s say, for instance, that your siding starts warping. If it’s a standard product that’s been installed on thousands of other homes, then the issue is probably an installation (aka workmanship) failure. But in order to prove this, the home would need to be partially deconstructed to reveal the cause of the problem. Who covers this cost when it’s one year later and you had a one year limited warranty? That’s a true story, unfortunately.

Your builder should also be able to show you that they are insured and bonded and better yet licensed, or at least that they meet the state requirements where they are located. Ask for proof of insurance, and ask what it covers.

Do they need to be RVIA certified?  Not necessarily. For some customers it’s important to get an RV loan to purchase the house, but RVIA certification doesn’t operate as a stamp of quality workmanship. RVIA certification was designed for spaces that are meant to be used occasionally and not as full time homes – which is how many people are using their tiny houses on wheels. RVIA certification does promote certain health and safety requirements, but skips others that we think are pretty important – such as the use of interior products made with toxic chemicals that will be off-gassing into your tiny breathing space for years to come. We encourage people to do their own research on what RVIA certification offers them, but we also caution that “RVIA certified” does not mean “high quality tiny house certified.”


Salsa Box Tiny House

The interior of the Salsa Box Tiny House, an affordable and compact tiny house by Shelter Wise

Be An Educated Buyer

Educate yourself and take a workshop on building a tiny house – even if you’re not building yourself. It will arm you with the right questions to ask, and help you decipher whether to call back that Craigslist contractor who said he could build you anything.

Do your homework about legality and parking. Tiny homes are not legal permanent residences in most places. The TV shows gloss over this finer point, but it’s true. Yes, there are plenty of people living in tiny houses, and there are areas in the country that are beginning to allow them, but for the most part they are still not legal and are subject to county code violations.

Many tiny house folks are interested in using salvaged materials to save money or get a unique look for their house, but know that you’ll have to pay more for labor to have them installed. Salvaged goods are great, but they often take extra elbow grease to work with. If your builder says using salvaged materials will cost more, they’re not ripping you off, they’re just being honest.

Shop Smart!

Throughout the shopping and building process, be kind and respect other people’s time. Builders are people too, and they’re usually doing the best they can and not trying to rip anyone off. But in this new and confusing market, it’s your responsibility to be a smart shopper. Do thorough research on your builder, educate yourself about the process, and you should be able to find someone to build you a solid tiny house that should last for many years.

Tiny House Designs By Shelter Wise

Shelter Wise offers DIY tiny house builders many great designs to work from. Five different Shelter Wise tiny house plan sets are available from PAD Tiny Houses. Here’s a quick guide to Shelter Wise’s work:

The Hikari Box Tiny House is light filled and spacious, with 14 windows, two skylights, and two sleeping lofts! Watch the video below for a tour from Derin, and learn more about the plans here.

The Cider Box Tiny House has a double loft option as well, and a full kitchen, and even space for laundry. The plans available from PAD include designs for a 20 and 24 foot house.

The Bunk Box Tiny House uses unique construction techniques to create an extra-spacious interior and a cool industrial-chic feel. You’ll love the extra head height in the loft, too!

The Salsa Box Tiny House is super compact, super mobile and super affordable –  the materials cost just $8,000, including the trailer!

Photo: shelterwisellc.com

The Miter Box Tiny House has a great, modern feel, with a mix of warm wood and cool metal details. And the dining area is sized to convert into a second full bed to squeeze in overnight guests!

You can also contact Shelter Wise today to inquire about ordering a professionally-made Hikari Box or Cider Box Tiny House, or to schedule a one on one consultation with Derin for his unique technical expertise.

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Billy Ulmer
Billy Ulmer is the author of the Life in a Tiny House Ebook, a collection of photos and in-depth interviews with people who designed and built their own tiny homes. He writes about how home shapes our lives at UnlikelyLives.com.




{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Janet February 6, 2017, 2:11 pm

    I found this quite a while ago and didn’t list it until now. I’ve been changing my mind on tiny houses for various reasons. The cost is becoming unaffordable IF you cannot build it yourself and don’t have sufficient building skills and friends or an architect who can guide you along the process. The companies know you are coming to them because you don’t have those skills!!! I have read too many stories of people living in a tiny house who after a couple of years move out for various reasons and can’t sell the THOW or sell it below cost. Those who build a tiny home can’t find a place to put it! ANYWAY, here is a list of Tiny House companies and the problems people have had with them. KEEP IN MIND, if you do your homework, visit the company that is doing the building of your THOW, you may not have the problems these people had. Read and Learn: http://www.tinyhousecommunity.com/map/tinyhousereviews/

    • Natalie C. McKee Natalie C. McKee February 7, 2017, 7:32 am

      Thanks Janet! It’s good to read reviews on builders!

  • Thea Swart February 6, 2017, 4:37 pm

    Thank you so much for looking out for the new beginner all the way to the know it all.

    Your time and attention put into each area is fantastic.

    The one thing that I would add is never just talk to one builder or sales person. Never feel like you have to do this now. (Even with purchases over $500. We don’t take money or cards with us to cover purchase. Its to easy to get sucked in. Yes I have been more than once, very slow learner ?)

    Next is get a note book on the inside put the sales persons information. Never show one company to another company. Its just rude. They are not offering you the same products. Make big color tags for different companies. Then make tabs for size, then have one the sheet axle weight, length, room sizes etc. Keep going for all your information. Plus questions that you have. As you get more in-depth you can add question. Plus you don’t have to rember everthing. Hopefully this isn’t to run on.

    Thank you

    • Natalie C. McKee Natalie C. McKee February 7, 2017, 7:02 am

      Good idea Thea! 🙂 Thanks for sharing. It’s always wise to do TONS of research before spending thousands!

  • Lisa E. February 6, 2017, 8:33 pm

    I’d like more pictures and dimensions on the Miter Box. Please list all of the special features. Thanx.

  • candi baker February 6, 2017, 8:34 pm

    I bought a Tiny in August 2016 from Tiny House Direct in Greenville,tx…alot wrong on delivery and still fighting with them toget it fixed..was recently widowed and had to move out of old trailer that fell apart..they got my money, I got a problem !!!

    • Natalie C. McKee Natalie C. McKee February 7, 2017, 7:00 am

      Oh no, Candi 🙁 I’m really sorry to hear that!

  • Bob Rohr February 6, 2017, 10:12 pm

    I’d love to get any information about insurance for THOW builders. I’m having a hard time finding a company that offers affordable liability policies for builders. Any thoughts or leads would be appreciated. Thanks.

    • Natalie C. McKee Natalie C. McKee February 7, 2017, 6:56 am

      Oh good question Bob. I know of insurance for people purchasing tiny homes, but I haven’t considered it for the builders.

  • Susanne February 6, 2017, 10:29 pm

    Fantastic advice! And the models he offers, since he’s not customizing, would help keep costs down , I assume, since they’re building the same models repeatedly…:)

    • Natalie C. McKee Natalie C. McKee February 7, 2017, 6:54 am

      Yes it’s certainly less expensive than a totally custom build, I would think.

  • ZACHARY E MOHRMANN February 7, 2017, 7:03 am

    If the video was supposed to sell me, than let me set you straight, it did nothing of a kind… As a matter of fact it made me more aware of it’s tiny space and how over priced it is, and as it does not have the same luxuries that I would come to expect in a regular house or a tiny house with greater amenities as this house should boast with such a heavy price tag….!

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