As you know I have been happily living in my tiny house for nearly a year and a half.
Matt and I started this project a very long time ago and I thought maybe I would go back to the beginning to share some of my own tiny house building advice.
If I were to talk to the 2007 me who had barely touched a hammer in her life, what would I say? This post covers the top 3 tips I think you should know before building tiny.
1. Throw away your time expectations.
I realize that our tiny house experience was different than most. We were building on a fixed location that happened to be over three hours from where we lived.
This meant that we were only able to work on the house for a very short amount of time each visit. With the exception of a few week long vacations most of the construction was done on weekends.
We would arrive around noon on Saturday and work as long as we could before we had to leave sometime in the afternoon on Sunday to make it back to Atlanta. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.
When we started construction in 2009 we had an expectation that we might be done by winter of that same year. Having never built anything before, we quickly realized that it was best if we slow down and be more cautious about the process.
In the end it took us three years to complete the house. Even for someone building a tiny house on a trailer in their yard I would suggest that you not adhere to some dogmatic time estimate. Instead concentrate on doing an exceptional job and the house will be finished when it is finished.
I encourage you to read my other 2 tips if you’re thinking of building tiny below:
2. Don’t be afraid to change your design.
Before we built our tiny house we took some painters tape and measured out the footprint in our suburban living room. I highly recommend this exercise.
We evaluated the space and thought about the furniture placement. We thought we had it all figured out.
As it turns out, 120 square feet is actually as small as you imagine it would be. Even though we measured the space once it was actually built we realized that our initial plan wasn’t going to work.
Rather than panic we took some time to consider other options. It is okay to design and redesign as you go along. You will end up with a layout that is perfectly tailored to your lifestyle.
3. Always think about safety.
Matt is a big risk taker and I am not. This sometimes led to me screaming for him to get down off the top of the unfinished wall.
Just because you are doing the work yourself don’t neglect safety. Just remember the cautionary tale of Macy Miller. In a recent Tiny House Chat, Macy shared that her medical bills for her fall have cost her more than the construction of the tiny house.
In our case, our tiny house is in the woods without road access to the building site. One wrong move and there could have been serious trouble.
- Use safety glasses and gloves,
- be cautious around power tools,
- never use ladders in an unsafe manner,
- and always have someone with you.
Or at least know where you are and when they should hear from you. And don’t leave safety behind once the house is finished.
Be sure to install the right:
- smoke detectors,
- oxygen sensors,
- fire extinguishers,
- and anything else that makes sense to keep your tiny home safe.
What other things are important to keep in mind for building a tiny house? Share your most relevant tips on building based on your knowledge & experience in the comments below!
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Latest posts by Laura LaVoie (see all)
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A builder builds a house with a plan for a completion date. Taking 3 years to complete a Tiny House indicates poor planning or other commitments took priority and unfortunately other commitments do that at times. If one really wants or needs the Tiny House set a DOC and adhere to the schedule.
Plan your window,door, and loft location and stick to them. When the Tiny House is completely finished and weather covered on the main shell you can get in or move in and live the space while deciding where other builtins should be placed.The furniture can also be decided after living in the space and knowing the room.
Work safety, great points. Even a fall from a Tiny House roof 13 1/2 feet off the ground can kill you!
Started building 1/10/2010 moved in weather covered 2/17/2010
3 years 6 months living in and enjoying the stress free life that Tiny House living affords. If H.D. Thoreau spent 3 years building his 12 by 12 Tiny House in the woods at Walden pond he might never have written it’s life story. Get busy planning or get busy building.
The Tiny Bungalow
Hi Robert – thanks for reading and commenting.
I would like to comment directly to your point about taking three years. I can only speak to my experience but it turns out we weren’t in a position to speed up the process. I was trapped in a job that required my attendance and we selected a location over three hours from where we lived. We also built on a foundation so the house is not mobile. Neither of us are professional builders so the house took as long as it needed to take to get done and I wouldn’t change any steps along the way. Working after hours or every weekend weren’t possible because we still had commitments in Atlanta. We traveled to Asheville as much as possible.
Because we took this time to finish the house we also spend that time downsizing and going debt-free – both of which gave us the ability to start our new lives. Without those three years I wouldn’t have been able to quit my job when I did.
Every person’s situation will be specific to their own lives. Since tiny houses are very DIY I don’t think it is fair to set time expectations on first time builders.
That is why I mentioned ” or other commitments took priority and unfortunately other commitments do that at times.”
So in your case you needed to throw away your time expectations.
Note for the future, tip for one’s self. Not a tip you want others to embrace. Another well known blogger on Tiny Houses is making what is really a relatively easy first time building experience into a year long project or longer. He has no planned completion date and thus the build ends up taking years instead of months. Even for a novice.
Hey Laura! It’s Mariah 🙂 How’ve you been?
Anywhoo, I was just reading this and thinking how much Matt and I can relate to you and Matt’s time thing. It is the single most important thing I have learned through my process of building my tiny home – throw away schedule expectations. It’s taken us more than 2 years to get to where we are now, but we’re SO GLAD we took our time. The COMET has been live-able for a long time, but is still cosmetically unfinished. I just wanted to second what you said about the time thing because for the first 6 months of my project I felt so guilty, angry, and frustrated (thus causing stress for Matt and I) that my camper wasn’t perfect and all finished like I had told the world it would be. A year later and I’ve learned to let go. For DIYers and first-time-builders, and those of us building something amazing from scratch, it takes as long as it takes. You rule, I love your writing and Matt and I hope to visit again soon! Hope you’re well,
This is interesting as I’m about to build a similar size one that even floats in under 30 days for $1500. It’ll take me that long because I can’t do much. But even 15 yrs ago I could do such in a week and did.
For planning the author could have built it close to where they lived as a flat pack prebuild. Once one has the plan, just hire a carpenter for a day or 2 and get the whole shell done, ready to pack in pieces to the site.
Planning and timetable are everything if one would rather live in than build. No reason 2 owners and a carpenter who knew what they were doing couldn’t knock most of it out in a week if designed, planned well.
How one does things is up to them. But if one hasn’t done such before, hiring or someone who knows, and there are many unemployed carpenters out there, can greatly speed up building it making the money well spent.
No reason a wall, floor, ceiling should take over 2 hrs each, just not that much unless an overly complicated design for example.
Then once closed in, one can do the details that are lower skilled, time, money consuming with the experienced gained by working with a pro willing to teach too.
Another idea is find others doing it and go help them to learn for free. Make sure you help though and learn by working so not slow the builder down. A few 4 hr days would teach a lot.
But they did do it nicely and actually living it and that’s all good.
Good, sane, experienced advice. Thanks (I think that’s called “wisdom”).
Give up your financial expectations too. No matter how well you plan there are going to be extra expenses that you just never thought of or that will crop up because Plan A morphed into Plan B, or however far down the alphabet you end up. Contingency funds are a nice concept but just another wild guess when it comes down to it. You might get stuck at some point but somehow something always comes through. It just may not be anything like what you were expecting. Be open to alternate materials too.
Another really important thing to remember is that sometimes it really does matter what order you do things in. Things that are really easy to do at one stage might be needlessly complicated at another.
Great points Alice. I totally agree about financial expectations. Since we are done with the house we just quote a total now but we include “mistakes” in that number.
And you’re right about the order. We did learn that lesson a couple of times. Occasionally painfully. The result went back to the financial expectations.
alice h wrote: “Another really important thing to remember is that sometimes it really does matter what order you do things in. Things that are really easy to do at one stage might be needlessly complicated at another.”
alice: there is no more TRUE statement than that! I’ve got weeks worth of stories of projects SO screwed up because something as simple as pre-measuring a door’s width to make sure that custom cabinets could fit through the width…which they didn’t….so the wall that had just gone UP had to be sawed open to allow the cabinet/tub/metal staircase to enter!
Oh, and NONE of those stories are mine, by the way!
It’s always interesting to see what direction comments go when a blog entry is posted. First, I agree with the Facebook poster: when I read the title of the article, I absolutely thought it was about working with a Professional Builder who specialized in building Tiny Houses. Only when I was into the article did I realize it was a POV about a lay-person building their own tiny house. Second, what Robert said was right: “A builder builds a house with a plan for a completion date.” As an architect, once licenses are pulled, I always give TWO dates to my clients…the Best Case Scenario and The Second Best Case Scenario, with a 6 month separation. The time difference is for the Oopsy-Daisy Factor such as broken appliances being delivered, factory strickes, or custom cabinets arriving grossly mismeasured by the fabricator. Then there’s the WORST reason for things being late: the idiot customers that chronically and continually change their mind about “where things go” or “Oh My, I HATE those black fixtures I thought I’d love!” The cost overrun on some jobs is almost half of the initial estimate, because some people just lack the ability to visualize, no matter HOW MANY blueprints, revisions or sales rooms are visited. I guess “Mama DID raise some fools!” 😉
Safety is absolutely essential at ANY JOB SITE! If any of my employees dares to show up at work minus gloves or safety glasses, they are sent out to a store (on their OWN dime!) to buy the items that are required to start each day’s work. Being in the industry as long as I have, I’ve gone to too many funerals or heard too many sad tales of permanent injury and loss of income from stupid people believing they don’t need to follow safety rules.
I honestly wouldn’t have the patience to follow a project for 3 years, let alone the SIX years that I read about one tiny house person taking to create her home. Then, after a couple of years, her life changed and now it’s for sale! WTF?!? I guess it all boils down to how young you are and how long you expect to live. You’ve heard the old joke: “You know you’re getting old when you don’t buy green bananas!” (LOL) I’ve been in the yellow banana stage of my life for over 20 years now and time is too precious for me to drag any and all projects out. I don’t even bother planting from seed any longer; if it’s Saturday afternoon in May, I want to go to the nursery and buy a 3′ tomato plant already laden with fruit!
I guess everyone has a different amount of sand in Life’s Hour Glass and some can afford to delay gratification. Neither me, my husband nor my client’s have that luxury of time, any longer. Ah, Youth…Enjoy It While You Have It!
Had to laugh about the idiot customers. My dad (boat and trailer builder and cabinetmaker) used to bring home all sorts of great stuff to upgrade our house. People didn’t like their original choices or just replaced things because they were bored or something so he got a great deal from his employer on the “discarded” stuff. Then our old stuff went down the line to other friends and relatives. One year we had new kitchen cabinets two or three times, drove my mom nuts.
Ah, your poor Mum, alice h! She must really love your Dad to indulge three different cabinet turn-arounds! Your Dad sounds like not only a cool guy but a very talented one, too. 🙂
I say, “God Bless The Wealthy!”, as they truly drive the economy and the Trickle Down Effect that you mentioned is alive and well with us! Yes, both my company and my husband’s have been “gifted” with tens of thousands of items throughout the years: complete solid cherry bedroom sets because (as you mentioned) my client was “bored” looking at it. So, she just casually asked me, “Do you know anyone who’d want it?” and I screamed, “YES! >ME!<" I think she was more relieved than anything to get it off her hands. And when we do remodeling, I have a standard list of friends and my employees that I always offer the items I don't want or need. My favourite employee made out like crazy when a client who's wife had passed on 5 years ago, decided to redo his entire home, including furnishings, because "…it was too sad looking at the past" and it prevented him from moving on. So, I talked to Saul, my lead guy, asked him if he could use a "house-holds worth of furniture and appliances" and he and 5 of his buddies came over one Saturday and stripped the house bare, making it so easy to start construction on Monday. I know that over 15 families benefited from my client's generosity, receiving furniture, all his wife's belongings including thousands of dollars of designer bags, shoes, and clothing, and of course, the appliances….right down to the coffee maker Wesley was getting rid of.
Regarding time tables for construction, I guess that as long as the principles aren't bothered by delays, it doesn't matter HOW long it takes to achieve their goals.
“God Bless the Wealthy”…
I’ll pass. The problem with that philosophy is that it ignores how many resources are wasted in the process of people getting wealthy. A lot more people would be a lot better off if those resources had been left distributed in the ground or on the land instead of extracted and concentrated in the hands of a few for the sake of saying they ‘have’ something.
that’s what I was thinking too- only adding my two cents b/c we are having this discussion in the context of the Tiny House Movement.
Well, Auntigrav: I get what you’re saying. Sadly, however, as long as Homo Sapiens have been walking upright (about 500,000 years), we as a species have been mining and harvesting and killing in the name of HAVE. Whether it was to put food on sailing ships (Dodos were wiped out in a mere 64 years-Extinct!), for farmers to feed hogs cheaply (over 5 billion Passenger Pidgeons were slaughtered in less than 200 years-Extinct!) or so the world can have smartphones for Free while the workers who create them commit suicide, nothing has stopped everyone’s need to HAVE. Until our species becomes extinct, there will always be someone wanting and someone selling what is wanted. 500,000 years of Need/Greed is a hard habit to break.
Yes, Cahow. That’s exactly the point: people do stuff, they have reasons for doing stuff: in that order. Yet, we are supposed to believe all of the rich people who tell us we are making a “choice” between Coke or Pepsi, Chevy or Ford, etc. Meanwhile, we keep working for them and buying their stuff all while believing in God or Good or Gurus who put humans on a pedestal because we are supposedly “sentient.” Yet, you illustrate well that we actually are not: we are just cockroaches with cockroach overlords who get really fat and tell us to work hard so we can join the “middle” class. The elite intellectuals make excuses for the rich and their wars and exploitation and “deregulation” that tells us we only can live if we have “jobs” ‘provided’ for us by the rich, and we should believe that it’s ‘fair’ to allow everyone to suck up as many resources as they possibly can just to try and get out of the poverty class into the middle class, where we can worship the rich.
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer because the poor work for them and buy their stuff. Stop it (if you believe you have free will and an intention of some kind of persistence for the species).
I roughed in my 14×14 cabin by myself in just two weeks but I spent two years in the planning and design stages while saving money for the cabin and I had some building experience. If you understand framing you can dry in a house with roof and exterior siding in a couple of weeks working 8 hours a day but it goes a lot faster and is safer with more experienced hands.Especially roof work!
Some work can be done off site and then hauled in ready to finish. Once the exterior is dried in you can spend more time on the detail and interior finish work and I am still (15 years later) doing interior remodeling as my needs change.
Having the proper tools for the job and knowing how to use them in advance will save time, frustration and is a major safety factor.
If you have no experience volunteer at a habitat for humanity project or at least take some basic carpentry classes from your community college or study the many online videos and books before jumping in.
Think about building for permanence and use quality materials and fasteners. Any joint not sealed and fastened correctly will pull apart and leak eventually.
The roof is the most important part of a house. It protects everything underneath it so use proper quality materials and seal it or you will regret it later. Windows and doors must be weather tight and sealed or you will suffer from cold weather and wind infiltration.
Insulate the floor unless you like cold toes and leave access to pipes, wiring and ducts because they will need to be inspected and sometimes cleaned or repaired.
If you are building a permanent house you must have a solid foundation and know the terrain for drainage. Think about the position of the house so you can maximize solar energy but provide shade for cooling.
Those are my tips!
LaMar: “WORD” to everything you said!
I actually printed out your comment and am planning on handing it out to all future clients as it’s such sage advice!
I think people are a bit too rough on you. Everyone has a different timeline and life. I love reading your articles!
I’d like to add another tip if I may?
4. Research how to build, and keep learning as you go to have the safest and strongest home you can. If you find something you’ve done wasn’t right, fix it, even if it sets you back (see tip #1). It will be worth it.
5. Keep on with the build no matter how many derogatory comments you receive. There will always be someone arrogant enough to denounce you and your plans and ideas. Let them talk – stay strong. Read blogs from others who are doing it, maybe go read the $50 and up Underground House book if you need someone to cheer you on. Don’t let others steal your dream. 🙂
There are some people on here–you know who you are!!!!—who I do believe will be happy with nothing less than ALL humans going back to living in caves. Except–so-called “cave men” or as I prefer —Cave Dwellers–had STUFF.
They had pots and pans–albeit made out of clay or rock or bark. They had bedding made of skins and branches; they had clothing for different climates and seasons if they lived in a seasonal environment; they had stored food and the containers to store it–this could mean animal skins; bladders; plant based holders such as baskets ; pottery and built in storage. Firewood had to be gathered and stored. They had tools and raw materials that were traded for over a much wider area than we thought even a few years ago.
They even took care of those who could not care for themselves as evidenced by recent discoveries. This implies a few things not the least some sort of available time to take care of some one ELSES needs not just subsistence.
And they needed ROOM to store all of this STUFF.
Today we need roughly the SAME things they just come in different packages and from different sources. Before some one gets on my case for this–one of the REASONS we fought the American Revolution was over–STUFF. Where did the stuff COME from? Well some of it came–heres irony for ya-China. And England; France; Africa; West Indies–endless. These were things that these people NEEDED to survive in a hostile new land with no industry and no infrastructure. Cloth and glass and foodstuffs—all came initially from SOMEWHERE ELSE. And we fought for the “right” to this trade!
It was very hard to produce all of what was needed on a homestead. Ever wonder–WHERE did the Pilgrims LIVE when they got here? How did they FEED themselves? They lived in sod huts underground. And they fed themselves with whatever they could catch or fish for or find—this took ALL DAY in some cases. In some cases they starved. Just surviving for these people==who were not “preppers”—was HARD.
We have the luxury of going to the store where some one ELSE has harvested the food FOR us. They have made the clothing. They have made the window glass and cut the 2×4″ for our Tiny Houses. In THIS country it is a luxury to be able to have the TIME and the financial ABILITY to build a Tiny House.
You make some good points Comet. I was at Skara Brae in Orkney some 20 years ago. A stone age village with a sunken street lined in dry stone walling and several round houses built off it. The street was made to protect them from the strong winds when moving about. Each house still has stones placed to hold the fire and beds together. They used long stones on stone supports as shelves. The piece of information that blew my mind though was about their life style. It is estimated that they spent an average of four hours a day on sustenance. That is growing their own crops, keeping livestock, making everything they needed by hand and cooking and cleaning. Activity was obviously seasonal but clearly there was a lot of free time. Thats why they were able to organise in a community to care for eachother and come up with rich stories and artwork that has come down to us in the Celtic tradition. Since then I have always questioned the need to work 40 or 50 hours every week just to earn enough to get by. Even allowing for modern health, sanitation, education and applied technology we are surely doing more than is needed for everyone to prosper – in the old fashioned sense of the word, as in doing well. This is why I enjoy this newsletter so much. It shows me how others are going about creating a more realistic lifestyle. We come to look at tiny houses and get invited into real homes.
You used one of my favorite tricks, but I go a step further. When I remodel, I use pieces of plywood, empty boxes, suitcases, chairs with boards over them…ANYTHING…..laid out in my intended space to give an actual physical dimension to my plan. Then I live with it for a couple days while I trouble shoot and fine tune it. Obviously, not suitable for every scenario, but when It finally comes down to building it, my carpenters are so amazed that I know exactly what I want and I seldom EVER change my mind. That makes them happy. ‘Course, I have to be right there to make sure we stay on plan because they can’t read my mind or envision my dreams. I don’t think I can pare down my hobbies and lifestyle to fit in a tiny house, but I’ve seen some amazing plans I would consider going smaller with as long as I have a basement. Thanks for the tips…….BTW…….with only getting down everyother weekend or so, did you have any problems with stealing or vandalism??
Laura, You’ve no idea how pleased I am right now after reading it took you & Matt 3 years to build. Here I was thinking my husband & I needed to get this down as soon as possible. Precisely for the time extension I’m now able to stay (I rent for $150 a month) where I am, look for & buy the land I want and go from there. Stay where I am and build a little at a time correctly and to OUR liking sounds a lot better than the disappointment of throwing up mistakes in a hurry. Thank you sooo much for writing, and thank you to all the other commenters,. I get a great deal of good advice reading through GREAT comments.
Love to read all the advice on planning and scheduling. I’m a 5th generation builder, who’s been at it for over 30 years. While I no longer wear a tool belt for hire, I am ceaselessly amazed at the joy of creating and or building something. The total process from design to reality is a journey. Sometimes fast is fun. But the pleasure in stepping back and saying “I did that” or “We built it ourselves” indisputable. What’s that Visa ad…..”priceless”
Alex thanks for a great site.
I really like your tip about making sure that you aren’t afraid to change your design when it comes to home building. My husband and I have been thinking about building for a while now. We have always wanted to design our own home so we will have to keep this information in mind. Hopefully, we can find a great contractor to work with during the process, thanks for sharing!
Our pleasure, Danni.