This Cautionary Tale on Tiny Houses is a Guest Post by Allan Cerf
Like what I hope is a large majority of tiny house enthusiasts, I really want to live in a smaller space. The notion that I don’t have to immediately buy a ‘McMansion’ or even a ‘normal’ say, 2100 square foot home (following the sad, bitter end of a relationship), and that I can be happier in a 600 foot or even smaller space, was what fired my- and probably your- interest in such small dwellings.
Discovering the Realities of Tiny Houses
The reality of what I have found has been not shocking (I’m too old to be shocked) but extremely disappointing. Full disappointment kicked in following my visit to Portland’s ‘thriving’ and unified Tiny House community the last week in December 2012. What I discovered is that such a community doesn’t exist. Oh, there are tiny houses to be sure but the unity… not so much. This is underscored by just who actually lives in these homes as well as the owner’s vision for these Lilliputian dwellings. Therein lies the rub: The owners and the dwellers’ are usually not the same. But I get ahead of myself.
My Ex did, to her credit, a lot of the leg work in locating tiny houses throughout the world from 2010-2011. I did most of the reality checks. She and I in the dying embers of our days together investigated virtually every type of tiny house; container, trailer, mobile, ship, houseboat – in places as far flung as the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., to England (where I had long owned a ‘real,’ small home) to Australia, China and Beyond. The fruits of this research which I’ll enumerate were surprising enough (though it should not have been if you stop to think) but it was when I tried to fix meetings to actually see Tiny Homes that the blinders I was hopefully wearing, went up. But I get ahead of myself…
In Praise of IKEA and their Small Space Designs
You read right. For those who wonder about the well, tiny space they might inhabit and “can we do it?” the answer in Europe in general and IKEA in particular is a thunderous “yes, we can!”
Europeans have for centuries mastered the art of living small, and continue to do so. While no one of course, has to buy IKEA furnishings, the tiny newbie could do worse and possibly no better, than to visit his/her local IKEA who both label the size of tiny spaces (“my home, 320 square feet,” says one sign) and praise them.
As someone whose both owned and lived abroad, it’s no joke: Danish hotels, Italian Pensiones, to my own 150 year old job in East Anglia, Great Britain – the size thing is NOT going to be a stumbling block for most. As IKEA demonstrates with consummate ingenuity – again, I offer no opinion on their furnishings – this small house living thing can be done and done brilliantly.
Reality (Really) Bites! The Author Enumerates his Research ‘Fruit’
This section of my article is just blunt bullet points, not necessarily by significance.
- With regard to container homes, the worried, gruff – if extremely helpful world’s authority says: “Don’t do it.” If you do, prepare to pay a huge fee* to weatherize the inside of the containers. Finally and (the reason he says don’t do it) one must get to know, lobby and otherwise court the city or town council where one hopes to plant a container home. Who of us has the time, funds, and in some cases guts, to fight this tough – but winnable battle? (*Huge fee is an understatement. GIGANTIC.)
- Regarding insurance for tiny homes built to be moved yes, I know certain insurance companies say they will and may indeed, insure these hummers but all the insurance companies I’ve spoken to point out that their adjustors might on instruction, fight tooth and nail to not pay in the event of an accident. In other words, NONE that I spoke to have had to investigate a claim relating to a tiny house/trailer accident. Worst case, the insurers told me: No payout and criminal liability if your home injures – God forbid – other motorists.
- No municipality that I know of including Portland – and folks, no names but I talked to the local civic authorities in Portland well in advance of my trip EVER envisions allowing a tiny house to ‘front.’ That is, be placed on the street, next to a ‘normal’ house. Property values and that. If YOU inherited a McMansion or normal house, would you want a tiny house fronting next to yours?
- In Portland, I’m informed by elected officials who set the codes, that Tiny Homes are quasi legal and ‘tolerated’ “for now.”
- THE DETAILS! The bloody practical details! Even in Portland, the most ‘welcoming’ of all cities (palpably untrue) of tiny houses, there were simple details badly overlooked by those hoping to set up tiny: the water down there, the secondary water one might plumb, somehow, into a tiny home for bathing, has been deemed dangerous. In other words; in pioneering the tiny house movement there are all sorts of logistical impediments – most of them probably damned good ones the pioneers will have to overcome.
- Conspiracy? Nah. Following on the point above, what I have found is not an ‘aversion’ to tiny homes by folks with ‘regular’ dwellings, nor the local city council, nor really, anyone. As the secondary water issues perfectly illustrates, municipal code is a very complicated thing, perfected over 2000 + years. Factually the ancient Romans had a lot of the same regs. No, in all my nationwide phone work as well as my three in person visits across 2 huge states, the concern by the City Fathers and Mothers is that the tiny house folks have a safe way to try and make this work. And if they ever do make it work, that they do so in a way that respects the normal and McMansion home owners who generally, aren’t the enemy, folks.
- This point is vital because it confuses so many of us tiny house folks. What about the glowing reviews of tiny houses in places like Portland by the City Council, Environmental Code Employees, etc? Dude! Do your fact checking. Portland, Oregon authorities are enthusiastic about TINY HOUSES fully plumbed, on the property of existing normal homes. And their “ringing endorsements” are quoted out of context – by the ears of tiny folks, me included, who hear what they want to hear: “Smaller spaces make sense,” is what the Portland Folks told NPR radio, nothing more. They were speaking in fact – about a retirement home the owner of a McMansion built down on his OWN property. Somehow this was blogged out of context and went viral as “Portland welcomes Tiny Homes.”
The ‘Rub’ on Tiny Houses
Now comes the bitter disappointment part. Here is what I have found talking to various owners of tiny homes, names withheld:
The owner in Berkeley with the McMansion of Tiny’s – 600 + luxurious feet, is blunt in saying her tiny home is “the latest” way to derive rental income, period. (Her ‘tiny’ cost a not- tiny $100K by the way.)
- The honest builder of tiny homes near Santa Cruz, California, a basically nice young man said, “All the Santa Cruz tiny home owners, ALL of them could be asked to be gone, tomorrow.” More critically he added, “I asked the council what would it cost to go legit,” and get hooked up officially to water. The answer he received? Fifty grand just for the planning to get hooked up. Folks, sounds silly but what possible reason would someone building tiny homes exclusively for use in/around Santa Cruz have for exaggerating?
- Topping all, last week in Portland, the owner of a tiny I paid a call on made a Freudian slip and said as she proudly showed me her empty tiny home, (the renter was abroad doing truly noble work for the poor) “I could NEVER live in one of these.” And at 150 feet, very few families could.
And that’s the rub, friends. Few to none of the owners I’ve spoken to nationwide live permanently in tiny homes. Many are afraid that folks wanting to view them will “turn me in.” Almost all view small houses as the means to rental income. Period. And talk about catty! And talk about how do I know if they even have tiny homes! The woman in Washington State who says “Only her houses are livable” well, when I said I’d be in Portland and would cross over the line to Washington state, Poof! Our agreed appointment evaporated, “uh, I may be on a month-long Christmas vacation,” she said. Oh, she did email me 4-5 ways to live “off the radar” all of which are seriously illegal, and some flat-out dangerous. Even the nice young builder-dude near Santa Cruz said “Uh, I don’t currently have any in stock that’s good for you to see.” Huh?
There are alternatives.. Regular, small homes on a foundation, on the grid. But you have to be willing to relocate to areas which might work for a single person like me. But families? Houseboats. Uh, mooring fees, dude. Big ones. And, families, on a boat?
I know the above because I did the homework, the pioneering and drove specifically to the showcase community for the tiny house movement, Portland, Oregon. And found, what? No such organized movement, no legal status, very nice (indeed the ONLY nice people I spoke with) City Officials who are bluntly skeptical about the Portland Tiny House Movement and have been quoted by all of us hearing what we want to hear – wildly out of context.
Someday, the United States must, in my view, slow population growth and up urban planning, big time. (Oh! How I long to spill the beans on my home town, Berkeley’s Urban Planning Committee and their grossly misleading statements about tiny houses. However, I cannot.) In that future there indeed may be a place or even a requirement for tiny homes. That day ain’t here yet.
This Cautionary Tale on Tiny Houses is a Guest Post by Allan Cerf