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Man Builds Off-Grid Tiny House in the Desert

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Are you interested in living off the grid? It can be challenging to provide for your own needs for energy, water and other resources, but for John Wells, it’s preferable to the challenge of working a traditional job so he can buy those resources from someone else.

John has received plenty of press, from Lloyd Kahn’s “Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter” to a 2011 New York Times Profile, for moving from upstate New York to the Texas desert to build an off-grid, 128-square foot home, and then blogging about it daily for years. I visited him personally to understand more about how he made that transition, and what makes an off-grid life work.

John felt the land he bought in Southwest Texas was so cheap that his off-grid experiment didn’t agree with him, he could quit without losing much. Living in a little house works for him partially because most of his life takes place outside. When his bills and mortgage were more than he could handle in New York, he rented his house to summer vacationers and moved into a travel trailer in his backyard. That experience helped him see home as a small place to relax after a day of activity.

John Wells Off Grid Tiny House Exterior

Images © Billy Ulmer

John Wells Off Grid Tiny House Interior

John: I figured if I could rent my [New York] house in the summer, that would help pay some of the bills. That was sort of my last ditch effort to stay. After living in an Avion travel trailer two summers in a row, I discovered it was really nice to live that way. I was living in about the same-sized space that I have here. At the end of the summer when the renters would leave, and it was time for me to go back to the big house, it was like, “I kinda want to just stay out here.”

I started digging online a little bit more about this area, and all of a sudden I just decided, “I gotta sell my house. I can’t afford this house anymore.” It was 2,800 square feet, 35 acres in upstate New York. My property taxes alone were $1,000 dollars a month, and the mortgage on top of that, heating oil, and all the bills…My nut was like $4,500 a month up there.

My monthly expenses here are like $200, and everything’s paid for – no mortgage. Now I don’t have to think about my bills when I get up in the morning, which is a really nice feeling.

The trailer was basically just dinner time, watch a little TV, and go to bed. I was doing a lot of carpentry over the summer, so I wasn’t home that much. I was going out to work. Since I’ve moved out here, it’s the same thing. I use my house for basically eating and sleeping. I don’t do a lot of entertaining, so I don’t need a dining room.

John Wells In His Off Grid Tiny House John Wells Off Grid Tiny House in the Desert

Images © Billy Ulmer

Now, John’s work and play can be hard to tell apart. When I met him, his upcoming “projects” included taking powered paragliding lessons, trying to grow coconuts, and building a solar-powered water pasteurizer to filter the water he catches on the roof of his greenhouse and make it safe to drink. He’s frank about the challenges of the area, like frighteningly intense storms and the lack of good paying work. But this life works for John because his days now are filled with what he really likes to do: independently pursue a broad range of interests that provide tangible results.

Learn more about my visit with John Wells and about his unique story in my Life in a Tiny House Ebook.

If you enjoyed John’s little house you’ll absolutely LOVE our free daily tiny house newsletter with even more! Thank you!

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Billy Ulmer

Writer at PAD Tiny Houses
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 is a co-owner of PADTinyHouses.com.
{ 20 comments… add one }
  • AL
    March 11, 2015, 3:51 pm

    Awesome, freeing & exciting! Very cool. I love the off the grid & freedom aspect of this story & I’m so happy for John. 🙂
    I’m excited to one day do something like this, too. 🙂
    Best of all things good to John (& everyone!). 🙂

  • Jane Miller
    March 11, 2015, 10:04 pm

    I’m glad that society as a rule is beginning to see how ridiculous it is to work yourself to death, even with health problems from the stress is killing us.

  • March 11, 2015, 10:27 pm

    Keith is still there over seven years.

    I’m six years off-grid in 136sq ft with 56 sqft loft
    More power to him !

    • Rebecca
      March 11, 2015, 11:27 pm

      I love the lifestyle in the article and skeeter ‘ s story on the link. This shift away from being owned by a mortgage is pure freedom. I keep shifting in that direction. I only owe 27000 on five acres. In 2 years or less I will be mortgage free!

      I have an old mobile… it is so cold in the winter! Wish I could convince myself I don’t need a small house. The freedom calls.

      • Lyssa
        March 12, 2015, 5:44 am

        Mr. Buddy propane heater! Great prices on Amazon lately.

  • March 11, 2015, 10:41 pm


  • Carlina
    March 11, 2015, 11:25 pm

    My hat off to John, he is so brave! I’ve encountered several pieces about his homestead. He has several other buildings for work and hobbies, plus neighbors. Brewster Co, TX has no code headache but it is a brutal place to homestead. Go John!

  • rueyeet
    March 12, 2015, 5:10 am

    Yay, the Field Lab! I was wondering if this would ever be featured here!

    John’s experiment in simple living was my first exposure to all of this – living tiny, going off-grid, being mortgage free, the whole shebang. It’s great to see him still out there, living on his own terms.

  • Nena
    March 12, 2015, 12:15 pm

    You rock John! It takes a real pioneer spirit to reinvent your life. I live in Texas and can relate to some of your issues. I am really reading and researching the aspect of another big change with a Tiny House and get great inspirations from the stories I read here. Thanks for sharing!

  • Kay
    March 13, 2015, 12:25 pm

    I’m very familiar with John. He is featured in several books I own on THs and in a pdf book I bought that was really great to read. I’ve also read some of his blog. Nice to see him again here, Alex.

  • Richard
    March 13, 2015, 2:37 pm

    Go John, go. It takes guts to make the changes you have made. My present lifestyle is insane. It costs around 2600.00 per month just for what amounts to a sleeping room, kitchen and bed. 1900 sq ft of dead air space to heat and cool.
    Watch for me John, I’m learning, gearing up, getting rid of life clutter, and will soon be your new neighbor. Or some ones. Rich.

    • Diane
      March 13, 2015, 11:44 pm

      I think living in community with others is the best way to go. I am 63 and share with two absolutely quiet well mannered people who have been here for four years. They are retired educated individuals grateful for the lovely Estate. I reserve one room for shorter term vacation rental and have an Olympian here training for ten days. I keep a clean house and only rent to the well mannered guest. A real win win situation.

  • Bobby
    April 15, 2015, 1:54 am

    I live in a 100% desert county in Arizona that won’t allow this kind of living. Any building must comply with the 2003 International Building Codes which does not include Green Environment rules. The fine for violating these building codes is a Class 2 misdemeanor – $750 fine and/or 4 months in Jail “For each day you are in violation”. Really Sucks to have government treat their people like this.

    It would cost me $30,000 to install a septic tank and build to code.

  • Susanne
    April 18, 2015, 3:52 pm

    Wonder how much he would have paid in Upstate New York if he drastically downsized on the land and square footage… Moved?

  • JB Fitzpatrick
    February 5, 2016, 9:55 pm

    I agree… I have maxed out the ” American Dream”. Big job, big house, big bills, too much upkeep and too much stress. I also lived in my travel trailer next to my house this last Summer/Fall. Hated to move back in the house. I knew then that my exit strategy was forming.. This is the last year doing this! I applaud you for what you have done. I hope to follow in the same footsteps. Every time I share my goal.. The response is either ” your crazy to give up what you have” or ” it’s just a midlife crisis”. Well, the only thing ” big” that I want is the view and to have the time for solitude and to be living outside. Good job John !

  • February 8, 2017, 5:23 pm

    A Spirit of Peace seeks the Absolute Quiet

    February 9, 2017, 10:29 pm

    Extreme minimalist, just really goes with as little as he can or needs… You have to have a lot of respect for that…!

    • Natalie C. McKee
      February 10, 2017, 9:49 am

      Absolutely! It’s impressive.

    February 10, 2017, 11:37 am

    Well done! Looks like John is living the clean healthy life, something I would be most envious about. Three thumbs up!

    • Natalie C. McKee
      February 13, 2017, 9:11 am

      It’s really awesome!

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