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Tiny Houses vs RVs

By Laura LaVoie

Recently, the Oregon Live website picked up our interview with Tammy Strobel about her tiny house in Portland. A commenter, Donald Beams, takes issue with Tammy’s declaration that tiny houses in the city of Portland need to be deemed “cute,” asserting instead that a mobile home his company builds will stack up any day to the “Cuteness” of the tiny house movement.

There are times in his argument that I am uncertain whether his main point is that more people should consider rural settings for their tiny homes to avoid zoning enforcement or whether they should consider mobile homes before they decide to build a tiny house at all. 

“Rural living itself, which eliminates most of the zoning hassles enumerated in the article. With your own (shared?) well, septic system, and solar electric system you can break or ameliorate dependence (and a burden) on both utility companies and municipal services, which are going up in price at the same time their dependability is coming into question.”

I don’t disagree with his primary point. I myself chose to live in a rural setting so I could enjoy the Smokey Mountains. However, not every tiny house builder wants to live in the mountains, or any other rural setting. Some people build tiny houses and want to live in the city.

Tiny Houses vs RVs

Photo Credit Seattle Tiny Homes & Schlage Lock Company

“And lastly, it is out-dated [sic] thinking to assume (or promulgate) the idea that any site-built or modular house on a wood frame is somehow inherently better in ANY way than a well-designed mobile on a steel frame which happens to have removable wheels and can be set on permanent piers just like that modular, IF one were so short-sighted as to de-commision [sic] a ‘vehicle’ with way lower taxes, (negligible in some states, which means you register the vehicle in one of those states and plant it wherever you want) and thereby eliminating the option of using it as a touring RV, or selling it on CraigsList while avoiding realtor commissions and a host of closing costs and fees. ‘Location’ ceases to be an issue in terms of buying OR selling. Moving it requires only a pickup truck with a 9,500 lb. bumper-hitch towing package.”

The thing is I don’t believe that the tiny house movement is antithesis to the mobile home idea. In fact, in many ways, I see it as an extension. Some people use the wheels of their tiny home to avoid building codes or zoning issues, to be sure, but others genuinely desire a mobile lifestyle. I happen to have a home on a foundation, but that was simply because I didn’t relish the idea of watching it roll down the mountain! In fact, I believe the idea that Beams proposes here is precisely what Tammy has done with her “Cute” and “A-Legal” tiny home.

When Beams states that “This article contains just a tad of city-dweller tunnel-vision, and a rather out-dated [sic], back-handed slap at the concept of mobility,” I believe that perhaps he feels much the same way about the tiny house movement as he perceives our feelings about the mobile homes he manufactures. I don’t believe that tiny house builders were intending to imply that their tiny homes are better than his product, but we don’t want his product. We want tiny homes.

The reason for this may be the Do-It-Yourself nature of tiny house building. We want the adventure of the tiny home from start to finish. If that were not the case then certainly I believe many people would consider manufactured homes, such as Beams sells. What is your take on the issue? Are tiny houses inherently “better” than mobile homes? Why do you prefer the tiny house idea over what Beams suggests? Do you feel there is an inherent bias in the tiny home community?

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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!

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{ 37 comments… add one }
  • Avatar Debra August 27, 2012, 6:54 pm

    Nice article, Laura. I want both, actually 🙂 I can only afford one at the moment, so I have a tiny home. We chose the house over an RV because of the insulation factors. We would not be chasing sunshine, but rather have a more permanent home in a park. My friend lives in an RV across the drive from me. We compared heating and cooling bills all year last year, mine were always much lower than hers. however, I could not convince her to ‘switch’ because she loves the mobility aspect. It is a tradeoff for both of us.

    • Avatar Laura M. LaVoie September 4, 2012, 8:04 am

      It is pretty cool you have a way to do a direct comparison like that.

  • Avatar alice h August 27, 2012, 8:43 pm

    I think if I was moving around a lot I’d prefer an RV. My tiny wooden house is going to be on wheels partly to get around some local bylaws and partly so that I can take it with me if I move to another area. At most it would probably move once or twice every few years. I like the wider range of design possibliites and DIY opportunities of a tiny house on wheels, as well as the general aesthetics.

  • Avatar Tiana August 28, 2012, 3:00 am

    My observation of the “mobile home” was as something identical to your neighbors, that was Delivered on wheels, and then remained in one spot until it degraded to the point it was stripped to the frame, re-wheeled, and sold for 1/20th of buying cost as a heavy duty trailer.
    I don’t want something as big as a mobile home, definately Not as big as a double-wide. I want quality over quantity, I want neighbors by choice, not by force. I don’t want to be shoehorned into a containment area. I want less of my lot covered by house. I want less of my time spent slaving on OSB and MDF that wishes to return to it’s pre-compressed state. I want to be able to move my dwelling by myself. In fact, I am working on a tiny house that can be reloacted with a Jeep. And it will have a full tub, a full kitchen, a washer/dryer, and room for books, plants, and pets.

    • Avatar Jack August 29, 2012, 5:07 pm

      I’d like to see this, do you have a site/blog going.

      • Avatar Tiana August 29, 2012, 6:14 pm

        I read in 2D but I live in 3D, sorry, no blog. I have an 8×12 reclaimed alpaca barn I am currently converting, a 14×18 studio for my business, an 8×8 workshop for my husbands antique outboard rebuilds etc. (that was a former chicken house) and a 20ft yurt we hope to erect on some larger property we are hoping for to support my growing icelandic flock. We (husb, wife, son, 2 and three quarter dogs, 65gal “pond” tank, and parakeet highrise) live in a 20×24 with a half loft. It is too big. I have made drawings for a 7×8 to move into when the boy moves on in 5 years, and by then attrition should bring the canine population to one full and one quarter sized dog.
        I can text pictures. 9o7-84I-joke

    • Avatar [email protected] August 29, 2012, 6:26 pm

      We are on the same lines as Tiana as to her needs and philosophies. We are building a mobile Tiny House on a reclaimed 29′ late 70’s travel trailer. First, because I wanted to do a reclaimed materials Tiny House and that starts with the trailer chassis. Next, I wanted to build a house with OUR needs in mind and not some engineer that is required to add inferior and proprietary hardware to RVs and mobile homes. All the materials they put in RVs are toxic and off gas for years just as all McMansion out there. When I start building the second Tiny House, I will be able to put in the high quality eco friendly and sustainable materials that we want as well because it is a small footprint. Quality over quantity…

      • Avatar Tiana September 1, 2012, 12:06 am

        I’ve got it down to -50 ft!

        • Avatar Tiana September 2, 2012, 9:17 pm

          Just under 50 Square feet, that is.

    • Avatar Brenda September 9, 2012, 7:44 pm

      Tiana I would love to see pictures of this! I am fascinated by the idea of having such a small space that contains all that is needed to live in that is towable by something other than a pick up truck.. Would you consider posting several pictures on tiny house blog??

      • Avatar Tiana September 9, 2012, 10:19 pm

        I would have to scan my graphite on lignin (pencil drawing!)
        Give me a day or so, and Alex? How would I do that?

        • Avatar Sandy Bee March 17, 2014, 3:49 pm

          maybe take a few pictures and join then as a panoramic?

  • Avatar Rhonda August 29, 2012, 9:09 am

    One issue that I have thought about but has not been mentioned is the mobility of a tiny house when there is a hurricane or forest fire heading your way. “Mobile” homes are not as mobile as tiny houses because they require larger trucks and permits and a final destination unlike a tiny house that can get out of harm’s way and then return home. When I build a. TH it will be 8.5×40 but still movable.

    • Avatar Justin May 9, 2015, 4:13 pm

      8.5 by 40 seems pretty big length wise no? Idk I’m just getting interested in the idea of a tiny home. I have a full drum set that I can’t live without so I’m planning around that but I have time, I’m 22 🙂

  • Avatar Jennifer September 1, 2012, 8:41 pm

    I like the look of tiny homes much more than a traditional mobile home. They are so much more attractive & actually look like a home as opposed to a tin sardine box-like trailer. Even the nicest trailers are still kind of cheesy looking to me… They also have a stigma that I don’t want my home to have.
    I live in south Florida & the idea that I could move my home out of harms way when there’s a hurricane coming has great appeal to me. I also like the fact that all of my things would go with me & wouldn’t be lost in a disaster so I wouldn’t have to replace things or lose things that are basically irreplaceable.
    Last but not least I love the idea of using plans to build a shell & the being able to design the inside floor plan myself to really have the satisfaction of creating my own little dream house…

    • Avatar Sel December 9, 2012, 1:54 pm

      In 1999 when Hurricane Floyd seemed to be bearing down on Florida – it was a category 5 and as big across as Florida- I joined the million plus people stuck on the roads trying to get away.
      Lesson: leave far earlier, especially towing your home!
      I spent 12 hours on the road and got about 40 miles away.
      While waiting in the endless lines of cars the vehicle ahead was a big truck pulling what looked like a 12 – 15 foot trailer. The back end had a little porch with a railing around it. Clamped to the railing was a stainless steel boat grill – which was cooking something. It had a sliding glass door! When we were completely stopped he’d check the grill. There was a bathroom and teeny kitchen. He had a recliner and a big tv. Looked way better than the inside of my vehicle.

      • Avatar jerryd December 9, 2012, 4:55 pm

        Hi Sel, P and All,

        Adding to P’s post leave well before ithers likely 48hrs before expected landfall.

        It use to be you could just go to the middle of fla, about 50 miles and be safe but hurricanes are now holding together longer so you need to be 80-100 miles now which in Fla is on the opposite coast!!

        If you know what you are doing a well founded boat of the correct design with 4 anchors out and 2 in reserve out in the open away from everything or deep in a canal, creek, mangroves tied off to shore is another option.

        My 34′ trimaran can be trailered if a really big one hits though takes 3 people 2-3 hrs to trailerize it at a ramp or an hr at a boat lift. The main hull is only 6′ wide unbolts from the crossbeams and outriggers which are stored upside down next to the lower part of the main hull keeping the total width under 8′.

        Just using the main hull as a travel trailer works too if needed. I’m seriously think about just attaching the trailer axle to the main hull and put a hitch on the bow cutting most trailer weight, cost and it would be very aero and for the sise, light.

        Tiny home people should seriously think about making their homes houseboats too to have far more legal places to put it both on land and water. Many places you can live on land in a boat that you can’t with a tiny or trailer home by law. And far more places inside large cities as most are on the water and have boat yards, docks to use plus anchoring out..

  • Avatar Lady Tenazby September 2, 2012, 1:09 pm

    We decided to go “Tiny” due to high-cost of living and mobility needs. My family has had to move a few times and “lost nearly everything” each time we did due to an inability to “take it with us.” We need a home that will allow us to simply “batten down,” back up, and “move out.” The fact is, we have specific needs and design desires that an prefabricated RV simply can’t offer us without having to pay a fortune to have it built. RVs and trailers always have the look and feel of a trailer. We love the look and feel of a home, which is what we get with a Tiny House. The cost of building “tiny” is much, much, much less than even a used RV worth its salt would ever be able to be obtained for.

  • Avatar Lady Tenazby September 2, 2012, 1:13 pm

    uh… was supposed to say “any RVs” not “an” Sorry bout the typo

  • LaMar Alexander LaMar September 2, 2012, 1:23 pm

    ““And lastly, it is out-dated [sic] thinking to assume (or promulgate) the idea that any site-built or modular house on a wood frame is somehow inherently better in ANY way than a well-designed mobile on a steel frame”

    This is incorrect and most RVs are designed only for 3 season and moderate temperatures with minimal insulation. A wood frame house on wheels can have R13 or higher insulation which will provide 4 season and extreme climate living.

    There are a few 4 season RVs like the Airstream but these are usually much more expensive than it is to build your own.

    HOW builders could learn a lot on making small spaces livable by copying RV designs and using smaller appliances but that is where the comparison stops IMO.

  • Avatar TomB September 2, 2012, 10:45 pm

    It’s all about individuality. Most RV’s are modern cookie cutter versions of the wagon while tiny houses are like modern versions of the Vardo. This is like comparing a tract house to a hand built cabin or Craftsman house. Both are fine if that is what you want. Most people build tiny houses instead of buying an RV for the sense of accomplishment it gives them.

  • Avatar Kerrie September 3, 2012, 10:32 am

    I agree with many of the comments above that trying to compare building a tiny house on wheels to buying an RV is like the proverbial apples to oranges comparison. My husband and I are in the process of building a tiny house on a trailer that has Vardo-esque style elements, and when people find out about our project we frequently get a perplexed look, almost always followed by the question, “Why don’t you just buy an RV? Wouldn’t that be easier?” And really I think that pretty much sums it up — either you immediately “get” the potential satisfaction and excitement of planning and building something of your own, like a tiny house, or you don’t.

  • Avatar jerryd September 3, 2012, 4:34 pm

    I say either way is good but both have problems.

    I don’t see the reason so many make 8′ wide ones on wheels with stick built tech ends up expensive, heavy , too tall and not very room eff.

    Nor RV’s with cheap alum/plastic siding, heavy, gas hogs and many not well designed for living.

    A big peeve is no really comfortable seating, just flat planks with thin cushions!! You are going to be using this a lot so have one excellently comfortable one for each person. If really small make it a bed too.

    For construction less expemsive is boat/aircraft style of lightweight panels, wood but many others, glued together to make many box beams mostly from cabinets, funiture, walls, etc that reinforce each other. This can be 1/3 the weight at 50% of the cost of stick built. Plus be far stronger and can even be made to float!!

    Unless you plan on moving it out of state no reason not to make them 12′ wide like 12’x12′ gives so many more practical options for interiors. And moving is a cheap wide load permit about $10 and good for a yr in Fla and most states. No need for a trailer either. Just hire a flat bed wrecker or your own trailer to take where you want.

    Only tiny houses that plan on traveling often need be restricted to 8.5′ wide.

    Not sure why so many tiny designs have such big bathrooms. How much time does one spend in it? A toilet that one sits on or stands in front of for a shower, just 2.5×3′, can include a sink too, is all one needs and the rest can be used for something actually needed. One can have a cover for the toilet so it doesn’t get wet or just wipe it off after a shower.

    I build my own tiny houses, boats, cars, etc because I can’t get what I want from anywhere else at a reasonable price. Usually it’s about 10% of new costs for materials to build these. Plus if you build then you can fix them saving more money.

    • Avatar Scott October 17, 2012, 1:30 am

      Hey, I’ve made the connection with boating/aircraft construction techniques for the tiny homes. My problem is figuring out how to do it/ where to buy materials. Most ppl want an extreme amount of money for reference materials. How did you learn to make these things on your own, and can you recommend a way for me to find good info on the subject. Any help would be appreciated.

      • Avatar jerryd October 17, 2012, 7:59 pm

        That depends on where you are going tobuild and where you’ll live in it.

        If in more moderate climes you can get by with single thickness wood/plywood which can be very light.

        If in colder regions the walls need insulation which means 2 sided walls with preferably foam insulation.

        You can do it stressed skin/SIP style using metal, FG, wood/ply for the outside with foam core, 2” is enough except really cold areas.

        for metal flat alum or steel sheet comes in rolls so few seems is a big advantage. Many commercial steel building suppliers make their own panels from flat sheets you can buy for less than ply!! I get mine for under $.50/sq’ Alum is a little more pricey but lasts better. Both require foam insulation or you get condensation which can ruin everything.

        You can buy FG sheets in many places but I make my own using a flat mold lying on a flat floor made from metal, formica, painted ply, etc as a mold and lay up fg on it to make sheets.

        There are many boat sites explaining on how to build them which can be used. Simply putting gentle bends, curves in 1/4-5/8” ply/FG/metal can really increase it’s strength then building cabinets, furniture to them makes frame like stiffness with little else.

        If done for to aft with rounded forward corners and gently curving aft makes excellent aero that with lightweight construction cuts drag even enough if done like I do taking little extra power to tow the trailer by cleaning up the towing vehicle aero drag.

        Boat, wood supply companies along with steel metal suppliers can supply a lot of what you need. Check your local ph book under boats, lumber, metal/metal building can give local sources.

        I learn by doing electrical on boats and watching, building them.

        One couldn’t go wrong building a houseboat for a tiny house that with a trailer can give far more options of free places to live in it legally plus having the largest swimming pool. fishing, etc lawn you don’t even have to mow ;^:

        Plus many places living on a boat on land is legal where living in a trailer isn’t.

    • Avatar Sel December 8, 2012, 11:17 pm

      Ever post any pics of your stuff?
      In FL how do you cool where you live?

      • Avatar jerryd December 9, 2012, 11:40 am

        Hi Sell,

        I’m just finishing my 12’x12′ so pics, details will be up here soon of Alex will have them.

        My cooling comes from a 6,000btu A/C powered by RE, mostly solar, biomass that I buy from my utility because I live in a 100% coverage old oak forest making either solar or wind problematic. A/C costs me about $10-20/month for abou 5-6 months in electric.

        I’m moving onto my new trimaran just to get a better RE site plus all the other benefits. If you mean on water another 6000btu A/C run off a 1kw PV array handles it nicely being plenty of sun/ thus power when A/C is needed.

        PV and A/C are about perectly matched as a system.

        • Avatar Sel December 9, 2012, 12:48 pm

          Thanks! Looking forward to it.

  • Avatar Michael September 5, 2012, 12:17 am

    I believe Tiny Houses are much better than the typical R.V. because the construction of a Tiny House (if done right)will out last and out perform the construction of the typical R.V. Here’s the reason why: I’ve stayed in a 24 ft R.V. trailer in Tennessee through the winter months. I’ve noticed a lot of condensation build-up and also frost build-up around the doors and window framing… not good! That condensation and frost build-up over a period of time will lead to rotting of the wood around the door and windows and even the floor. The Tiny House, when built right with quality insulation and ventalation, will prevent this kind of condensation and thus will lead to a sound structure that will last for years to come. On the other hand, if you just want to travel and see the country, then maybe the tiny house option might not be a good option. Tiny houses are typically heavier than the typical R.V. and thus will cost you more in gas to pull your tiny house from coast to coast. I’ve actually used this response to people when they ask me, “why don’t you just buy an R.V.?” If my soul purpose of having a tiny house was just to travel coast to coast, then I might consider the R.V. travel trailer as an option; but, since my intentions is to build my tiny house that I’m building now is to move it to Tennessee when I’m out of the Army, then the tiny house option is indeed my best choice.

  • Avatar Garth September 14, 2012, 5:36 pm

    There are many comments here about RVs, but the linked article says nothing about RVs until you get to the 5th paragraph of Beams’ comment below the article.

    I like where the article says, “In fact, the only way the tiny house movement is going to succeed is if people get together and build intentional communities of tiny houses, which will solve the land, loans and laws problem and eliminate the fear and social pressures ones.” We need to get cities to zone for this, and make the tiny houses totally legal and have places for them where the McMansion dwellers won’t resent them for whatever reason. I would like to own the tiny piece of land though, and not be stuck with a mobilehome landlord who keeps raising the rent on the land. These rents in our area are frequently more than our mortgage on our 1270-square-foot house. I’m not particularly against mobilehomes except that my perception is that they’re not as easily moved–even single-wides–and single-wides are not even allowed in most cities. I would like to see what Mr. Beams has to offer. I don’t need the thrill of building it myself, or of having something unique.

  • Avatar Dave November 7, 2012, 10:09 pm

    I have lived in “trailer houses” (what we used to call them, and *still* do)…and never will again.

  • Avatar Jared November 11, 2012, 11:53 pm

    To me one of the big draws of a tiny house over an rv or trailer house is the fact that you can build the extensive lofts in a tiny house. I would love to have a large tiny house on wheels with lofts on each end, two bathrooms, large open living area, and still be able to tow it with a 3/4 ton w no permit.

  • Avatar Pat Jennette November 24, 2012, 12:50 pm

    Great site!

  • Avatar Heather Herzog December 14, 2012, 8:52 am

    All I can say is that, for me, one of the main attractions of tiny homes is how inexpensively they can be made. From vardo and sheep herder wagons to Jay Shaffer’s designs, we have all heard of someone building each design with nothing but craiglist and ‘re-store finds. It also gives us the ability to chose what utilities will be used in the how use. An rv or camp trailer is pre built to someone else’s ideas of tiny, often feel as fake as the materials used to build them, and if you do start looking at models built with real wood and stone, the price has now gone above and beyond what you can afford/are willing to pay.

  • Avatar Earnest Lee January 8, 2013, 9:08 pm

    Has anyone built Tiny House on wheels that travels really well on the road?

  • Avatar Rob Gray January 25, 2014, 2:54 am

    Almost everyone seems to think that you BUILD a TH and you BUY an RV. Why is that? You can build an RV just the same. The only difference I can think of is that it’s designed for travelling and therefore has to be stronger, stick-built won’t really cut it so learn to weld.

    We been living in a RV (190sqf then rebuilt to 150) for 13 years, 12 of those years has been travelling which was the point of building it in the first place. But lately we’ve dropped anchor on our land and it’s quite likely the truck will become something closer to a real TH.

    Our RV has a loft bed (in the Luton peak over the cab), a fold-out deck, collects water from the roof, garage for a motorbike, full solar power yada yada.

    Somebody mentioned large bathrooms are a waste in a TH. I agree, we have a shower, toilet, laundry, home brew setup and entrance way all in an 800x800mm (31×31″) space (plus some cupboard space behind where things slide out from). The point is you never need all those things at the same time, so they can share the space.

    We don’t have thin foam seats, we have real rocker recliners.

    We never get any condensation because the house is well insulated, we don’t have AC and seldom use the heater (but I admit we live in a warm climate).

    It probably is fair to say that an RV depreciates and a TH appreciates, at least if you buy the RV. However a DIY vehicle should get you back at least what you spent unless you did a really crap job.

    So the argument that you want to have the creative input and therefore need to build a TH doesn’t hold any water, you can do the same with an RV.

    If anyone is interested you can see details of our truck by clicking on the link above or going to http://www.robgray.com


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