So, What’s It Really Like to Live in a Tiny Home?
Three small-space dwellers tell all.
Published May 19, 2019 7:00 AM
Practically everything is more delightful in miniature form—I mean, who doesn’t love Li’l Sebastian from Parks and Rec or one of those super-small succulents that would look just adorable on your windowsill? That specific charm is just one of the things that draw us to tiny homes. When they’re impressively designed using minimum square footage, it’s hard not to be impressed. But they’re not just meant for show—they’re homes, after all.
Beyond their aesthetic appeal, tiny homes also offer the promise of simpler lives, a smaller carbon footprint, and the ability to pick up and go whenever you feel the calling. Along with that, though, they come with their own unique challenges and benefits, as well as a different way of life that might not be altogether what you’d expect.
So what is small-scale living really like? Three tiny home dwellers tell all.
They can be super affordable over time
Finances are a common reason many people decide to move into tiny homes. A smaller, easy-to-transport house means cheaper utilities, taxes, and a price tag that’s much more affordable than a typical mortgage. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t have plenty of expenses.
As Joshua Engberg of Tiny House Basics explains, the cost alone of buying a tiny home can be just as pricey as buying a standard home—unless you’re crafty. “If you have that DIY drive, you can drastically cut the cost of downsizing your life,” he says. “Our tiny house, as we built it back in 2014, can be built with a materials cost of about $47k, but to have that built by a tiny house builder, it will run about $110k.” If you start with a premade trailer base and have decent building skills, it’s totally possible to build your home from scratch.
That said, buying any kind of home is a considerable cost, which means you’ll likely have to take out a loan to buy it. “Even though we made money on the sale of our ‘normal’ home, we were still in the hole for a while, and our house became more expensive to build than we had planned,” Shannon Soine says of the tiny home she shares with her husband, Tim. “I think many people think that moving into a tiny home is going to instantly make their finances a breeze, but we are just at the point now, four and a half years in, where our finances are starting to feel [better].”
Only after a good deal of patience and hard work do the savings start rolling in—both Engberg and Soine report that after about five years of living in their tiny homes, they’ve amassed major savings: about $75,000 that would have otherwise gone to rent and living expenses.
They have plenty of storage
Yes, it’s true: You’ll have to downsize if you want to live in a tiny home, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up all your worldly possessions. “When my friend visited me in my tiny home for the first time, she was surprised that I had a lot of stuff,” says Dolly Rubiano. “Downsizing is inevitable, but it doesn’t mean you need to give up the things that you hold dear. Clever storage design helps in this regard.”
So what kind of unexpected storage can you find in a tiny home? Lofts, staircases, hidden cabinets, and shelves can all make a big difference without making your space look or feel cluttered.
One design feature makes a major difference
If you’re wondering what tiny-home dwellers miss the most, it’s not necessarily something space-related. In fact, it’s something that makes a big difference in any kind of home. “What we hear from many of our clients and others who have been in their tiny house for some years is that they wished they had added more or at least larger windows,” Engberg explains. “Having an open feeling and natural light is key to making the space feel larger.” Keep this in mind if you’re going the DIY route.
Less privacy can be a good thing
When you live in a space that doesn’t have a ton of doors, or even very many rooms, it’s hard to get the privacy you might be craving. Contrary to what you’d assume, that might just be beneficial to your relationships. “I think my favorite benefit of living in a tiny home is that Tim and I have become closer over the time we’ve lived tiny,” Soine says. “Living in a small space means there’s no room to hide from your problems (confession: I have tried to hide behind the retractable mesh dog gate a few times), and we’ve learned to deal with our struggles head-on, which I think is healthy.”
Lofted beds aren’t that bad—on one condition
Opting for a loft bed is a pretty common method for maximizing space in your loft, but they might not seem immediately appealing to everyone. Engberg, however, insists that they’re cozier and comfier than you might assume, but one crucial design decision makes them practical.
To make your sleeping situation feel a little bit less like an oversize bunk bed, skip the ladder. “If we had to climb a ladder to bed every night and deal with the possible restroom break in the middle of the night, we personally would have not been happy,” he says. “Save yourself the headache and have stairs to your sleeping loft. You’ll also have the option of storage beneath them and friends love sitting on the stairs when they come over, as extra seating is always nice in a small space.”
Where you live makes a big difference
Yes, you can place your tiny home virtually anywhere, but that opens up a whole other can of worms. You can buy land, rent land, or settle down in a trailer park (which can actually be pretty pricey). The route you choose will have just as big an impact on your day-to-day life as your tiny home itself.
You could, admittedly, get lucky. “We placed an ad on Craigslist in the landlord section, and ended up living in a strangers’ driveway for a year. We were completely shocked by their complete generosity. I still remember driving out there to meet them, hearing that they didn’t even want rent from us, and getting in the car afterward, asking each other, ‘Is there something wrong with these people? Should we be nervous?’” Soine says. “These strangers became some of our closest friends. We were surprised once again when our driveway time was up and a coworker offered up their land to us. In both of these living arrangements, we simply pay for our utilities, delivered in cash, along with a nice bottle of Scotch or Tequila.”
Geography also plays a role. “Every area and state will be different for land situations. For crowded California and the San Francisco Bay area, being in a tiny house close to a city center can be a challenge,” Engberg says. “We are about one hour from downtown San Francisco and about 10 to 15 minutes to the closest store, so that can sometimes be a challenge and it pretty much eliminates any food delivery services. But hey, our living expenses are one-sixth of what they would be in a regular apartment or house.”
You can still have friends over
Just because your home is smaller doesn’t mean you can’t have guests, especially if you have plenty of outdoor space. “Living tiny has afforded us a better quality life, and we actually enjoy being outside. Since we’ve always enjoyed entertaining, that was something we didn’t want to lose just because of downsizing,” Engberg says. “Since we added our accordion window with bar seating and outdoor patio seating, we’ve been able to still have dinner parties and barbecues.” Sounds like the perfect summer night, no?
Home maintenance might look different from normal
All that considered, if you’re seriously mulling over making a move to a tiny home, know that they come with their own quirks and maintenance struggles. And you’ll have to do your best to deal with them, even if you’re not a natural handyman.
For one, the climate can affect your home in unexpected ways. “When I first noticed the cracks in my hardwood stairs, I freaked out. I thought it was a structural defect. It turned out that when the temperature is too hot and the air is too dry, hardwood splits and cracks,” Rubiano says. “After learning this, I bought indoor plants—lots of them—to help keep the tiny house cooler. Plants release moisture into the air, and they make my home look gorgeous.”
And if you live in a place with tough winters, be prepared. “Even though our water lines are insulated the best they can possibly be, they are simply more exposed than they would be in a traditional home. We have had some really rough patches of frozen water intake and water drainage—we did our dishes in the bathroom for several weeks the first winter!” Soine says of her upstate New York tiny home. “However, there’s a silver lining in every disaster, because when you are forced to adapt to challenges, you are able to problem-solve and roll with struggles more than ever before.”
No matter what kind of tiny home you live in or where you reside, there are plenty of maintenance issues and functional problems that can add up to be, honestly, a little stressful “There are a million other small adjustments: using and needing to stop at a P.O. box for mail, trekking your recycling bin a quarter mile up the driveway every week, limited closet space, showering at the gym when your water is frozen, not having space to do yoga in the morning because your husband is sleeping in the middle of the living room, which is also your bedroom, extra money on renovations because everything is more expensive when it’s custom,” Soine says. “I would kill a man for a dishwasher.”
Still, throughout the good and the bad, these tiny-home dwellers swear by their downsized abodes. After all, when you live in a tiny home, you can still live large.
See more tiny homes: This Tiny 290-Square-Foot Home Can Be Configured 20 Different Ways Well, This Is One Unexpected Benefit of Living in a Tiny Home How One Tiny Home Designer Makes a Small Space Feel 10 Times Bigger