Getting Small: The Joys and Challenges of Tiny House Living

Jun 24, 2014

A 117 square foot tiny house north of Seattle, WA.
Credit Zoey/

Since 1950, the size of the average American house has nearly tripled, to more than 2,400 square feet. Not coincidentally, US consumers on average also pay a much larger portion of their income on keeping a roof over their heads.

Now, as JPR’s Liam Moriarty reports, a small but growing number of people – in the Northwest and beyond -- are scaling back their housing needs and trading square footage for more time and freedom. 

Gabriella: “This is our tiny house. As you can see, it’s very, very small …”

I’m somewhere in rural southern Oregon and I’m getting a tour of a home built by Gabriella and Andrew. The couple doesn’t want their last name or exact location revealed; we’ll get to why in a minute. They lead me past their friendly old dog and through the front door.

Gabriella: “And when you come in, one of the things that people first notice is that it’s very big and spacious inside. We have really high ceilings.”

Lots of windows, too, to let in light. The house is built on a 27x8-foot trailer frame, but it seems roomier. It’s got a master bedroom loft on one end -- complete with a staircase – and a guest room loft on the other. It’s also got a kitchen and bathroom with full-sized appliances.

Andrew: “A regular-size fridge, a regular-size range and oven, a regular-size sink. A lot of the tiny houses that we’d seen designs on didn’t have that.”

Standing in the center of the living area, the home feels cozy, and a lot bigger than its 207 square feet .

Andrew says a few years ago, the couple and their 11-year-old daughter were living in a large house they thought was their dream home. But he says they noticed a lot of that area didn’t actually get used.

Andrew: “So we started adding up, by square foot, how much did that cost us every month to have space that we didn’t need. And the number was pretty high. We were surprised.”

Pretty soon, he says, they started to feel like slaves to their house.

Andrew: “How much did we have to work to pay that off? How much did we have to work to pay for utilities, for the monthly payments on the house itself. All of that became very clear to us that it wasn’t really worth the expense.”

Now, Andrew says, the family’s home is debt-free; they built the tiny house for $33,000, complete. The land is paid for, so there’s no mortgage or rent payment. That leaves them time and energy to do the things they want to do, and spend less time working to pay for their stuff.

But doesn’t sharing a space that small get a little … claustrophobic? Andrew says, yes, at first. But …

Andrew: “Once we got past that, what we discovered is that being in close space actually increases communication. It allows us to really process things that happen. There’s no going to your room and slamming the door and being miles away from the issue. Instead, we’re right there with each other.”

Other tiny home dwellers admit living that close together can be a challenge, especially when the weather turns wet and cold.  

Alicia: “In the winter? I’m not gonna lie. It did come up now and then. We got a little stir-crazy, maybe slightly.”

Alicia lives with her husband and three-year-old daughter in a 280 square foot tiny house in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She says they dealt with it by visiting friends and participating in community events. Alicia says she gets a deep sense of satisfaction from being intimately involved in creating her home.

Alicia: “You know where the studs are, you know how many beams you have in it, you know how you put in that skylight, you know how painstaking it was to put in all of those floorboards.”

She adds a tiny space also means using less electricity, less heat, less water; generally, spending less money and having a smaller environmental footprint.

So, if Alicia, Andrew, Gabriella and their families are so keen on the advantages of tiny house living, why are they being cagey about revealing their identities?

Kelly Madding: “Looking at the building code, the tiniest house one could build is 190 square feet.”

That’s Kelly Madding. She’s the Director of Development Services in Jackson County, Oregon. And, she says, she can’t give you a permit to build a house smaller than 190 square feet.

The houses of the folks we’ve spoken to are both ­bigger than that. But, Madding says, any loft space with less than five feet of head room doesn’t count toward that total. Building officials I spoke to in California had a similar message. So, Alicia, Andrew, Gabriella and most other folks who are living tiny are skirting -- if not outright breaking -- current building codes.

It turns out code compliance is a big topic of discussion on many of the growing number of blogs devoted to tiny house living. One common strategy is building your house on a trailer frame and calling it an RV. But even that runs into zoning regulations about where and for how long you can occupy an RV.

Alicia says she and her family deal with all that by being sure to make a good impression in the neighborhood.

Alicia: “Tiny housers tend to be really good neighbors because we want our neighbors to like us so that there aren’t any problems with them. We say ‘Hi’ every morning to our neighbors. We bring flowers and that sort of thing.”

Still, living tiny often means living in a legal gray zone. But Jackson County planning official Kelly Madding says it may not always be that way ..

Kelly Madding; “Depending on the popularity and that pressure that popularity exerts, if that were the case, the code may change.”

In fact, over recent decades, codes have changed to accommodate a variety of unusual building designs and materials, from geodesic domes to straw bale houses. But, officials say the code revisions being worked on for 2015 don’t include anything specific to tiny homes.

So for the time being, at least, people living the tiny life will have to keep gaming the system, maintaining a low profile and keeping their fingers crossed.