Canadian Contractor

Are ‘tiny houses’ worth such big headlines?

Tiny houses are all the rage in the media these days. But do they really meet expectations?


May 18, 2016
By John Bleasby

In the course of a few years, tiny houses have become media darlings, earning kudos from the environmentally conscious, those who are concerned about home affordability, and those who simply have an urge to simplify their lives. No doubt about it, a well-designed home reduced to almost playhouse dimensions sure looks cute. Designers and craftsmen have prospective buyers in awe over how the limited space can be used creatively and efficiently.

But do tiny houses actually meet the high expectations?

A 8x14 tiny house like this costs around $50,000......

A 8×14 tiny house like this costs around $50,000……

Cabin fever anyone?
Tiny houses are the ultimate down-size. There’s logic to living in a house only as large as you need. However, psychologically people need some space around them beyond bare necessities and clever storage. Time will tell, but one has to wonder how long an individual (plus maybe their partner and their dog) can live sanely in such close quarters. It’s one thing to vacation in a small cabin in the woods, but 24/7 for years to come? As they say in the yacht charter world. “You never know how much you hate your friends until you share a 30 foot boat for a week.”

How affordable are tiny houses?
Some feel that tiny houses are the answer to home affordability. However, when the cost of the house, the land, hookups, and financing are considered together, this position needs to be questioned.

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You can buy a teeny- tiny starter-house for under $50,000. You can buy a fabulous made-to-order, not-so-tiny house for $250,000. Take your pick. It comes down to size, from 100 to nearly 650 square feet, and luxury detailing such as granite counters. Most come between 150 and 400 square feet and under $100,000.

...a 650 square foot deluxe not-so-tiny house like this is about $250,000

…a 650 square foot deluxe not-so-tiny house like this is about $250,000

That’s for the building. What about land and water/sewage/utility hookups? They’re not free! Since most municipalities won’t allow anything larger than a 10×10 garden shed to be plopped down in a friend’s back yard, it’s then a matter to find a tiny house development or buy a lot out of town. Trouble is, what few tiny house developments exist are basically trailer parks, and zoning of most rural residential lots require minimum houses sizes that well exceed the largest of tiny houses. These aren’t impossible to resolve, but may force the buyer into more remote areas and away from their place of employment, adding to transportation costs.

Tiny house development living is much like life in a trailer park. Maybe not what the brochure promised.

Tiny house development living is much like life in a trailer park. Maybe not what the brochure promised.

Will that be cash or credit?
Can a tiny house be mortgage-financed through a bank? Without being fastened permanently to a piece of land, most banks won’t consider a traditional mortgage for a tiny house any more than they would for a camping trailer.  Even if pinned to a plot of land, the tiny size may not meet the bank’s minimum for a home mortgage.  How about a line of credit? It’s much more costly. Banks require collateral for a ‘secured’ loan, and using an unsecured loan is a really expensive way to finance a home.

Aren’t tiny houses are eco-friendly?
Yes, a tiny house uses less material and has a carbon footprint far less than a standard size house. However, as Brad Plumer writes in vox.com, urban tiny houses are an extremely inefficient use of land. “Energy experts have found again and again that urban density has an outsize effect on CO2 emissions. People who live in denser urban areas tend to walk more, they have smaller homes, they use less energy.” In other words, it’s all about housing density, not house size. Someone wishing to reduce their CO2 footprint in a city is better off buying a condo or renting an apartment.

I can just hitch up my tiny house and go!
Tiny houses are just that; houses. They’re built from traditional materials and have many of the interior trappings of a regular house, albeit in miniaturised form. As a result, on a square foot basis they are substantially heavier than their cousin, the camping trailer. Camping trailers are built to be as large as possible yet towable by normal vehicles, even if your idea of ‘normal’ is an 8-cylinder monster pick-up. However, once a tiny house gets beyond the most minimal size, transportation often requires a commercial truck and perhaps a flatbed trailer. Maybe the second trip they take in their life will be to the parking lot of the local consignment seller.

It’s unpopular to rain on a well-hyped media parade, but tiny houses beg as many questions as they appear to answer.

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