Disclaimer: These are the cold hard facts as I experienced them. Everyone is in a different circumstance and I’m willing to admit that you may find your own path to be very different from mine. This, however, is what I learned.
Planning to build a tiny house almost feels like the chicken and the egg scenario. Each decision is based on another decision and it’s really difficult to figure out where to start. So my advice is this: Just pick something to focus on. You can always jump from one idea to another. How you sort it out at first doesn’t matter. To be honest, this was so long ago for me I can’t even remember the first thing I planned out, therefore I’ll just list some considerations here and you can decide what speaks to you. I’ll also note, once again, that the Tiny House Decisions workbook by Ethan Waldman (linked in my last post) was a pivotal jumping off point for me. So here goes nothing.
- Do you want to build a house yourself or buy one?
This is a really important question. My first thought was If I’m going to live in a house this small, do I want to fit myself into someone else’s idea of a comfortable and functional living space? The answer = heck no. No matter where this house came from, I knew I’d want to have a say in the design. Also, by building myself, I would have the satisfaction of having accomplished a major life project. Something like this would satisfy my artistic nature and the simple joy I get from working with my hands. The idea of living in a home I built for myself couldn’t be equaled by the thought of simply buying one. However, it’s ok if you have other priorities. If you want to live small but the idea of actually doing the work doesn’t sound cool to you, it’s totally reasonable to partner with a reputable design/build team. Same could be said if you’re on a time crunch, but we’ll get to that.
- Second of all, is it even reasonable to build yourself if you want to?
There are several basic considerations that should be on the table before seriously committing to this type of project. Here are just a few that I found to be make-it or break-it.
#1) A place to park.
I am VERY lucky in this regard and I don’t take this for granted. My parents let me come home and park in the yard. I live in the middle of nowhere in NY state, and generally, people aren’t watching too closely. As long as my house is mobile, and technically like an accessory dwelling to my parent’s house, my town is ok with me being here. I’m not going to go into all the details about parking tiny homes, other than to say that each country, state and municipality is different, and
you should plan to encounter at least a few grey areas in the law when deciding where to land. Think about things like access to water and electricity. I know that the idea of being off-grid compatible is super dreamy to a lot of us, but if that’s your plan, make sure it’s realistic. The basic systems that need to function to make your home comfortable and livable (water, heat, power) will be game changers when life in a tiny home gets real. If you plan to use alternative power, for example, make sure you have a working knowledge of what that entails before picking your final park site.
#2) Knowledge and/or reliable help (that’s readily available)
If my dad had not offered to help me build my house, I simply would have not undertaken it. This may not be what some of you want to hear but it’s my truth. Here’s a harsh reality (at least in my experience) - When you say you plan to build a tiny house, many people in your life are going to think it’s so cool, and offer to help you. But here’s the thing, building houses takes a lot of time and a lot of specialized knowledge. It’s not all drinking beer and eating pizza while you and your buddies hammer up walls. I’ll admit I was in the mindset that my friends will help me. Wrong. In the two years that I was working on the house,
only a fraction of those people that offered to me help actually showed up. In fact I can count them on my fingers, and most of those that did show, only came for a single day. I had a few close family members that were different, but the fact of the matter was that building this house was going to be largely up to me. And that’s not to say that my friends are jerks. I love my friends and yes, they’ve all supported me, but simply put, people are busy with their own lives. If you have the conviction to fly by the seat of your pants, make mistakes and take some liberties with your time and money, then by all means, I wouldn’t discourage you. For me though, I was being honest with myself. Even if I could’ve learned everything from YouTube videos, I would’ve been crippled by my lack of confidence that naturally comes with a lack of experience. Also just because it's on YouTube, doesn't mean you'll be equipped to follow it correctly. Tiny houses are super complex in the way that they need to fit together. 9 times out of 10 nothing existed on the internet that was specific enough to help me. This isn’t a bird house… it’s your home. You can't always cut corners.
#3). Work space and proper tools
It just so happens that we have a fully functioning and well equipped wood-shop attached to my parent’s house. We also have a big yard, empty garage, unfinished basement and a barn. As if that weren’t lucky enough, my father has compiled 50+ years worth of woodworking tools and equipment for almost every home repair job on the planet. Now I’m not saying you need to own all of this, but you should definitely consider how you can gain access to tools for a long period of time. Hardware stores often have tool rental facilities, but you’ll want to make sure that someone is around to educate you on how to use them once
you’ve got them. There is absolutely no way that I would have been able to afford all of the carpentry, metal work, plumbing and electrical tools necessary to complete the work that we ended up doing. From the big stuff like power saws and scaffolding, to small hand tools like pliers and screw drivers, everything needs to be considered . The more tools my dad pulled out, the more I realized I would have been shell shocked had I started from scratch. A lot of what we used I had never even heard of before let alone planned to need it.
I posted a link in my previous article for the Tiny Home Builders website. If I were to do it again, I might have watched all of their how-to videos before even starting a plan. There are several websites that offer this kind of thing, but I just happened to use theirs. You can subscribe to these for a pretty reasonable price to gain access. The point is, I just really had no concept of what I was getting into. I never would’ve been able to accurately account for what I was going to need because again, I’ve never built a house before! The good news is, that’s ok. The best thing you can do to equip yourself is to get as much information as you can ahead of time.
I did not have a deadline. I wasn’t going to be out on the street if my house wasn’t complete in a certain time frame. Again I was lucky in regards to the fact that I was living at home, rent free, and building on our own property. I had originally planned to work part time for one year, and in that time I would finish the house and then find a new job. Well guess what? That year came and went, I
was running out of money, and I had no choice but to take on a new full time job. Of course this meant my time was split between house-work and work-work. In total the house build lasted 2 years and 3 months. If you’re on a deadline, and you’re financially able, I might suggest hiring some help that could speed the process along. Also if you live in a cold climate, you may want to plan ahead for weather contingencies. Upstate NY is not very conducive to outdoor work in the winter, and I ended up just plain not wanting to be working outside in the wind a lot of the time. That may sound lazy, but again, I’m here to be honest about what happened.
#5). A reasonable amount of savings
This is the last point I’ll make and it’s very much circumstantial like everything else. My house cost just about $35,000. When I initially began I had $10,000 in my savings account. I was prepared to take an additional 10k out in personal loans but luckily my dad offered to foot me the loan instead, and saved me from having to pay interest. The last $15,000 was charged to my credit card as needed and kept in check over the course of the build. Everyone has their own wants and needs, and tiny homes can range from a couple thousand dollars on a DIY project to high-end 6 figure professional homes. Regardless of your budget, with a little research, you can be confident that you’ll find a least a
few options that could work for you. If you’re planning to save on costs by salvaging materials, I say more power to you, but be realistic. Salvaging materials and preparing them for use takes time. You’ll most likely want to have your materials ready to go when you need them, and you may also run into problems when it comes to installation of things like salvaged windows that don’t quite fit, or wood that isn’t quite straight. I ended up finding a happy medium of salvaged materials that were suitable and easy to get my hands on, and new materials that were conveniently available and easy to install. Salvaged materials can add a ton of character to your home, and I suggest not ruling out the idea completely. Just keep in mind that you may not want to lean too heavily in that direction unless you have some reliable sources or a lot of time to form a collection.
The planning process is very dynamic and prone to constant change. Be flexible, and most importantly, go easy on yourself. This is just the beginning.