a story about living small

Why Did We Choose to Build a Tiny House, Rather than Buy an RV or Mobile Home?

As our project has gotten a bit more mainstream press over these last few weeks, one question we’ve seen pop up again and again in the comments sections of blogs and news posts has been: why did we choose to build a tiny house from scratch rather than buy an RV or a mobile home?

“Coulda bought a single-wide and saved yourselves 1o months of labor.”

Well, yes. This is definitely true. But for us, building our own house from scratch was kind of the whole point. We wanted to see how we would be changed by committing to a project of this size and scale and seeing it through. Christopher and I wanted to know: how would our idea of ‘home’ change when we set out to build our own, from start to finish, with our own hands? After almost a year of pushing ourselves to stick with it, we’re starting to find out. For us, this was about learning exactly how much time and effort and resources go into the literal roof over our heads. 

There are other reasons we chose to build a tiny house rather than purchase a mobile home or an RV. Tiny houses tend to feel more like…houses, rather that something portable or temporary. The design elements of a tiny house—the eaves, the front porch, the gabled sloping roof, the sleeping loft, the use of windows and doors from regular houses and free-floating furniture rather than all built-in—contribute to making tiny houses feel more livable long-term to those who choose to make them home. (That said, mobile homes and trailers can be super cute too—such as this one owned by an artistic acquaintance here in Boulder.)

Tammy Strobel, of the blog Rowdy Kittens, who lives in a tiny house in Portland with her husband Logan (we interviewed them both for the film), also recently wrote a post on why they chose to buy a pre-built tiny house rather than an RV. She names cost and cuteness among the factors, and you can read it here.

Another great question we recently received in an email is whether it’s more environmentally sustainable to renovate an existing small house than to build a new tiny home.

While a tiny house—especially those made from recycled materials—do require many less resources to build than a conventional home, we do agree that re-using an existing structure is usually more sustainable than building anew. But, for many tiny-housers motivated by financial reasons, building a tiny house offers a much quicker path to getting out of debt. A tiny house can be built for as little as $10,000 (and I’m sure much less, with the use of donated and re-used materials), whereas to buy and renovate even a small home might require a bank loan of $100,000 or more.

For Christopher and I, renovating an existing structure wasn’t an option, since Christopher was looking for a spot in the mountains that was remote and previously uninhabited. We both love the idea of parking the tiny house on the land and being able to roll it off again if we choose, leaving the plot as pristine as possible, close to the way it was when Christopher first fell in love with it.

We do think that renovating smaller, existing homes is an excellent way to find a space that would accommodate a family with more square-footage needs, while still maintaining the “small is beautiful” mindset. Exactly what we mean by taking the innovations of the tiny house movement and scaling ‘em up. (I’m currently obsessed with this example.)

All in all, each of us will settle into the space that best suits our own lifestyles—whether mobile home, RV, tiny house trailer, renovated small house, converted bus, yurt, houseboat, apartment…the possibilities are endless.

I’d love to hear your own thoughts about living in different types of portable or small spaces in the comments below.

~ Merete Mueller, 4/1/12

15 Responses

  1. Fritz

    It’s an interesting thought to explore – one person’s “nest” is another’s “prison cell”. People are so different when it comes to their “needs” – so it makes total sense that living spaces take on all shapes, sizes, styles and locations, and are linked to, or the result of, their inhabitant’s personal journey. If done mindfully, establishing a home seems like a great way to feel centered, and at the same time connected with one’s environment. Well done!

    April 2, 2012 at 2:33 pm

  2. I think the answer to the question lies within one’s own heart regarding what home is to them. A number of people find it hard to identify an aluminum structure on wheels with cheap looking wood cabinets and gaudy etched glass as a home. However, they will take those same dimensions and create a miniature house on a trailer. There is something inexplicable about bedding down for the night in a structure that you created, built, and made comfortable.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:59 pm

  3. I really enjoyed reading your rationale on this this question Merete! Its a more difficult question to answer than one realizes at first glance. Glad to hear you found Tammy’s reasons on this topic helpful too! :^)

    April 2, 2012 at 7:09 pm

  4. Anna

    Like Fritz said it is interesting to hear a person talk about the space THEY need. So different for everyone. Since we are looking for a house now, your Tiny House project is always in the back of our minds!

    April 2, 2012 at 9:41 pm

  5. So cool. A few years back, my husband and I decided to cut back for dire financial reasons so we moved into a house my brother was remodeling. It was only 10 feet wide and about 20 feet long with an upstairs! And….we had 4 kids! Yup, we covered the floor upstairs with mattresses and kept the baby in her ‘pen’. We spent a lot of time outside! I think going small is smart, just wonder about long winters…

    April 5, 2012 at 12:11 am

  6. Sarah

    It takes a even bigger commitment when you move into the tiny house. Your possessions really earn their value in your life when space is so limited. It takes a lot of getting use to at first.

    April 5, 2012 at 2:58 am

  7. Great answer. I think a tiny house is a good way to learn how to build and work on carpentryskills. Its easy to build another maybe bigger house if you would wavt to once you built a small tinyhouse :)

    Love your tinyhouse! :)

    April 5, 2012 at 8:10 am

  8. I think tiny houses built on trailers do feel a lot more like home than just about any RV or travel trailer. Plus a lot of times it can end up being cheaper and more durable. Just the other day I looked, and a small Airstream starts at $40,000.

    But if you want to travel a lot with it, then an RV or travel trailer makes more sense because it’s lighter, more aerodynamic, and made for constant movement.

    I think a tiny house on wheels is best if you only plan on moving once in a while. Thanks Merete!

    April 5, 2012 at 11:50 am

  9. Your thoughtful questions and answers sum up the issue that each of us has changing wants and needs as we live our lives. Real communities ought to accommodate all of us, all the time!

    April 6, 2012 at 1:49 pm

  10. I’d be curious about the cost difference both long and short term between a tiny house and a single wide or trailer.

    Is the tiny house cheaper to build, speaking of materials only, than buying a comparable trailer?

    Is the tiny house more efficient? Use less energy to heat, less space for more functions, etc?

    Cheers!

    April 10, 2012 at 2:07 am

  11. Great analysis into this topic Merete, very thought provoking indeed. Constantly asking myself…what makes a house a home? Of course, the answer is probably different for each and everyone. My past has told me that dysfunction can occur just as easily in 2500 sq ft as 250; so why pick 250 then? We each must find our own path to serenity, tiny is just simply another option to choose from. BUT, for those of us currently on that journey, we feel pretty adamantly that the tiny lifestyle gives us a great head start.

    April 17, 2012 at 5:41 pm

  12. I’m so torn on the question: Should i build a tiny house or buy a nice large Class A RV? I love the thought of the tiny house with a build out of a real tiny house with a porch, loft, gables, etc. The thought of maintaining a RV engine freaks me out a little. I’d love a tiny house of around 220sq ft. I can do that easy. I’d like to live in it for at least 2-3 years and in that time save $$ to buy land and build my dream home of around 500-600 sq ft. That would seem palatial to me. I lived in a 410 sq ft loft in Reno with my dog and two cats. We did just fine. I loved my little kitchen and cooked some great meals in it. What do you all think?
    B

    April 27, 2012 at 5:04 am

  13. Wes Drollinger

    Any ideas on how to obtain insurance, in the USA, on a self built tiny house? Thanks, WesD

    July 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    • Hi Wes,

      This is a great question, and a great point in the tiny house vs. RV debate. Because of a recent tiny house fire in the Northwest, Dee Williams and a few others have started a conversation about insurance options for tiny houses. Some people have suggested looking into RV insurance, but I can’t say for sure whether that’s a possibility for a self-built tiny home. Dee has also suggested that the tiny house community start some kind of co-op to insure tiny houses. We don’t personally have insurance on our little house, but are very interested in looking into the various options out there. If you find any information yourself, feel free to let us know!

      Merete

      August 2, 2012 at 12:40 am

  14. chris caruso

    I have to answer this question currently. I want to put me and my family in a rural off grid homestead. Currently I am almost done with full renovation of a 1000 square foot modular. I have been tossing around weather it would be better to move our current home or build a smaller home else where. I was wondering if there are advantages in off grid living in a smaller home. I spent most of my life in home renovation so 1 more build would not kill me if it made more sence than moving my home. Thanks for your info, was a good read

    May 29, 2014 at 6:07 pm

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