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Why Tiny Houses Are a Big Deal

By:  Anna Raddatz May 12, 2014
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Alek Lisefski, 31, lives in a tiny home. With an 8' by 20’ footprint and a built-in loft, it offers about 240 square feet of living space.

That’s slightly larger than the average dining room in a new American house.

Into this diminutive space, he has wedged all of the basic amenities: a kitchen with a refrigerator, stove and oven; a living room with a couch and desk space; a fully functional bathroom with a heated shower; and a bedroom with a queen-sized bed and closet space. There's even a washer/dryer.

But Lisefski doesn’t live here alone. He shares the space with his girlfriend, Anjali Krystofiak, 25, and their dog. Lisefski says that getting used to the size of the space, which they moved into about five months ago, was actually pretty easy. But challenges have included scheduling alone time, since both sometimes work from home, and practicing yoga.

“It’s possible, if we fold down the table and the dog isn’t in the way,” says Lisefski.

This couple is part of a movement toward simplification, location independence and financial freedom, all of which are symbolized and expressed through tiny houses—homes, either on wheels or on foundations, that are only a few hundred square feet in size. This is a trend that, while still relatively small, has grown dramatically in recent years.

Kent Griswold started his Tiny House Blog in 2007, and initially only got a few visitors and submissions. Today, his site receives 10,000 to 15,000 hits each day. He says one of the main catalysts for the increased interest was the recent economic downturn.

“With so many people losing their homes,” Griswold says, “people wanted to get back in control of their finances, to be in control of something smaller that they could pay for over a shorter term.”

Even first time home-owners are seeing tiny houses as an alternative to the traditional “American dream.” Presented with high rents in most major cities, many young people are looking for options that are more affordable and flexible. Lisefski and Krystofiak previously rented in southern California and Boulder, Colorado. “We were sick of renting and wanted to buy a house,” says Lisefski, “but you almost have to be wealthy to own a house in places like that.” The pair also weren’t sure where they wanted to settle down, so when they came upon tiny houses, it seemed like a solution to several problems.

building tiny houses

Alex Lisefski built his tiny house in seven months. His plans are for sale on his website.

Lisefski spent seven months and $30,000 to build his miniature house on a heavy-duty trailer. Today, the little abode is parked in a lot outside Sebastopol, Calif. The couple pays a small fee to the property owner to cover utility costs, and barters for the rest by helping out with yard work.

Lisefski, who is a web designer and had never done any type of construction work previously, found the learning process to be extremely valuable. “Just a few generations ago, people built their own homes,” he says. “Now it’s something we think only professionals can do. It’s important for people to know it’s possible.” To that end, Lisefski offers the plans he developed for sale on his website.

However, not everyone who wants a tiny home actually endeavors to build one themselves. As a result, some tiny house manufacturers have cropped up. Tumbleweed Tiny House Company offers both options. In addition to books, workshops and plans for DIY-ers, the business also sells several ready-made tiny home models with optional financing to cover the price of $57,000 to $66,000. There are even plans with sleeping areas on the main floor, instead of in a loft accessible only by ladder—great for retirees who have downsized.

Tumbleweed’s president, Steve Weissman, says that the ready-made option is attractive to people who have demanding jobs and don’t have the time to build their own home; or for folks who saved or inherited a chunk of money, which could either be put toward a down payment on a traditional home, or could buy a tiny house outright.

Tammy Strobel, 35, and her husband, Logan Smith, 36, fit this profile. A few years ago, in an effort to simplify their lifestyle, the couple hired Portland Alternative Dwellings to design and build their 128-square-foot house. The total cost was $33,000, which Strobel and Logan saved for and then paid in cash. Strobel says they decided not to DIY because they “didn’t have the skills or the time to build a house that would be safe or beautiful.”

The couple has lived in the home, which is currently parked on Smith’s parents’ cattle ranch outside Yreka, Calif., for two and a half years. Strobel—who blogs about her tiny house experience at RowdyKittens.com—says she loves how cozy her home is. She also enjoys the fact that a deep clean of the whole place takes only 20 minutes.

But Strobel acknowledges that paring down to a such a petite space is a pretty extreme choice, and it’s not the only way to find simplicity in life.

“Simplifying looks different for everyone,” she says. “If you want to live simply, you don’t have to live in a tiny house. But if that’s your dream, go for it.”