Reflections on Tiny Houses

Reflections on Tiny Houses
by Brian Tomlinson

1. Tiny Houses and Liberty
2. Big Weather Tiny Home
3. Tiny Houses to Build, Buy or Hire?
4. Recovering the American Dream
5. Big Government, Tiny Home

1. Tiny Houses and Liberty

As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.
– Henry David Thoreau

Are you struggling to stay afloat? Have you always wanted to travel? Are you stuck paying rent? Is your job dreary and draining? Are you waiting to start a family until you can afford it? A tiny house just might be the solution for each of these woes and more.

I began working in the construction trades in 1991 in order to put myself through college. The company I worked for did jobs from modest family homes to high end restorations such as a 100-year-old private university building. This diversity in experience allowed me to see in a very personal way how our homes have changed over the last century.

For the greater part of the 20th century the focus was on making homes “bigger and bigger.” A 1-car garage was no longer enough and by the end of the century 3-car garages were quite common. In fact the average size of a new home in the US is around 2700 square feet, triple the size of our grandparents’ homes. Living rooms went from being 12′ x 12′ to 20′ by 30′. Before I switched my focus to tiny homes, I worked on living rooms for clients that are bigger than the entire homes I design now.

From a liberty perspective given the current political climate and conditions, bigger isn’t better. In fact bigger will likely lead you to ever more difficulties, taxes, regulations, and restrictions. HOAs, zoning laws, and property taxes are artificial restraints currently beyond our control, and are often tied directly into the square footage of your home. It is time for a change. By going smaller you can reduce these impositions and often eliminate them entirely.

Owning a tiny home can also offer freedom in your life in other ways. With a smaller home comes less maintenance, and lower utility costs. In most cases there is no issue of a mortgage and the interest that can more than double the cost of a typical home. Each of these reduces your financial burden of living, freeing you up to follow your dreams and live the life you choose for yourself and your family.

Choosing to buy or build a tiny home may not be the only path to liberty in your lifetime, but for many of us it can be the single most effective step we can take. A mortgage can mean a lifetime of debt, chained to paying a nameless bank for the privilege of a house that is for many merely a status symbol. A tiny home can mean a life free of debt, but full of opportunity.

The mortgage bubble reminded many of us that the goal is not to be the first to have the big house on the corner, but rather who reached the goals that you set for your own life. Tiny homes are not about doing without, but with buying liberty. Isn’t being free to live your life as you see fit, worth more than the cost of a media room or a dining room that only gets used twice a year? Are you ready to pursue your own goals?

2. Big Weather Tiny Home

With Texas, where I live, being beaten black and blue with severe weather, the safety of tiny homes on wheels (THoW) is in the forefront of my thoughts. While weather conditions are always a factor in building and siting any home, those of us who promote tiny homes must face the fact that they are very often more susceptible to damage in severe weather than traditional homes.

Larger homes often provide a better foundation and larger footprint which can help them absorb severe weather better, though obviously not completely as in the case of tornadoes and hurricanes.

Where weather is concerned there are essentially two types of tiny homes: those which are stationary, and those designed to be towed from location to location. In both cases you should use high quality material and fasteners. Often this will mean screws instead of nails.

I also recommend the practice of “glue and screw” as an additional precaution. Wherever you have some element, say siding, screwed down, apply some construction adhesive prior to screwing it so that the two pieces being joined are held fast by both screw and glue.

Once the details of the house are safely secured, you can turn to the challenges unique to each of these approaches to tiny house living.

Stationary tiny homes are typically set on a foundation, whether that is pier and beam, concrete, or one of the alternative forms of foundation. Having a good connection to this foundation can prevent a great deal of the possible damage from high winds and other extreme weather.

This does not mean that you are out of harm’s way entirely. Since these homes do not move you have a greater concern with siting the home. Even in traditional building the first thought of most homeowners with regard to siting is that of views, not of the weather. We all picture that beautiful spring day gazing over the lake, the river, the lush valley, or whatever our place offers. What we should be thinking of as well are those dark days of thunderstorms, flooding, blizzards, hurricanes, high winds, and tornadoes.
The concerns will by and large be identical to that of a conventional home, though perhaps a bit more attention should be given to issues of high wind given the smaller size.

1. Avoid danger zones: Flood zones, avalanche zones, and areas prone to forest fires are threats to any home.
2. Firmly attach the house to the foundation. Too often in the past, homes were assumed to be held to the foundation only by gravity. This is especially dangerous for tiny homes. Always tie in the house to the foundation.
3. Earth sheltering: By letting the earth take the brunt of the violence, you can remain safe and comfortable through the storms. A fully earth-sheltered home can even withstand forest fires and earthquakes.

Tiny Homes on Wheels provide their own unique challenges. Stationary homes don’t work in every situation, and there are many tiny-home folks who simply prefer THoWs. THoW’s tend to sit higher, to account for the trailer that acts as a foundation. Combine that with the narrow width and you have near perfect conditions for tipping over in high wind conditions. Assuming that the same threats to a stationary home have been taken into account, wind will be your greatest threat.

The idea of severe weather need not be a nail biting event where you have to merely hope that everything will be okay. There are options for THoW owners:

1. Move: With just a bit of warning, you can connect your THoW to your vehicle, and simply move it out of the path of the storm. Take a mini vacation by moving to a campground outside of the severe weather or go visit friends for a day.
2. Get into an area protected from the wind. This may mean getting into a forested area, or using the geography to deflect wind around or above you.
3. Tie down your tiny home when you are not moving it. There are many types of tie downs you can get at your local big box store, or online that can mean the difference between a tiny home and a big mess. Tie downs are relatively easy to install and can be removed when it is time to head out again.

When all you own is on wheels behind you, you need not worry about losing everything as long as you have planned your route well. And if you are firmly secured to the earth, there is little left to be concerned about. Whichever approach you take, keep severe weather in mind when you are building your tiny dream home.

3. Tiny Houses to Build, Buy or Hire?

Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.
-Will Rogers

Few of us have a background in the building trades. This can be intimidating when considering the idea of a tiny home. If you don’t know how to swing a hammer, how can you build your own home? The answer is that you may not be able to, but you are able to learn. Even if you don’t want to learn how to build, or you don’t have the time, you have other options. You can buy a completed tiny home, many of which come on wheels making moving it to your own site easy as connecting a trailer hitch. You can also choose to hire someone to build the home for you.

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. We will consider a few of them here.

Build it yourself: By far this will be your least expensive option. As in most construction projects labor is the highest cost of the build.
1. If you can supply your own labor, you can save thousands of dollars.
2. You also have greater freedom to change your mind on details as you are building.
3. Taking on a project like this can attract the attention of friends and family who for the price of a meal and a few drinks can often be convinced to chip in on the fun of the build.
1. If you are not familiar with basic build techniques you will have to learn these and this can mean a few more mistakes than a professional may have.
2. If you do not have the tools necessary for construction, you will have some additional initial expense.
3. The build time may will be longer because of the learning curve both of build methods and use of the tools.

Buy a pre-built: In the last decade several tiny home builders have sprung up to fill the desire for these cute and efficient homes. Chances are there is at least one near you, and online resources abound.
1. Instant Gratification. This is by far the fastest way to move into a tiny home. You can move in the next day after you buy it, or place it on your property.
2.Professional quality finish out. Joints will be tight, and the build professional quality.
3. Fewer decisions to make
1. The initial cost as compared to building it yourself is often far more per square foot.
2. Since you are choosing from stock plans there is a lack of customization, and a lessened sense of personal connection with the home.
3. Fewer options to choose, which in a small home may mean you have to give up some features you may strongly desire.

Hire it built: This approach walks a middle ground between the other two.
1.There is a great deal of customization and choice of materials.
2.Lower cost than the pre-built because the builder is not taking the risk of building on speculation of sale.
3.Often because of the size of the build you can hire a handyman as opposed to a house builder which can also reduce the potential cost of the home. Usually anyone who can build sheds can build your tiny home.
1. Higher cost than owner-built.
2. A somewhat lessened sense of personal connection since you will not have had your hands on every element of the house.
3. The effort of finding a reliable contractor who can build on your schedule.

How much weight each of the pros and cons of each approach will have is up to your individual situation. Just remember that any of the three options will be better than a mortgage on a standard house or rent on a property that is not even your own. This is your personal journey, so take the first step. Whatever method you chose, you will be choosing to embrace financial and personal freedom.

4. Recovering the American Dream

How long would it take to pay down your personal debt if you had neither rent nor mortgage? As a rule, housing accounts for a quarter to half of your income. Imagine being able to rid yourself of all debt, including any housing debt, in the space of a year or a little more. For most folks this seems an unrealistic dream, but it doesn’t need to be.

The decision to buy or build a tiny home can be just the thing to turn around a bad economic situation.

Now more than ever before we need to avoid following the crowd down the spiral of debt, leading to a life time of servitude to a house and a piece of paper, or worse yet keeping up with the Joneses.

In the US, the three major sources of debt are mortgages, student loans, and credit card debt in that order.

U.S. household consumer debt profile:
Average credit card debt: $15,706
Average student loan debt: $32,953
Average mortgage debt: $156,333
Average rent payment : $962.00 [1]
Average mortgage payment: $1,061.00 [2]
Average price of a home: $175,000.00
Average price of a new home: $250,000.00

But what if you didn’t saddle yourself with all that debt from an “average” house?

It is not at all unusual for a tiny home to be built for under $15,000. A home like that would be paid off in about 2 years at the rate of average rent or mortgage, as opposed to the 30 years of a traditional home. And that leaves plenty of room in the budget for upgrades.

You can also buy a tiny home. This is usually more expensive than building it yourself, but it can still drastically reduce your debt. Tiny homes run from $10,000 to $75,000. Even the top end of that range still gives you the opportunity to be out of debt much sooner than buying a conventional mortgaged home.

Despite the mainstream media portrayal of libertarians as fabulously wealthy individuals, such as the Koch brothers, or else wealthy celebrities such as Clint Eastwood, or more recently Vince Vaughn, we know, such examples are not representative.

Most of us live far more modestly than the Kochs or Hollywood stars. So what are we to do to gain freedom in this very unfree world?

The answer is obvious and simple, but not as satisfying as most of us would like. The simple answer is to seek what freedom we can grasp. Our problems are not merely the state, and there is very little we can do to bring about immediate change in the political atmosphere. To attain personal freedom we must first focus on our personal lives. In the personal sphere economic liberty is paramount. As my father always said, “money buys options.”

With the real job numbers still struggling to improve, and with the economy changing away from the opportunities of the post war generation, many of us find that we have less control over our income than our debt. So the first step in getting economic liberty is to get rid of that debt.

With a roof over your head, and debt merely a memory your options for how you want to live increase exponentially. Suddenly your life is very much your own again. Instead of working to pay taxes and debt, you can work to support yourself and experience the life you truly want.

Though our grandparents and great grandparents understood this approach, we have literally bought into the idea that everyone is and should be in debt. It became more important to have the new house, the new car, the new clothes than it did to be able to afford any one of these. Comedian Steve Martin helps drive this point home in a return to Saturday Night Live several years ago. The sketch has a very simple message, but one which is as profound as it is amusing: Don’t spend what you don’t have.

5. Big Government? Tiny Home!

We all want to have less government interference in our lives. What if we could not only reduce the amount the state takes from us, and the amount that the state tells us what to do, and at the same time convince others to do the same? And what if at least some of those others may be contributing to making the state obsolete, even though they may not yet be convinced that anarchy is the way to go?

This approach is the core of agorism, the political belief that by making the state unnecessary, spreading the ideas of liberty, and practicing counter-economics we can change the world for the better. The tiny-house movement is agorist from foundation to shingles.

Denying the lifeblood of the state

➽ A tiny house can help you deprive the government of its lifeblood: money. Property taxes are almost always assessed by square footage. When you have less square footage, you naturally pay less. Since many tiny homes do not even qualify as homes under the current regulations, they can be completely exempt from such taxes.
➽ Being outside of most building codes, building a tiny home can deprive the state of revenue in the form of permit fees and inspectors fees.
➽ The state also gains less sales tax because the smaller homes use far less material to build. This benefit continues into the future as well as these homes are far more economical to clean and maintain.

Working outside the system

The size of a tiny house, and the particular overall nature of the tiny house is often determined by “gaps” in the regulations. Bureaucrats by their very nature only see what is framed by their regulations. For instance a tiny house on wheels (TWoH) does not fall under the building codes of permanent structures. Nor, in many places, do tiny homes built on impermanent foundations.

Tiny homes with a sufficiently small footprint are not legally considered homes at all, which can relieve the builder of many of the onerous inspections and general hassles found in conventional home construction. In fact in Sweden such homes are called “friggeboden“ which means “garden shed.” The building codes and the law are openly flaunted as these “sheds” are commonly used as homes all over Sweden — needless to say not exactly a bastion of philosophical anarchism. If it is happening there, there is no reason why we cannot help it to happen here.

Many people here in the US have built tiny homes in their backyards that look like and qualify as sheds, yet are extra living space whether for guests, kids, or as the classic mother-in-law cottage. It stands to reason that the smaller the home the less attention it will gather from the state. These homes fall into those gaps in the regulations, meaning that the size and nature of the home will most often be exempt from permit fees and property taxes.

Changing minds about liberty

➽ Similar to what Mike Reid stresses in his article on telling the story to sell the idea, when building tiny homes we are selling the idea of personal liberty and even libertarian thought at the same time. The focus is on the house and the life, but the message of liberty is being told as well. We are doing things in a new way, an alternative to the one size fits all statist approach. The person who is living a good, debt-free life, enjoying being able to make her own choices and follow her dreams, is not only less likely to interfere in the lives of others, but moreover will find the intrusions of government even more annoying and obvious.
➽ Tiny homes lend themselves to housing projects for the homeless and those who cannot afford a traditional home. There are several charity groups working to help provide just such opportunities. The fact that we are helping to provide homes to those who cannot afford them, to those who otherwise would be sinking even further down, shows in an undeniable way that liberty-minded folks are also compassionate. Too often we are saddled with the image of selfish money grubbers, because of the arguments for economic freedom. We are told that we are not thinking of “the little guy” when in that we are arguing for conditions that will improve most the lives of the least well off is overlooked or deliberately ignored. Tiny-house projects can show in a very real way that we libertarians have deep passion and compassion. We are creating solutions to the problems that government, helped to create.
➽ Since one person can build a tiny home themselves, there is a real opportunity to create wealth. Many tiny homes are built by individuals who gain the necessary skills while building. They then can continue to build tiny homes for others as a small home-based business. They have also learned the basics of several trades which they can then pursue.

These examples serve to show that we can educate people, help people, and deny at least some of the lifeblood of the state, money, to the government. What more could we ask in the name of agorism?

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