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What Is a Tiny House? A Huge Trend Explained in Simple Terms

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    Tiny cabin; What is a tiny house? (gimages777)

Unless you've been living in a sensory deprivation tank, you're probably familiar with the tiny-house movement invading all corners of the U.S. If nothing else, you may have hit upon one of HGTV's three -- count 'em, three -- ongoing tiny-home series. But wait a minute: What exactly is a tiny house?

Sure, they're cute, but just how small are these diminutive dwellings? How did the whole concept come about, and why is it continuing to explode in popularity?

If you're considering this dramatic downsizing, let's break down some of the basics to see if a small-scale setup is really for you.

Just how tiny is a tiny house?

Typically, tiny homes are between 100 and 400 square feet. While there isn't a set standard, tiny homes rarely exceed 500 square feet. Beyond that size, they're merely, um, small. For reference, the median size of a new single-family home sold in 2015 was 2,520 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Need a visual? You could fit 144 tiny houses on a football field. Yes, we did the math.

How did the tiny-house movement start?

Multiple factors fueled the growth of the miniature-house movement. As thousands of people lost their homes due to unemployment or foreclosure during the 2007 -- 08 financial crisis, many turned to tiny homes as an affordable alternative to traditional housing.

Those looking to shrink their carbon footprint also found these cozy quarters to be energy-efficient, saving them a bundle on utilities. Others, hoping to streamline their lives, were lured by the prospect of shedding most of their belongings and living simply.

While it might have originally seemed like a passing fad, the tiny-home trend is actually growing. While the exact number of tiny homes is unknown, in 2015 alone more than 30 microcommunities -- established or under development -- sprouted up across the U.S., according to Tiny House Community, a website for owners.

How much does a tiny house cost?

Just like regular-size homes, costs vary depending on the materials used and customizations added. And, just like their bigger counterparts, the price spectrum is wide. Tiny homes can cost as little as $15,000 if you're salvaging materials and putting your DIY skills to the test. They can also set buyers back as much as $80,000 to $100,00 depending on how tricked-out you'd like your tiny home to be. Made-to-order tiny homes from Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., the nation's leader in tiny-house construction, average between $57,000 and $70,000 -- still cheaper than the median contract price for a new, contractor-built single-family in 2015, which was $271,300, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Is tiny-house living for you?

Who doesn't want to save money, right? Research from TheTinyLife.com, in partnership with TinyHouseConference.com and TinyHouseCraftsman.com (no, we're not kidding), found that 68% of those who own a tiny home don't have a mortgage, compared with 29% of all homeowners in the United States. But deciding to swap your sprawling home for a significantly smaller abode is big decision you shouldn't enter into lightly.

The idea of reducing your mortgage, utility costs, lawn maintenance, and every other expense associated with owning a larger home is appealing, but there are a few factors that can make moving into a tiny home more challenging:

  • Where will you put it? If you think you're going to build it on a vacant piece of land, check with your local zoning board first. Putting it on wheels and parking it in an RV park is another option.
  • What about utilities? How will you access sewage disposal, water, power, and internet access?
  • How will you manage in the winter when it's too cold to spend time outdoors and your indoor space is limited?
  • Does it really fit your lifestyle? It's tough to host your annual New Year's Eve bash when you can fit only five people in your home.

 

If you're thinking about giving the tiny-home life a try, take it for a test drive first. Businesses across the country are allowing the curious to rent a tiny home for a night. Vacation rental websites also let you see if you're meant to be part of this not-at-all tiny trend.