Americans can fit nicely in tiny homes

| Thomas Urbain 25 Jun 2019

In a country where many people believe bigger is better – think supersize fries, giant cars and 10-gallon hats – more and more Americans are downsizing their living quarters.

Welcome to the world of tiny homes, most of them less than 400 square feet, which savvy buyers are snapping up for their minimalist appeal and much smaller carbon footprints.

The revolution, which includes those on foundations and on wheels, began a few decades ago, but the financial crisis of 2008 and the coming-of-age of millennials gave it a new impetus. The proliferation of home improvement shows on television fueled the trend, inspiring people ready to personalize their own small living spaces.

Cost is one driving factor. A home of just over 200 sq ft with a customized interior can go for about US$50,000 (HK$390,000) – a massive saving over a McMansion in the suburbs.

“We have a housing crisis and we have crumbling buildings around us,” says Brandy Jones. “It’s just hard to find good quality living at an affordable price.”

Eight months ago she, her husband and their two sons moved into a tiny house 100 kilometers near Philadelphia. A new house in the area would have cost the family US$300,000. The tiny-home option “is a huge difference. It makes living affordable.”

In most cases, savings are not enough of a motivating factor. The average newly-built US family home measures about 2,600 sq ft.

Marcus Stoltzfus, director of sales and marketing for Liberation Tiny Homes, says that over the past 40 years, Americans “went into this McMansion phase, where they built those massive homes.” Now, in some parts of the country, “people are realizing that living with less is very advantageous to lifestyle.”

Scott Berrier, who moved into a 370 sq ft home with wife Melissa, says he’s happy not to have as many possessions as before.

“We really like the whole minimalist approach – kind of paring down and not having clutter,” he says. “The biggest difference I notice is that we use every single space.”

Roland Figueredo, who plans to leave his New York apartment in July for a tiny house in Oregon, says he’s ready for a change. “We truly are trying to simplify our life and get rid of crap,” he says.

Even if public opinion is changing, it’s not always easy to go against norms and materialistic expectations. When Berrier told friends of his plans, several warned his new home would make him feel claustrophobic. Wanting to live a more minimalist life extends to the impact of ownership. “You’re not leaving as much of a carbon footprint,” he notes. “You’re not using as much electricity, as much water.”

Despite the advantages, the movement is far from widespread. US estimates put the number of tiny homes at just over 10,000.

A first sticking point is financing – would-be homeowners are finding it impossible to get traditional loans for non-traditional houses. Banks are instead offering medium-term loans of up to seven years – at significantly higher interest rates than regular loans.

But the main obstacle is a legal one: most municipalities and towns ban residents from living year-round in anything on wheels, and often have statutes requiring homes to be at least 900 square feet.

States such as Colorado, Nevada and North Carolina are seen as more progressive on the issue, but the country’s most populated areas have for the most part ignored the movement.

Historically in American culture, bungalows, caravans and mobile homes are seen as badly made and decidedly lower class.

But the Berriers’ home is impeccably decorated with a bathtub, a sunroom and a movie screen. No “trailer trash” here.

“There are preconceived notions,” Berrier says. “It’s just something new. I think that’s the problem.”

A Liberation Tiny Homes unit like the Berriers’ place are “built like a normal house” with the same materials, says Stoltzfus.

For Jones, who lived in a motor home ahead of her move, “a travel trailer compared to a tiny house is night and day.”

And while some non-profit organizations build tiny places for the homeless, the movement is primarily targeted at young couples with the means to spend more than they would on a mobile home.

To vault over legal hurdles, many tiny home buyers set up without permits from local urban planning officials. But others opt for tiny house communities, which are on solid legal footing and are sprouting up all over.


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