Doug Immel recently completed his custom-built dream home, sparing no expense on details like cherry-wood floors, cathedral ceilings and stained-glass windows – in just 164 square feet of living space including a loft (15.24 square metres).
The 57-year-old schoolteacher’s tiny house near Providence, Rhode Island, cost US$28,000 – a seventh of the median price of single-family residences in his state.
“I wanted to have an edge against career vagaries,” said Immel, a former real estate appraiser. A dwelling with minimal financial burden “gives you a little attitude.” He invests the money he would have spent on a mortgage and related costs in a mutual fund, halving his retirement horizon to 10 years and maybe even as soon as three. “I am infinitely happier.”
Dramatic downsizing is gaining interest among Americans, gauging by increased sales of plans and ready-made homes and growing audiences for websites related to the niche. A+E Networks has begun airing Tiny House Nation a series on FYI that “celebrates the exploding movement.”
The pared-down lifestyle allows people to minimise expenses and gain economic freedom, said architect Jay Shafer in Cotati, California, who founded two micro building and design companies and is widely credited with popularising the trend.
Despite gains in the labour and housing markets, Americans choosing mini houses remain wary of tethering themselves to a mortgage.
People want “a more modest lifestyle now,” said Derek Diedricksen, who travels nationally to lead building workshops. Those who opt for super-small structures don’t want to “waste their time or be a slave to a house they don’t fully use.”
Defined as 500 or fewer square feet (46 square metres), tiny houses range from primitive 9-square-metre huts to award-winning displays of sustainable architecture with elegant streamlined design. While many are built on wheels to avoid regulations, mobility isn’t the main draw.
Aldo Lavaggi, 36, can support himself as a folk musician in New York’s Hudson Valley thanks to the 105-square foot (9.75 square-metre) home he built on a friend’s farmland in the Berkshires and has lived in since August 2012.
“There’s a fallacy of limited options,” he said, arguing that people don’t need stellar credit, thick wallets or even a full-time job to own a house. His residence runs on a car battery and energy from two solar panels. He pockets enough cash to splurge on artisanal bread and gourmet cheeses from the local market. “I’m earning more than I spend,” he said.
Even with the micro-trend, the number of tiny houses in the United States is, well, tiny – just in the thousands per unofficial industry surveys. Their popularity is growing, however, as the U.S. homeownership rate has fallen to 64.8 per cent, the lowest in almost 20 years, and the median size of new single-family houses is the biggest ever – 2,384 square feet in 2013 (221.5 square metres), a 3.4 per cent increase from 2012.