My tiny house reality: When the downsized life is the only life you can afford

Tiny House

(Credit: Liliana Ballen via Shutterstock)

If you go to Amazon and click the Crafts, Hobbies & Home category of books, you’ll notice two trends: 1) decluttering and 2) tiny-house living. The latter may have been jump-started by ‘Tiny House, Big Living’ on HGTV, but it is now a craze — a movement of people downsizing to live in homes no bigger than a child’s tree house. Within this crusade, there are smaller spin-off TV shows, endless self-help resources and even builders who have given up traditional home building to focus on minimalistic construction.

I’m familiar with the trend. A year ago, we bought a 900-square-foot ranch-style home on a slab. It’s one level, void of a second floor, attic, or basement. The Tiny Life blog states, “The typical American home is around 2,600 square feet, whereas the typical small or tiny house is between 100 and 400 square feet.” On the surface, our home is not “tiny” by strict definition. But let’s break it down.

Approximately 250 square feet of the home is a sun room that was added on before the house went up for sale. Our bathroom is the size of a closet. If you’re even slightly overweight, you can barely fit on the toilet, which is crammed between two walls. Only one person can access the fridge, stove, sink and cabinets at any given time, or it becomes a wrestling match. There are RV kitchens bigger than ours. Closet space? Hardly. We store our seasonal clothes, Christmas decor and other items we do not use on a regular basis in several outbuildings — sheds, really. I cross my fingers every day that rodents do not discover our polaroid pictures, drawings from high school, a thousand small mementos I’ve saved in memory of the five children I brought into this world — even a tattered Mickey Mouse doll given to me by my brother in 1975. None of it is worth much in terms of dollars, but these keepsakes are irreplaceable in my heart, and they’re only one burrowed hole away from being ravaged.

Some would say we have it made; we’ve been able to downsize. I beg to differ. Within this small space there are five of us: me, my husband, one teen and two children under the age of 5. Add in a 120-pound dog, two cats and a parrot. Things are tight.

The house was a one-bedroom when we bought it, so we’ve had to get creative. We gave our teen the master bedroom and converted the sun room to our bedroom. The little kids are each in two smaller rooms which can hold a kid’s bed and bureau and not much more. There’s not enough room for all of their toys, so they spill over to the pantry, closets and a corner of our bedroom.

Every inch is utilized. Even the micro-sized hot water tank is stuffed into a small bedroom closet. It provides only enough hot water for a six-minute shower, and takes more than half an hour to regenerate. Someone always bathes in cold water, and that someone is usually me. I take one for the team every other day of the week.

From a financial perspective, I understand why people choose to downsize and opt for less square footage. I once owned a home that was 3,600 square feet and it was overwhelming. Cleaning took days, utilities cost a fortune, and many of the rooms sat empty. What good is a vacant room? It’s the equivalent of throwing money out the window.

But don’t be fooled. A larger home doesn’t always mean a more expensive home. I bought that 19th-century Victorian revival for $37,500 through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. In short — a HUD home. I didn’t qualify for a mortgage, so I used my savings and paid cash to buy the property. I drained the ceramic pig and every day thereafter I wished I had waited just a little longer for some other house to come onto the market. Smaller, with less upkeep perhaps? (Definitely not a tiny home. Let’s not go crazy.)

I’ve watched several episodes of “Tiny House, Big Living,” and I’ve also caught the TV show where people opt to live in opulent tree houses. A smaller home doesn’t always mean a less expensive home, obviously. Fancy architectural designs. Exquisite lighting. Imported décor. When did a movement that rallies around anti-consumerism and sustainability become so posh? So upscale and high-end? Scaling back is being exploited to encourage consuming more. It’s trending, among those who can consciously choose to be part of this movement. And for me, that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

I’ve never been an overly indulgent person, which I attribute to my upbringing. I grew up in a farmhouse built in the 1800s and moved by oxen in 1903 to a parcel of land my grandmother and grandfather owned. It provided 2,000 square feet of country living absent of luxury appliances, a stand-up shower and cable TV. We were far from poor, but we were not exactly vacationing at luxury resorts either. We lived within our means, a common declaration of anti-consumerism of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

I had friends, however, who were not so fortunate. Back then, a tiny home was typically the domain of a low-income household or a family forced into smaller living quarters like trailers in order to make ends meet. “Whimsical” did not describe the boxed-up conditions in which they lived.

How many people who are now part of the tiny house movement have ever lived in a tiny place not by choice? Not because it’s fun or trendy, but out of necessity? My choices of where and how I live have always been driven by economics. But if I had to choose, tiny home living is not a choice I would make again. Not willingly. With a family of five, I would’ve preferred a house between 1,500 and 1,800 square feet — roomy, yet manageable. I’d love for the kids to have some freedom. They spend more time at the dining room table and on the living room floor than they do anywhere else in the house. I’m also a small business owner and freelance writer. It would be nice to have an office. Four glass patio doors separate the sun room (our bedroom) from the living room, and the room is enclosed in bare walls, no insulation. We’re not voyeurs, for heaven’s sake, and we do live in Maine. Winters are cold. I’d love a real place to sleep — and stuff.

Many Americans are in the same boat. They’re not choosing minimalism. They’re forced to downsize for economic reasons. According to The Small House Society, for those who choose tiny home living, “it’s not a movement about people claiming to be ‘tinier than thou’ but rather people making their own choices toward simpler and smaller living however they feel best fits their life.” We didn’t have that choice. I lost my job and our household income dwindled. We settled out of necessity and because of financial constraints, not because we are advocates of a cool movement or wanted to live with less.

The median existing single-family home price was $241,000 in May, for a dwelling of approximately 2,100 square feet. Our home-buying budget was $100,000, which doesn’t buy much in the United States — especially in the Northeast. So we had two options: buy a larger home in need of a ton of work or pick a small home in decent shape. We didn’t have an extra dollar for renovations, so we went with small over fixer-upper.

In the year we’ve been here, we’ve learned the meaning of sacrifice and have mastered the art of using our inside voices — because a decibel too loud and all your secrets and sounds become shared experiences. While we’re not technically part of the tiny-house movement, we are still living a tiny home lifestyle. It may not be a long-term settlement, but I’ve come to accept the smallness of our surroundings. After all, a home is what and where you make it.

But, next time, I’d like to choose.

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