Cedarshed Ranchhouse 16X14 Shed [RH1614] in Home & Garden,Yard, Garden & Outdoor Living,Garden Structures & Shade | eBay
According to a reality TV show on Netflix called ‘Tiny House Hunters’, tiny homes are all the rage these days. I got about 15 minutes into the first episode, and just couldn’t take it anymore. I just had to share my thoughts. In this show, this New Jersey couple first looks at a few acres with some tool sheds euphemistically called tiny houses. Next, they look at a custom ‘model home’ of a whopping 400 sq ft, which is estimated to cost them in the $100k range. The hardwood floor alone was $20/ft2!
Now I know that reality TV shows are anything but real, but I am sure there are many people who are thinking just like this couple. That is, they believe a 500 ft2 shed will cost in the $100,000 range. Such ignorance is just too much to not comment on, and share some insights.I am not making fun of this couple and if you are like-minded to them or know somebody who is, then this article is for you. My point is, you don’t have to pay anywhere near six figures for a small shed or even a small cottage. The image at the top of this post can be bought complete for less than $6,000, and if you put two together it would equal this 400-500 ft2 tiny home idea. Of course, adding amenities such as a kitchen and bath will add to this cost, but surely no where near the $20,000 the show cited for a couple of cabinets and small appliances which would make up a tiny home’s kitchen.
Here are some simple options for building a tiny home for less than $20,000. That is the upper limit. Many of these options should top out at less than $10,000.
Buy a Mini-Barn or Two
Mini-barns are what we call portable sheds in my part of the country. They can purchased in many lumberyards and there are often local builders as well. These structures are plain jane- nothing fancy. You get a cheap shell and you can finish it out anyway you like. Cost:: less than $20/ft2 for the shell.
Buy a Mobile Home
You can buy a beat up single-wide and completely renovate it – new insides, new roof, porch and regular siding. When you are done, it can look pretty nice. Cost: less than $10/ft2 for the shell.
Build a Small Cottage
If you are handy, you can just build a cottage yourself. If not, then hire a local handyman to do so. Depending on your labor charge, this is probably the cheapest and nicest option. Just remember to keep it simple – skip the dormers, complex roof-line and other such complexities which offer little functionality while driving the price way up. Since you are building a simple cottage, and not a big house, you can skip the architect, engineering and other complex load issues. A simple rectangle with a nice porch with wood siding can look just great.
Each of the interior options in the show were outrageously over priced. Here is how fit out your house (tiny or otherwise) at a minimum cost:
Flooring – you can get excellent flooring for around $1/ft2 with laminate and vinyl. For just under $2/ft2, you can even go with hardwood. You can install any of these yourself, especially laminate and vinyl tile. Hardwood just needs a special air nailer.
Appliances – why pay full retail when you can get perfectly fine used ones on Craigslist. You can often buy appliances only a few years old for as little as 20% of retail price.
Siding – skip the vinyl siding. It is expensive, gets brittle with age, and is generally not a good choice. Far better is to locate a local sawmill and get wood siding cut there. Wood siding has a bad rap because it is often painted and if not repainted regularly, the paint peels and becomes a maintenance nightmare. The solution is to use stain. You can use transparent stain, partially opaque and even fully opaque. The opaque stain even looks like paint but doesn’t peel.Plumbing – you can save big money by doing it yourself. Contrary to popular belief, plumbing is not rocket science. Use Pex for your supply lines (one line for each fixture) and look up the simple rules for drain plumbing on the internet. Not only is drain plumbing not rocket science, but high-priced plumbers often do substandard work that will not happen if you do it yourself.
Electrical – doing your own wiring is even simpler. Hire an electrician to set up the main panel (that is the hard part), and do the finish wiring yourself. It is even simpler than plumbing. Just pick up a book on wiring to learn how.
Kitchen Cabinets – it amazes me how much wealthier folks will pay for plain white cabinets (which are the current fashion) made from particle board. While building cabinets is one of the more complex tasks in home finishing, if you build them in place and buy or make simple doors and drawer fronts, you can save a lot of money and have much higher quality cabinets.Trim – if you price trim and molding in the lumberyard, the prices are outrageous. A much cheaper option is either to buy a table saw and resaw 2x4s for trim, or buy 4/4 thick boards from a local sawmill and run them through a planer. Plain 1x4s look nice as is, or you can run a router bit over them to get something a bit fancier.
If you end up building a custom cottage, there are a couple of options for a simple, low-cost building. One option already mentioned is to build a simple rectangle with a nice front porch. By keeping the house narrow, you can save a lot on expensive structural members.
Another option is to build a hexagon shaped cottage. You can build any size house you want by adding addition hexes just like cells in a honeycomb. Each cell is room sized and just under 200 ft2. Each hex uses simple 2×4 and 2×6 framing and makes full use of cheap OSB sheets. This site offers some great ideas and plans.
Another thought worth mentioning is buying necessary tools. Many of the tasks mentioned such as making trim or kitchen cabinets requires some expensive power tools. In decades past, these tools were a serious investment. Nowadays, the high cost of trade labor and manufactured wood products are way more than greatly reduced costs of these power tools. You can buy a table saw, router table, and planer for less than $1,000 total. A few kitchen cabinets alone will surpass this one time expense, and an added benefit is the usefulness of these tools in the years ahead as well. Buying tools to make something yourself is money well spent. Don’t buy the manufactured product just because you don’t want to invest in a tool.
The biggest impediment to building a tiny home is the ubiquitous zoning laws. In most parts of the country, a dwelling must be a minimum size – usually 1,000 square feet or more. It also must have a septic system. A septic system can cost as much as half of what an entire tiny house costs.
To make matters even worse, frequently local laws are enacted to protect the trades in the name of ‘safety’. They require licensed plumbers, electricians, etc. to perform work that must be inspected anyway. These laws exist for no other reason than to channel business to these trades. Not only are they not required for ‘safety’, but they often provide a cover for shoddy workmanship. Because a ‘licensed’ tradesman did the work, the inspector will skip most of the inspection on the premise that the tradesman knows what he is doing. In reality, the tradesman knows how to cover his mistakes in the cheapest (often very substandard) way possible, and they are not caught by the inspector because he doesn’t inspect them when the trade does the work.
The only solution to these costly regulations is to buy land in states and counties where these laws don’t exist or where there are exemptions. Sometimes in rural areas, land owners having a certain number of acres are ‘farm exempt’. It pays to do your homework and buy in the right locations and the right amount of land in order to avoid these protection rackets.
Regardless of your location and land size, sanitation laws usually require a septic system. If you don’t live on your land full time, you can usually get by with just a composting toilet. Sometimes local laws even allow them as well, but that is rare. If you need a septic for whatever reason, you can save some money by skipping the garbage disposal (its presence requires a much larger drain field) and of course the needs of a tiny house will require only the smallest of systems. Shop around for installers. Often small equipment operators in rural areas can do the job for far less money than a larger outfit.
At the end of the show, the couple came to their senses and erected a cheap shell on their land and began to finish the interior themselves according to some of the principles cited herein. Nevertheless, they could have saved even more money by following more of the ideas I have given.
With the resources available today, there is little reason to hire expensive contractors and tradesman. Outfitting a house with either basic Home Depot stuff or used items can be another big source of savings. It still amazes me that two virtually identical toilets or faucets can come in a huge range of prices. Just buy one step up from the cheapest, and in the long run, you really won’t notice the difference from the top shelf stuff and you’ll come out way ahead.
Go forth and DIY, and contribute your experiences in the comments.
Tiny Houses by Provide Your Own is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.