If you think you want to build and live in a tiny house on wheels, one good exercise is to ask yourself:
What is my ultimate goal?
What do you hope to achieve by building and living in one?
Can you reach this goal without a tiny house on wheels?
I ask these questions now that we’re living in our house and wonder if we could have done things a different way. Not because I’m driven by regret — and for the record, despite the challenges, I’m glad we’re now in it — but because I think it’s important to make sure you want to build and live in a tiny house for the right reasons. If, for instance, you’re swooning over little houses and want to build your own but have no construction experience — ahem, like me at the start of 2014 — committing to building a house might not be a wise move.
A better idea? Take a woodworking class. Join a tiny house meetup group and participate in a building session. I remember myself saying, early on: I want to learn to build something on my own. But did that have to be my own fucking house? Surely, I could have started slow and built a shelf instead.
In the very beginning, Nick and I were inspired to build something with our own hands. But we realized that we didn’t want to construct the house ourselves, which was hard to admit at first. I’m glad we recognized, early on, that the DIY path was not for us.
Nick and I are travelers. (It’s how we met, in case you didn’t know.) Ultimately, we’re looking for flexibility and freedom in our lives. So why even build and live in this house — the bulkiest, heaviest belonging of all? Why not pack our backpacks and live the nomadic life? Because in these constant inner conversations I have with myself, I always come back to one thing: despite my love for wandering, I still have a deep desire to have and own a home.
While it’s difficult to put into words, recent conversations with my good friend Irene in New York — who is working through her own challenges in home buying and improvement on a larger scale — have helped me to understand what it is I seek in all of this: a physical home, however small, that is mine, that I own outright, and to which I can return; and at the same time, the complete freedom to leave this place, especially for longer periods, to spend time in England — Nick’s home country — and to travel elsewhere.
This tiny house is not our end goal — it’s one piece of a long-term plan. Another way of putting it is we’d like to set up multiple home bases around the world, where “home base” might be shaped in a variety of ways. Two of those bases are where our families are: here in Northern California, and abroad in England. I view our tiny house as our main base, but also a bridge between the two, especially if we park it in a different region of North America.
We embarked on this tiny house experiment to figure out what we really want, and to explore what home means. I’m wondering, though, if we could have avoided some headaches and went in a different direction (while still achieving our longer-term goals).
Some alternative scenarios:
We could have bought a fully fabricated Tumbleweed house.
Our house is a Tumbleweed barn raiser — its trailer, skeleton, and roof are built by Tumbleweed. (Fun fact: that’s our unfinished house in the image on their site.) It’s an Elm with a completely custom interior. In the scheming and planning stage, we weren’t interested in buying a ready-made house — a cookie-cutter tiny home, oh no! — but now, we truly understand the benefits. Tumbleweed is licensed as an RV manufacturer, and a fully constructed Tumbleweed is a licensed RV, and thus can be insured as such. This might also open up more parking options (eg, RV parks).
The RV classification means a lot. But in the planning stage, we decided it wasn’t so important — we wanted to add our custom touches, use different appliances than what the company offered, and learn to build our own solar system, for example. But now, our house’s muddled description makes insurance and DMV registration a challenge.
A lot has changed at Tumbleweed since we bought our barn raiser — they’ve added many more customization options. While the final price tag would likely be more than what we paid for our house, the difference in cost may be worth it — you’re paying for the peace of mind.
We could have built a small home on a permanent foundation.
The “on wheels” part of our “tiny house on wheels” is the source of most of our hurdles. Early on, we looked at plans for small houses (between 300-500 square feet) on permanent foundations, and briefly researched other non-mobile structures like shipping containers.
In the future, I want to live in a “normal” small home! But two years ago, this option didn’t make sense: it wasn’t right for us to look for land (useable, affordable, and manageable land for a pair of city rats like us) on which we’d then build a home. Land in Northern California is not cheap. Combine that price tag with the cost of a custom-built home, and we’d be in a scenario that I’m pretty sure we’re not ready for (yet).
So, yes — we could have skipped the tiny house on wheels and gone this route instead. But parcels of buildable land in Sonoma County seem to start at $250-300K, and shipping containers and studio-sized Blu home units start from $65K to $225K respectively. And so in this scenario, our “experiment” quickly becomes a serious investment, in a location that we’re not sure we want to live in permanently. As long as we live on land that isn’t ours, there will always be a layer of uncertainty. I get that, and we’re slowly getting used to this. But at this stage of my life, the ability to move the house outweighs everything else. For now.
We could have bought an RV instead.
More and more, I understand the appeal of an RV — it’s a relatively easy way to explore the country (I love following the instagrammed adventures of my Automattic colleague, Jason Snow). More importantly, an RV is a recognized vehicle, with actual stores for parts and appliances and people who have concrete answers to your questions.
But in this scenario, I come back to the one thing that’s lacking: a space of my own, rooted in the earth, to which I can return. When we decide we’re done with exploring and put our RV in storage, where do we go? Is that the point were we crash on other people’s couches, or find a long-term Airbnb rental? Is that the point where we’d go abroad for a while?
Buying an RV (or teardrop trailer, some of which I think are adorable) makes the most sense if we’re interested in focusing our travels within North America, but in the long term, we aren’t. Still, Nick and I come back to this thought from time to time, and it’s interesting how in the beginning, I dismissed the idea — admittedly even turned my nose up. And that’s foolish of me.
I could probably think my way through additional scenarios, but it’s not worth dissecting these what-ifs — I mainly wanted to document my current thought process for others who might have similar questions. On one hand, it’s really awesome to be living in a tiny house right now; on the other, it’s frustrating because it’s up to us to pave our own path, given the absence of regulations to guide us.