The Tiny House Dilemma

This is one article (2 of 3) on choosing the right type of house. Specifically, we are looking at the trade-offs between efficiency, sustainability, and practicality (excluding affordability) when choosing a home.

What size house do you buy when you can afford almost any size? Is there a perfect home? Or do they all come with trade-offs? Most people work backwards when it comes to buying a house. They begin with a budget and see how nice/big/small/well-located of a house they can afford and choose the best option. But what happens when you have a nice income, an efficient spending plan, and live in an area where housing is extremely affordable relative to your other costs? We have already explored how many square feet it takes to be happy, but next we’ll look at the cost and benefits of tiny and huge houses.

elm-photo-slide-003_e9a51ac4-7f09-457f-9982-44fca367b51d_grandeWhen you take money out of the housing equation it brings about deeper fundamental issues. It forces us to ask, what is enough and what will actually make us happy? Do we need a large house? Is living in a small house actually desirable? Why not simply settle for something in the middle? The notion of Tiny House Living has been popularized over the last few years by minimalist authors, bloggers, financial personalities and television shows. But is a tiny house realistic when affordability is not an issue? What are the challenges of living small? And benefits as well?

Conceptually, I really enjoy the idea of having only what we need. It was quite refreshing to move into a relatively small place to force the paring down of essentials right after we got married. In fact, we have lived in a lot of different types and sizes of homes throughout the years. Living in inexpensive housing areas, we’ve lived in homes/condos ranging from 190 to 4500 square feet, and certainly interact with individuals on a weekly basis with homes within that range. But how do we decide what is right for us? Especially when our lives are constantly changing. While we enjoy watching shows and documentaries about tiny houses, for the purpose of discussion, tiny houses will be 200-850 square foot, single family homes. Our most recent move was from a 390 square foot studio to a 850 square foot single family home. With a family of four, we live comfortably but have certainly considered larger homes (but also much smaller condos overseas as well). Tiny might be a simple 1,200 sf single family ranch, a 700 sf condo, or even a basic 14 x 14 single room. You make your own definition, but we’ll spend some time thinking through the benefits and challenges of tiny and huge house living. By looking at the extremes, we can actually put greater context around the issues faced when deciding what type of dwelling to inhabit.

The Enjoyment

The Family is Together – Now, this may be a positive or a negative depending on how well you get along with your immediate family, but for us, it is a tremendous positive. While at home, our entire family spends about 98% of our time in our living room/kitchen (they are open to each other). If we are not outside, we almost exclusively inhabit this main area. I only contrast this to larger homes with basements, playrooms, auxiliary bedrooms or any other specific areas where family spends time apart. One of my fears in moving into a large home is that our family will eventually spend a lot less time interacting.

It’s Simple – Time is still the single commodity that is shared by all humans. Tiny houses are much less time consuming. Cleaning, maintenance, yards, and home projects are typically much narrower in scope. Vacuuming our house takes less than a minute and painting the entire exterior can be done in a summer afternoon. There is little waste and every room (and closet) in the house is used daily. It simply feels efficient.

Forces Conscientiousness – Most consumers don’t really like to think. We often tend to accumulate over time and most of our decisions happen by default. Our general tendency is to look around and observe our closest friends and acquaintances to evaluate where we want to belong. Having a small home forces us to constantly evaluate what is important. We are forced to make minor decisions, and it leaves little room for Justin Case. I like to have systems in place that keep me mindful.

A small home doesn’t mean it’s not nice. In fact, it may be easier to make it nice because there is simply less distraction and more focus. Small homes also limit our commitments. We don’t really have the capacity to host the 100 person event, have our 10th cousin move in, or store junk for others (or ourselves). Lastly, having a small home helps us maintain reasonable expectations and slow our pace on the hedonic treadmill.

The Challenges Faced

Hosting – Hosting large groups can be anxiety inducing if your guests are unaccustomed to small spaces. Cheap housing areas lead to funny expectations about personal space, personal bedrooms, and uni-tasking home spaces. In cheap housing (or suburban housing) environments, many children (and the children of friends) may not understand how to operate in a smaller or urban space. However, I’m not sure the stress of hosting actually changes- it may be the case that expectations of others grow right along with the space available.

Incremental Convenience– Although having a small home may make certain tasks simpler (cleaning, decorating, updating), larger homes provide a little more space, personalization and specialization. Having extra space for specific tasks (working out, office, playroom) allows one to tailor areas for the exact need. While not necessarily efficient, having extra room can provide added incremental convenience in many circumstances.

Children – Our kids are pretty awesome. But they can also be pretty loud. They tend to sleep well but I’m sure many urbanites can attest to the challenges faced with the young ones (especially infants) sharing spaces. I expect that our children will share rooms for most of their life so they will learn to accept the notion of shared space. However, crying infants or individuals with different sleep schedules can make it a bit more challenging in common space.

While I certainly do not consider our family homebodies, I’m learning to enjoy more of our time at the house. Before children, almost all of our entertainment happened outside our home, but since the kiddos arrived most of my days are enjoyed with the little ones inside. I don’t need to go a lot of places because the kids are a pretty strong form of entertainment (and attention). Tiny homes definitely encourage time outside the home which is both a blessing and a challenge.

The Dilemma
So, for us, the tiny house is a bit of a dilemma. I enjoy the efficiency of fully utilized space and the prospect of simplicity that small homes provide. I like the time it saves in mental attention and the scope of home projects. But the caveats make it tough to fully enjoy, especially in the company of friends and family who are not accustom to the concept. So, will we live in a tiny house? Probably not. At least, not in our current stage of life. However, I’ll be curious to see how that mentality changes and if there comes a point where we move cities or need to include financial concerns into the equation. Our realities might look a little differently at that point. So, I’m sure I could enjoy a tiny house, but we’ll probably end up in something a little larger than tiny. And, I’m learning more and more that our housing doesn’t define who we are.

3 thoughts on “The Tiny House Dilemma

  1. In general I think people buy houses that are too big for them if they “can afford it”.

    Our house is under 1000 sq ft and it plenty big enough for the two of us. Maybe I’ll need to get back to you when there are a few more of the clan though 😉

    We could have afforded a (slighly) bigger house but it just seemed silly as 1000sq ft is already loads of room for 2 adults!

    Good luck with your search

  2. I live alone and I have no plans on getting them babies out yet, so living in a small place is a very pleasant experience for me. Like you, I also enjoy having just what I need. I control what goes in and out of my house now, unlike before where I just place thing inside without thinking, “Where would this be a good fit?”. I really had a problem of just buying stuff and hoarding it in my house even though I don’t think I’ll need it for a long time. But I’m no hoarder though, that’s just too scary. I really had to discipline myself and became more responsible with my choices.

  3. In my opinion, i think living in a small house is only for single person or newly wed couple. When the family grows, i think its more practical to live in a regular sized home where kids can run around the house during rainy and winter season. I also like small houses because of its practicality and simplicity, but as i have said its not practical all the time.