By Jerri L. Cook – Micro homes are becoming more and more popular as people are turning towards a smaller, less complicated lifestyle. Some folks embrace the idea of sustainability early in their childhood. Others come to embrace sustainability only after the rug is yanked out from under them, leaving them face down on the hard floor of reality. For these folks, sustainability, the practice of mindful resource management, is embraced as they struggle to get back on their feet. For these people, when they discover sustainability, they discover a purpose, and a tiny house may be just the answer.
Before the economic collapse of 2008, Randy Jones was riding high on a wave of economic bliss. A successful builder for more than 25 years, he was also the owner of a resort on 450 scenic acres in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. With 80 upscale cabins, he was benefiting from the burgeoning economy. The well-heeled would bring their families for vacation and their colleagues for working weekends. But financial waves, like ocean waves, eventually collapse.
Randy rode the wave all the way to the rocky end. By 2009, he had nothing left but an old pickup truck. Everything else had been lost to the bank. For the better part of three years, he wandered from job to job, barely eking out a living. Then, in 2012 he was driving around town looking for odd jobs, when he found one – micro homes – that would change the trajectory of his life.
He drove by an unkempt salvage yard, where he noticed a dump truck and a forklift that he thought he could use. He didn’t have any money to buy the equipment, but he could work. He traded his labor for the pair, as well as any usable lumber he found lying around. Working alone, it took him days but when he was finished, he had a working dump truck and forklift, and loads of lumber that he wasn’t quite sure what to do with. Initially, the plan was to sell it all and use the case to fund a building project, but that’s when Randy Jones found out about the tiny homes movement, a promising trend promoting sustainable housing and environmental practices through building and occupying of micro homes. Neither he nor the tiny house movement would ever be the same.
MICRO HOMES: ALL AMERICAN TINY HOUSES
During a period spanning the late 18th and early 20th centuries, the average size of a home in the United States was 450 square feet. In the decades following World War II, the average size of a home in the United States grew to a whopping 2,300 square feet. As the square footage grew, so did the cost of buying and maintaining these enormous properties, aptly dubbed McMansions due to their similarities in floor plans and appearance. Up until 2008, the cost of these large homes was covered by a booming economy that everyone seemed to think would continue indefinitely. The American homeowner was in the money. But when the wave collapsed, it left countless families mired in debt and on the brink of homelessness, struggling to find a place to rent. In the wake of the economic collapse, many former homeowners had given up on ever owning a home again in their lifetime, while those who had never owned a home became resigned to the fact that they never would.
But in late 2012, word started to get around on social media about a man named Jay Schafer in California who had designed and lived in a 96 square foot house on wheels. It wasn’t long before Schafer began building micro homes for others. Built on a standard trailer bed, these micro homes were inexpensive, self-contained and moveable. Unlike the tiny homes featured on Tiny House Nation on FYI every week that often exceeded $350,000, the moveable micro homes were affordable, even for those Californians who were kept out of the real estate market because they couldn’t meet the income requirements.
Even though they were reasonably priced by California standards, starting at $57,000 for a 117 sq. ft. home, the cost remained out-of-reach for those who live far outside of the Golden State. Lower income people outside of California might have been permanently priced out of the tiny house movement if Randy Jones hadn’t happened by that messy old salvage yard in 2012.
MICRO HOMES: RANDY GOES SMALL
Randy Jones learned about the tiny house movement that was gaining in popularity on the West Coast shortly after he made the trade with the salvage yard owner for the equipment and lumber. He sold part of the lumber and built a prototype tiny home of his own for around $4,000. He made a reasonable profit when he sold it, and before he knew it, he had made three more. Randy began to see tiny houses as more than just a way to make a living. He soon saw it as a way to make a sustainable living while helping others and the planet.
In 2014 Randy officially went into business again.
“I hired a young guy with a family to help me,” Jones said. “We don’t have any fancy facilities. It’s just a couple of guys out in a field in Tennessee, but I’m able to pay him a wage that he can support his family on.”
His new venture, Incredible Tiny Homes, is the only one of its kind in the United States. Like the first tiny home he made out of the lumber that he bartered for at the salvage yard, all of Randy’s homes are made from re-purposed items, ensuring that no two are the same and keeping the cost of construction under control. Using salvaged barn doors, discarded building materials, and anything else that will enhance his houses, Randy offers a an affordable, self-contained, off-grid tiny house starting at $25,000. Customers can come to Morristown, Tennessee, to pick up their home, or Randy will arrange for delivery at an additional charge.
Of course, if someone wants marble counter tops or custom oak cabinets, the price can go higher. But as Randy points out, the driving forces behind the tiny house movement are economic responsibility and effective personal resource management. “The whole point is to downsize on purpose, not like what happened back in 2008 when it was done for everyone. It’s about creating communities and living sustainably within them.” If you’re looking for luxury over comfortable practicality, off-grid tiny houses are probably not for you. But if you’re looking to learn how to build an energy-efficient home and live more sustainably, then this is the perfect opportunity for you.
Randy’s off-grid homes are being used across the country by people who want the security of owning their own home but who refuse to be saddled with excessive debt. “I built one for one gal—a single mom with two kids—and they’re living off-grid on a tiny parcel in Texas,” says Randy. “I’ve got houses in Chicago, right in the city limits, and in Durham, North Carolina, too. They’re perfect for anyone who is interested in an off the grid home.”
Of course, local zoning laws could operate to keep someone from living in a tiny house, even on their own land. But as Randy points out, “Most municipalities don’t know how to classify tiny houses. They’re not RVs. They’re built like homes. They are homes. Full-time homes. Not recreational vehicles.”
He views this lack of classification as an opportunity to educate state and local officials on the value tiny homes bring to a community.
“We had one community that had an ordinance prohibiting campers and RVs from parking on residential lots,” he said. “But when the board saw our home, they decided to allow it because it was aesthetically pleasing and added to the look and feel of the community.”
MICRO HOMES: TINY HOME, BIG DECISION
Before making the decision to live more sustainably by living small, be sure to consider all the potential issues, even the ones that might weigh against the decision. A good resource for getting started is Tiny House Talk. Maintained by micro homes aficionado Alex Pino, the site has hundreds of articles and resources on tiny house living.
People who have made the switch to tiny homes, regardless of what walk of life they come from, universally offer the same advice—ease into it. Those who have made the successful transition to smaller footage did so over a period of months by getting rid of things they didn’t need and adjusting their lifestyle to accommodate fewer possessions.
Another thing to consider is the limited storage space. Those who grow and preserve their own food using various food preservation methods will need to make separate storage provisions.
Weather can also be an issue when choosing a site for your tiny home. Because of their size, tiny homes on wheels are susceptible to strong winds. Placing one on top of a wind-swept vista is probably not a good idea.
MICRO HOMES: GETTING YOURS
Not everyone can pay for an off-grid tiny house with cash, but those who are fiscally responsible will find that several sources of financing exists to assist them. The tiny house trend has caught the attention of major lenders and their subsidiaries. LightStream, a division of SunTrust Bank, will loan people with good credit ratings up to $100,000 for a small home.
Non-traditional sources of financing also exist to help people buy the tiny home of their dreams. Tiny House Talk offers a free newsletter that allows investors to connect with borrowers. Those seeking financing can apply for up to $25,000 in funds to purchase or build their tiny home. Another source of financing is Tiny House Lending at www.tinyhouselending.com. This site also helps buyers find financing up to $100,000.
Even though tiny homes aren’t for everyone, they offer a path to a sustainable lifestyle by promoting meaningful resource management. Shrugged off as just another California trend a few years ago, the small house movement promises to open paths to self-sufficiency for millions of people who would otherwise be trapped on the jagged rocks of financial ruin, held there by wave after wave of poor fiscal policies that they cannot control.
Originally published in Countryside July / August 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.