Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Itty Bitty Homes: Promoting a frugal life style

Alternative housing has been an interest of mine for several years now. I don't know why the subject appeals to me. Maybe it's just a breath of fresh air after constantly seeing row after row of more or less cookie cutter homes in my neighborhood. Or maybe the life style of those who typically dwell in them is so unique and rare.

I wrote an article on eco-frugal homes about a year ago here on the minus sign blues. I really enjoyed researching and writing it. But I neglected something that's a bit less eco-frugal, but not so much to warrant it being barred from a discussion. The Itty-Bitty home. They come in all shapes, sizes and building materials. From ISBU styled homes made of steel shipping containers to more conventional wood and nail creations, just built on a tiny scale.

If you live in an itty bitty home you're the polar opposite of most people. You've thrown off most of the shackles of materialism and embraced a low square footage life style. You don't wind up collecting useless junk simply because of the fact that you just can't. You don't have enough storage space to hold onto your woefully out of date 1976 collection of Encyclopedias or that "antique" kitchen table that's more or less collecting dust in the basement. It's a clean life style. I'm convinced that this is very cool, although I do admit it's fairly hard to imagine myself becoming that type of person.

It's take a fair bit of work to shoe horn myself into this type of life style. But I have to admit that I've changed a lot in the past couple of years. Our credit card debt has taught me that living close to the edge isn't very fun most of the time. But it's also taught me to be a bit more humble as far as my expectations go. That things, while pretty freaking awesome, are not what define a person. And someone's earning power occasionally correlates with the decline of one's morality and self control.

So who knows. Another year and a half in debt might teach me that yes, small and humble (but comfortable) might be the way to go as far as a home goes. I certainly never wanted a McMansion, but I think my requirements for a home have changed substantially.

Itty-Bitty style homes are occasionally portable simply because of the fact that it's quite easy to slap some wheels and a towing hitch on something so light and tiny. But they come in a variety of shapes and sizes from a wide array of builders. They're gaining popularity. Not just among retired snowbirds and nomads, but people looking for permanent residences on their own lots of land. Some of these folk even call the suburbs home year around and just prefer to keep their interests vested in other endeavors.

For example, if you live in an itty-bitty style home you don't have to worry about heating a lot of empty space and disused guest bedrooms in the depths of winter. Or cooling 4,000+ square feet in the middle of summer. You just have to worry about a relatively small space. And since they're typically constructed from specialized builders who have a lot of experience in this small subniche you're going to get the best insulated new construction possible.

Since these homes are typically built with efficiency in mind they usually come equipped with wood pellet stoves, which have also been gaining popularity in the recent months as fuel prices reached record highs (although they've since for the most part dropped with the rest of the market). By no means do they all require wood pellets, though. Propane is another commonly used fuel throughout this niche. While not nearly as popular (or arguably cheaper) propane is a widely availible, relatively clean burnig gas that you can purchase anywhere from Costco to most local gas stations.

And depending on the style of construction you use, small wood burning fireplaces are also quite possible. While I'm not a fan of wood stoves (chopping wood and regularly stoking a fire throughout the night is not my idea of fun), they're by far one of the cheapest methods to heat your home. So long as you own your lot of land, an axe and know how to spot a dead free standing tree you have a ready supply of free fuel.

While burning hardwood may not be terribly environmentally friendly, it's my opinion that it's better than purchasing heating oil (which requires an industrial refining process) or more electricity (which in all likelihood is produced by a coal fire plant). So it's the one of the lesser of necessary evils.

Of course regardless of the fuel used to heat an Itty-Bitty home you're going to use a lot less than any conventional style variety fresh off of the market. If you're a hardcore green oriented person, these are also a perfect match to an alternative energy life style. Depending on your locale and means they're perfectly adapted for solar (passive or direct), wind or hydro. Since they're so small and built efficiently a lot less power is required to keep it lighted. Their footprint takes up so little room you can easily mount solar panels elsewhere on your lot in a sunny, but out of the way location.

As far as space goes many of them are surprisingly roomy given their tiny dimensions. If you purchase plans from a respected firm that specializes in the field of small home construction you'll find that most things in the home serve more than one purpose and are built with their size in mind. By no means is it common to have full dishwasher, sink, restaurant sized fridge, six burner stoves and microwaves large enough to cook a Thanksgiving day turkey but most are built with the average person in mind and as such have ample room for the required appliances needed in every day living. It's common to find full sized refrigerators tucked into surprisingly efficiently locations, or stoves placed in just the right location.

Most also take advantage of vertical space, which is sorely under used in many conventional style homes. Cathedral ceilings may be nice, but are ultimately unnecessary. The average person is no taller than 6 feet, so anything beyond 8 feet is completely wasted space.

Loft bedrooms and second floor living spaces are incredibly popular, as well as folding or collapsing staircases. These all make well use of rising heat, keeping it close to the ground to maximize efficiency. It also keeps clutter away from the main level and promotes a sense of privacy to certain areas of the home, something that newcomers to the style believe is lacking upon initial investigation. Few people like guests sitting on a futon that also happens to be the their master bed.

The vast majority of special built small scale homes certainly come with running water, water heaters and electricity. Although occasionally they may be a bit unconventional compared to what most people are used to on a regular basis. Since space is of the utmost concern small toilets may be used, sinks with built in wall recesses and stand up showers typically replace bath-shower combos. But this also opens up a potential money sink. When your special built wall recessed sink is broken, who are you going to call? Will the average plumber be able to fix such an unorthodox contraption? Or how hard is it going to be to find an especially small toilet if the one the house was built with suddenly stops working properly? Will this special toilet cost more than the average run of the mill one you can find down the street at Lowes or Home Depot?

Although the cost for smaller homes are by far significantly lower than average home prices. Simply because of the fact that less labor is required to construct a smaller space, which also means there are less building materials used. The average home runs about $25,000 to $40,000. Which may sound like a lot, but that's the typical down payment for a more conventional home, which usually run $200,000 to $300,000. With the money saved initially (in loan costs, not counting reduced energy and heating bills) you can afford to purchase an especially nice lot of land to place it on. Or invest the money that you'd otherwise be spending on a $1,500 to $2,500 a month mortgage into a retirement fund.

While I don't believe I don't have it in my to make my first real home something from TumbleWeed or one or their competitors, it's certainly an interesting idea. Perhaps when I'm in a better financial position it'd make for a nice vacation home or something to consider when I'm ready to "upgrade" after building some equity in my first home.

Sources, credit and further reading:


Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of the hitch type. It seems like getting the best of both worlds. A log cabin and a camper!


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