Home, squeezed home: Living in 200-square-feet

  • By Emily Wax The Washington Post
  • Wednesday, December 26, 2012 3:30pm
  • LifeReal estate

Step into an alleyway in the Northeast Washington, D.C., neighborhood known as Stronghold, and you will see a vegetable patch, a campfire, a view of the Capitol and a cluster of what neighbors call “those tiny people, building their tiny houses.”

The people aren’t really tiny, but their homes are: 150 to 200 square feet of living space, some with gabled roofs, others with bright cedar walls, compact bathrooms and cozy sleeping lofts that add up to living spaces that are smaller than the walk-in closets in a suburban McMansion.

These affordable homes — which maximize every inch of interior space and look a little like well-constructed playhouses — represent a radically fresh version of what it takes to make Americans happy.

Tiny homes first drew national attention when the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., now based in Santa Rosa, Calif., launched the concept in 2000.

The idea gained visibility when it was featured in several national magazines and, in 2007, became the focus of the Tiny House Blog, established by Kent Griswold, a self-proclaimed “lover of tiny spaces.”

The small homes, some on wheels, don’t warrant many trips to the Container Store.

There are no kitchen islands, three-car garages or living rooms that are never lived in. In fact, their increasing popularity could be seen as a denunciation of conspicuous consumption and a rejection of the idea that more is, well, more.

Although the diminutive homes are made of high-quality materials, they are priced for a flagging economy. They sell for $20,000 to $50,000, less than the down payment on a two-bedroom condo in a trendy neighborhood.

“They’re a statement that no one needs to be trapped in a mortgage they can’t afford in a house that’s too big for them anyway,” said Amy Lynch, a consultant with BridgeWorks, a Minneapolis-based company that studies generational trends.

Lynch says tiny houses signal the end of America’s love affair with enormous homes.

“The baby boomers raised their children,” Lynch said. “Now, they’re looking at all this stuff they have and thinking, ‘What has meaning for me now?’ Plus, these tiny houses are small enough that you can clean — actually clean them!”

From 1950 to 2000, the size of the average American house increased by 230 percent, but home sizes have been declining since 2007, according to “The Small Spaces Trend,” a March 2011 report by the Atlanta-based marketing firm Kleber and Associates.

It’s hard to say how many tiny houses have been built nationally, but Jay Shafer, founder of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., says he sold more than 1,500 sets of plans. Shafer’s self-published “Small House Book” has sold steadily since it came out four years ago. (Shafer sold Tumbleweed in September and started the Four Lights Tiny House Co., headquartered in Graton, Calif.)

During his first five years, Shafer said, he sold 10 sets of plans per year. But tiny houses’ popularity took off after the housing bust and economic downturn in 2008. “Americans still like our stuff big and cheap, so a 100-square-foot house is not for everyone or big families. But people in tiny homes save a ton of money on heating and AC,” Shafer said.

Despite the fact that tiny houses are, well, tiny, affordable-housing advocates are researching the possibility that attractive micro homes could one day complement or replace stigmatized trailer parks and low-income housing.

There are no micro loans for micro houses, because most tiny homes don’t qualify for mortgages. Some banks do commonly offer personal, unsecured lines of credit, and some tiny-home owners get significant lines of credit from places such as Home Depot.

“I like the concept, and I’m intrigued. But it’s so small that it’s only good for a single person or a very-much-in-love couple,” said George Rothman, president of Manna, a nonprofit affordable-housing builder and developer.

“There’s also the issue of land and zoning, and those are huge issues.”

More in Life

How did 300 feathers get stuck in that old utility pole?

Artful adornment in Everett is the creation of a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer.

‘Found’: Author and climber a 20-year veteran of mountain rescue

In her second book, Bree Loewen shares her experiences of volunteering with Seattle Mountain Rescue.

Herb Alpert aims to uplift the world in two recent albums

The Tijuana Brass bandleader releases a Christmas record and an album of covers.

Slick new V6 engine, safety updates boost Nissan Pathfinder

The SUV’s extensive redesign boosts towing capacity and adds driver assistance technology.

Prioritizing permanence and putting down roots

Adapted from a recent online discussion. Dear Carolyn: I’m at a loss… Continue reading

Foo Fighters bounce back with new album ‘Concrete and Gold’

Foo Fighters, “Concrete and Gold”: Can you hate the Foo Fighters? Not… Continue reading

Taking a service dog on the trail

Tenley Lozano hikes with her service dog, Elu. They have section-hiked the… Continue reading

‘Fixer Upper’ couple say they’re ending popular HGTV show

Chip and Joanna Gaines says season beginning in November will be the last one.

How to shop in the street markets of France

It’s the best way to connect with the nation’s farmers and artisans.

Most Read