Tiny House, Tiny Living, The Tiny Life.

The Fallacy Of A Cheap Tiny House

So over the years I have seen many people touting their tiny house as only being a few thousand dollars to build and many crying out in protest over how much some Tiny Houses cost.   While I do think there are many ways to save quite a bit of money during the building process, the fact is Tiny Houses cost money and a good bit of it.

Even though Tiny Houses pale in comparison to the cost of traditional homes, the price tag of a tumbleweed style house or similar often leaves people wondering how they can cost so much.  So I thought I’d break down some key factors that those who claim their house is only a few grand often neglect to mention.

 

istockphoto_5212090_time_is_moneyYour Time:

One of the biggest places that people often don’t assign costs to is time spent on your house; Particularly if you time spent on building your house takes the place of working a normal job.   The fact is that many people don’t have the money to build a tiny house all at once, but they do have time.  So they build it themselves and many spend time sourcing reclaimed materials.  While there absolutely nothing wrong with this, I am taking this approach, you simply cannot say that your time is free.  You have value, your time is valuable, and you are giving it up to build/source in the place of something else.

When it comes to finding reclaimed materials, dumpster diving, checking craigslist every day to find all or some of the materials you need, it takes a huge amount of time.   For those of you who haven’t tried to source materials for an entire house, it can be very hard to understand how much time.  If I were to estimate a figure, I would guess you spend twice the hours spent on building.  Additionally, the ones that do reclaim their materials often have pre-existing social connections that facilitate this that the majority of us simply don’t have.

 

Their Time:

I get a lot of people asking me how to get a tiny house built for them and for many, this is how they want to get to their dream of living in a Tiny House.  For many they don’t have the skills to build a house (though I firmly believe almost anyone can learn)or they have the time to do it.  The fact is that regardless of it being a Tiny House or a McMansion, labor costs to build a home can be anywhere between 40% – 60%.

Now there are some that criticize tiny house builders of charging $50,000 when it costs $25,000 in materials, as building in huge profit margins.  The fact is, if you sit down and really crunch the numbers for what it takes to hire workers, insurance, rent a build site, tools, utilities, and a million other things, I’m surprised that they can eek out a modest living; in fact I don’t know for sure that anyone has been able to have it as their sole job.  Even Jay Schaffer had to expand into books, classes and plans when he first started.

 

Consumables:

15839812-a-close-up-of-a-screw-in-woodSo I am going to cry foul on many people who claim they made their home for only $3-5,000 because at this point in building my Tiny House (only about 1/3 of the way built) I have spent almost $900 on nails, screws, bolts, glue, fasteners, brackets, etc.   There is no way you can get around buying these things because you can’t really reuse nails, screws or glue.  As for brackets and bolts for tie downs, you might be able to reclaim them, but in most examples (not all) I have seen, people simply were cutting corners and not adequately anchoring their houses to the trailers.

Tools:

For many of us, we have a basic set of tools, but it is a far cry from what you need to build a house.  Often the people who claim to build houses for a few thousand already have the tools they need, which isn’t representative of the vast majority of people.  Even if you have the tools, to be honest, you should amortize the cost of the tools.

Over the past two year I have been purchasing tools where I could get them for real bargains or used and so far I have spent around $1,900.  If you are going to be doing your own welding and metal cutting you will need the equipment which would add another $400-$800.

 

Trailer:

trailerI have seen several cases of where a used trailer worked out and just as many that didn’t.  I often hear people say “I got my trailer for free” but if you do a bit of digging many will fess up that they then had to reinforce it, get a new coat of paint, and a surprising number had to replace the axles and get new tires/wheels.  So about half the people I see going the used trailer route do pretty well, the other half seem to spend just as much as a new trailer.

My other real big hesitation with used trailers and those that strip on from an old RV/camper is they often look very flimsy.  People swear that they are rated at 5,000, 7,000, 10,000 lbs but you take one look and see 2-3 inch channel outriggers.  Compare that to the trailer I am using, mine is made from one of the largest trailer manufacturers in the US and is built from 5″ channel, half of which is double hung (two pieces stacked) and my cross members look larger than some of the main supports on some of these trailers.

 

Appliances:

Again many of the houses for pennies often neglect to factor in the cost of appliance or have really basic setups.   Many, but not all, of these houses often have basic kitchens that consist of a container of water and camp stop on top of a counter.  To compare that to a tumbleweed style kitchen that has a working sink, hot water tank, built in stove with concealed gas lines isn’t to say that one is better than the other, but it really is an apples vs. oranges comparison.

Another thing that many of the budget houses don’t have is heating and cooling systems.  They often later add a space heater and/or a window air conditioner, while tumbleweed houses include systems that do this.  My house has a built in mini split system that cost around $1400, while if you when the budget route you might be able to get away with a solution for $200-$300.

 

Build Site:

There are many of us who don’t have a location to build our home for free.  There have been many tiny houses built in rented space or land that they are paying for.  Sometimes that location doesn’t have power, so you need to either get a power hook up (expensive) or a generator that uses gas.

 

While I do think there are areas that you can get some great savings on, I really could go on for a while about the fallacy of a Tiny House for only a few thousand dollars, but I think I made my point.  If I do the math on the topics I covered here you are looking at around $4,500 minimum plus whatever your time is valued at.  For your time figure around 1000 hours if you buy the materials, 3000 hours if you reclaim most of it.


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111 Comments
  1. Great read. This is the kind of info I was looking for. I knew this had to be the case for most who say their homes were built inexpensively, but you congealed all the answers for me into one article. Even if I had the time, tools, etc, to get a really high quality tiny, built to the same standards as quality stick built home, going with a good builder will be my choice.

  2. what I want to know is where do these people get free land to put the trailer on.
    as far as I know land isn’t free
    if I had land I would move out of the city and live in a tent
    then if I had the wood I would build a log cabin that’s cheaper

    • Emilie,

      In my research, I’ve found that people recommend finding someone who has a lot of land, a farm, a small farm, someone who would “rent” you a spot. I’ve read somewhere that sometimes people pay “as little as $100/month or exchange services”. I don’t know where you are, but I live in an area where people have plots of land (there’s “country” out here in NC). If you’re in a more urban area maybe there is a RV park or even a tiny house village starting up. If you’re a pro-active type of a person (which i will make a huge generalization – i think most people interested in building their own tiny house are pro-active) you might be able to start up a group somehow. I have no idea about how to do that so i’ll stop commenting. good luck!

    • A tiny house can be cheap. The only thing that really costs is the land. I ended up buying a piece of land. I do have to pay the bank every month for my land but it represents 1/3 of the price I would have to pay for renting a studio. I then built a tiny house, using recycled and NOS materials. I may not be the typical tiny house builder since I already had all the tools and skills. I also have plenty of contacts to get cheap, refurbished materials. I also can mill my own lumber. Thing is, I build the house for 1600 usd (not on a trailer) and now only pay for the land. Being off-grid, I also save on electricity and water and have enough land to grow my firewood and a few vegetables.
      A cheap house doesn’t necessarily have to be a fallacy.

      • A good way to get free things is to attend auctions. I buy lots from companies closing down. I keep what I need and sell the rest to pay for the lot. Last month, I bought camper accessories. Sold all I didn’t need and kept a new fridge and 500 amp of solar panel batteries. Even earned some money since I sold for more than I had payed the lot.

      • Yep !!!

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  4. A BIG BEEF I have with MOST of the Tiny Houses I see is that they LACK ENOUGH INSULATION!!!

    Even if the house is well-built, almost none of them surpass R-13 in the walls, FLOORS or ROOF!!! In fact, the vast majority I have seen have NO insulation at all! Therefore, as a REAL HOUSE, that is lived in on a permanent basis, most Tiny Houses are ENERGY HOGS!

    Another factor is the extreme INFLATION of building materials over the past few years. Here in NY, in 2009-2010 an 8 ft. 2×4 cost $1.13 each; in 2014 they cost over $2.50 EACH. Also, in 2010 a package of R-13 insulation batts cost only $20, but in 2014 they cost a whopping $50! So, a house built in 2014 using new 2×4’s and insulation would cost MORE THAN TWICE the same house built back in 2009!

  5. When we built our first Tiny Home “The Wanderer” I wanted to make sure that it was very well insulated And sealed. I used 5/8 sheathing along with house wrap on the exterior. For the interior walls I used R13 craft face insulation and also spray foam for all the small crevices. I used R19 for the ceiling along with a roof ridge vent and 1″ soffits on both sides of the house. I used 8mil plastic over all the insulation and then used 1/4″ MDF for the walls. It gives the smooth look of drywall without all the added weight. It sealed the house up wonderfuLly!

    I do agree that it isnt as cheap as many make it sound. Im selling our first model 15′ long × 8′ wide ×13.5′ tall for just under 30k. Quality building materials are not cheap. Sure you can piece meal a tiny house together out of reclamated, donated and scavanged pieces but how quality will the end product truly be? Check mine out on Facebook at High Plains Tiny Homes!!

    • Sorry for the typo. My first model is The Weekender

  6. I built an 8’x12′ tiny house in my back yard for $1,000. It’s on the ground, on patio blocks. It can be seen at jackgoldman1 on youtube. I used oriented strand board, and rolled roofing for roof. I heat this with a 1500 watt electric heater in Minnesota. This takes a zero degree outside temp to 50 degrees Fahrenheit inside. One 15 amp circuit provides heat. An Air conditioning Unit is $100 at Sam’s club if desired, but not needed in MN. An electric hot plate was $15. It’s not fancy or attractive but it can be lived in cheap. I built it my self when I was sixty years old with no other help from anyone. It’s not that hard to do.

    • A tiny house is indeed cheap, but it depends on what we’re talking about. We built tiny houses, not the fancy RVs some are talking about here! Like me, you forgot to count the cost of the time spent building the house. Thing is, I am actually spending time on this internet site: should I really calculate the cost of this time wasted on internet?… If you like building a tiny house, your time is hobby time. Many hobbies cost much more per hour…

      • Couldnt have said it better myself!

        I find it funny that tons of people have something to say about why others shouldn`t live in a Tinyhome, and yet I have never heard someone in a Tinyhome say you shouldnt live in a normal sized house.

        If you don`t like Tinyhouses…Don`t move in. 😉

  7. I like to think my 85 sq ft tinyhome, here in Alaska, is one of the cheaper designs based on is simplicity. But agree with you completely, my house so far [not finished, although we do live in it] has cost us $11,300, and probably wont be completely done until we reach the $20,000 mark, maybe even 25k.

    • Glad to see folks still talking about this. Fact is Tiny houses built right by professionals are going to be more expensive.

      As Tiny homes become more legal and accepted they will need to be built right so they can get certified for living in Tiny house villages and other more urban living situations.

      Even if you build it yourself there are expenses you can’t predict. Also are you really saving money if it takes a long time or you have to wait until you find all the reclaimed materials you need/want? The sooner you get into your TH the sooner you can maximize the savings of living in one. Ultimately that’s why I bought my TH used. Built by pros, with all the bells and whistles installed and under 30K. I’m saving over 12K not paying rent for my apartment for the year or more it would have taken me to build it.

      There are many ways to a tiny home. Pick the way the suits your budget but be sure to work the numbers without emotion.

      • You can live in it while finishing it and its a wonderful way for those without good credit to have the Tinyhouse as an affordable living option.

        I also save almost $12k per year by living in it while i build.

        I will point out how different the space is once you move in, and how your interior plans evolve with your needs. My Husband and I feel it is an advantage to have been living in the home as we build for this aspect.

        We don’t plan to live in a Tiny-village, although i understand the wonderful perks that would have. We are self sufficient and plan to own property. Justin served in the Army and has a VA Loan [Living in the Tinyhouse has allowed us to begin improving our credit to qualify for said loan]

        All this said, there is a great sense of connection with your home when you design and build it yourself. And I think its a wonderful option that nobody should be discouraged from.

  8. NO ONE MENTIONS the PEOPLE FACTOR!!! A family must be uber compatible to get along well in a small space! And small spaces put pressure on relationships!

  9. I am a carpenter and have built things for 30 years. I applaud you for breaking the fallacy of the cheap tiny home. Time is a valuable commodity, which is underestimated. And materials aren’t cheap. I figure $1000 every time I fill my truck with wood. I would love to see a share option for tools so people who want to invest the time can without such a large purchase of things they may only use once.

    • Agree with you on the tool sharing! My husband and i have had to buy quite a few tools building our Tiny Home and it would certainly save time and resources if those tools were available through some sort of community sharing program.

  10. I do not understand the excitement level for the tiny house movement. These have existed for over 60 years. RV trailers, campers and more specially Manufactured homes in land lease communities. There is nothing new about small affordable homes and cost wise purchasing a existing efficiently designed used RV or manufactured home on leased land is money and time better spent than trying to reinvent the wheel. If the movement is serious spend less effort making a small shed look like a conventional home in appearance and concentrate on more practical, conventional affordable/existing solutions that have a broader appeal.

  11. YEAH! What he said. That’s why my family is building teeny tiny houses on wheels. Safety & security is one thing, having to pay through the nose for it, when I can’t afford to, is quite another. Fixing the problem. Granted, if the rest of the country would realize that it’s OUR country, not belonging to the idiots who make the laws that oppress those of us (like me) who are disabled, things would change, by choice or by force.

  12. agree!

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