4 reasons tiny houses may be the next big thing

After binge watching Tiny House Hunters on HGTV, my husband proposed something wacky: spending our next vacation in a converted train caboose in Bryson City. I knew it would be memorable for our kids (how often do you get to live in your own train car?) but figured it would also be claustrophobic and uncomfortable.

When we arrived, I was impressed. It felt bigger than I had imagined, with a full-sized bathroom, clever storage nooks, a kitchenette with a breakfast bar, large couch, and a great outdoor deck. While it took a little practice climbing up a bunk bed after a 25-year hiatus, the place was exceptionally comfortable and actually liberating with its minimalism.

It made me curious about what’s inspiring the tiny home movement so I checked in with some local experts. Turns out there’s a lot more to it than four tiny walls and a roof. Here’s why it’s worth a look:

(1) Affordability and economic independence

When Ryan Mitchell’s employer suddenly went out of business during The Great Recession, it launched his quest to secure his financial independence.

“That kind of blew my mind,” said Mitchell, who was a recent college graduate at the time. 

He quickly found a new job but realized he was spending nearly half his monthly paycheck on rent and utilities. He knew if he could eliminate those expenses, it would be like a 100 percent pay increase.

Mitchell, who is now managing editor and owner of the blog, found a unique solution: building his own 150-square-foot house. He’s been living there for about three years. It took him only two years to pay it off and he now spends about $15 a month in utilities.

“It gave me all the things that I thought were only possible when I retired,” said Mitchell, 33, who has published two books, traveled extensively, pursued various business ideas (like founding Advent Coworking), and enjoys spending lots of time with family.

(2) Flexibility

That kind of economic freedom is especially attractive to millennials and baby boomers, according to Mitchell, whose tiny lifestyle blog receives thousands of visitors daily. For millennials, a tiny home offers flexibility and the ability to move nimbly around the new gig economy (especially if you build on a trailer, as Mitchell recommends). For boomers, it can facilitate an earlier retirement and a good quality of life on a smaller budget.

The potential for tiny living exists everywhere.

“It can be reached in a tiny garage or shed or an old bus,” said architect Zack Alsentzer, whose firm Alter Architects specializes in implementing smart design strategies. “There’s untapped ideas out there.”

It can be simple or deluxe too. “Home is where you park it,” said Alsentzer. “You say ‘yacht’ and all of the sudden it’s a ritzy thing.”

(3) Better design

Because of their size, maximizing the features and function of every corner in a tiny home is essential. This leads to better, more efficient designs.

“The modern American home often has spaces that aren’t used every day or often,” said Alsentzer.

A small-sized home also means you can splurge on higher end materials without going bankrupt. Mitchell used the example of choosing better insulation—which might cost an extra $5,000 on a regular-sized house but could mean only a $100 investment on a tiny home.

(4) Sustainability and customization

Tiny homes take up less space, use fewer materials, and require less energy to heat and cool them.

“We all have to get more efficient and use less resources if we’re going to stick around for the long term,” said Alsentzer. “And it’s fun… I think it’s going to get people back in touch with what really matters in life, our families, getting back outside.”

Mitchell installed solar panels and has gone completely off the electrical grid. He also opted for a composting toilet but said he could easily install a flushable one in his home.

Obviously these features aren’t for everyone but that’s exactly the point. You don’t have to worry about resale value and adding things that you won’t actually use.

“That’s kind of the nice thing about it,” said Mitchell. “You can build the house you want.”

Svartkub in Plaza-Midwood, designed by Alsentzer

Focus on what’s most important

But before you get too far in your planning, take a careful look at your goals and motivations.

“Reflect inward on what’s important,” said Alsentzer. “If it’s spending time with [your] dog, cooking, reading, taking a hike… really think about what resonates with [your] soul.”

Mitchell knows tiny homes aren’t for everyone or may only be a temporary choice for some. “I think what we’re advocating is intentionality,” he said. “… It’s not about the tiny house. It’s about the life that you want and the tiny house is [the] tool.”

Want to try it out?

You or your friends can stay in Svartkub in Plaza-Midwood, designed by Alsentzer, or check out the Caboose Tiny House in Bryson City. Both are listed on Airbnb. There’s also the the Lake Norman Motorcoach Resort if you’re looking for a staycation, and a meetup group, Tiny Homes Together, with more than 200 members in Charlotte.

Photos: Liz Bertrand, Zack Alsentzer