Back in the 1970’s a lot of hippies got together on the West Coast and began building domes, because you know.. domes were the future. Live rent free and not need anything from “the man” or “the system.” Every generation has to have a dome, and with our generation it is a small or “tiny house” on a trailer. Who doesn’t want to live in 150 to 250 square feet on wheels?
So why live in a small house on a trailer? Let’s explore the reasons which are:
- Financial Freedom,
- Mobility (literal mobility),
- Less environmental impact, and
- No Bills, did I already mention Financial Freedom?
Financial Freedom, No Bills
The biggest driver to small housing is financial freedom. Proof that money is the largest motivator with small housing is how people largely became open to small housing once the US had a major recession. The movement is what it is today because of so much uncertainty (people losing jobs, retirements, etc.). So let’s talk about this “financial freedom.”
No water bill, because you have no access to water (in a developed country).
No sewage bill, because you don’t have a functional toilet (in a developed country).
No electricity bill, because you don’t have access to power (alternative methods are available, more later).
No trash bill, because you don’t have trash service.
No mortgage, because you spent $25,000 – $50,000 on your mobile hipster shed.
Now it’s time for some financial math on this situation. Imagine you can stomach a solid 5 years in this trailer, and can salvage 70% of it’s value (optimistic). If you had a $30,000 trailer, you would effectively get $21,000 back costing you $9,000 for 5 years. That means $150/month + repairs + utilities + some other stuff, but more on this number later.
The second biggest selling point is often the mobility factor to a trailer house. You can travel the world as long as you can find a place to park it, pay for the extremely high gas bills, and truck along with you any needed supplies (gas to heat, water, etc.). The truth about the “mobility” of the trailer is completely overplayed. Have you seen videos of them moving these things? They commonly have to cut down tree limbs to move these type of homes to get their house parked. Not to mention your vehicle likely is not rated to tow as much as the trailer weighs. Can we also mention that you’re probably driving a big truck and a huge trailer without a CDL? Also be sure to check your brakes. Let’s also talk about the fact these builds typically push the maximums (or surpass with your belongings in them) of the trailer’s axles.
Let’s not kid ourselves, these trailers are “mobile” largely in the novelty sense. You really want to deal with the stress of moving this giant overweight trailer every day or two? Not to mention the mileage on your vehicle towing it. Driving coast to coast with relatively small detours is still going to be a solid 4,000+ miles. If you’re getting 12mpg and paying $3.00 a gallon (more in some areas), that’s still a solid $1,000 in gas + wear and tear on your vehicle. That trip isn’t going to take 5 years.
Less Environmental Impact
From a utility stand point, I’ll agree that it does take less to heat and cool a very small space if properly insulated. From a construction stand point, it’s not more environmentally friendly than using existing things available (an actual smaller house, rv, camper, etc.). Construction whether big or small, makes a lot of waste. Now of course this can be mitigated by the use of recyclable material. Although where I live (Midwest), you would burn a lot of gas collecting materials, as they are not as available as places like the West Coast.
It’s a Modern Travel Trailer
When push comes to shove, these tiny houses are just basically the new travel trailer. They have less of the “weirdo in the camper” vibe and more of the “hipster who’s above it” vibe, but when it comes down to the numbers.. it makes no sense. This movement is largely just trying to make and build acceptance for a cooler looking travel trailer. Nothing these builders have done is unique (small space storage, lofts, solar, etc.).
Looking at the San Francisco bay Area Craigslist, I see two postings. One for a $10k travel trailer and another for a $40k tumbleweed “cottage cabin.”
- Listed for $10,000, you can probably get this thing for a solid $7k cash. Let’s also mention there are far cheaper models available on Craigslist, this one is relatively premium.
- 248 square feet without pop-out.
- Full Bath, Shower, Tub, Toilet, and Sink
- Full Kitchen
- Air Conditioning
- Central Heating
- “Slides” out making it “way bigger” (more likely “way bigger feeling” by opening up sitting and kitchen area a bit)
- Dual Propane Tanks
- New Tires
- Can Sleep 6 (5 comfortable)
- Built in spare tire
- Forged from years of mobile design by a professional company
- Normally $68,450 + tax, but only $38,500 + tax (as advertised)
- Loft area
- Sleek look, pine trimmed out
- A few LED lights
- Upgraded appliances over travel trailer (nothing fancy though)
- More room to self-design (fill yourself at your own cost)
- Has window unit for A/C
- Has roofing shingles which can be damaged / removed in high winds
The summary is — the Tumbleweed cottage is likely 400 to 500% cost (before factoring in additional spending/costs). The cottage also has no heating, no spare tire, no propane tank, less space, and sleeps less people (I’ll assume they have the same water tanks). The truth is, even if they cost the same — you would likely want to go with the travel trailer except for a single reason. The tiny house trailers are hip and more visually appealing. As mentioned before, you aren’t that creepy guy or couple in the mobile trailer, you’re that “cool couple that escaped the rat race.” Either way, when you park either in a neighborhood, you’re getting the cops called on you. You might just get a few hours delay by having your house tricked out in pine trim.
I will say that this whole thing does make more sense on the West Coast. Avoiding huge rents, not really needing much cooling or heating, and not having hard weather to wear down your trailer really help take the edge off. Of course you will likely need to add a solar system to your trailer, battery bank, maybe propane for heating or refrigeration.
Let’s go back to the math we started with, and say in reality it’s going to be $50,000 after you get the trailer, vehicle, solar, furniture, taxes (on sale), and so forth. If you sell that trailer year #5 (after living in it for 60 months) for $30,000 (60% of salvage on everything), your cost to live in that trailer per month was $333.33/month. But then again, you do have to have a place to park it for those 1825 days (from this point on, I’ll use days instead of years to really let it hit home). You will likely feel obligated to buy a gift or maybe even just straight pay anyone who lets you stay for a considerable amount of time (because that’s the right thing to do), maybe another $100/month (could easily be five times this). If you do travel in your trailer, just 240 miles a month (at $3.50/gallon 12MPG), toss on another $70/month.
Okay, so now it’s suddenly more like $500/month after 1825 days of full time living in the trailer. $500 a month to live in a place that has limited water, limited power, a composting toilet, extremely limited space, requires parking arrangements, has no storage, and is arguably structurally unsafe if loaded up too much. As a bonus, if you spend 4 hours a week on your small house between parking/driving, carrying your bucket of human waste, managing solar, and managing water, that adds up to 16 hours a month. If you value your time at $10/hour, that’s another +$160/month, bringing the total to $660/month. That total still assumes that you can salvage $30,000 from your trailer. If the trend ends and people wise up to using cost effective travel trailers instead, you could easily see another $250/month in costs via a $15k salvage loss.
Suddenly, the trailer is just plain silly. If you really look at the numbers, you could easily see how it could run $700-$1,000/month assuming you live there for 1825 days and get decent salvage value. Don’t forget that there is a chance it might not work out. Maybe you hate it, and in 9 months you’re off trying to sell the thing. How do you think that situation will play out? I can see the craigslist post now, “We have $50,000 in this thing 4 months ago … I swear we love it, but we need it gone asap.” If that happens, you could easily be looking at $3,000+/month cost after taking a major hit via selling the trailer.
To me, it’s time to cut the bull. You’re likely going to do no traveling in this trailer, and you’re doing it for financial reasons. Don’t be hip, embrace the fact that a travel trailer makes more financial sense. Buy one for $5-7k that is larger in size and properly designed (and has functional systems), put $2k rehabbing into it and live in it (without traveling in it). Live there as long as you can stomach and try to salvage $5-7k back out.
Anything over $20k for one of these tiny house trailers is criminal, unless there is some major custom work being done (although the builders commonly call everything custom because of smaller sizing). If you don’t live on the West Coast or somewhere with high rents, consider buying a small (non-trailer) house like I did.