Have you ever considered downsizing your home? What about building a tiny house?
That’s just what my friend Kris did. She lives in Alaska and is living large in a tiny home!
We’ve all seen the beautifully styled tiny houses in magazines and on tv. But I’ve been curious about what real life in small square footage is actually like. You too?
Well, Kris has agreed to share her experience (and pictures) with us. So read on to learn about the challenges and rewards that she has experienced living in her Craftsman style custom built home.
Sheldon Designs is the architect—he drew the plan.
The Builder is Genesis Home Projects https://www.alaskarenovations.com/
Photos courtesy of Kris Spencer of www.Makeitagarden.com
- How long have you lived in your tiny home?
Seven years, but you could say my heart has been living here a lot longer. I bought my lot quite a few years before, but it wasn’t until 2010 that friends and I actually began to clear land to build the home. I was so eager to live on my land that I set up a tent camp on the property, thinking it would only be a matter of months. But things got delayed.
By the end of summer, reality hit and I had to pull up stakes for a bit. The following year I got the well and septic in. Things progressed fairly quickly after that and due to a warm, extended Fall season, I managed to get the concrete block foundation in. That meant construction could start, finally, first thing in the Spring.
- What is the size of your home and the property that it’s on? The actual square footage is 520 square feet. The downstairs is a little over 300 square feet (think single car garage) with a closed half-loft for the bedroom upstairs. As for the land, it’s a 5.3 acre lot.
- How many people (and pets) live in your home? Just me and “Mr. Brodie” my standard Dachshund. Glad he’s not a St. Bernard!
- What size house did you move from? A lot of the time, you hear about people in larger houses downsizing and all that goes with it. But that’s not exactly my story.
Prior to building my tiny home, I lived for 22 years in a two bedroom duplex apartment which was about 800 sq feet. An older place, but nice. Plus, it was close to my folks’ home. The rental was on ½ acre in a quiet, wooded subdivision.
I had always dreamed of building a home. The whole time I was renting I was saving up for a down payment on some property. Once I found the right location, it only intensified the dream.
Coming from an apartment, I like to think of the move as up-sizing. There’s really no comparison between my old place and the new one. I moved from ½ acre to 5 acres, moved from a major city to a rural area. I moved from a rather ordinary ranch-style apartment to an extraordinary, albeit tiny home.
Here in the mountains, the view is up-sized also! Instead of hearing sirens and traffic whizzing by, it’s owls and coyotes!
- What was it like to downsize your belongings? How long did it take? Because I hadn’t accumulated a lot of the stuff, there actually wasn’t that much to downsize. I did have to part with a rather nice sectional couch and a tv. However, most everything else was needed in the new place: dishes and kitchen ware, bed & bedding, some favorite knick knacks, books and bookcase, and of course all my garden stuff!
Finances are kind of tight when you’re building a home for the first time in your life. Also, I hadn’t made all the color and décor choices yet, so buying new stuff didn’t make sense. I wanted to wait until I had a good feel for how the tiny home was developing. I wasn’t going to have a lot of money to spend right away, so a lot of the old stuff moved with me. After I moved in and got situated, I did get rid of a few more things.
- Tell me about the build of your home? I looked at gazillions of tiny home plans. It’s surprising all the different ways to configure less than 1,000 square feet. I was looking for a plan that made the best use of space and one that would have the most options to customize. My friend and I found the micro-cottage from Sheldon Designs. It’s a wonderful little plan.
It was kind of hard to find a builder, and that surprised me. I started calling around over a year in advance. Here’s the deal…no one wants to build “tiny”. At least when it comes to a custom property. I even tried to find companies that specialized in cabins, but without the ‘cabin’ mentality. My friend and I had some elaborate ideas not normally associated with a ‘cabin’. Despite all the cute, adorable places you see in magazines or on the web, there’s not that many contractors that do it. I ended up going with Genesis Home Projects. They’re a small, local company in my area.
Financing also had it’s challenges. Despite the growing popularity of tiny homes, banks kept mistaking mine for a recreational property. The interest rates were exceptionally good at the time, and I had to keep explaining my building project. One lender rejected my plan because the master bath wasn’t adjoined to the master bedroom. I’m like; “master BATH? There’s only one bath and its downstairs!”
A lot of institutions still don’t get it. There was almost a disbelief. Who would want to live in a 500 sq foot home?
I had to prove it wasn’t a cabin by supplying a list of upgrades such as tile floors, in-floor heat, tile shower, hickory cabinets, solid oak stair treads etc. It was kinda funny.
Once it got going, the build went fairly smoothly with only one or two little issues. The stairs designed for this tiny home would have been just fine if it wasn’t financed. The lender said they didn’t meet code, so we had to figure out how to re-do the stairs. Sheldon’s plan had a cute little landing at the bottom, which almost had to go. We wracked our brains for weeks trying to find a solution that wouldn’t compromise the landing, and we did!
Another customization we included was space related. We scoured the plan to identify any open cavities (dead space in the walls) that could be turned into storage space. They aren’t very big in a tiny home. However, they are places to tuck in items you don’t use that often such as an extra towel or blanket, and Christmas décor. We also identified spaces on interior walls for built-in shelving. Every little bit helps!
- Did you DIY any of it? Oh yes, a LOT of DIY. When you see what the estimated costs are for things, you are highly motivated to DIY as much as you can to save. I actually loved putting in the sweat equity. To be honest, it was really a group effort. I have a childhood friend whose father is a very talented carpenter. She deserves all the credit for being, basically, my ‘right hand man’, so-to-speak. She could explain house plans to me, understood all the measurements, designed the kitchen cabinets, made some modifications to the masterplan, and helped me order windows. She knew all of the lingo when it came to communicating with the builder. She’s an incredible artist herself and has all the tools for DIY projects she and her husband do around their own place. I paid for any equipment rental needed, all the materials and lunch!
My friend, her husband and their three teenaged boys helped out on a lot of projects. They did the exterior painting, put up the trim, and did the shower tile. I did all the inside painting, painted exterior trim, caulked windows, and put a sealer on the shower tile. A lot of clean up around the site was also a task I had to take on.
- What sources do you use for power, water, and sewage? We have electric at my location but there is no natural gas line. Most residents use fuel oil, propane, wood or a combination of those for heating. I chose fuel oil. I really wanted a wood stove for back up in the winter. There just wasn’t room for both.
I have a well on my lot with very good water pressure. The trace minerals in well water are healthy, but hard on the plumbing. The minerals can clog the shower head, and leave unsightly rust color in the toilet. I don’t have a water filter yet. But I grew up on well water and my apartment was also on a well. Needless to say, I use a lot of CLR (Calcium, Lime, Rust) cleaner.
For waste, I have a septic system and exceptional soil in my location.
You’ve probably read or seen Youtube videos of those in the tiny house movement who have the primary goals of frugal living and energy efficiency. While those things are important to me, I wasn’t out to win any awards. My motivations are a little different. Not everyone who enjoys tiny living has the same goal. A tiny house is naturally going to use less energy. Some are more energy efficient than others. Everyone has a different threshold of personal comfort. Plans and purpose for tiny living vary from person to person.
I did spend a lot of time researching windows, insulation and other energy related things. I went to a lot of home shows to speak with contractors and got a lot of opinions to consider.
It was hard to find nice looking small appliances of any quality. Most small appliances are made for rec rooms, an office or cabin. I found the quality to be lacking. Plus, they are pretty ugly. Trying to find a hood for the stove was ridiculous! For kitchen appliances there was ZILCH at the box stores. I’m not kidding when I say an entire month of searching, maybe two on the cook top and hood.
The hood was made by Zephyr. It’s sleek and modern looking just like the “big guys”, only smaller. My friend and I were about ready to give up on the fridge. We found a few European units the size we needed, but they required an additional power converter. Then we found the LG. It’s not the most energy efficient, but it has a beautiful layout for a smaller size fridge. Two decent sized freezer compartments on the bottom, glass shelves on top, and two crispers. It’s sturdy and not flimsy at all. It’s not stainless, but has a stainless look. I was thrilled.
- Has your lifestyle changed since you’ve been living in your tiny home? If so, how? Tiny home living hasn’t changed my lifestyle as much as the location has. But there are some things I miss. Instead of a tub, I only have a shower. It’s therapeutic to soak in a hot bath. The original design called for a tub, but no washer and dryer. Since it’s thirteen miles to the laundry mat, I chose to split the space with a stacked washer and dryer. That led to up-sizing to a larger capacity water heater for longer showers. I also anticipated having other people here for visits, and wanted there to be plenty of hot water. I didn’t want them feeling like they had to hurry or be sure to save enough hot water for the next person. It’s not a huge tank, by any means, but it’s perfect for what I intended it for.
Since I only have one bedroom now instead of two, I take the couch when I have company and give my guests the bedroom upstairs.
The other thing I miss is a full 4 burner stove. If I wanted to have any counter space at all, I would have to down-size to a two burner cook top. Problem is, if you have a large pot on one burner, it edges out the pan on the other. There may be two burners, but two average size pots and pans won’t fit side by side. However, I don’t regret that I went with a glass top stove for the extra prep space. (A photo of my little kitchen appeared in “Kitchen & Bath Design News” magazine in May 2013.)
There isn’t enough room for a full-sized couch, so I have a love seat and a chair. Because of fire hazard, the furniture has to be a safe distance from the Toyo stove, somewhat limiting my furniture choices.
My primary goal, which I achieved, was a home I could afford and easily pay off. I’m now living debt free. A tiny home was less costly per square foot. I could upgrade materials for less, and did. Lower heating and light bills, although fuel oil is rather pricy. There are also less temptations to accumulate stuff, if you don’t have the space. I’ll tell ya a little secret though, just to be completely honest. I do have materials I use for my art and lumber scraps piled up along the side of the house, blue tarp and all! The term “cottage industry” couldn’t be more appropriate!
My secondary goal was a tiny home that lived as big as it could. Having a separate bedroom space creates privacy. It also gives the house more than one room, and different views. I’m an artist, so I wanted the home to have a few unique things to add architectural interest. Tiny doesn’t mean you have to compromise style.
My friend came up with all the ideas that we incorporated. The large triangle cut-out over the bathroom wall will one day be a large, stained glass piece. The round window in front lets light pass through to the stained glass. I was going to hire an artist to create something, but now I think I might give it a try myself.
Another cutout is in the wall at the bottom of the stairs. It just opens it up more. I have a hand crafted wood star that I place in the opening.
- Is there anything that you would do differently if you did it all over again? No, can’t think of anything.
- Do you have any advice for someone contemplating downsizing or tiny home living?
I would say at least investigate it. There are a lot of possibilities to explore. So it depends on where you’re at in life, and what is meaningful to you.
You don’t even have to put down roots. Some tiny homes are like houses on wheels. They sit atop trailers and can be hauled around from place to place and parked. Still they look just like a regular house, not a motorhome.
My house really does not feel small to me. I’ve found that I don’t need as much room as I thought. I can still have all I need and be perfectly comfortable.
- Any future plans or projects coming up?
What would you say if I told you that the whole thing is really about the garden? I couldn’t wait for the house to be done so I could go to work on the garden scape. Prior to the build, I actually had a small garden patch out beyond the construction area. I brought some perennials with me from the little plantings I had at the rental. I could not keep them in pots, they had to be in the ground. I made an impromptu garden and stuck ‘em in. It wasn’t great, but it worked to keep them alive until I could give it my full attention. It turns out that the location was ideal, and over the years, I just expanded out from there. I finally got a garden shed built, and a lawn put in. I have all kinds of ideas and projects in mind for landscaping. Little by little.
I recently started a blog that’s all about turning ordinary outdoor spaces into inviting places. Called appropriately, “Make it a Garden” (www.makeitagarden.com). It’s about simple, affordable ways to a more interesting and enjoyable backyard, without bringing in the bulldozer. It’s also about using art in the garden and how a touch of art gives personality and character to the garden scape. I just want to do on the outside what I’ve done on the inside.
What an informative interview with Kris. She covered several things I hadn’t even considered! My top takeaways are:
*If you want a custom build, it may take longer than anticipated, so plan accordingly.
*Buying furniture and appliances could take some perseverance and creativity to find what you’ll be happy with.
*Tiny homes are just as DIY friendly as larger homes. Yay!
*If living with no mortgage is your goal, a tiny home is a great option.
*Speaking of mortgage, you might have to approach several lenders before you find one that understands your tiny house building project.
*There is room in a tiny home for people, pets, creativity, and home decor ( I can’t really live without any of those!).
My favorite quote from Kris is, “Tiny doesn’t mean you have to compromise style. ” Amen!
If you’re thinking that you need to declutter and downsize some of your belongings, you could start with 5 Easy Ways to Simplify Your Home.
Don’t forget to pin for later, and let me know in the comments if you’ve been curious about tiny home living.
Keep free ranging friend.