Debra Jordan had a secret. “When we decided to move into our home, I was worried about what other people would think. For the first six months, I didn’t even tell my family,” said Debra, a wife, mother, and owner of the Etsy shop Minky Baby Gifts.
What was Debra hiding? “It’s just not what people do. They don’t live in 320 square foot homes,” she confessed.
No, most couples with a teenage son don’t live in houses that measure only 10 by 32 feet. But Debra is part of a growing movement that is serious about smaller, simpler, debt-free ways of living. And for some people, the foundation for a simpler life is a small house they own free and clear.
For Debra and her husband, Gary, the decision to downsize grew out of their struggle to maintain their 2,000 square foot Arkansas home after Gary lost his job. They first considered trailers and modular homes but found them to be a poor value for the money. Then, they discovered a builder on Craigslist who constructed a custom shotgun-style house for them in just six weeks for under $20,000. They added an 18 by 8 foot workshop next door for the family’s business. Both home and workshop sit on a lot that costs $145 a month, their entire housing expense.
One of the most dramatic outcomes of the move was the change it made in the family’s business. “We were selling wholesale, struggling with low profit margins with no room for mistakes,” Debra told me. “It was just so stressful. Moving into our little house changed everything. Because we had no mortgage, we didn’t need Gary to get an outside job. Now, we sell mostly on Etsy and every piece is handmade by my husband and me. I love our tiny house!”
There’s no single definition of a “tiny house.” The term can be applied to anything from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company founder Jay Shafer’s trailer home – just 89 square feet – to “big” houses of 1,000 square feet or more, with decks and awnings to expand the living space. According to the Small House Society, an organization that promotes smaller housing alternatives that are more affordable and ecological, “It’s not a movement about people claiming to be ‘tinier than thou,’ but rather people making their own choices toward simpler and smaller living however they feel best fits their life.” Values that many small house enthusiasts embrace include the willingness to live with fewer possessions, aversion to debt, respect for the environment, love of personal freedom, and a strong DIY ethic.
Some small homes provide alternatives for “Generation Boomerang,” the 39% of U.S. adults ages 18 to 34 who say they either live with their parents or have moved back home at some point in recent years. For example, high school student Austin Hay built his own tiny trailer home that he plans to take with him when he leaves for college. “I’ll always have a house of my own,” he says. “Anyone can do it.” Debra’s son, Max, now 14, plans to build his own house when he is 18 so that he can live debt-free.
In addition to saving money, some small homeowners are making money, too. Jenine Alexander built her own tiny house for less than $3,500, using cheap or free construction materials salvaged around her upscale community of Healdsburg, California. Drawing on what she learned, she built a second house with a friend, listed it for $25,000, and sold it in a matter of days. “If you are open to making mistakes, and have patience with yourself, for sure you can do it,” she said.
There are obstacles to building small houses, including local zoning ordinances that seek to maintain high home prices by prohibiting low square footage construction. Some builders discover that historic neighborhoods are more likely to welcome smaller homes. Other homeowners, including Debra, have built their homes on trailer housings, which do not need to conform to the same zoning rules as homes built on conventional foundations.
Although Debra sold or gave away many possessions before moving into her tiny house, she doesn’t miss anything her family left behind. “I’m not focusing on what I don’t have. I have everything I need right here,” she beams.
Watch Debra’s tiny house video, seen by over 2.4 million people:
Karen Brown is an award-winning designer and creative director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Her work has been included in the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and on Today on NBC. She believes that the handmade movement is a fundamental force for transforming society and the economy.