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Deeply Downsized Domiciles

Written by Jeffrey Steele - 9 Comments

I wasn’t exactly born yesterday. But among the misty watercolor memories clouding my brain pan, I retain a clear memory of the kind of homes that many middle-class people lived in way back in my 1960s-era childhood.

They often were very small. Three tiny bedrooms, a phonebooth sized bathroom, a kitchen just larger than a card table, a modest living room, and maybe a family room made do for families of four or five and up.

Some of these houses featured basements, dank dungeons to which the kids were dispatched on bad-weather days or after dark. But if your family wasn’t well off, and maybe all your dad could afford was one of those basement-less cookie-cutters, you didn’t even have that. Your house was built on a cold, hard slab of concrete.

Most families were quite content with these floor plans. And some were happy with less. The kids never had known anything better, so they didn’t give a rip. And in many cases, the parents had been raised before World War II in cramped urban apartments. To have an actual house with a yard was a luxury, no matter how tight the home’s interior.

Fast forward to the 1990s and the Millennial Decade, and for most families and even some childless couples, the cramped little ranch house no longer served any purpose, other than to be leveled to make way for a sprawling McMansion.

It was the era of the elephantine edifice, the distended domicile, and the pompous pad. The house just smaller than a ZIP code seemed the birthright of everyone from corporate executives to people who had never distinguished themselves at anything other than leverage creative home mortgage financing.

(You say you’ve spent your career selling crockpots door to door, and your greatest lifetime achievement is watching all 138 episodes of “American Idol”? Well, step right into this 5,600-square-foot Estate Home, because you deserve it!)

After finding that living in this kind of aircraft hangar strained both their heating budgets and their ability to fill all 27 rooms with furniture, many folks began to rethink the idea of living large. But then the mortgage meltdown hit, leaving them locked in, about three or four hundred thousand dollars under water on their mortgages.

Living small

No wonder there’s been a backlash of sorts, and not just against giant homes, but in favor of more sensibly-sized abodes. It’s a movement back to small houses, very small houses. Actually, it’s a movement toward houses that would, by comparison, make those tiny 1960s ranches look like William Randolph Heart’s San Simeon.

I’m referring, of course, to the tiny house movement, pioneered by companies like the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, from which you can buy for less than $20,000 a house on wheels you can take anywhere on the back of your pickup truck.

Check the website and visit the Tumbleweed Epu model, for instance. It has the look of an early American classic home, sleeps one or two and measures out at 89 square feet.

The Weebee, at 102 square feet, also sleeps one or two and looks good on an open prairie, next to a fishing pond. The Tarleton, a giant at 117 square feet, has a nice open porch where the homeowner can sit and watch a sunset, pondering the thrill of not having to dust a two-story Colonial.

Let’s let the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company’s promotional material for a tome called The Small House Book, lay out the rationale behind these homes.

“Today, in America, one in five homeowners owe more money than what their home is worth. Many people are literally walking away from their homes because of this tragedy. But that’s only part of the story!”

Last year banks foreclosed over 2.8 million homes in the United States.

“We were sold a bill of goods! For decades we’ve been duped into buying more house than we really need. It’s more clear now than ever that our housing system is failing.”

The promotional literature goes on to tout the many economic advantages of living in a very, very small house measuring from 64 to 840 square feet in size, and also to acknowledge those economic pluses aren’t the extent of the benefits.

Compared to a typical American home, which consumes about three-quarters acre of forest and produces seven tons of construction waste, a typical Tumbleweed Tiny House uses approximately 4,800 pounds of building materials. Only about 100 pounds of that ever wind up dumped in a landfill.

Build it yourself

Incredibly, if you’re so inclined, you can even build your own teeny-weeny house yourself. The Tumbleweed Tiny House Company claims just 14 tools are required to build a Tumbleweed, and most of those tools are already in the tool drawers or toolcases of many Americans.

If you’re looking to get your finances in order in 2013, get out of that house of yours that’s just smaller than the Taj Mahal, and get into a tiny house from Tumbleweed or one of its rivals in the tiny house movement.

If you like the idea of washing your dishes with one hand while you simultaneously make your bed with the other, if you appreciate a work commute from kitchen to home office of six-tenths of a second, and if you can’t wait to hit the open road with a miniature bungalow in tow behind you, you’re sure to revel in this move.

There’s just something about a tiny house that’s big on stress reduction.

Published on January 31st, 2013
Modified on February 4th, 2013 - 9 Comments
Filed under: Real Estate

About the author: is an independent writer in Chicago who has written over 2,000 articles appearing in publications such as Barron's, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, LA Times, and more.

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9 Responses to “Deeply Downsized Domiciles”

  1. 1
    Gary Says:

    Excellent reading and spot on. My son, his family and I purchased a 5500 sq ft, and it was large even for both our families. When he moved out I’ve rented his part, but as I get older, I’m wishing I could downsize. I’m a long way from being upside down, but never the less selling one of these albatrosses is not easy. I’m a handy man and tinkerer, so McMansion occupies my time, and keeps me active.

  2. 2
    Ivy Says:

    I think this is another fad like the McMansions. People just have to swing from one to another extreme it seems. If you have kids this is just impractical – do you really want to have a couple of toddlers (or a couple of teens for that matter) sharing the same cozy 500 sq. feet with you all the time? We have a small sailing boat which approximates this kind of cozy setting and once you’ve tried an weekend of that with kids, what seems feasible in theory will seem stifling.

    We come from Europe, a land of smaller living spaces, and we’ve never considered a McMansion (the cost to heat, the time to clean, the wasted space!), but we wouldn’t even think of trying to fit our 4-people family in a horseshoe kind of house. Balance is best – get a 1500-2000 sq.feet 2-3 bedroom house and it will work for most phases in your life. And it will be easier to sell when the time comes, because that’s what most people are looking for.

    Good article, interesting to read – just don’t sell me on the stress reduction in tiny houses :-)

  3. 3
    subwo Says:

    Growing up in a house in Japan makes one appreciate even a modest house in the USA. The walls were 1/16th of an inch pannel nailed to studs with wire mesh and stucco on the exterior. No insulation. Very cold in the winter and hot in the summer. I don’t miss the days of getting up on a winter morning and lighting the kerosene heater to start warming up the house.

  4. 4
    Victor Says:

    I’d love it if this type of article was prefaced with an “Advertisement” or “Sponsored Post” tag.

    I like the personal finance information on this site, but I’m not interested in living in an undersized travel trailer, and if I were, I suspect I’d be better off reading the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company’s advertisements directly rather than someone’s synopsis thereof.

  5. 5
    Nickel Says:

    Victor: This is neither an advertisement nor a sponsored post. We don’t run sponsored posts nor ads disguised as articles. If you’re not interested in the content of this post, that’s fine. But that doesn’t make it an advertisement.

  6. 6
    Donna Says:

    Loved your article! So well put. So if we do have to downsize from our 2500 sq ft home to a 1500 sq ft home, it won’t be the end of the world, will it? and might even make our life better in some ways.

    Thanks for your column.

  7. 7
    getagrip Says:

    Back in the day we called those things campers, and the really poor lived in them down by the river :-) .

    I’ve seen them and they’re nice enough just not something I’d want. Having grown up in a smaller home than described in the article, with mornings getting ready for school fighting for toilet time, space at the table to eat, and a place to change privately (even Harry Potter had a door and his own room :-) , I’m in no hurry to give up my larger home. Of course, I didn’t take out half the mortgage the bank claimed I could qualify for and chose carefully to get what I could afford. That said, once the kids are out of the house and on their own we’re certainly looking to retire into something smaller and less maintenance heavy.

  8. 8
    jim Says:

    I guess these teeny houses would be ok for some – if they never want to entertain or have their grand kids over. Just not for me – claustrophobic – ugh!

  9. 9
    Susan Says:

    Don’t know that I could live in something like full-time, but as a vacation home or longer trips in retirement (of maybe a month or more in a nicer climate), this would be just perfect. Too big and you have relatively leeching on to your lake house pretty quickly. This would certainly keep others from inviting themselves over. :)

    We own one of those 3 bedroom, 1 closet-sized bathroom, galley kitchen homes from the 1950s. It’s suited us just fine.

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