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Will Living In A Tiny House Make You Smarter And Happier?

I like to follow my curiosity. Sometimes, that curiosity leads me down a rabbit hole I never expected. Such is the case today as we take a brief departure from the standard fare of smart living hacks to discuss something I’ve been secretly obsessed with for a long time…

Tiny houses.

That’s right, little houses on wheels that a growing percentage of Americans are starting to turn into permanent living spaces.

But this is not as much of a departure as you might think. I’m lucky to know a number of people (and families!) who’ve opted into this lifestyle of tiny living, and some characteristics they all share are that they’re seemingly very happy, disciplined and, generally, winning at life.

We all know limiting your choices can make you happier and more decisive. Despite everything you might give up to live in 150 square feet, there are just as many incredible benefits, not the least of which is the cool factor: you have a real house you can easily move all over the country (or even the world).

And those of us in the entrepreneurial world can certainly appreciate the cost savings of living in a tiny house when you’re trying to start a new business.

Recently, a friend of mine—Ethan—finished building his own tiny house and documented the hundreds of decisions he had to make along the way. He turned all that work into a guide called Tiny House Decisions.

I decided it would be fun to interview him about it; you’ll find our conversation below, complete with grilling and text-based brow beating.

Tiny House Decisions: Life Inside 150 Square Feet

Do you have a mustache? If not, when was the last time you had one? Can we trust you?

That all comes down to semantics. I have a beard which I allow to grow in what would be considered the area where one would wear a mustache. Partial credit? Despite my discount mustache, I can assure you that I am completely trustworthy.

I’m going to let that pass. Now, tiny houses are cool, but who the hell decides to live in one full-time? Do you have to be a hobbit to fit into one of these?

All kinds of people! Twenty-somethings who don’t want to go into debt for the rest of their lives, families who lost their homes during the economic downturn, and even retirees who want to stretch their resources. Every tiny house dweller’s reasoning is slightly different. And contrary to your first impressions, tiny houses can be quite comfortable to be in, even for tall people. It’s all in the design.

Your book is called Tiny House Decisions. What decisions, exactly, do you have to make?

Mountains of decisions. Tsunamis of decisions. A lot of decisions. First you’ve gotta figure out the big picture: Is a tiny house even right for you? How tiny is too tiny? Do you build it on wheels or on a foundation? Build it yourself or hire a builder?

Once you’ve got that figured out, you’ll move on to all of the systems, just like a “normal” house. Heat, hot water, plumbing, electricity, etc. They all have a place in your tiny house and you have the added challenge of figuring out how they fit into that tiny space in a way that’s both safe and useable.

And now that you thought you were done, you have to actually build the thing. There are so many different brands and options for construction materials. Not to mention, you still need to choose all of the aesthetic things for the inside of the house.. like what type of flooring you’ll use and how to design your kitchen.

I’m exhausted already; I can’t even decide what to have for lunch. What’s one tiny house decision you got wrong on your own home?

I chose the wrong heater. It’s not really powerful enough to keep my house comfortable.  And that’s not a good one to mess up when your tiny house is parked in Northern Vermont.

You say living in a tiny home adds stability to your life. WTF?

It totally does! Here’s how I see it: I’m 29 and I own my own house outright. When I was renting, I was spending about $1000 per month on rent/utilities. Now I’m under $200. So that’s a lot of stability in the finance department, since I don’t need to make as much money in order to not be homeless. I left my full time job in 2012 and haven’t looked back, but as any entrepreneur will affirm, working for yourself doesn’t always pay. Now that I’m in the tiny house, that doesn’t feel like quite a big deal, because I don’t have a big rent check to write at the beginning of each month.

But it’s not just financial stability. The tiny house gives me the stability of a home base that I can keep. If you were going to travel for 3 months, would you just leave your house or room sitting empty? Probably not, since you’d be on the hook for rent/mortgage. You’d probably try to sublet it, or Airbnb it, etc. Now say you decide to come home during month 2 of your trip. Oh, that’s right, you can’t! The tiny house allows me to leave without having to deal with any of that stuff.

How do you know if a tiny home is really for you or not? Is a healthy appetite for suffering required?

I don’t think suffering is a part of the equation: Sure you sacrifice something (the amount of space in your home), but what you get in exchange is worth way more than that extra closet. The only way to really know if a tiny house is right for you is to try it. Go see one. Stay in one. Search Airbnb for tiny houses the next time you’re traveling—I can promise you that you’ll find one to rent so you can feel it out. And if you’re in Portland, OR, I highly recommend checking out the Tiny House Hotel for your first tiny house experience.

Wow. Just… wow. I’m totally staying in that hotel. What does it cost to build one of these things? Do you have to build one or can you buy them pre-made? Who are all the different people you have to work with to make it come together?

Tiny houses range in cost from around $10,000 on the extremely low-end (you do all the work yourself and use mostly salvaged materials) to 50 or $60,000 for a more “luxurious,” larger tiny house that you have designed and built for you. You absolutely do not have to do the work yourself, and for some people I wouldn’t recommend it. It all depends if you want to learn building skills. If you do, then building a tiny house is a great way to learn them. But be prepared for the project to consume a lot of your time.

Just like a typically sized house, if you were to hire the whole thing out, you’d be working with carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, HVAC people, etc.

How much of the work did you do yourself vs. hiring a professional? And how many times did you bash your finger with a hammer?

My house cost about $30,000 in materials and $10,000 in labor for a grand total around $40k. It was just me and my carpenter Jason about 90% of the time. We took care of all the building, electrical, and plumbing. We hired professionals to install the metal roofing, apply the spray foam insulation, and build the cabinet doors. I lost count, but I definitely gave my fingers a good bashing at least 4 or 5 times. I’m happy to report that I am typing this sentence with all 10 of my digits in tact.

You live in Vermont. How many toes / fingers do you have left? Or, have you lost all of them to frostbite already?

Again with the fingers! I probably got more frostbite growing up in New Jersey than I’ve gotten here in Vermont. Living here means going about your daily life regardless of how cold it is outside, so people tend to layer well and dress for the weather. Despite choosing the wrong heater (as I mentioned above), the tiny house is very well insulated, so I’m able to keep the house very comfortable using an electric space heater even on the coldest days of the year. The added bonus of the great insulation is that the house also stays relatively cool in the summer without the need for air conditioning. Tiny homes can be quite comfortable, regardless of the environment—it’s just important to take the climate into consideration before you plan and build so you build a house that will actually work for where you live.

I’ve always thought 10 fingers is 3 and a half too many, but good on you. Now, what happens when you need to… poop? (This is one of the biggest questions anyone I know has about tiny houses)

Well, first I light some candles and put on some Enya. Then I pray for a few minutes, and… KIDDING. My tiny house uses a simple composting toilet, sometimes referred to as a sawdust or humanure toilet. I chose this system because it allows me to park the tiny house even in locations where there are no septic or sewer utilities.

In practice, this means that there’s no flush. After using the toilette, any deposits that are made are covered with a clean, dry organic material, such as sawdust or wood shavings. Among other things, materials acts as a biofilter to absorb moisture and prevent smells from escaping the bucket while it’s in the bathroom. When the bucket is full, it is emptied into an outdoor compost pile, along with any kitchen/food scraps. I know it sounds scary, but it’s really not a big deal. This video provides a fantastic overview of the exterior composting process.

Millions of years of human development, and you choose to poop in a bucket? I don’t get it, Ethan. But I respect it. How big is your tiny house? How big are most of them? Do you ever get cabin fever?

The square footage of a traditional house is measured by its ground footprint, but that doesn’t take into account the “upstairs” space. On the inside, the footprint of my house is about 22’ by 7’, so the square footage is 154. However, the sleeping loft adds 11’ by 7’, for a total of 231 square feet.

To date I have not yet gotten cabin fever. The house has so many windows that it actually feels like you’re outside. Or at least, I feel way more connected to the outside than I do when I’m anywhere else. Also, you can always just go outside if it’s beginning to feel stuffy.

What are some of the ways you have to live differently in a tiny house you didn’t realize before moving in? Can you now fold yourself into a suitcase?

My biggest realization is that just because I live in a tiny house, doesn’t automatically mean I have a simpler life. Making your life simpler is a conscious choice that requires constant work to maintain. Sure, the tiny house helps me not buy extra clothes, decorative items, or man toys that I don’t really need (like giant stereos or big screen televisions). Storage place for clothes and other small items really hasn’t been an issue in the tiny house. I’d say the biggest change has been in the way that I buy refrigerated or frozen food: Since the house has only a tiny refrigerator and even smaller freezer (it’s about the size of a shoebox), I have to make more frequent trips to the grocery store and buy only small amounts of food at a time.

What was the move-in process like? Did you have to get rid of tons of stuff? Could I, for instance, bring my rusty car-parts collection with me or would that not fit?

The move-in process was very gradual. I had been preparing for over a year, so getting rid of stuff wasn’t much of an issue. I had already gotten rid of a lot of things. The biggest surprise of the move-in process was how much work was still left to be done: connecting the house to the utilities on site took a lot of time and effort, and it’s not something I read much about before doing it myself. Oh, and your rusty car parts probably wouldn’t fit in the tiny house, unless they were tiny rusty car parts, in which case there’s a nice storage basket under the couch for them.