Sunday, May 1, 2016

We Answer BuzzFeed's 41 Questions: "Dear 'Tiny House Hunters' people..."

We Answer Every Single One of BuzzFeed's "41 questions for 'Tiny House Hunters' People..." 

It's a cold, rainy Sunday, so why not?

1. What actually qualifies, in your mind, as a “tiny house”?

There are three criteria: 1) a place you can own outright without going into debt or converting your parents' basement into a slightly improved version of your high school hangout  2) under 250 sq ft per person 
3) a comfortable, dignified, personalized home that meets your needs.

2. Have you ever seen a studio apartment in Manhattan, and if so, would you consider that to fall under those criteria?

Before we met each other, Adam rented a 240 sq ft Manhattan studio for a couple years and Karen lived in a 300 sq ft studio apartment in a trendy NJ suburb. We each paid around $1,400/month. There's really no comparison to a tiny house. Our rents were high and increased every year. We had no equity. We didn't have enough space for hobbies (art & random projects like home brewing). Our homes were essentially rectangles filled with stuff. Our apartments revolved around commuting and access to the city. For a while that was great but around the time we met, we both started to wish for a more personalized home.
3. Was your realtor a little annoyed because they knew their commission wouldn’t be as much?

Nah. Our realtor, Mariel, is AMAZING. She just cares about finding people the home that works for their individual situation, no matter the size or the price. Unless it's a small single family home on a foundation, buying a tiny home is not going to be a standard real estate transaction. In our case, buying the land was the only normal process. After that, we acted as our own general contractor, coordinating between the builder (Bungalow in a Box), local officials in the building department, several subcontractors, and -- of course -- lots of deliveries and Home Depot trips for all the D-I-Y projects.

Mariel consulted for us while buying the land because we had no idea what we were doing. But when it came time for closing, we represented ourselves in the final real estate transaction in order to save money. 

Tiny homes call for nontraditional realtor situations. If you need help with any part of your process, our advice is to find someone who isn't just driven by commission and who actually cares about your needs. That could be a builder like Raoul at Bunglow In a Box, a caring knowledgeable realtor like Mariel, or even a friend in the construction business.

4. Are there tiny house fixer-uppers and short sales, or is that just for bigger houses?

Short sales are partially a sad byproduct of a predatory housing market that puts people into homes they can't afford. Tiny houses can help good people escape the boom and bust cycles of the economy. The point is to own a place that will adapt to your lifestyle, not weigh you down financially. 

As for fixer-uppers, yeah, you can find them in every size range, in every location. Buying a small fixer-upper is a great path to home ownership if you're the kind of person who cares more about location than granite countertops. We have friends who found fixer-uppers in prime neighborhoods. They are winning by avoiding a giant mortgage on a place that some flipper or developer already stripped the value out of. It's called sweat equity for a reason.

5. Be honest — how much did you really know about yurts before starting your tiny house hunt?

Strangely enough, the humble yurt was our first real tiny house idea. We were talking about building a yurt into the hillside right above a giant flat boulder on our land.

6. Be honest — how much do you really know about yurts even after getting a tiny house?

It's a lightweight, inexpensive way to put a roof over your head. If we build a guest cottage for friends and family to visit, it might be a yurt...or an Airstream...or a converted school bus. Who knows.

The yurt got ruled out when we decided to build a code-compliant cabin-style house. A yurt would need to be deeded as a "recreational cabin" in PA, which prevents you from using it as a residence. Other states have different regs where a yurt might be allowed as a residence.

7. If you had a larger family, would you still want to do the tiny house thing?

Yes. The values of self-sufficiency and adaptation that go along with building a tiny house are priceless qualities to share with the next generation.

8. If so…why? (I’m looking at you, family with four kids.)

The suburban ideal where everyone has their own cavernous spaces to retreat to can be really sad and broken. With a tiny house, we can always add on to give family members the privacy they need but we don't need to jump into a drafty, expensive four bedroom house from day one.

We've seen the tiny house family with multiple kids and think that it's really a stretch but who are we to judge if they're all on-board with it? Our biggest question is ventilation/safety. With four people inside a very tiny house (under 250 square ft total) there needs to be some kind of outside air exchange. Just for people breathing, never mind using a stove or other combustion device. We hope folks building tiny houses on wheels will be smart about constant ventilation systems, CO detectors, and even a CO2 / propane detector to keep everyone safe.

Folks who have multiple people in a tiny house or even one person living there year-round should look into an ERV device (energy recovery ventilator) to keep the air fresh without losing heat.

9. What does the rest of your family think about your decision to live in a tiny house?

Karen's cousin happens to be a teenage tiny house visionary. Maybe it runs in the family? General reactions in the family have been supportive. Our parents and relatives have all pitched in on various projects. It's brought everyone together on many occasions. That's the boring but true answer!

10. If you want a pet, does it need to be a tiny pet, like a hamster or something?

Common sense prevails here. It's not humane to have a large dog in a tiny apartment unless there's sufficient outdoor space to roam. Nine times out of ten if you encounter a bizarro oddity of a pet (tiger, pocket dog, whatever), it's going to belong to someone living in a full-sized house or eccentric mansion. 

Karen is in charge of making sure that our tiny house makes several critical accommodations for our two cats. These include: a way to make sure they don't escape (they're indoor cats), shelves / ledges for the cats to do their cat-like roaming on both levels, and a way to conceal the litter box for both odor control and appearance.

11. How frequently do you plan on moving your house around, if at all?

The land we put our tiny house on is more important to us than the house itself. Not all tiny houses are on wheels. Ours has a foundation so it will never move.

12. How do you choose which friend’s place to park your house at until you can buy your own plot of land?

Well, this question opens up a topic that we're pretty passionate about. In most cities, it's a myth that you can just plop a tiny house down at a friend's house for any length of time. It's illegal in every single transit-connected town in New Jersey that we've looked into. We are working on deeper dive article on this topic to draw attention to what's really a crisis in affordable, dignified housing for young people. Stay tuned...

13. Do your friends actually want you to come and stay on their property for an undetermined period of time, or are they just being nice?

When people get together, good things happen. Multifamily housing traditionally benefits wealthy landlords. Tiny houses represent a paradigm shift where friends and family can share properties but retain their independence. These new, nontraditional living situations offer amazing potential to be supportive environments for singles, couples, new parents and retirees.

14. Is it tough to get someone to come and install cable and wifi?

Probably but most tiny house owners are cord-cutters anyway. There's a trend toward people ditching landline cable and internet for 100% wireless internet through their phones. Today, about 7% of Americans access the Internet only through their mobile phone.

15. What does it take to disaster-proof a tiny house (as in, prepare for earthquakes, tornadoes, etc.)?

Mobile tiny houses can be moved in advance of a disaster that offers ample warning, such as a hurricane or severe tropical storm. This is a HUGE advantage over traditional homes in coastal areas where major storms often create a massive loss of property. With sea level rise compounding storm intensity, tiny homes may soon have increased relevance in coastal areas where traditional buildings become uninsurable.

Tornados are a different story. Most tiny homes of the DIY variety do not offer adequate protection in tornado zones, but there are pre-fab models claiming to be tornado proof. Like any stick built (wood framed) home, tiny house owners in tornado alley should have underground shelters.

Earthquakes and tiny homes are probably a safe match, as the tiny home will tend to move with the forces, not break under them. However, we aren't aware of any official tests.

16. How do you decide which possessions of yours to get rid of if there’s not a lot of storage?

In every apartment we've lived in, we've gone through a regular process of decluttering. There's a solid method for paring down that involves separating stuff into three piles: 1) Keep  2) Donate  3) Recycle.  Our secret for keeping the tiny house clutter-free is to avoid accumulating things that do not serve a purpose in the first place.

17. Do you have to be a really neat person to live in such a small space?

Not really, the house design makes it easy to be neat. You have to be a really imaginative person who can see beyond stuff and appreciate the real value of living in a smaller space with less crap.

18. Like, can you just take your shoes off and throw them on the floor like most people, or do you have to put everything in a very specific place?

We do most of the stuff that most people do when they come home including tossing shoes and coats. Eventually, we find ourselves stepping over the clutter and we know it's time to stow things in their proper place. Our tiny house gets much less cluttered than any normal sized house we've ever lived in. You physically cannot move or function when everything is out of place. We've lived in larger homes that needed a full on decontamination every six months because stuff just accumulates. A tiny house frees you from that issue.

19. Do you ever get claustrophobic?

On the coldest, cloudiest days of winter we've bordered on cabin fever a couple times. But eventually the sun comes out and we can get outdoors and it's alright.

20. Do people even come over at all? Like, can they fit?

Lil' Jon has a tiny house bumping on FYI. 

Of course! We started a tradition of hosting 40+ friends and family for a BBQ and camping weekend each summer. No one is in the house except for a quick tour or to use the bathroom or shower. We're outside playing beer pong, cooking and telling stories around a bonfire at night. No one misses a full-sized house when they're there to enjoy each others' company.

21. When is the last time you threw a dinner party, and how did that work?

Just put a Twister mat down on the floor and go to town, of course.  Appetizers go on green dots. Entrees on red dots. Desserts on blue dots.

22. Is it awkward when you have guests over and someone needs to fart in such a small space?

It's awkward when someone needs to fart in ANY confined space...a shared office, your living room, right next to you on a plane or train, under the covers, etc. We like to think that the high ceilings might play a role in airing out the place. It's never been a problem.

23. Is it even more awkward if someone needs to poop?

We implemented a number of elaborate and successful strategies that make pooping in our tiny house a very private, safe and normal experience. The bathroom has a window that opens and a powered fan that vents to the outside. The fan is capable of changing out all the air in the bathroom once every 3 minutes. Whoosh.

24. And can everyone hear you peeing?

If they can, they've been polite about it so far. The bathroom has insulated walls on all sides (including the ceiling). Karen installed a "door sweep" that blocks that usual gap beneath the door with a flexible rubber strip. She also was responsible for the brilliant idea to get a loud bathroom fan instead of a fancy super-quiet model.

25. Is there soundproofing…at all?

Image credit. 

Our tiny house has no neighbors within earshot. It’s very peaceful.

We do have a "problem" with an annoying robin who shows up at 6am sharp to peck at his reflection in our stainless steel stovepipe. We are working on a way to repel him.

26. Can you have ~overnight visitors~ without things getting uncomfortable?

Our guests sleep on a comfy air mattress downstairs. We take the beds in the loft. With 12 acres to roam, our "overnight visitors" are free to "take a walk" if they wish.

27. How often do you hit your head on the ceiling when you wake up?

Hasn't happened yet. We roll out of bed, zombie-walk to the coffee maker, and don't bother to make the bed.

28. Are there tiny bed frames for sale somewhere or do you just have to put your mattress directly on the floor?

We built our bed frames in one afternoon from standard lumber for a cost of less than $100 while watching stuff on Netflix. There's lots of room underneath for storage. By ditching the conventional "box spring" we got bonus storage space and the bed sits lower to the ground too. I think it's called a platform bed frame.

29. Why do you seem to expect that a full-sized kitchen will fit into your 150 sq. foot house?

The kitchen is the heart of most houses. We think most people try to hold on to normalcy by replicating full-sized kitchen features in a tiny house. Technically our kitchen occupies less than 80 square feet. It has a 4-burner stove, decent sized fridge & freezer, full-sized enameled cast iron sink, and lots of cabinets. 

Our homemade kitchen table is at counter height so it can do triple duty as a prep surface, table and bar.

30. Oh, and do you end up having to order a lot of takeout because the kitchens are so small?

We cook way more at the tiny house than we did in our previous apartments. It's mostly because we picked a rural location where a pizza run involves a 45-minute round trip.

31. Are you hoping to put in tiny granite countertops, at least?

No way! Here's the deal with granite countertops: they'll be unfashionable within the next 10 years. It's artificial cycles created by the home improvement industry and advertisers that make people feel compelled to renovate perfectly good home features. 

Also, did you know granite countertops are radioactive? Yeah, they actually set off radiation detectors at ports and trucking checkpoints all the time. The amount of radon gas produced might be minimal but we would never recommend putting granite (or any other off-gassing materials) in a tightly sealed tiny house.

We went with wood butcher block countertops. They're gorgeous to look at and we can refinish them over and over again. When our counters wear out, we'll sand them down, refinish them and they'll look brand new.

32. Do you have to take out the trash all the time so it doesn’t start to stink up the whole house?

Yes. Just like in every apartment we've ever lived in. Next question.

33. What’s up with those bathrooms that are just a toilet, shower, and sink combined into the same 10 square feet?

Those are called "wet baths" -- a concept in some tiny homes that takes a page from RV design. The whole bathroom sheds water to a floor drain. Because the toilet, sink, walls, floor and cabinetry are all designed to get wet, these baths can naturally be more compact and are easy to clean.

Our bathroom is 30 square feet, more like a guest bathroom in a normal house than most tiny house bathrooms. The main reason for the roominess is to comply with the minimum fixture sizes and spacing rules spelled out in the International Residential Code. Yep, there's actually a building code saying that a toilet needs to have 15" of clearance on each side, as measured from the centerline of the fixture.

34. Why do you always ask if a bathtub will fit in your tiny house? IT WON’T.

Haven't taken a bath in years. No idea what those people are thinking. Easier to bathe little kids perhaps? 

Sort of related, we are working on building a wood-fired hot tub that overlooks the waterfall. That's a lot more fun to talk about than why a bathtub won't fit in a tiny house.

35. Do you ever have a hard time maneuvering in the shower and just give up trying to get fully clean?

We picked a tiny shower stall that features a curved sliding glass door. It gives you more elbow room than a squared off shower. A rain shower head directly overhead means that you don't need to find an awkward angle to get clean. 

For tiny house builders, the shower size is another thing that is dictated by the International Residential Code. Code does not apply to tiny houses on wheels but it applies to our place.

36. Is it hard to get up the ladder to the loft/sleeping area after having a few drinks?

The tiny house loft staircases are steeper than normal and require keeping both hands on the railings. So far there have not been any incidents. So far.

37. How many times have you fallen off the ladder/loft?

The loft has 36” high railings that are extremely sturdy -- made from 4x4 posts and ½” steel rebar spaced close together (another code requirement). Perhaps other tiny house owners that skirted the building code will have more interesting catastrophe stories.

38. If there are two people and one wants to sleep while the other wants to stay awake, how do you choose if the light stays on or goes off?

1, 2, 3, 4 I declare a thumb war.

39. Do you ever get into fights because of noise/light issues like this?

Lately the robin who incessantly pecks at his reflection at 6am is the guy we are both united in war against.

40. Is there even enough space to have a fight?

Probably but we built the tiny house and our furniture together as a couple so it's easy not to fight. Instead we're constantly appreciating how far the project has come and talking about the next project e.g. a quiet camping spot in the woods or wood-fired hot tub.

41. And do you feel silly when you complain about not having enough space for something and then remember that, like…you chose to live in a tiny house?

We feel so, so silly all the time. 

We feel silly every time no mortgage bill or rent bill arrives in the mail. 

We feel silly when no utility bill comes because we are 100% off-the-grid using solar power and batteries, a drinking water well, and septic system. 

We are truly oblivious fools who had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we spent years saving up for our tiny house and months planning and building a small but efficient space that meets our needs. 

We feel silly about learning new skills, designing a home from scratch, and being able to share the experience with friends. 

It's all so silly, yo!

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