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Tiny Retirement: Is It for You?

7 things to consider before buying a tiny home

spinner image Tiny houses in Madison Wisconsin
Tiny houses located in Madison, Wisconsin.
Tim Clark/Alamy

It’s not hard to understand the appeal of tiny houses. They can be very cute, of course. But beyond that, they epitomize a simplified life while providing an opportunity both to significantly reduce your living expenses and to be more mobile.

That helps explain why, according to industry estimates, as much as 40 percent of the market for tiny houses is made up of people older than 50. If anything, that percentage is expected to grow as more boomers enter retirement and explore more affordable lifestyles.

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Yet for all the seeming benefits, the commitment to a tiny-home life is not necessarily an easy one. It involves some tough personal decisions and understanding that it’s a housing choice that comes with legal, logistical and psychological hurdles.

So before taking the plunge, it’s a good idea to ask yourself some questions. Here are seven important ones. 

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1. Do you have a place to put your tiny home?

This could be the biggest challenge of all, and one that often isn’t fully appreciated by those new to the movement. Because they’re still a relatively new trend, tiny houses aren’t specifically addressed in most local zoning ordinances or building codes. When the structures are on wheels, they usually are categorized as recreational vehicles (RVs). As such, they’re considered temporary residences, and owners can be ordered to move them within a certain period of time. Even if you want to put a tiny house on a foundation on land you own, it might be smaller than the minimum square footage a local municipality requires for a home to be considered a permanent residence. More communities are starting to take a closer look at how to treat tiny houses. But do yourself a favor and research local laws and regulations before you go all in. If you’re an older person looking to settle down in a tiny house, you probably don’t want to be living with the possibility that you could be ordered to move.

2. Aside from the cost of the house, what are other potential expenses?

There’s no question that going the tiny house route can significantly reduce living expenses. The cost of building one yourself averages under $25,000, while having a builder do the job roughly doubles the cost. Utility bills are obviously lower than for a larger house and, usually, so are such things as food expenses: With less storage, people cut back on what they buy. But it is more difficult to get financing for a tiny house — although there are now more options than a few years ago — and the rates tend to be higher than for a conventional house. Also, if you choose to put the house on a foundation, you’re likely going to have to buy land or pay rent to use it. If, instead, you want your house to be more mobile, you don’t just need a vehicle powerful enough to tow it — and the gas and maintenance costs that come with that — but also a trailer that’s suitable. There are now trailers designed specifically for hauling tiny houses, and they can run from $4,000 to $6,000. On the road, RV parks and their hookups are the easiest option, and some are starting to set aside sections for tiny homes. The fees can range from $25 to $75 a night or $400 and up a month.

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3. Are you sure you’ll be able to live in such a small space with another person?

It’s an obvious question, but one that needs to be given serious thought. You’d be living in a few hundred square feet of space, so you won’t have much in the way of privacy or solitude. In short, you’re always going to pretty much be in the same room as your partner. This could be good for your relationship, but it’s also why veterans of tiny-home living suggest that you may want to try a small rental space first, such as a studio apartment, or a tiny-house vacation rental.

4. Are you prepared to make tough decisions in culling your possessions?

Ask any tiny-house owner who has done this, and they’ll tell you this can be the hardest part of embracing a minimalist lifestyle. Getting rid of stuff is no small matter for people who have been accumulating things for decades and have held on to them largely for personal and sentimental reasons. “Downsizing is a huge challenge for just about everyone, particularly seniors,” said Pat Dunham, on her website Tiny House Advisor. “They have all their mother’s stuff and everything they’ve saved from their kids all these years. I really believe people need help making these decisions.” Adds Ryan Mitchell, who runs the Tiny Life website: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from people whose parents have left them all this stuff. They don’t want it, they don’t need it, but they feel so guilty about getting rid of it.” Then there are things that aren’t even about sentiment. “My wife asked me why I had a dozen coffee cups when I always drank from the same one,” said John Kernohan, who with his wife, Fin, runs several tiny-house festivals. Tiny-house veterans will tell you that the culling process usually gets easier over time, and that once people move into a home, they become much less acquisitive, first out of necessity, then habit. Still, many can’t toss out family mementos and end up renting storage units. 

5. Do you have an active social life?

The consensus among those who have long been involved in the tiny-house movement is that the older people who seem to adjust best to the lifestyle are those who spend a lot of time outside their homes. If you’re spending most of your days in such a small space, its limitations can seem more frustrating and constraining. That’s less likely if it’s more a home base from which you regularly venture out to engage with the community. Conversely, if you like to entertain, a tiny house probably isn’t for you for obvious reasons, including having a very basic kitchen. That’s why it’s important to give a lot of thought to what truly makes you happy.

6. Do your hobbies take up a lot of room?

This is related to the previous question. Often, people view retirement as an opportunity to throw themselves into hobbies they never seemed to have time for when they were working or raising a family. If you’re someone who loves to find bargains at flea markets, space could become an issue pretty quickly. Even something like scrapbooking requires storage space, although people who are committed to a hobby can find ways to make it work. But tiny living is about being both resourceful and disciplined, and you should be prepared to zero in on an activity that won’t take over your home.

7. Have you thought about aging in a tiny space?

In the early days of tiny houses — when the market was largely young adults looking for affordable housing or people wanting to live, as much as possible, off the grid — features such as loft beds became pretty standard. They were an efficient way to create a “bedroom” using horizontal space. But for older folks, climbing up into a loft every night can lose its charm in a hurry. That’s led to changes in the designs of tiny homes purchased by people less likely to build their own. As more older people have come into the market, they want a bedroom on the main floor,” said Darin Zaruba, a longtime tiny house builder and founder of the National Tiny House Jamboree. “And, we’re getting more calls from people who want tiny homes that are ADA (American Disabilities Act) compliant.” Tiny homes, he pointed out, are becoming an option for aging in place, so it’s a good idea when buying one or having one built to project into a future when you’re less flexible and mobile. Efficiency is obviously important, but not at the price of being anxious about moving around in your own home.

As Zaruba put it, a tiny house is a product and a philosophy. So before you make the move, be sure to weigh its impact as both. Keep in mind that getting to simplicity isn’t always simple.

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