By Jennifer M. Aguilar
Have you become obsessed with the idea of small house living, thanks to shows like Tiny House Living, Tiny House Nation, and Tiny House, Big Living? If so, you’re not alone. The small home craze seems to be sweeping America, big time, and with plenty of good reasons. A smaller home means a smaller mortgage, fewer furnishings, fewer belongings in general, and less cleaning, which is certainly a major plus! Of course small house living is also about having more: more financial freedom and more time to spend on things other than keeping house. But what’s it like to actually live in a relatively tiny home, and does the reality live up to the HGTV-inspired hype?
For years, Illinois natives Terra and Shannon Mathers lived like so many of their Texas neighbors, believing bigger was better particularly where their homes were concerned. After marrying and moving to the “land of milk and honey,” as Terra called North Texas, they lived with their children in two homes well over 2,500 square feet.
But as their older children grew up and moved out, the couple realized they might no longer need as much house. More importantly, they realized they might actually be able to have a happier life in a much smaller home.
“As our older two boys moved on to college we didn’t see the need for 5 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, a game room, dining room, kitchen, living room, study and media room and the 3,800 square feet to keep clean,” Mathers said.
Terra admits that Shannon was on board with the idea of a major downsize long before she felt ready. But once they were on the same page, the fun began – dreaming up and designing a sustainably built, small home. Eventually, they agreed to convert three shipping containers into their family abode! But that meant spending a year, during the reconstruction, living in an RV.
“I have to say the RV just about drove us crazy, but we learned a lot of patience, I got really inventive at making meals for a lot of people on a tiny stove and grill, and we got rid of lots of stuff! Our house now seems like a mansion compared to the RV,” she said.
Now in their shipping container-turned-tiny home, the family admits things can be trying at-times. Organization, in particular, has proven an ongoing labor of love, but for the most part, the family seems content with the lifestyle they’ve chosen, and even the unique challenges it has created.
“We have downsized in every aspect of our life… We still need to get rid of more. It is still a daily process reducing what we own,” she said.
It seems to help that the family tends to focus on what they’ve gained from their relocation, rather than fixating on what they have been forced to let go.
Many would think such close quarters would be a nightmare for teenagers, and their parents for that matter. But for the most part, the Mathers have been happy with the arrangement.
“Our son, Garrett, age 15, was telling me how beautiful a friend’s house was that he had stayed overnight at… he then told me how it had got him thinking how he had spent the weekend there and he didn’t even know if his friend’s sister was in the house because he never saw her. He said, ‘in our house I always know where everyone is at and what is happening. I talk to you (referring to me) all the time. I would rather have a small house where we live our life together every minute.’ Pretty profound for a teenage boy!”
It also helps that while the Mathers home is considerably smaller than their last, their yard is much bigger, and that’s putting it mildly. The Mathers traded in their suburban yard for nearly 20 acres of property, which gives them ample opportunities to spread out, simply outside instead of in.
“I love gardening and raising animals and working on the never ending projects. I have designed a permaculture plan for our 20 acres and we are working on that constantly,” she said.
They’ve created swales to collect ground water in the soil, and dug a pond. They’ve also planted nearly 50 fruit trees, along with grapevines, and several berry patches. They’re also raising chickens and turkeys.
Eventually, they also plan to finish a covered back deck, and to create a green- house where they can grow even more food for their family. But they don’t seem to be rushing the process too much. On the contrary, they seem to be enjoying learning along the way. “We love being outside and working towards our dreams coming to fruition,” Mathers said.
In many ways, they’ve made the land their homestead, in a way most modern homeowners never get the chance.
But those aren’t the only benefits of living in a small home. “Something else to be said here, I believe, is the financial security we have now. We lived like no one in America wants to for over a year so we can live like most people can’t at a young age,” Mathers said.
Though the couple was always accustomed to making a “good, middle class income,” as she put it, they still struggled for years to try to save any money at all. Terra works as a teacher and coach, while Shannon is a network engineer. “Every month we spent what we made, or we would have savings and something would come up and we would need to spend it,” she said.
Then, Shannon’s employer at the time went bankrupt, and he lost his job. “It hurt financially and made us realize we needed financial security in a way we didn’t have at the time,” Mathers said. “We thought the best way to do that would be to reduce our biggest cost, which was housing. We came up with the idea to build a small home, as sustainably as possible, and with cash money as we went.”
From that point, the Mathers made it a point to stick to their financial goals, and to do so as a family. “We have chosen to live below our means – which is rare today… It is important for our children to understand why we have made the decision we have made so they don’t make a mistake of being a slave to a huge house payment or to the standards that society tries to dictate as success. Our thought on building cash is to be debt-free so that when our youngest graduates high school Shannon and I can semi-retire and travel,” she said.
While striving to stay within their budget, the Mathers also prioritized finding sustainable products. “A small home was important to us for many reasons. One reason was to minimize our footprint/impact on the world. We wanted to use as many recycled or second-hand or eco-friendly products as possible,” she said.
Of course, the Mathers recognize that not everyone is ready to undertake building their own tiny home. Fortunately, for those interested in downsizing without all the material sourcing and sweat equity, Otis Devine is a seller of some seriously small homes.
Though marketed primarily as tiny guesthouses, the prefabricated homes he sells in Lavon seem to be catching people’s interest as primary residences, as well. Devine offers clients floor plans that range from just under 400 square feet to about 600 square feet, and they come in 1 to 3 bedroom options. Though notably small, he says their 12-foot width helps them to feel more spacious. But Devine seemed to think it is the freedom these small homes represent that can be a really big selling point to buyers.
It’s not just about manageable mortgage payments, either, he said. Even after homes have been paid off, often only after a person has already reached retirement age, the ongoing property taxes can be a debilitating financial burden. “I think it’s the overall cost, ” he said, “We’ve reached the point where people can’t afford the property taxes, either…People just can’t afford homes anymore.”
To Devine and the customers interested in his truly tiny homes, the appeal of a small house is not only the financial freedom it offers in the form of lower house payments, initially, but also in lower property taxes throughout life. He says they are actually a great option for retirees, worried about being able to afford increasingly large taxes on homes much bigger than they might actually need.
A millennial makes a choice
Of course, those nearing retirement aren’t the only ones worried about financial freedom. Joy Robbins is still in her early 30s, but that hasn’t stopped her from wanting to make responsible choices of her own, both for her personal future and for that of the planet. That is why she is currently in the process of building a home in Celina that will be less than 200-square feet, or approximately ¼ the size of her current apartment.
Though small in stature, the home will be located on a portion of a 5-acre farm, suddenly giving this long-time apartment dweller unfettered access to wide open spaces. And in many ways, the choice to build a small home seems centered around the unprecedented freedom it will offer her.
“I started considering building my own small home as rent and housing prices in North Texas began to increase beyond the 25-30% of income that financial sources recommend. I wanted to proactively avoid a future where I would fall into a cycle of working to pay rent and paying rent to live close to work,” Robbins said. “I want to show up to my job every day knowing that it is my choice to be there. I want to work because I believe in what I am doing, without having my career choices decided by the dollar amount I need to make a mortgage payment,” she said.
“When I realized that a small house would give me the freedom I wanted, it put the sacrifices involved in tiny living into perspective. If life is a balancing act between comfort and freedom, I am at a place in life where I want to tip the scales toward freedom.”
While many millennials dream of mini mansions nestled in the suburbs or open and updated lofts in downtown skyscrapers, that isn’t for Robbins. “As an adult living in the suburbs, I have met many people who are miserable under expensive mortgages, home repairs, and renovations. My view of the ‘American dream’ of home ownership has been tempered with reality,” she said. Fortunately for her, the tiny home will actually be pretty close to the “dream home” she envisioned for herself, as a kid. “I had the typical ‘80s kid fantasy of living in a treehouse like in the movie The Sandlot,” Robbins said. “And I am not sure I have matured much past that! I dreamed of a home that would be a launchpad to adventure.”
Plus, the small house represents a way for Robbins to live out her values. Rather than working to pay for a large home, she will be focusing her attention, and her hard-earned dollars, on leaving a small carbon footprint, something she’s incredibly passionate about.
“As a serial renter, I suppose I should be most excited about finally moving into a home I own, but I am actually most excited about everything that comes after moving in. My small house gives me the freedom to dream big about how my home can make the community and the environment a better place. I can add rainwater collection, a bicycle-powered washing machine, and an exterior botanical cell sewage treatment system… And those are just a few of the ideas I have in mind!” Robbins said.
She’s also excited about the energy she, herself, will have to put into this new place, and also a new lifestyle. “Instead of spending hours searching for my next apartment to rent, I can spend my energy on researching innovative ways to improve my everyday life, my community, and the environment.”
Committed to serve, committed to save
Like Robbins, Ginger Shocklee is another proud small homeowner, just outside the city limits of Wylie. In fact, she is so passionate about what it represents that she also runs a non-profit called The Bridge Connection, aimed at helping provide families with sustainable, small homes.
For her family of five, choosing to sell their larger home to live debt-free in a smaller house, meant simplifying their lifestyle so they can give even more to their community.
“There are several reasons we were drawn to tiny house living. First, we get calls a lot through our nonprofit for people that are experiencing homelessness. When praying, we asked God how we could help. The answer was to sell our 4 bedroom 2 1/2 bath home and become debt-free.”
Since the house was the final debt they had yet to pay off, they were able to sell it in order to fund their much smaller home. It is 258 square feet, to be exact, yet it serves as a comfortable home for Ginger, her husband, and their three kids, plus three inside dogs!
“Once this one is finished we will start another one, and so on, as we have cash to do so. These houses will be offered to those in need of affordable housing and those who don’t mind a very simplified lifestyle,” Shocklee said. In this way, small house living is actually pivotal to the vision for The Bridge Connection. “As soon as we can obtain a piece of land, our vision is to have 20 tiny houses placed on it at a low affordable rate and live in a community environment… We want to build a tiny house village that will give opportunities for much needed affordable housing in this area,” she said.
Like the Mathers, Shocklee feels that the benefits of living small are many. “First, tiny house living offers us a debt-free lifestyle. Second, with such a small space you become closer as a family. Third, it is a very simple no frills way of living,” she said. In fact, while their small house was still being built, the entire family moved in. “Our kids have adapted well to first living in a shell of the home we were building with no plumbing or electricity for weeks. It teaches them life skills far beyond what most their age get to experience,” she said. Even now, they’ve chosen not to furnish the home with a traditional stove, oven or dishwasher. Instead, she says, they’ve chosen to get creative with how they cook, and simply how they live.
Of course, small homes are also more sustainable for the environment, which seems to be a draw for many tiny home dwellers. “Sustainable living means less impact on the environment around us. Our house is made out of mostly recycled materials. The shell is made from a shed and the back of a box truck. The interior includes walls, floors, and shelving made from reclaimed pallets, etc.,” she said.
Like the Mathers, they too have made the most of their land as an extension of their living space, and have already begun using it to grow food, and raise chickens and pigs.
During her life Shocklee, herself, has lived in a mobile home, apartments, with friends and family members, and in hotel rooms, during a period of homelessness. She later owned a 2,000 square foot home, before downsizing to her current tiny home. And though, as a kid, she said she dreamed of a big house, as most kids do, she has since changed her tune.
“It has been quite a journey over the last year, but I would not trade the experience or the lifestyle for anything,” she said.
Advice for those seeking a simpler life
Of course, all three women seem keenly aware of the fact that not everyone will be willing or able to make such a leap to tiny living. It’s important to enter such a big decision united, as a family. “If you are interested in living a simpler life in a much smaller footprint, pray first as a family and make sure your kids are on board with the change. I have rock stars for kids and they have adapted almost seamlessly; however, we all agreed to do this as a family before we made the change,” Shocklee said.
Unity is, perhaps, of special importance when living in such tight quarters. If you can agree, though, small homes sure seem to present a great adventure. “We know we are one family, but if we reduce our waste as much as we have and other families do the same, we will preserve our world for future generations, I hope!” Mathers said.
Plus, everyone can do some things to help minimize their impact on the earth. Those tackling necessary home renovations, for instance, can seek out sustainable choices. “If you are building a home or refurnishing out of necessity then I would say do your homework. The internet has a wealth of information on being sustainable and on eco-friendly products Don’t think that you can’t do something,” Mathers said, proudly referencing the fact that her family has managed to build its entire house based largely on tutorials from YouTube!
Though Robbins was hesitant to offer advice to those interested in taking the tiny house plunge, since she has not yet moved into her own, she was willing to share what she has already learned along the way.
“I am probably too early in the process to be sharing advice, but I will anyway because it has been so important to me. In all my research from other small space builders, I heard over and over that the key to avoid getting overwhelmed is to break down the building process into baby steps. You only have to become an expert on one step at a time. Even though I have no construction experience at all, I can stay optimistic about my ability to handle the next baby step as long as I keep that laser focus.”
“There is a cost in both time and money to build sustainably. It will take me longer to build with salvaged materials, such as discarded wooden pallets gathered from construction sites, than materials I can buy new at a store. In many cases, I am paying more than I had originally budgeted to buy eco-friendly materials, such as cork flooring and milk paint. But making sustainable choices in building a small home feels less like sacrifice and more like making my own unique contribution to the world,” Robbins said.
“I truly believe your dollar is your most powerful vote,” Robbins said. “I want to make deliberate choices with my money to reflect my values. Every dollar I spend on building my small home over the next 8 months is a vote for what I believe in, including solar energy and water conservation.”
Of course, making any sustainable choices can help make a difference. “I think the biggest sustainable choice is to ask yourself if you really need a new, bigger home?… To each his own, but do you want a mortgage when you are 65? We don’t,” Mathers said. And the same principle can easily be applied to shopping, as well.
Even for those not ready to downsize to a smaller house, it’s still possible to downsize belongings. “My advice to downsizing is to not feel like you have to do it all at once. For example, clean out your closet every Saturday with a goal in mind. Maybe it is to get rid of everything that doesn’t fit anymore, then next time everything you haven’t worn in the last year, then get rid of 25 more items, etc. etc. Pretty soon getting rid of stuff becomes fun and it begins to mean freedom,” Mathers said. “You don’t even realize it until you are living with less and you are just as happy, or in our case, happier!”
And happiness seems to be a common thread behind choosing tiny house living, and all that it represents, namely acceptance that for many, less stuff and a smaller home, can actually bring about an abundance of joy!
*To follow the Shocklees journey: www.thebridgeconnection.org/hope-village.html)
*Want to know how to build a shipping container home? Read the Mathers blog www.asustainabledream.com.
Buy a pre-built smaller home –Call Otis Devine at 469-766-9725 or visit Nortex Tiny Home Sales in Nevada