how to fund a tiny house?

Fremont Bridge into fog, November 22, 2015 (iPhone photo)

This photo captured one weekend last fall encapsulates my recent mood: a foggy bridge headed . . . somewhere. Forward momentum into the unknown is both exciting and scary as hell. Cancer, though, has made me braver, if only to reinforce the tick-tock of the clock. As a result, I have even less to lose and more to gain by building a tiny house soon.

I know, for the most part, what I want my tiny house to look and feel like. And as I've said, I've already started the secondhand materials collection process. What I don't know is how to fund the house within a shortish time frame. It goes back to the dilemma of most folks either having more time than money or more money than time. For me, it's always been the former problem, though lately it has felt like I have neither time nor money.

To catch up anyone coming into this mid-story, I had been saving up to build a tiny house. I was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer. My savings evaporated into living expenses during six months of treatment. Now I'm back to square one with the tiny house, though with a big difference. While I lost over $7,000 in savings plus half a year of additional savings from earnings, I've gained a builder, my step-father, who has volunteered the labor. And since labor equates to at least half the expense of a building project, this is an enormous gift.

While many people build their own tiny houses to save money, learn new skills, and gain self-confidence, I've never been a person with a fondness for power tools. A significant number of people currently building tiny houses feel similarly and so pay others to build their houses. I see nothing wrong with this. Many things are more efficiently and successfully done by professionals (think: dentistry or brain surgery). A person either has serious interest in construction or she doesn't. If you want to learn how to build a house, then good for you. Go forth and channel your inner Lloyd Kahn. But if you have other interests you'd rather pursue, no worries. It won't negate the benefits of living small. Time is money if that time would be better spent making more money—or making us happier.

What I do have is strong interest in design and reuse (hence this blog), so naturally I am leading the design and materials sourcing for my tiny house. But others might prefer to outsource even the aesthetics of the process. Since the goal of simple living is to focus one's priorities and therefore clarify one's life, discarding the unused excess, there is no one-size-fits-all tiny house since everyone's priorities are different. A DIY house is great—unless construction is not what you enjoy doing. A self-designed house is perfect—unless you don't much care how your surroundings look or have trouble visualizing. Maybe you'd rather be surfing or gardening or building computers. Or maybe you really like working with wood but would rather contract out the electrical wiring and plumbing. The main dictate of simple living is an ancient maxim for good reason: Know yourself.

Because everyone has her own version of the good life, customization is vital to the whole tiny-house enterprise, even if that just means taking a little extra time choosing someone else's design that best fits how you want to live in a small space. For example, Do I want to climb up to a loft every night or sleep on one level? How much kitchen do I need? Where will I put my camping gear? Is a flush toilet a deal breaker? And so on.

stack of sliding glass doors at Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Portland (iPhone photo)

sliding glass door price tag, Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Portland (iPhone photo)

Many in the simple living community are anti-debt, a large part of why tiny housers are downsizing in the first place: to reduce or avoid debt after finding the traditional Western consumerist lifestyle wasn't working for them. They might be working too much, with too little savings or time for family, friends, and hobbies, and want to escape the mortgage, rent, credit card, or student loan treadmills and seek a higher quality of life. The price for this is downsizing.

People who build tiny houses typically go one of three routes (or some combination thereof) for funding. Some already have the money to pay for the venture outright, which usually means they're older or especially good savers. They might be baby boomers preparing to downsize out of a mortgage or those who want a second home or studio space. They either prepay a building company or self-build.

Others will get a loan of some kind—an RV loan, peer-to-peer loan, traditional mortgage (if buying land), or personal loan through a credit union—and then work to quickly pay off the loan within a few years while living in their new tiny house with reduced expenses. (See examples of tiny-home owners with loans here and here.) Some find that short-term debt, five years or less, is acceptable, particularly when living expenses in the tiny house drop far below previous amounts, even including the loan.

Those who want to avoid debt altogether must either prepay or go the self-built route, working for, buying materials, and building as they go. Many use reclaimed building materials to cut costs. Macy Miller, a trained architect, downsized, self-designed, and self-built. PAD's Dee Williams, one of the original tiny-house-on-wheels builders, also was a downsizer who self-built. Both used at least some reclaimed materials in their tiny houses. Because of my cancer diagnosis and unpredictable future health, I am even more debt-adverse than before and so am planning to self-fund the materials while working and saving, even though that means stretching out the building time frame into possibly a few years. (As a side note, few people manage to crowdfund a tiny house for themselves, mostly because there's typically no product to give back to the people donating.)

While facing the reality of these funding issues has been disheartening (because I'd like to get started on the build this summer but probably can't), I do now have my trailer company picked out, Iron Eagle Trailers located nearby in Fairview, Oregon (aka Troutdale). My step-father initially had wanted to build the trailer himself as an experienced amateur welder, thinking he could save me money. He even considered buying a used trailer and rehabbing it. But it turns out the savings for either isn't much compared to buying new, while we could greatly benefit from the knowledge and expertise of trailer professionals for what quite literally is the foundation of my future house. They were the ones who knew how much maximum weight a bumper pull hitch could handle, a figure we hadn't come across in all our online research. For this and other reasons, PAD recommends buying a new trailer as well as new structural materials, with reclaimed materials used only for finishes.

So maybe the frustrating time frame delay on the build while working to amass savings will ultimately prove a huge benefit, allowing us both more time for research and planning. Measure twice, cut once, right?

If building a tiny house, how would you fund it?


  1. It's nice to hear your tiny house progress. Maybe you could sell ad space on this blog? How about a benefit concert or art show (know any musicians or artists)? Maybe you could write something under a pen name and sell ebooks. Or buy and sell on ebay, I know you are good at that! Lots of possibilities...

  2. I've still never sold anything on eBay, though it's on the to-do list. I do need to come up with additional income generators aside from my job and Craigslist. Thanks for the ideas, Carol.


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