What exactly is the 'tiny house movement'?

Small houses are an increasingly enticing alternative for minimalists who want to live mortgage free. Could you do it?

Tiny houses first were first in the media spotlight in 2005 when they were used to house victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. If the idea of having more money to spend on travel, going out and having fun appeals then maybe a ‘tiny house’ is for you.

WYZA spoke to real estate expert Stewart Bunn, a licensed agent with more than twenty years of experience in the industry and First National Real Estate’s National Communications Manager, to find out exactly what the ‘tiny house movement’ is all about.

Q. What exactly is the ‘tiny house movement’?
The tiny house movement is the global trend towards people choosing smaller, less expensive, more eco-friendly homes with the aim of reducing or eliminating debt and enjoying the associated benefits. It’s all about making sure your housing fits your lifestyle and that your lifestyle fits your housing.

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Would you ever consider getting your own tiny house? (Photo: Tiny House Design/Facebook)

Q. Do you think the ‘tiny houses’ movement is a fad or has long-term potential in Australia today?
The ‘tiny houses movement’ isn’t new, nor is it a fad, and as new technologies such as 3D printing and factory manufactured homes combine with recycling of other building materials, there’s likely to be a very bright, long-term future throughout Australasia and the South Pacific.

There’s also a long history, in Australia and New Zealand, of modest, innovative, inexpensive solutions to housing. Colonial Australian houses were frequently very small and built from readily available local materials. Throughout the twentieth century, we also had a love affair with converted buses, trains, and shipping containers. In New Zealand, you needn’t look beyond the ‘Bach’ as evidence of just how much New Zealanders also love small, simple, weekenders and getaways.

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Tiny houses offer the prospect of buying and owning land with a small dwelling sooner and with less financial strain (Photo: Tiny House Design/Facebook)

The difference now is that as more people find mortgage stress a chief feature of their lives, they’re looking to permanent alternatives, not just weekenders, which will facilitate a better lifestyle for them immediately.

For retirees, the tiny house movement may offer the freedom to maintain independence for longer, the freedom to travel more frequently, and the possibility of minimising maintenance costs 

Q. Who would ‘tiny houses’ benefit? 
Tiny houses offer benefits to first homebuyers, homeowners who feel saddled with too much debt, and retirees looking for less complication and more liquidity.

Across all age demographics, US research suggests ‘tiny house people’ have 55 per cent more savings than the average American. Also, 68 per cent of tiny house people are mortgage free, versus just 29.3 per cent of traditional homeowners.


The Tiny House Movement in Washington is challenging the way we think about modern living

So for first homebuyers, tiny houses offer the prospect of buying and owning land with a small dwelling sooner and with less financial strain. For encumbered homeowners and ‘empty-nesters’, the tiny house movement offers the prospect of lightening their load, freeing up cash, and lessening maintenance costs and responsibilities. For retirees, the tiny house movement may offer the freedom to maintain independence for longer, the freedom to travel more frequently, and the possibility of minimising maintenance costs and challenges. 

Q. What should we be cautious about?
When it comes to real estate, the best advice is to make certain any property you buy or build will comply fully with council requirements. Tiny house enthusiasts should also exercise caution if the location of the proposed tiny house requires them to move too far away from family and friends. Finally, a very small abode may not suit everyone’s lifestyle for the long-term, especially retirees that value hosting family and friends.

Q. Is it something retirees can look at if they are keen to put travel ahead of a home for example? Is it possible to move your ‘tiny home’ as you go interstate?
Certainly. The ‘Grey Nomads’ trend demonstrates just how many retirees are choosing the romance and variety of the open road over traditional housing, through caravans and camper homes. Mind you, few abandon the traditional home base completely.

Q. Is it a good option for those at the time of retiring of us who have rented long-term or haven’t the income or savings to buy a property of our own?
That depends entirely on the financial circumstances of each individual. Many retirees would argue that the security that comes from home ownership, and not being answerable to a landlord or property manager, is invaluable. However, retirees without an appropriate income or savings could risk adding an unacceptable financial burden at a time when they least need it.

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The average tiny house costs around $30,000 to build (Photo: Tiny House Design/Facebook)

Q. Is there ever a case a tiny house is a good option for an investment?
Definitely. Tiny houses aren’t always part of the ‘tiny house movement’ and there are countless examples of very small properties that have made their owners enormous gains. The point with real estate is that there is a buyer for every property, but the greatest gains are always made in the locations where demand is highest or value can be added. A tiny house in an unappealing, poor location will never be anything more than a tiny house in a poor location. That would make it a poor investment.

Q. Could the ‘tiny house’ movement take over from the traditional granny flat and house an ageing parent for example?
It’s possible but unlikely. An ageing parent may wish to enjoy the benefits of being close to loved ones but the tiny house movement is really about embracing the concept of ‘less is more’. It’s a conscious choice, more often made by those looking to improve their lifestyle at a younger age than in later life.

Q. What about costs? Are there any hidden costs or is it all good news for readers who are interested in investigating this as a viable option?
The tiny house movement is all about lowering running costs and the average tiny house costs around $30,000 to build. However, tiny houses may not have their own washing machine so you would need to factor in annual Laundromat costs. Also, tiny houses don’t offer much storage so you’ll likely be buying food in smaller packages at higher prices. Finally, if your tiny house is on wheels and you don’t own any land, you’ll need to pay rent for a site somewhere.

Q. Is there another trend in real estate you in the foreseeable future?
Factory manufactured homes are likely to offer significant time and cost savings in the foreseeable future. 3D printing is also likely to make a major contribution lowering the costs of factory housing. However, for readers interested in investment property, the fundamentals are unlikely to change.

The best performing investments are most commonly found within a 20km range of capital city CBD’s, close to transport and employment.

Could you ever live in a ‘tiny house’? Join the conversation below.

(Feature image: Tammy Strobel)