Industry Market Trends

Think you live in a small house or apartment? You've got nothing on these people. Meet the Small House Society

Oct 05, 2011

It seems like an impossible idea, or at the very least, highly unappealing.

Take your entire life's possessions, whittle them down, and move yourself into a home that's only a couple of hundred square feet in size.

Sure, you may feel, at first, like you're an Oompa Loompa from Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory, or like you're at Disney World and hanging out in the "castles" occupied by Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse.

But you'll get used to it, and heck, you may even like it. Ask Gregory Johnson, the president of the Small House Society.

Back in 2003 Johnson, living in Iowa then and now, spent six years living in a house that was 140 square feet.

That's it, 140 square feet. You know how small that is? Probably not, because you've never had to live anywhere that small.

But Greg Johnson can tell you all about it.

"The only real problem for me was not having space to socialize," Johnson said in a recent interview. "Honestly, the claustrophobia factor wasn't there; it actually felt pretty open and more spacious, because everywhere you look, you can see open spaces."

Johnson has since moved up, first into a "huge" 360 square foot apartment, and then with his wife to a 1,000 square foot place.

But he's hardly alone. In the past 10 years the "tiny house" movement has grown and grown, while its members' houses and dwellings have gotten smaller and smaller.

In part due to environmental concerns that come with owning a large house, and in part due to economic factors, groups like the Small House Society and the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company have been thriving.

Jay Shafer, designer/founder of Tumbleweed, has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Kent Griswold, the webmaster and blogger at, has seen his site traffic spike to 10,000 visitors a day.

And Austin Hay, a 16-year-old Sonoma, Calif. high schooler, made headlines in August  when he built his own petite-sized bachelor pad in the backyard of his parents' house. Hay's 130-square foot house also contains wheels, so when he is ready for college, he's already got his living space set up.

As Hay told the website environmental website,  "The house reminded me of a tree house that I've always wanted to build since I was a little kid, but something that was on wheels was just way cooler - something that I could move and stuff."

What's behind the Tiny House Movement becoming so popular? Griswold and Johnson both gave me similar answers as to why the phenomenon has taken off.

First of all, there are environmental factors at work. Large houses cause pollution of all kinds: air pollution, noise pollution, not to mention high electricity costs and other household expenses (think of the washing machine and dryer and how much pollution they can cause).

"I think truly the initial group in this (movement) was the environmental people," said Griswold, who began his blog four years ago. "A lot of people decided they wanted to downsize, and simplify their life, and this is a way to do it."

Another factor in the movement is the economy. With millions of Americans out of work and forced to sell their homes (or see those homes foreclosed on), the downsizing of their living quarters is natural to follow.

"With the economy in a crunch people are realizing that they have to sacrifice, and moving to a smaller house is one reality," Johnson said. "And there are a lot of benefits to downsizing."

Hay, the 16-year-old member of the movement, added that "Living small means less bills, living big means more bills. "I don't want to pay big bills."

Johnson cites one benefit he found right away: If you live in a tiny house, you only have room for so much stuff. Which in earlier, less-technologically advanced times, might have been a problem. What about all those record collections, book collections, and thousands of pieces of paper in your file cabinet, with things like tax records and business documents that you needed?

Now, so much of our lives is digital. Books and music can be gotten electronically, and a simple flash drive can hold all the documents you need, ready to be plugged into a computer for retrieval at any time.

"It was amazing to me, not just the freedom from clutter I had, but how much of my life could be downsized without me really feeling like I had lost all of my stuff," Johnson said of his experiences. "I talk to people who have built tiny houses a lot and they tell me that they're really surprised at how easy it was to downsize."

One other group that is embracing the Tiny House Movement, Griswold said, are baby boomers who have seen their children move away and "really don't need so much space."

Now at this point you are likely asking yourself, "How much does a Tiny House cost?" And that answer varies. First, know that there are different degrees of "tiny." People like Johnson who live in less than 200 square feet, "extreme tiny." Slightly larger, in the 400-1,000 square foot ranger, are called "small homes."

Tumbleweed, for example, sells seven varieties of houses, all in the "extreme tiny" category, ranging from 65 feet to 130 feet.

The costs of houses vary, depending on whether you want to build it yourself and use some cheaper materials, or have it done by a professional company. Johnson said a 400 square foot house could cost as much as $60,000, "but you could spend half that if you do it yourself."

"You also have to remember that things are going to be cheaper all the way around, not just when the house is finished," Johnson said. "You look at things like windows; instead of 10-12 windows for your regular-sized house, you only need 4-5 perhaps in a tiny house."

Griswold said he's hearing all the time on his blog about people scrounging for materials and building their houses cheaply, and that one of the more popular new trends is making the homes mobile, like Hay did with his.

"A lot of people would rather have a foundation that's permanently in place, but for someone like (Austin Hay) who knows he'll be moving in a few years, it makes a lot of sense," Griswold said.

The Tiny House Movement may continue to get bigger (no pun intended) as the economy struggles, and the economy suffers. For one thing, Griswold said he's heard "much more positive" comments than negative on his site, from people who have made the move to go small.

While it may not be for everybody, clearly, small houses and downsizing appear to be here for good.