Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Tiny House for a Little Money

Brief Thoughts on How to Afford a Complete Change in Lifestyle

When talking about my house, I often get asked the question “How much have you spent on it?”, by which it is implied “So how on earth does someone recently out of college afford to do a crazy project like that?!”  And there’s some good reason for skepticism: I did just graduate two years ago, I am entirely on my own financially, and I do fit into that category of “under-employed” (although mostly by choice) that they talk about on the news so often.

Do I hold a secret to financial success?  Probably not. Well, actually definitely not.  My parents raised me on a financially conservative philosophy that pressured me to save extensively, and in recent years I’ve read a few books on various methods to achieve that “financial freedom” that we all long for.  Most of this post is going to be a rehashing of those tricks, along with some of my own ideas that have enabled me to at least start my journey towards tiny house ownership.  This is mostly directed towards those crazy enough to want to live in less than 200 square feet, since I’ve heard many worrying that they’ll never be able to afford to live the dream and build their own house.  I should add that I am by NO means a financial expert, and any suggestions I have offer no guarantee of financial security.  These are just my ideas that will hopefully offer some inspiration to others to make their own situations financially viable. 

On Savings

We’re all taught that saving a portion of our earnings is the best, most sure-fire way to financial security.  (Or at least we should have been.  By the current state of our country’s economy, it seems that some of us missed this memo.)  From an early age, my parents impressed this practice on me.  My allowance was divided into three portions: savings, charity, and spending money.  I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed seeing my money disappear and nothing but a bank stub come back, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter.

It wasn’t until high school that I willingly purchased a ticket to the savings train.  I don’t quite know why I got on board, but it probably had something to do with the reality of college bills looming on the horizon.  My parents very generously made the offer to all five of their children that they would split college bills 50/50.  By no means did they want any of us graduating college with a heavy debt dragging us down.  This was a fantastic deal (thanks mom and dad!), but it still left me with thousands of dollars in bills to pay every year.  Pretty good motivation to start squirreling money away, huh? 

But in some ways, it was almost too much motivation.  Once my savings started to accrue enough yearly interest to pay for more than just a lunch at McDonalds, I began to want more.  Saving became a game that challenged me to penny-pinch every meal and every mile.  After college, I landed a well-paying job in a remote area of Virginia- the perfect opportunity to join the pro-league of savings.  For each paycheck, I placed less than twenty-five percent in checking for living expenses, and the rest in savings.  During that year, I was able to build up a wicked nest egg, but, to be honest, I had to be a modern day Scrooge to do it.  So it seemed that while the arbitrarily set monthly spending amount guaranteed a good amount of savings, it didn’t always equate to contentment.  

Lots of people recommend setting up a monthly budget with specific spending “categories” that realistically accommodate your needs and desires.  I think these are a great practice, but I just didn’t feel much like putting the effort into tracking my spending constantly.  So instead, I came up with the lazy man’s method of saving.  Essentially, I did the reverse of what I had been doing.  Instead of stuffing money into savings as soon as I received a paycheck, I left everything in checking, spent it (conservatively) until my next payday when I would move the remainder to savings and start over.  With my new, lower paying job, I’m only able to save a couple hundred dollars a paycheck, but every little bit counts and the increased flexibility has left me more content.  

On Credit

In 1929, many Americans learned first hand the risks of borrowing and investing.  Remarkably, these lessons didn't last very long and were repeated in the late 2000's when the housing industry collapsed due to the excessive use of credit.  So we've discovered once again that debt is dangerous and bad, right?  Pretty much.  As a society, we definitely rely on debt too much and treat it too casually, a fact that many tiny housers hope to change through their lifestyle choices.  I personally decided to build a tiny house so that I could avoid debt and be financially free.  But, I should note that I have taken on debt (something I've never experienced before) in the process of gaining housing independence.  

Given that its only been a year since I first heard of tiny houses and I'm nearing the completion of construction on one, its pretty obvious that I didn't exactly make a detailed budget and fiscal feasibility analysis prior to driving the first nail.  There's definitely value to doing such calculations, but in this case, I realized that building a tiny house is one of those projects you can easily dream about doing while never actually accomplishing anything because excuses and obstacles keep popping up.  

Instead, I looked at my savings, determined that I had enough stockpiled to get a decent start on construction, and started making calls to get estimates for a trailer.  It was literally that simple.  But, instead of draining my savings to pay for materials (after all, my money is earning a handsome 0.5%!), I signed up for a couple credit cards with temporary 0% APR introductory rates- essentially free short-term loans.  I shelled out the $4500 cash for my trailer, and then started placing construction bills on the cards, making minimum payments each month.  Is this risky?  Kind of.  If I miss a monthly payment, my APR is jacked up to an absurd rate, and I really only have about 12-24 months to pay the entire balance off.  But, it has enabled me to spread construction costs over a period of a year or two, instead of having to pay cash for everything upfront.  As long as I continue to live a frugal lifestyle, it should be perfectly doable to pay these off and return to the blissful state of being debt free.  Annnddd...I'll be left with a truly livable investment!

First Steps

Really, the cost of construction materials isn't what's holding most prospective tiny housers back from fulfilling their dreams.  In my situation, I faced the following difficulties:

1. Nowhere to build.

2. Nowhere to live.

3. The reality that tiny houses are illegal to occupy in my area (and most areas, for that matter).

Obviously, I overcame obstacle #1.  I've lived in the Richmond area for less than a year, so I didn't know anybody with space where they'd be willing to let me park a trailer and hammer away for half a year.  But, I was determined to start construction ASAP, so I started talking about tiny houses at work and leaving things like The Small House Book around the office.  Before too long, I had an offer from one of my co-workers to use her backyard.  She has joint problems and never goes out there, so she generously has been letting me use the space as long as I contribute some towards the electric I use.

The sad, frustrating part is that I still don't have an answer for obstacles #2 & 3.  There have been some possibilities, but they've been blocked (perhaps unjustly) by zoning authorities.  I was really, really upset about this for a while, and stressed about the possibility of having gone through all this work only to have an "uninhabitable structure" (even though it doesn't fit the definition of a structure).  But, I realized that there isn't any point in worry about this much.  Right now, my backup plan is to move the house to a campground (where I'll have to pay $400 a month for rent, which is actually more than I'm paying right now!).  I won't be saving money that way, but it should give me a great opportunity to test the house out, see where I need to make improvements, all while not tying me down to one location.  Long term possibilities include purchasing my own property, or, purchasing my own property and turning it into something of a "tiny house campground" where people would make a large payment up front (essentially "purchasing" a lot) and then pay an insignificant "rent" every month so that it fits within the zoning rules governing campgrounds and less appealing trailer parks.  If you live and Virginia and the thought of such a tiny house community appeals to you, drop me a line!

So do you need $20,000 to $40,000 cash in the bank to build your own tiny house?  Probably not.  Once you get started, you'll be surprised at how creative you'll become at digging up money bit by bit to get one step closer to a finished house.  Note that I said "probably not".  Be honest with yourself.  If your life situation is very insecure or you've had problems with paying off debt in the past, you may want to practice some frugal spending strategies first.  But if you've got a couple thousand dollars in your emergency fund, why not take the plunge and start swinging a hammer?  Now that you've got my two cents worth, run on down to the hardware store and buy some nails!   

Some Super Resources

Radical Homemakers- Great book by Shannon Hayes on how to shrug off consumerism and become a net producer, transforming society as you go.

Your Money or Your Life- A super involved way to work for your financial independence- and how to actually take advantage of it once you get there! 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Dawn of a New Era

I had been planning on devoting a post last week to discussing the affordability of tiny houses, but I spent a couple thousand miles on the road and then got wrapped up in work on the tiny house, so there just wasn't much time for me to sit down and write.  But, that means that I do have a bunch more pictures of the house!

My projects Easter weekend were to finish the shiplap cuts on the yellow poplar and build the kitchen counter.  I stopped by Home Depot Thursday evening to pick up materials on my way home.  Two hours and about $500 later, I had enough stuff to keep me busy for the rest of the month, but I"ll be honest, I didn't really have much of a plan for making these cabinets.  The only thing I was fairly sure about was the counter top.  A few months back when I was purchasing the last windows, I asked the sales lady for some advice on making cabinets.  She strongly recommended using a pour-on epoxy over birch plywood for the counter top.  I decided to give it a try, and here's how it came out!

One of the tricks to this project is keeping the surface level and wind off while the epoxy dries.  As it turns out, my parents' chest freezer is not level, and they do have some air currents traveling through their basement.  I had to leave it drying at their house so I don't actually know how it worked out, but when I left at 6:00 p.m. Sunday evening, it was looking pretty tolerable.  Connie also had the nifty idea of embedding mementos in the surface-

If you don't understand, just shout it out loud- SUUUUEEY! :)

I've spent quite a bit of time talking about "poplar" on this blog.  I've been referring to the wood of the tree, liriodendron tulipifera, one of Virginia's lesser valued timber species, but still a tree of impressive form, size and beauty.  As a "soft hardwood", poplar is similar to pine and can be found growing arrow straight on fertile sites.

So why did I choose poplar for the interior walls of my house?  Well, as a forester, I wanted to utilize materials from the local woodshed.  The guy who made my flooring happened to have several hundred board feet of this 1/2"x6" lumber that he had sawn a couple years back, so I was able to get a good deal on it.  Initially, I had hopped that it would be a simple process to turn it from rough boards into a finished wall covering.  How wrong I was!  One pass through the table saw quickly turned into three passes through the router.  Many of the boards had slight warping, and most were weathered, requiring extensive sanding.  Halfway through the process, I wasn't really sure if it was going to be worth using.  But, I finally was able to fit everything into place this past weekend, and it doesn't look half bad!

All in all, it was a wonderful opportunity to learn some new techniques, put some sweat equity into my house, and really gain an appreciation for what previous generations went through to build things.  And, I happen to like how it looks- "French Country" is how I describe it.  It definitely won't be mistaken for some machined lumber wrapped in plastic and purchased at Home Depot!

Probably the most exciting achievement of the weekend, however, was my cold water plumbing test.  After I got just about all of the pipes in the walls covered up, I decided that it wouldn't be a bad idea to test them out to check for leaks.  But first, I had to complete "Plumbing Central".  After some consideration, I determined that it would be best to run the hose inlet up through the floor so that it would be hidden.  Some quick spins from Mr. Makita opened up a hole in the floor underneath where the kitchen sink will be, and I fitted some CPVC with a 5/8" garden hose adapter:

From there, the pipe makes a couple turns to connect to a valve and the "plumbing tree", where it branches out to the various applications.

I'm really, really glad I included that shut off valve, because as it turns out, I forgot to glue a fitting connecting the toilet...

The test basically went like this: I turned the hose on, heard a bunch of air hissing through it as I walked back to the house, where I eased the valve open, and BAM! the toilet exploded!  Or so I thought as I frantically reached for the shut off valve and turned around to see water gushing out of the wall.  Thankfully, it wasn't anywhere near as catastrophic as I thought, and I was able to glue the fitting, wait a couple hours, and test the whole system again, when it proved to be solid except for a couple loose hose clamps that were easily tightened.

The coolest thing about this event?  Flush toilet baby!

A swirly flusher too!  Not only is this a flushing toilet, it also marks the 1st functioning utility in my house.  If you can imagine that toilet right there as the moon, I'm an ecstatic astronaut celebrating the dawning of a new era.  Yeah, its that big, and I'm grateful to everybody that has helped me get this far.

P.S.- For other tiny housers, I'm curious about what waste water and plumbing systems you're using.  Do you have freshwater and black water tanks? Composting toilets?  

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tiniest Cedar House in Virginia (Nicest Too!)

You know those times when you're pretty excited about something, but then things change slightly and it becomes AMAZINGLY INCREDIBLE?  Well, putting siding on a house is one of those boosts.  I put the siding project off for a while, I guess because I was a little intimidated about having to deal with such long lengths, transporting material, and trying to nail it up straight.  But, I found out that:

1. There are so many windows on a tiny house that most boards are only a couple feet long.

2. Sixteen foot boards hang out the back of a pickup truck just fine.  Wrap a strap around 'em, tie a little flag on the end, and you're good to go!

3. So yeah.  Maybe I haven't nailed every board exactly parallel, but that doesn't matter because it gets the job done and...


Now, before I get carried away, I do have to keep in mind that I still have to do the potentially complicated work under the gables and eaves, which reminds me...I still have to put up fascia board and soffiting :(  To be honest, I don't even know if I'm using those terms correctly, because I've never done any such procedures.  Which intimidates me even more.  

What are the challenges?  Well, since not everything about the rafter/roof area was done perfectly even and level, I'm going to have to do some correcting so that the finished product looks as fabulous as it should.  If you have experience in this line of work, feel free to come on over and give a hand!  

This post wasn't supposed to be a confession of all my house building fears, but rather a jolly update on my progress.  Indeed, maybe my concerns are a little exaggerated.  I worried for several days about the challenge of fitting the pieces of siding around the row of windows on each side of the house.  Scroll back up to that last picture for a second.  Looks pretty darn good, huh?  Yep, an afternoon's work of careful measurements and a jig saw produced fairly satisfactory results.  If I can just build up the courage to take on the soffit challenge, it will at least be a grand learning experience, right?

Moving on into the house, I decided to start work on fitting the poplar material into the end walls in the lofts. Since these walls are under the roof, everything had to be cut at a 45 degree angle to match the ceiling.  Using the same method that I developed for cutting the siding, I carefully measured the length needed for each board and then added a hair extra.  This is a totally inefficient way of doing things, because it means re-cutting boards about 60% of the time. least I was able to reduce the amount of boards wasted by erroneous measurements.  After a while, my measurements became more accurate and I didn't have to re-cut as often which definitely sped the process up.  I was a little worried about how the walls would look, but they turned out pretty decent:

Interspersed between siding and wall projects, I've been trying to finish up some of the plumbing.  In my design, "Plumbing Central" is located at the front of the house, under where the kitchen sink will be.  That's where my 30 gallon on-board freshwater tank and its associated on-demand pump + accumulator are (in case I don't have access to a hose hook-up, and for winter time when hose lines would freeze anyways).  I also need an input point nearby to fill the tank, and a hose hook-up for when I do have access to pressurized water.  Right after the pump, lines have to shoot off to the water heater and return carrying hot water for the sink and shower.  Naturally since all of this is happening under the sink, there also has to be tees leading up to the faucet, and enough space for the drain to drop down through the floor.

For a couple weeks I drew diagrams of the whole system, and all I could come up with was a tangled mess since there just isn't must room to work with.  But, I finally just formed everything into something of a one foot tall trunk with the various lines branching off where they need to go.  Note the reinforced rubber lines connected to the water pump- an attempt to isolate vibrations and noise:

I also tried to make the connections to the water heater as short as possible to reduce the opportunities for freezing, although the water heater itself will still be vulnerable to cold weather.

So that's about it for now.  Hopefully I'll be working on the kitchen counter this weekend, which means I'll have to go fridge and sink shopping :)  If you've been thinking about building a tiny house but aren't sure if you can afford it, check back next week for some of my thoughts on budgeting and ideas for how you can get started on your own dream of home ownership!