Three major challenges facing tiny homes and their owners

Given that tiny houses have not exactly taken off, here are three possible reasons why:

The concept is appealing, but in truth, people have found it challenging to locate places where they can permanently park their home on wheels. It has become an issue in many communities, as homeowners worry that the character of the mobile homes will diminish their property value. Locating the perfect site can be easier in rural areas.

Another dose of reality has come in the form of human behavior. It turns out that for some of the people appearing on the various HGTV programs devoted to tiny-house living, the strain of living in such tiny quarters has surfaced. As we see with follow-ups, some couples cannot manage to live in 300 square feet together, and one moves out.

Additionally, when compared with the lifestyle of an urban micro-unit, rural or suburban settings are more restrictive. In the city, for example, people can get to a pub, cafe or coffee house in minutes simply by walking out the building’s front entrance and down the block.

These are three important challenges. The first and third discussed above seem related to me: it may take a significant amount of time before communities develop zoning and planning that allows for tiny houses. Current residents might view them as threats not only because are they mobile but also because the homes are also significantly cheaper than many other kinds of housing units. In the best case for tiny homes, communities would allow them to fill in spaces between existing buildings and units. This would increase density and possibly provide more tax revenue. In the worst case, tiny houses will be excluded from many desirable locations, contributing to the third issue above where the advantages of a tiny home and budget may be combined with needing to drive everywhere.

As for the second issue above, Americans like their (1) personal space and (2) space for lots of stuff. Tiny houses do not have much square footage for either. In a perfect world, the tiny house might be located in a vibrant urban or suburban area where the owner(s) could spend a lot of time outside the unit (taking advantage of third and public spaces like coffee shops, parks, and libraries). Without those nearby amenities, a tiny house might simply not offer enough separation from others. Additionally, a tiny house likely requires an owner to do without many things. This could be overcome through a variety of methods – living near family and friends with whom one could share, storage units, or a barter or sharing economy – but this requires more work and resources.

All of these problems might be solved eventually but it will take time.

“[P]eople with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams”

The title of this post is part of a larger quote – “On Tiny House Hunters it is painfully transparent that people with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams” – as a writer reflects on HGTV’s portrayal of tiny houses:

They too yearn for an open floorplan. They want storage. They want privacy. They want sleek kitchen amenities. They want room to entertain. That desire, to entertain, is the most delusional. In a home built for one, that may, with some dieting and sucking in of the gut, accommodate two, there is no entertaining. When you buy a tiny home, you are also making a commitment to socialize with your friends elsewhere if you hope to keep those friends.

As the reality of tiny living sets in, the hunters often lament how tiny a tiny home actually is. Or they are in complete denial and exclaim that there is just so much space. In one episode of Tiny House Hunters a man sat in the “bathtub” in the tiny bathroom. He looked ridiculous, his knees practically in his mouth as he contorted himself into the improbable space. He, the realtor, and his friend, who were all viewing the property, were nonplussed, as if the goings on were perfectly normal. And there I was, shouting at the television, “What is wrong with you people?”…

Shows like House Hunters and Tiny House Hunters flourish, in part, because even now, after the mortgage crisis and financial collapse, home ownership and the American dream are synonymous. Home ownership represents success and the putting down of roots. Home ensures the stability of the American family. When you own a home, there is always a place where you belong, and where you are the master or mistress of your own domain…

A cheerful television show about homebuying isn’t going to sully itself with a frank examination of economic realities or the fallout from predatory lending practices that made so many people believe they could afford to live beyond their means. Instead, Tiny House Hunters allows people the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, regardless of their actual economic circumstances. The homes the hunters look at are often stylish, modern reinterpretations of the cookie-cutter prefabricated homes that inspire so much cultural derision. They may not have much space but what space they have is well appointed and chic or quirky. Tiny house hunters can soothe their class anxiety and stay just within reach of what they so very much want but cannot afford to have.

This leads me to two thoughts:

  1. As the piece notes, there is an important connection here to social class. People on this show want to have a middle-class (or higher) lifestyle in a small package. They are often unwilling to give up on certain items just because they are pursuing a smaller house. Additionally, I would argue that this quest to downsize is a largely middle- to upper-class phenomenon. The people on the show are not ones driven to tiny houses solely because of economic necessity. The cost savings may be nice but they also talk about reinforcing familial bonds, being able to move a home around more easily, consuming less, and helping save the environment. As the writer notes, they are not seeking after mobile homes and the class implications associated with them. Instead, they often want customized tiny houses that continue to display their higher than lower-class lifestyle.
  2. Some might applaud these people for realizing they don’t need such a large house. Instead of purchasing a McMansion or even the average size new home (around 2,500 square feet), these people are consuming fewer resources and resisting the strong pull of consumerism. At the same time, they still find something valuable in owning their own home. Why does this interest in home ownership continue? if people truly wanted a more environmentally friendly option, shouldn’t they go move into a small apartment in a dense urban area where they don’t need to drive much? (Many of the tiny houses on HGTV are frequently in more rural settings and still require a lot of driving.) In other words, even having a tiny house still allows these homeowners to participate in the middle-class American Dream which largely revolves around owning your own detached home.

And just as a reminder, there is little evidence that many Americans desire a tiny house. As of now, they largely appeal to a small subset of the population that does not necessarily need them.

Quick Review: One Big Home

A documentary involving McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard I blogged about earlierOne Big Home – has now been released. Here are some thoughts I had after reviewing the film:

  1. This is an engaging story. The promotional material says it was filmed over 12 years yet the time goes quickly as it puts together interviews, public meeting footage, and striking images of both natural and man-made settings from Martha’s Vineyard.
  2. The documentary does a nice job representing multiple points of view. While the filmmaker clearly dislikes these trophy homes – though there is a point where his public activism regarding the issue wavers after the birth of his first child – the film presents local workers, ranging from carpenters to architects to builders, and residents defending property rights and expressing concern about a community imposing regulations on construction.
  3. The filmmaker’s personal story also enriches the film. As he and his soon to be wife learn they are expecting a child, they see a need for more space and a more permanent home. They employ an architect and end up constructing a home around 2,500-3,000 square feet (depending on whether the lofts are used). The film displays some of his own personal quandaries regarding how much space they really need and whether it is worth it to have upgrades in the home. This leads to a basic question: when Americans do feel they need more space, how much space should they be able to acquire?
  4. If there are two parts of the film that could use a little expansion or more explanation, here is what I would vote for.
    1. At the end, the community debates a cap on the square footage for new homes. This is an important part of the entire process yet it goes by pretty quickly in the documentary. It feels like an epilogue when there is a lot of process that might be interesting to show. Ultimately, how exactly did the public conversation develop to lead to an overwhelming majority in the end? What were some of the successful and less successful steps in putting this cap in place?
    2. We see a lot about Chilmark but hear very little about the rest of Martha’s Vineyard. How does this small community interact with the other doings on the island? From the footage, this part of the island is more rural but there are likely some interesting comparisons to be made.

This is a well put together documentary that asks questions facing many American communities: what should be done regarding the construction of large homes? The future of many American communities and the residents affected therein will be affected by these choices.

“People want these larger homes”

I’m quoted in a recent Zillow story titled “Upsizing on the Upswing: The Big Decision More Homebuyers are Making“:

The data corresponds with what sociologists are seeing firsthand, says Brian Miller, an associate professor of sociology at Wheaton College, just outside Chicago. Miller, who studies cities, suburban migration and culture, argues that several factors could be impacting the shift in housing trends, including the strength of the national economy.

“I see a lot about tiny houses and micro apartments in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York — these cities who are really grappling with housing issues and trying to fast-track 200- or 400-square-foot apartments,” Miller says. “And yet the overall pattern across America is that people want these larger houses.

“The economy has gotten better over the last few years,” he continues, with a nod to cities like Dallas, one of the hottest housing markets in the country. “It seems it’s enabled people to [buy large houses] again.”

Popular culture may be influencing this decision as well, Miller adds, pointing to how homes are depicted on television, in both the reality and scripted genres.

“The typical home on TV is huge. Think about the ‘Friends’ apartments, which were impossibly large,” he says. “I’m thinking of HGTV shows I’ve seen over the past few years, where the dining room seats 10 or 12. I don’t have those parties, but if you’re watching HGTV, it just seems like everything is huge.”

I think the larger story goes like this: Americans tend to like large homes and even major financial issues, such as the bursting of the housing bubble, may not be enough to reverse that trend. This does not mean the desire for large homes will continue forever. Yet, major changes need to occur to the economic system and/or enduring values need to shift for Americans as a whole to embrace smaller homes.

Related topics:

McMansions are back.

There are a limited number of tiny houses in the United States.

To the Miami Herald: a 23,576 square foot home is not a McMansion

The Miami Herald features a 23,576 square foot home for auction. However, they err by calling it a McMansion:

If you need a house that stretches across east and west wings, a massive McMansion — said to be the largest home for sale in Broward — will be auctioned off on Dec. 8.

The 23,576-square-foot, custom-built home on 10 acres features seven bedrooms, eight full baths and two half baths. It boasts inlaid Italian marble and cathedral-style ceilings, and comes with a guest house, four-car garage, and statues and objects of art from all over the world.

“The finish work on the inside is the most amazing, with 30-foot high ceilings, chandeliers. It’s just magnificent,” said Jim Gall, president of Auction Company of America, hired to auction off the home, which was listed a year ago for $10 million…

Gall said he plans to start the bidding on the house at $5 million.

Homeowner Ray Moses said he and his wife, Pam, spent five years building the mansion after buying the property, which was formerly used as a horse boarding facility. Broward County property records show they paid $2,225,000 for the acreage in 2003.

Here are four reasons it is not a McMansion (with the most important reason at the top):

1. This home is far beyond the size of a McMansion. This kind of square footage is way beyond a McMansion.

2. Because of its size, luxury, and land, it is also out of the price range of a typical, particularly in Florida. The price might make sense if it was a big house in New York City.

3. This is not a big house on a postage-stamp lot; there are ten acres of land.

4. The home is custom-built, not part of a suburban neighborhood where the houses all look at the same.

By size alone, this home is not a McMansion but the other factors matter as well.

Interestingly, the report on the auction starts with the term McMansion and later uses mansion. Does this suggest the terms are interchangeable? Again, I would argue they are distinct categories.

Bankrate.com asks “What is a McMansion?”

Bankrate.com defines financial terms and recently look at the term McMansion:

The Bankrate.com financial term of the day is: “McMansion”

“McMansion” is a disparaging term used to describe homes that are oversized and opulent, but also without a whole lot of uniqueness. McMansions are loosely defined as houses between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet with soaring, grandiose entryways and multicar garages, often shoehorned onto relatively small lots.

McMansions are giant homes that have sprouted up in the suburbs the way fast-food restaurants have — hence the name.

Three features of this definition stand out: (1) marking the term as a disparaging one – it is rarely used positively and can be used effectively when criticizing others; (2) it highlights their mass-produced nature (not very unique, sprouted up); and (3) sets some square footage limits so that McMansions are larger than most American homes but don’t run into mansion territory. Several other parts of the definition, including common design features and small lots, may be common but are not part of all McMansions. However, the video is disappointing. I was hoping for some classic images of McMansions…

I also wonder if this is Bankrate’s definition of a McMansion as Americans see them or as a financial publisher? Here is a little bit about Bankrate.com:

We at Bankrate, Inc. have over three decades’ experience in financial publishing. Bankrate was born in 1976 as “Bank Rate Monitor,” a print publisher for the banking industry…

Today, Bankrate, Inc. is the Web’s leading aggregator of financial rate information, offering an unparalleled depth and breadth of rate data and financial content. Bankrate continually surveys approximately 4,800 financial institutions in all 50 states in order to provide clear, objective, and unbiased rates to consumers. Our flagship Web site, Bankrate.com, provides free rate information to consumers on more than 300 financial products, including mortgages, credit cards, new and used automobile loans, money market accounts, certificates of deposit, checking and ATM fees, home equity loans and online banking fees.

In addition to rate data, we publish original and objective personal finance stories to help consumers make informed financial decisions.

What exactly does Bankrate think about McMansions?

 

Teardowns McMansions responsible for the big American homes of today?

A story about a family who has downsized links teardown McMansions to the big American homes of today:

At a time when smaller, older homes are routinely torn down to build sprawling new “McMansions” — the median American home size has soared 250 percent from 1,000 square feet in 1950 to 2,500 in 2008 — Lindsay and Sue took the opposite approach when they remodeled their 1920 Arts and Crafts style bungalow in 2011. They actually lost square footage, about 40 square feet.

Just how indicative are teardowns of bigger American homes? They can be viewed as a symptom of longer and larger trends, particularly when looking back to 1950. Over the course of 60 years, the average new American home expanded by a factor of 2.5. This is significant as it led Americans to have the largest average new homes in the world. And all of this has happened as the average American household shrunk – perhaps suggesting Americans like even more space and more stuff in that space. Across the board, Americans now consume more than their counterparts in the 1950s – and this includes houses.

But, there might be some merit to linking teardowns to a larger average house size. Teardowns are still relatively rare. They occur most frequently in wealthier or gentrifying neighborhoods where there is money to spend on buying a home, destroying it, and constructing a whole new home. Yet, the average new house size might continue to be pulled up by the luxury housing market that may not have been hit as hard during the economic crisis. Look at the distributions of new homes by square feet from 1999 to 2012: 34% of new American homes in 1999 were over 2,400 square feet (17% over 3,000) compared to 45% over 2,400 square feet in 2012 (26% over 3,000).

On one hand, McMansions are often the whipping boys of the early 21st century American consumer culture. On the other hand, their presence may have helped keep the average new house size high even as the lower end of the housing market has had more difficulty recovering.