Claim: Americans are giving up McMansions for tiny houses

A story about a tiny house promotion in New York City starts with this claim:

Over the past few years, the tiny home movement has picked up steam, with more and more folks deciding to abandon McMansions to live in small houses, typically less than 500 square feet.

I am skeptical about multiple parts of this claim:

  1. Tiny houses may garner some attention. But is there a tiny house revolution going on? I do not know if there is a single researcher or group tracking this but the number of sales is limited.
  2. The term McMansion is clearly negative. There may be fewer McMansions constructed today in the aftermath of the 2000s burst housing bubble but the percentage of new homes over 3,000 square feet has increased in the last ten years. McMansions are back and/or here to stay (and/or never really left). In contrast, in recent years homes under 1,400 square feet have been 7% or 8% of all new homes.
  3. The stronger part of this claim is that McMansion owners are giving up their homes to live in tiny houses. There may be some cases of this but this is quite a dramatic change. I suspect more tiny house owners are wealthier people who choose a tiny house as a vacation home or second home. Or, tiny houses offer helpful options for those looking for affordable housing or the homeless, not those that already have a large home.

In sum, the evidence suggests McMansions are alive and well and tiny homes are limited.

More on self-driving rooms and homes

Parts of your home or even your home itself could soon be on wheels and drive around without your help:

Honda recently announced the IeMobi Concept. It is an autonomous mobile living room that attaches and detaches from your home. When parked, the vehicle becomes a 50-square-foot living or workspace. Mercedes-Benz Vans rolled out an all-electric digitally-connected van with fully integrated cargo space and drone delivery capability, and Volvo just unveiled its 360c concept vehicle that serves as either a living room or mobile office. In other cases, some folks are simply retrofitting existing vehicles. One couple in Oxford England successfully converted a Mercedes Sprinter van into a micro-home that includes 153 square feet of living space, a complete kitchen, a sink, a fridge, a four-person dining area, and hidden storage spaces.

For those who are either unwilling or unable to own a home, self-driving van houses could become a convenient and affordable solution.  Soon, our mobile driverless vehicles may allow us to work from our cars and have our laundry and a hot meal delivered at the same time. In Los Angeles alone, it is estimated that 15,000 people are already living in their cars and in most countries it is perfectly legal to live in your vehicle.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The possibilities for adding a new and mobile room onto the homes of Americans might prove to be irresistible. Now I can add a room in which I can just drive away? Or, I can throw all sorts of things in there and then drive it out of view!
  2. The micro-home idea will find a market, particularly since the vehicles seem less cumbersome than the typical tiny home. At the same time, I imagine some wealthier communities will work to keep these sorts of vehicles out of the community. It may be an affordable option but if residents have concerns about apartment dwellers, wouldn’t they certainly have concerns about people who live out of their vehicles?
  3. These changes might only add to sprawl as it would enable residents to be more mobile. This could feed into the allure of driving and mobility. Of course, if some people give up large suburban homes for more mobile homes, perhaps the effects of sprawl might be reduced. Yet, I suspect that a good number of owners of mobile rooms and homes are purchasing them as a luxury item in addition to a home.

Manufactured housing to be more popular with fancier features?

Those seeking cheaper housing options may like both the price of manufactured housing and the features they can purchase:

The hope is that more Americans will see the factory units not only as a more-affordable alternative to a traditional single-family house, but also an appealing one, without the old trailer-park stigma. It helps that they’ve been getting fancier.

Scott Richards, a salesman for Rona Homes in Pataskala, Ohio, said that when shoppers come to his lot, he can dazzle them with customization options like hickory cabinets, rainforest showers and built-in entertainment systems coupled with electric fireplaces.

“We’ve got linoleum floors that look just like hardwood floors,” said Richards, who got back into selling factory-made houses after leaving the industry in 2012. “You don’t think about solid granite being in a manufactured home, but we have that as well.”…

The company sells what most people probably picture when they think of manufactured homes — single- and double-wide houses wholly built on a chassis in a factory — as well as modular homes, which are factory-built in sections that are assembled on a lot. While a single- or double-wide is often much cheaper than a modular home, both offer cost advantages that come with putting construction on an assembly line.

The article goes on to talk about some regulations involving the federal government and lenders that could be altered to make manufactured housing more available to house buyers. Theoretically, these changes could open the floodgates to cheaper housing for many.

Yet, I would suggest there is then another hurdle to overcome that might prove even more difficult. This housing may be cheaper than other options and it could even be attractive inside and out. This does not mean that it will be easily accepted by numerous communities, particularly those with higher qualities of life. In many of those places, manufactured housing implies all sorts of things that those communities work hard to keep out through formal and informal means. It will take time to reverse the common image of such housing.

The same issue faces tiny houses. Even if they look nice and are attractive inside, they are not easily accepted in places with more expensive single-family homes. Tiny houses are affordable – though significantly smaller than the manufactured housing options discussed in this article – but not necessarily that popular, either to consumers or neighbors.

Tiny houses with the luxury touches

Tiny houses could be used to address affordable housing or provide housing for the homeless – or they could be luxurious and appeal to the middle and upper classes:

The reality television series “Tiny Luxury” aims to bridge that gap, enticing viewers with high-end, highway-ready homes built on trailer chassis, all under 400 square feet…

Do new homeowners experience any angst about the size of the homes?

Tyson: They’ve anticipated what it’s going to be like. For people who can work remotely, it’s a traveler’s delight. They see it as having four times the freedom for a fourth of the price…

When you design for just a few hundred square feet, your homes can splurge on quality.

Tyson: We do a lot of granite and quartz countertops, or custom tops like slate, stone and butcher block. We can do really premium backsplashes and tile work in showers. We’re able to upgrade all the lighting and use better hardware.

The tiny house movement is not very big and I suspect the largest market involves people with means who either want to (1) downsize and live a different kind of life or (2) be more mobile and have a nicer house than an RV. If this is the case, then the tiny house becomes another luxury good that is not really within the reach of many Americans.

I know this might go against the audience of networks like DIY or HGTV that likely skew toward better off viewers but it would be interesting to see someone providing tiny houses to those who truly need one. It does not have to happen on a mass scale – imagine twenty episodes where one tiny house is built on each show – but it could generate a lot of positive sentiment toward tiny houses. Imagine “Extreme Home Makeover” with tiny houses.

Does having a small or tiny house make it easier to have your home stolen?

A couple reported that their Madisonville, Texas vacation home had disappeared:

Jo and Lonnie Harrison told Eyewitness News someone stole their entire home off their property in Madisonville, Texas. They bought the 10-acre property with a prefab home on site last year.

It’s a one-bedroom, one-bathroom home with a green roof and wood siding…

“Nothing. Nothing that I wanted to see. I didn’t see the house,” said Harrison. “All I saw were blocks and pipes sticking out. The whole house gone. Everything except the blocks.”…

“I said, ‘You know this is really going to sound strange, but I need to report a stolen house.’ They were like, ‘A house?’ I said yes. We have 10 acres and had a little cabin and the cabin is gone,” said Jo Harrison. “Give us a call. Call the Madisonville Sheriff’s Department and let them know what you see. We really would like to have our house back.”

One of the features of these smaller homes is that they can be easily moved. Load it onto a truck or tow it away (since some of the homes have wheels) and you can move your home from here to there. Depending on your family and friends as well as your tastes, you could keep a vacation home moving every once in a while and still feel like you have a home to return to.

But, those same features may just make it easier for someone else to take that home. What is the equivalent of a strong bike lock for a small house or tiny house? Embed a GPS tracker somewhere hidden? Mount a security camera high up in a tree nearby? The flip-side of the mobility – and I have not seen any figures on how often the typical tiny house owner would actually move – could be less security.

And one other thought about security: larger homes tend to provide spaces where an occupant can hide if someone is outside or trying to break in. Smaller homes may not offer the same possibilities for staying out of view or escaping out of an alternative exit. So, when will we see the tiny house with a panic room or with significant features for the security conscious?

Side note: this is not typically a problem with larger homes – though if the home was secluded enough and the owners away for long enough, something could happen there too. Perhaps the larger size would attract too much attention from someone nearby or on local roads.

Suburban family downsizes to 1,000 square feet…and then upsizes 412 days later

Downsizing and tiny houses are supposedly all the rage but they may actually be difficult to pull off as one suburban family attests:

I’d like to say that we had thought about what it would be like to live a tiny life before we downsized from our 4,000-square-foot home, but we fell in love with our little cottage in McKinney, Texas, and had grown tired of living large. Somewhere between the quest for more living space, we lost ourselves in exchange for higher utility bills and weekends spent dusting…

By the standards of tiny living — formally anything under 500 square feet — our move was not a tiny one. But when you consider that we are a family of five (plus a dog), you can see why we called our life “tiny.”…

Every day we learned more about each other and grew less tethered by the norms of privacy. But still, we all secretly longed for a sliver of it, for a private moment where tears could run without an audience, for the chance of living an embarrassing moment on your own, and for conversations that are secret, almost hidden, from the buzz of daily life. It was the togetherness that championed our tiny life, but it was the lack of privacy that also had us questioning it….

All of this joy for 400 extra square feet plus the 12 it takes to house the vacuum. Everyone has a room, everyone has personal space, and no one has to look at the vacuum unless they are using it. We could have added more space, but we purposely kept it small to maintain the togetherness of tiny living and the added bonus of smaller utility bills.

The overriding thought in the decision to add a bit more square footage seems to be privacy: 1,000 square feet was simply not enough. That comes out to about 200 square feet per person but the family desired more. It would be interesting to compare this figure – certainly far below what many Americans have in their dwellings – to global figures as well as to how Americans define and prize privacy. The American Dream with its single-family home is in significant part about having space away from others.

Two other factors in this particular story also strike me as unique. First, the family lives in a warmer climate where being outside is easier. If residents need a little more space, especially kids, going outside is an option. (Granted, being outside in Texas summer may not be pleasant but it is certainly preferable to freezing cold.) Second, the family lives in a suburb that regularly is ranked among the best places to live in the United States. The family does not say much about this in the article but the amenities of such a suburb could ameliorate having a smaller house.

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.