Ascertaining the popularity of the tiny house movement via Twitter

HomeAdvisor looked at tweets about tiny houses and examined geographic patterns:

Top 10 States for Tiny Living

The best states for #tinyliving living – https://www.homeadvisor.com/r/off-the-grid-capitals/

The methodology:

To create these visualizations, we collected data by “scraping” it. Scraping is a technique that gathers large amounts of data from websites. In this case, we wrote a custom script in Python to get the data for each hashtag. The script collected information including the number of likes, number of comments, location, etc. for posts with each of the three lifestyle hashtags. The python script also collects data that human users can‘t see, like specific location information about where the post was published from.

We didn’t include posts without location information. We also didn’t include posts outside of the United States. We then standardized the city and state data. Then, we grouped the posts by city and by state, tallying the number of posts for each hashtag. This gave us our top locations.

And more details on the state and city level data:

TinyLivingHomeAdvisorJun20

On one hand, this is interesting data. California, in particular, stands out though this may not be that surprising given its size, good weather, and high housing prices. The rest of the top ten seem to match similar characteristics including scenic areas and good weather (New York and possibly Colorado winters excluded). The city level data compared to the state numbers provides some insights – major cities can account for a large percentage of tweets for a whole state –  but there are not many cases in any particular city.

On the other hand, it is hard to know what exactly this Twitter data means. There are multiple issues: how many Americans are on Twitter or are active on Twitter and does this overlap with those who like and have tiny houses? Some of the tweets about tiny houses did not have location data – is the data missing at random or does it intersect with the patterns above? Does the #tinyliving hashtag capture the tiny house movement or a part of it?

Because of these issues, I still do not have a better idea of whether the tiny house movement is sizable or not. Having some denominator would help; of the California tweets, how does this compare to the number of single-family homes or apartments in the state? Portland, Oregon leads the way with 695 cases but over 650,000 people live in the city. How do these tweet numbers compare to people tweeting about HGTV shows or single-family homes?

There is a lot that can be done here and making use of data publicly available on websites and social media is smart. Figuring out which questions can be asked and answered with such data and then collecting good data is a challenging and possibly rewarding task.

Trying to figure out whether tiny houses are actually affordable

I ran across a story of a self-sustaining time home made in Australia and retailing for roughly $61,000:

In total, this Urban Tiny home on wheels is 8.2 feet wide, 14.1 feet tall, and 24.3 feet long, including its drawbar. The drawbar, which is 4.6 feet long, allows the 7,363-pound tiny home to be towed by several vehicle types, including pickup trucks and SUVs…

The home’s self sufficiency title comes from its power systems, which includes solar panels, a battery system, and a 240-volt inverter…

The inside of the home looks no different than a typical loft apartment…

The bathroom and kitchen source its water from the drinking and grey water tanks. But for those who want a more consistent stream of water and power, there are water and generator power connection points in the tiny home.

The home looks appealing and the built-in electricity and water units provide more flexibility and sustainability. But, here is why I wonder if such houses could truly be affordable housing:

1. The price on one unit is cheaper than most single-family homes in the United States. This does not necessarily mean it is affordable. It is almost double the cost of the average new car in the United States. Would lenders be willing to extend longer mortgages for these small housing units?

2. The owner of the tiny house still needs land. This would require buying a lot, renting a lot, or finding a free lot. The first two options could add significant costs while the third requires a personal connection.

3. It is unclear what the operating costs are for tiny houses: what does maintenance cost? How much are utilities? How long do these units last? What is their resale value after five or ten years?

4. Moving the unit is an attractive option (particularly given #2). But, this requires renting or owning a large enough vehicle to tow the unit.

5. This is not a large unit at roughly 200-250 square feet (including the loft space). In terms of price per square foot, this is not necessarily cheap (particularly if the costs for #2 are added in). If people have a lot of stuff, would they need to rent a storage unit or have a storage building/garage on their property? There is not a lot of private space in these units; would this require living near a community that provides pleasant public and private spaces (think coffeeshops, libraries, parks, etc.) and would this drive up the price of parking the unit?

Putting this all together, I’m not sure this is within the reach of many people (perhaps it is more in the ballpark for a retreat or second home for people with more resources).

Trying to kick the consumption habit while living in a tiny house

One scholar studying people who lived in tiny houses found that a smaller space did not necessarily mean to having less stuff:

Tiny houses are often put forward as a more sustainable housing option. They are certainly a potential check on the continued pursuit of bigger houses and greater consumption of energy, building materials and so forth. Yet reducing your environmental impact by going tiny is not as simple as some have claimed.

I came across several tiny households that were using external storage spaces for items that wouldn’t fit in the home, for example. Referred to as a “dirty secret” by one interviewee, another explained her desire to keep items from her previous home in case she changed her mind about tiny living.

Over half of my interviewees had a “one in, one out” mentality, where they would throw away or donate one item to make space for something new. As one dweller in her late 30s, who lives in a state-of-the-art home in a caravan park in rural New Hampshire, said, “I have a TJ Maxx addiction. I still go out every couple months and buy a bunch of stuff then come home and decide which things to get rid of.”

Regardless of how tiny living is marketed by the enthusiasts, sustainability was not a major driver for most of the participants in my study. Instead it was almost an afterthought. It seemingly takes more than changing the size of a home to change the mentality of the people who live inside.

One reason (among many) that Americans live in large houses is in order to store all their stuff. Having a smaller dwelling does not necessarily mean that the resident will get rid of all their stuff or reduce their consumption. Because there are so many options for storing stuff, it can be easy to keep all that stuff. (Side note: I could imagine future communities of tiny houses or tiny house living quarters surrounding larger community facilities like kitchens and entertaining spaces that include storage facilities or warehouses on site.)

Furthermore, the American economy needs people to buy things and American culture celebrates buying more (and buying bigger things). There are occasional calls to curb consumption – or at least pare down the number of things one has – yet they put limited dents in the overall patterns

Perhaps the bigger change will come over time. Imagine someone who has lived in a tiny house for a decade or more. Will they still keep their stuff in a storage unit wondering if they will move to a larger dwelling? Will they learn to live without all that stuff and get rid of it? Or, imagine a kid who grows up in a tiny house. Maybe they will be less inclined to have a lot of items around given their familiarity with smaller spaces and the reduced availability of items.

Tiny homes that also come with community

Fewer square feet than an average new house is one feature of tiny homes. For some tiny homes, they also come with built-in community:

With the tiny home lifestyle comes a certain determination to do more with less. Of course, this explains why tiny home owners are choosing to flock to dedicated subdivisions with like-minded individuals opting for a simpler life. According to Randy Hanson, the longtime developer behind Lake Walk Tiny Home Community in Greer, this shared philosophy has forged a strong connection between residents.

“Tiny houses create more of a close society and close community than anything else. I’ve been developing subdivisions all my life, and I’ve never seen this before. The people have formed almost like a family and they do things together,” says Hanson. “The houses are close enough together and they all have front porches. They sit on their front porches and holler back and forth like the old days.”

Sitting along the shore of Lake Cunningham, Lake Walk’s amenities include a dog park, community garden and picnic area, as well as a newly opened coffee shop. Of the community’s more than 60 lots, only three sites remain available…

After a year and a half of navigating the permitting process, Creek Walk Tiny Home Community in Travelers Rest is perhaps South Carolina’s newest tiny home village. Located along the Swamp Rabbit Trail and in prime distance of Greenville proper, Creek Walk offers access to downtown locales while also providing the peace and seclusion of nature. Whereas traditional, full-scale developments would require leveling a wooded area before construction could even begin, tiny homes are small enough to position among the trees. This means that rather than waiting a lifetime for the tiny sapling you planted in your yard to reach full size, you can enjoy the shade of a hearty forest on move-in day. In this way, tiny home communities can be about preservation as much as they are about destination.

Many homes are part of subdivisions. What makes these communities much different? Four possible answers:

1. The houses are still separate but are smaller and closer together. Unlikely townhomes and condos that allow residents to own their unit but are connected to other units, tiny houses have both the closeness and separation.

2. These tiny house communities may face unique zoning and regulatory challenges. As the article notes, not all municipalities are prepared for this.

3. More so than typical subdivisions, these communities might really bring people together for lifestyle reasons. Those who want a tiny house may be more alike each other than the typical homeowner.

4. Speculation on my part: because the homes are relatively small,residents spend less time inside or in private spaces and thus interact with each other more than typical homeowners.

Suggestion that tiny houses face snobbish responses because of links to lower classes

An overview of tiny houses in the United States (though no mention of how many there actually are) includes an interesting bit about social class:

But the main obstacle is a legal one: most municipalities and towns ban residents from living year-round in anything on wheels, and often have statutes requiring homes to be at least 900 square feet…

Historically in American culture, bungalows, caravans and mobile homes have a bad reputation — they are seen as badly made and decidedly lower-class.

But the Berriers’ home is impeccably decorated with a bathtub, a sunroom and a movie screen — no “trailer trash” here.

“There are preconceived notions. They haven’t seen it enough. It’s just something new. I think that’s the problem,” Berrier said.

This leads to a conundrum: if Americans love driving and homeownership, why do they dislike mobile or smaller housing so much?

The less positive reactions to tiny houses suggests it is not solely about owning a vehicle or home; the kind of vehicle or home matters. Driving is good but driving a nicer car is better. Owning a home is good but owning a bigger, more permanent home is clearly superior. Cars and homes are functional items and status symbols, important social markers of who a person is and desires to be.

A more functional approach to housing might be more open to tiny houses. People need a place to live at a reasonable cost? Affordable housing is scarce? Homeless people need residences? Let’s make it happen. Change zoning guidelines. Make it cool to downsize.

On the other hand, there are plenty of tiny house buyers who prefer getaways or luxury touches, not long-term housing in such a small size. It would be easy for the tiny house movement to be co-opted by those with resources and social status. Those people might be able to get tiny houses into certain places where they might otherwise not be allowed, but their motives would run against others who want tiny houses because of their reduced footprint and simpler lifestyle.

Stealing a tiny house

Tiny houses can be more mobile than a larger single-family, creating opportunities for homeowners and potentially thieves:

For two years, the recent Webster University graduate had been working on the minimalist accommodation. She had drawn a floor plan, laid sheep’s wool insulation and found electric and water sources. The home rose 12 feet high, with green windows, a tin roof and stained cedar siding. Construction had cost her about $20,000…

As it took shape, the home had traveled back and forth between St. Louis and Webster Groves, where Panu’s university is located. But on Saturday morning, she received a call from the supply warehouse’s owner, who had recently invited her to park near his business, Refab.

“He asked if I had moved the tiny house overnight and when I said no, he had the unfortunate news that they hadn’t, and it was likely taken,” Panu told WTHR, an NBC affiliate…

On Wednesday, detectives found the house 30 miles down the Mississippi River in House Springs, Missouri, Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak announced on Twitter. The Associated Press reported that an anonymous tip had led them to the purloined residence. According to the Post-Dispatch, there was no word on suspects.

There has to be a way to immobilize the wheels when the tiny home is parked. Is it worth putting a boot on your own home? For those interested in putting together small communities of tiny homes, providing additional security (for a fee, of course) could be worthwhile.

It sounds like the house was discovered in one piece. Could future tiny house thieves become more crafty and either alter the exterior to hide key details or chop up the house for parts and easier movement? The article described a social media push to find the way with people reporting seeing it moving down the highway. It is hard to miss the movement of a tiny house (perhaps until they become so popular that they are being moved all the time).

 

Escaping to a tiny house/anti-McMansion for a getaway

The business Getaway offers tiny houses as an escape from the typical urban area, smartphone dominated life:

The “tiny houses,” or cabins, measure 8 by 20 feet, or about the size of a living room. They cost about $30,000 each to build and are shuttled on truck beds from a factory in Massachusetts to their destination.

McMansions they ain’t. In fact, these two are the anti-McMansion crowd, too.

They cluster the tiny houses in groups of 20 or so on leased woodland, just outside major cities. Each outpost has a long-term lease on private land. Cabins are spaced 200 feet from one another, allowing sufficient privacy. And you can drive right up to the door…

They share a love for community, neighborliness and a skepticism toward social media. They also share “old-fashioned values” that were affirmed with a course they took from Robert Putnam, who authored “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

While this business can be pitched as offering a return to nature and in-person experiences, I wonder who it is selling to. Two quick thoughts:

  1. This really is another lifestyle option for people to pursue. Work hard for weeks on end, get buried in your smartphone, and then detox for up to two weeks in a tiny house in the woods. Perhaps everything is a commodity these days but this is just another hotel option.
  2. This could reinforce the idea that tiny houses are unusual (there are still just a small number of them) and primarily for people with money (especially when they have nicer features or are priced nightly like a decent hotel). How many Americans could access this? How many would want to?

This is very different than tiny houses for affordable housing. This is tiny houses for profit (and perhaps some good time away from “normal” life).

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.