The Freedom of Minimalism

Person holding rainbow colored umbrella in front a snowy pond
Photo by Anastasiya Yilmaz on Unsplash

Several years ago, I began to take my first steps down the path of minimalism.  However, I did not just wake up one day and decide to become a minimalist, first I was led to the concept through a desire to become debt-free, and then the goal to go plastic-free and live a more sustainable lifestyle, as I wrote about in my article entitled How Dave Ramsey and Going Plastic-free led me to Minimalism. I discovered and reviewed The Minimalists’ first film,  and that led me to read several of their books including Everything That Remains, which I reviewed as well. From there, it blended into the countercultural concoction of plastic-free, zero-waste, environmentally-friendly, sustainable, protecting-the-earth-and-animals-lifestyle I am striving toward. I now follow quite a few minimalists, have read Marie Kondo’s books, participate in Project 333, and I’m even considering living in a tiny house someday.

“Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul.” -Democritus

What is Minimalism?

There’s not one single definition for minimalism and it’s often misunderstood. It’s about living with less physical items to free up space in your home, mind, and heart for the more important things in life.

“Minimalism is simply removing the things that remove you from your life.” Courtney Carver, bemorewithless.com and creator of Project 333

“Minimalism is not a numbers game…It’s about finding the perfect balance of enough. It’s learning to be content with what you have.” -Kathryn Kellogg, goingzerowaste.com

“It’s simply getting rid of things you do not use or need, leaving an uncluttered, simple environment and an uncluttered, simple life. It’s living without an obsession with material things or an obsession with doing everything and doing too much.” -Leo Babauta, author and minimalist

“What Minimalism is really all about is reassessment of your priorities so that you can strip away the excess stuff — the possessions and ideas and relationships and activities — that don’t bring value to your life.” -Colin Wright, minimalist and author

As all minimalists will point out, minimalism does not mean barren walls and living bored. It doesn’t mean not owning nice things, in fact, it often means owning fewer but higher quality items. It does not mean you can’t entertain, have children, or limit belongings that are essential to your life. Minimalism means living intentionally. It also aligns with environmentalism and sustainability.

Boy with blue sled in snow
Photo by me

Why minimalism?

“It’s a way to escape the excesses of the world around us — the excesses of consumerism, material possessions, clutter, having too much to do, too much debt, too many distractions, too much noise. But too little meaning.” -Leo Babauta, author and minimalist

All of the minimalists I’ve mentioned have websites, books, and podcasts dedicated to the why, and I encourage you to delve into those. Some of the reasons include having more time, eliminating debt, finding true purpose in life, living cleaner, and pursuing passions and hobbies. The Minimalists wrote, “Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.”

“minimalism is freedom from the modern rush…We are too hurried, too frenzied, and too stressed. We work long, passionate hours to pay the bills, but fall deeper into debt. We rush from one activity to another – multitasking along the way – but never seem to get everything done.” We can try to live within our means and we might find ourselves much more content.

Courtney Carver described in her book, Project 333, that after going minimalist and downsizing from a large house to a small apartment, she knew she “had made the right decision when my husband woke up one Saturday morning and said, ‘Guess what I’m not doing today? I’m not raking leaves, mowing the lawn, replacing the roof, or negotiating with neighbors to replace the fence.’ Instead, we went for a hike.” How lovely!

Couple walking in winter forest
Photo by Arina Krasnikova from Pexels

Consumer Culture

“We own too much stuff. And it is stealing our joy.” -Joshua Becker, becomingminimalist.com

Why do we have so much stuff?

A great deal of our desire for excess possession comes from our culture, which pushes and praises consumerism. In fact, we are told that we are good citizens if we consume and spend. We grow up to get a job so that we can buy property, cars, trendy clothes, and all the things we’ve been told will make us happy. Ownership has typically been viewed as a sign of success. We are exposed to an average of 5,000 advertisements daily and told that we need more, to be more. Joshua Becker wrote, “Minimalism is countercultural. It is contrary to every advertisement we have ever seen because we live in a society that prides itself on the accumulation of possessions.”

“Living doesn’t cost much, but showing off does.” -Jeffrey D. Sachs, economist and author

This consumer culture leads us to compare our lives and our stuff to that of others, which causes consumer competition. This fills our homes with unnecessary belongings and creates discontent.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” -Theodore Roosevelt

Child being pulled in sled in snow with rainbow winter hat
Photo by Marcel Walter on Unsplash

Organizing

I used to believe organizing was the key to having a clean home and an easy lifestyle. I’ve spent hours of my life organizing and reorganizing my belongings, believing I was doing something good and healthy. I would spend hours online learning organizing methods and ideas. I loved organizing so much that at one point I even wanted to become a certified professional organizer so I could do it for a living. Now I see the errors of my ways. The best organizing is not having excess amounts of items to organize. The Minimalists wrote an article entitled “Organizing is Well-Planned Hoarding,”3 and I completely agree.

“You don’t have an organization problem, you have a too-much-stuff problem…You don’t need to organize more, you need to own less.” -Erica Layne, author of The Minimalist Way

The excess stuff gets in our way and limits us as every possession must be cared for, cleaned, and maintained. “Each one will require time, energy, and effort once they enter your home,” Joshua Becker said. If you own less stuff, you don’t need to shop at stores like The Container Store (a former favorite of mine), and this saves time as well. I’ve gotten rid of so much that I was able to sell most of my storage containers at my last yard sale.

“It is better to own less than to organize more.” -Joshua Becker, becomingminimalist.com

Girl making a snow angel
Photo by Jimmy Conover on Unsplash

Teaching Our Kids

If we have children it is imperative that we pass down the belief and understanding that relationships, love, giving, and contentment are far more important than any item they can ever buy. If we at least have what we need, the basic necessities, then everything else is a blessing.

“We must teach our kids how to handle envy and how to overcome it. It is important we help them learn how to focus on the positive, the shortsightedness of comparison, and the foolishness of jealousy. We should teach them to be generous and grateful, and to celebrate the success of others.” -Joshua Becker, becomingminimalist.com

Man skiing with dog
Photo by Puneeth Shetty on Unsplash

Less Is More…

Sometimes, as the saying goes, less is more. Owning only the things that add value and joy to your life. Participating only in those events that bring fulfillment. Spending time with those we love. Learning to be content with all that we do have.

“Modern society has bought into the lie that the good life is found in accumulating things – in possessing as much as possible…Minimalism brings freedom from the all-consuming passion to possess…It values relationships, experiences, and soul-care. And in doing so, it finds life.” -Joshua Becker, becomingminimalist.com

Less Is Now!

Though I’m not yet fully living the minimalist lifestyle I seek, I’m continually inspired by minimalism. It is a process and I’m working that process.

So I was very excited to learn The Minimalists are coming out with a new Netflix documentary, coming out today! What a great way to start the new year! The trailer alone inspired me to write this post, and I thought I’d dedicate my first post of this year to minimalism. Because minimalism has something positive to offer all of us, on some level.

Happy New Year! Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “What Is Minimalism?,” by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.

Article, “What is Minimalism? Maybe it’s not what you think,” by Courtney Carver.

Book, 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste, by Kathryn Kellogg, 2019.

FAQs, “Minimalist FAQs,” by Leo Babauta.

Article, “Minimalism Explained,” by Colin Wright, September 15, 2010.

 

Footnotes:

The Tiny House Movement: A Countercultural but Sustainable Solution

The Tiny House Movement: Challenging Our Consumer Culture book cover

I recently read The Tiny House Movement: Challenging Our Consumer Culture by Tracey Harris, a sociology professor at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia. Overall, the author argues that the tiny house movement is a countercultural social movement because it challenges many aspects of the American lifestyle and social norms. Some of these include owning a big house with furnishings and “nice” things; taking out loans and “financing” everything. Living in the right neighborhood with the right school, which often equates to a more expensive house. Staying very busy with work to make more money to pay for the house, the maintenance, repairs, and shopping to buy stuff for the house. “Keeping up with the Joneses” sounds stressful. Countercultural is starting to sound pretty good. This book was extremely well researched and well written, and I think all who are interested in tiny house living, minimalism, and sustainability should read it.

Tiny home on water
Image by Leslie Troisi from Pixabay

Tiny Houses

Generally, when I talk to people about my interest in tiny house living, many assume that I mean a 130 square foot tiny house on wheels (also known as a THOW). In fact, tiny houses can range in size from under 100 square feet up to 700 square feet, and small living is sometimes defined as up to 1000 square feet. Some are on wheels, some on concrete slabs or full foundations, and some are floating homes on water (also called houseboats). Tiny houses are versatile, customizable, and much more affordable than the average house. Some are off the grid but many are wired and plumbed for regular utilities. People are interested in tiny homes for a variety of reasons. Some want to work less in order to pursue their true interests; others seek to become and remain debt-free; some want to reduce their environmental impact; and most often, it is a combination of these.

“This transition relates not only to downsizing material goods but also requires a new understanding of what is meaningful and valuable in our lives. Leading lives based on experiences rather than acquisition is countercultural.” -Tracey Harris
Two story tiny house exterior
“Two Story Tiny House,” Park City, UT. Photo by PunkToad on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Home Ownership in the United States

We now have the biggest houses in the entire world. The average size of a new house in the US has tripled since 1950 and is now above 2,500 square feet and the average price is about $286,000. An upscale tiny house can run over $100,000 but are often less than that. There are also many other differences in cost! It costs much less to heat and cool under 500 square feet than it does for 2,500 square feet. The costs of repairs are lower because there is physically less to repair – fewer windows; a roof that is the fraction of the size of the average home; less electrical to repair, and likely only one bathroom instead of 3! “Big houses require more energy and materials to construct. Big houses hold more furniture and stuff—they are integral parts of high-consumption lifestyles. Big houses contribute to lower population densities and, thus, more sprawl and driving.”1 Overall, larger homes are not good for the environment and are not sustainable.

“It is completely out of control right now, in terms of the size of our housing. We really need to settle down and not only because of affordability but because of sustainability. We cannot sustain the level of growth that we have right now.” -Andrew Morrison, tiny house advocate 

Small house figure on a calculator
Image by Alexander Stein from Pixabay

We have too much stuff

In the United States, we have too much stuff. Our consumer habits are keeping us in debt, polluting the environment, and creating discontent. In addition to our large homes, we pay for additional storage – for stuff we probably don’t need! The self-storage industry grows annually; currently, 9.4% of households in the US, about 1 in 10, rent a storage facility. As a country, we spend $39.5 billion annually on self-storage. What else could we do with that money? There are a few situations in which self-storage is necessary, but self-storage should always be a short term solution.

 

“There are more self-storage facilities in America than there are McDonald’s restaurants.”2

Garage full of boxes and junk
Image by Maret Hosemann from Pixabay

Many people wonder how tiny house residents can fit all of their possessions in their homes. The transition to tiny house living does require significant downsizing in possessions. But as with minimalism, the focus would be on keeping the items that add value to your life and letting go of the belongings that do not. But this transition should enhance your life.

People living in tiny homes “acknowledge that a small house provides the vehicle for them to live larger lives, in part because they are no longer tied to the physicality of a conventional house and all of the baggage that comes with those ties.” -Tracey Harris

Debt

Between housing costs and the costs to heat/cool/furnish the home, general overconsumption, cars, education, and self-storage, Americans are more than $13 trillion in debt! We deserve to live better. In fact, some communities are embracing the tiny house movement as a potential way to address housing insecurity and poverty. In Detroit, Michigan, for example, programs assist people with lower incomes to become homeowners over time, which provides them with stability that snowballs into opportunities that they previously did not have.3

“The tiny house movement can help us all gain a better understanding of how we can challenge societal inequalities and environmental degradation by advocating for more choice, not less, in the ways we are able to house ourselves.” -Tracey Harris

Even if you aren’t interested in living in a tiny house, I encourage you to think about the sustainability of your spending habits and how much of your income is going to housing and caring for items you don’t use. Because the less you own, the more money you’ll have for what really matters to you. The less debt you have, the more freedom you will have to spend on travel, experiences, and giving. The benefits of buying less, downsizing, living deliberately, being debt-free are easy to see.

Environmental benefits

Consumer culture is taking a huge toll on the environment. Consuming less not only reduces expenditure but buying less stuff and having a smaller home is also environmentally friendly. Smaller homes use less energy and need considerably fewer items because of limited physical space. Production, transport, and disposal of consumer items is not sustainable at the rate of our current consumption levels. The tiny house lifestyle works counter to this culture by reducing the focus on possessions and putting it back on living a full life.

“We are heading for the proverbial rocks. It’s not just us in peril; it is our very home, planet Earth, which is being threatened by our consumptive choices and overspending.” -Tracey Harris

Photo by Nachelle Nocom on Unsplash

Community and Sharing Economy

Rather than owning and storing every type of household item or tool, minimalists and tiny homeowners embrace the notion of sharing, borrowing, even renting items they need only once in a while. Some neighborhoods have tool libraries, and there are some public libraries that lend tools and equipment just like books. People can share chainsaws, weedeaters, nail guns, and other tools. There are even kitchen libraries popping up, where you can borrow or rent kitchen gadgets that you might not need but a couple of times per year. Tiny house communities, like condos or housing associations, share large amenities such as pools, fitness rooms, and tennis courts. In addition, many also offer clubhouses for large gatherings. Others share communal sports equipment such as kayaks and bicycles.

Live Your Best Life

Though that phrase may seem cliché, living your best life is important, whatever that means to you. If the idea of living with less to achieve your best life is countercultural, so be it. Let’s just embrace it for what it is. This is your life and not for others to judge. If you are living tiny or minimalist, I’d love to know how that’s going for you. Is it helping you get the most out of life? Leave me a comment below. As always, thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

Footnote:

Ironing Mat review

Magnetic ironing mat with iron on washing machine
Photo by me

Quite a few years ago, when we lived in a 700 square foot house, I let go of my ironing board in favor of an ironing mat, one that has magnets and stays still right on top of your washing machine. I thought this was the most clever invention for people living small or with limited space. Now that I’m still using it 7 years later and living in a slightly bigger house, I figured it was time I featured it here.

About the portable ironing mat

I purchased my mat on Amazon, and while that specific one is no longer available, there are many similar mats online. It is about 33″ x 19″, foldable, and has two strong magnets on both ends to hold it securely to the washer or dryer. Several brands say these are safe to use on surfaces other than metal by using a towel underneath. I store it with the iron under the sink in the laundry room. It is several layers thick and has a quilted surface on both sides, made to withstand high heat. Like any ironing board, though, you’d never leave the iron unattended.

Close-up of the mat secured with magnets.
The magnets are very strong. Photo by me

Quilting and Crafting

I am an amateur quilter and crafter striving for a minimalist lifestyle, and I am able to use this mat for all but the largest of projects. For large projects, such as a queen-sized quilt, I borrow an ironing board – there’s no need to own one for the once every 5 or more years that I need a regular-sized board. I’ve used the mat for basic ironing and mending, small sewing projects, making lap and twin-sized quilts, and doing other crafts with my son. Honestly, I loved my mat, so much so that as I mentioned, I decided it was something I should feature on my website.

But as I sat down to write this post, I made a grim and eye-opening discovery. Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com wrote a post about replacing her “possibly toxic” tabletop ironing board and she mentioned that many ironing board covers and mats are coated with tetrafluoroethylene, a family of chemicals better known as Teflon. Once I researched it further, I confirmed that the ironing mat I’ve been using and loving for years was likely toxic.

Do not buy one of these ironing mats. See below for the best alternative.

Iron and ironing mat on a washing machine with quilt sections.
Ironing sections of a quilt I made last year. Photo by me

Dangerous fumes

All versions of this chemical non-stick coating have the potential to be very toxic to human health. Teflon in its various forms (PTFE, PFOAS, PFAS, PFOS, PFBS, etc.) is known to cause a variety of illnesses in humans and is a known carcinogen. Products coated with it can off-gas at high temperatures, so ironing on it is unsafe.

It turns out that many ironing board covers and ironing mats are coated with a version of these chemicals. I was so disappointed to learn this about my mat because I do love it. When I searched my purchase history on Amazon, I realized that I ordered and began using this during my pregnancy. I did not know many of the things I know now about unsafe toxins and chemicals in our everyday products, so needless to say this terrifies me! Did I expose my baby to these chemicals?

“Nowadays, most irons and ironing board covers are coated with tetrafluoroethylene plastic, better known as Teflon. Given that heating plastic makes it outgas its toxic fumes, irons and ironing board covers seem odd places to put it, particularly since a non-stick finish is not even necessary for the task.” -Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Toxic-Free

Wool Pressing Mat

Once I was aware of the potential dangers of a Teflon coated ironing mat, I began seeking a safe, non-toxic, chemical-free alternative. I also wanted the alternative to be small and easy to store. After reading research other bloggers have done, it turns out wool pressing or ironing mats are the best options. Many quilters swear by the wool mats and indicate that they are better because they reduce ironing time and grip the fabric well. There are many of these for sale online but look for certain aspects: make sure it is 100% wool, make sure the wool is sustainably sourced and cruelty-free, and ask the seller to not ship it in plastic! I recommend searching “wool ironing mat” or “wool pressing mat” online and reading multiple reviews from sewists and quilters. Make sure to read the comments too as there are usually additional tidbits of information there.

Iron with purple accents
Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

I plan to buy one of these in the near future, and I will update this post when I do! If you’ve had any experience with wool pressing mats or other ironing mats, please let me know in the comments below! Thank you for reading, and please subscribe. Happy ironing!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “DIY Plastic-Free Ironing Board Cover and Natural Wool Pad,” Myplasticfreelife.com, December 26, 2016.

Article, “An Honest Review of Wool Pressing Mats,” SuzyQuilts.com, accessed November 4, 2020.

Video, “Wool Pressing Mats: What is all the HYPE about?” Sparrow Quilt Company, January 12, 2019.

 

Is Tiny House Living actually a viable solution? Part 2

Interior of a tiny house
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash

In my last post, I told you about my family’s growing interest in tiny houses. I’ve been pursuing buying or building a tiny house in our area, but I’ve run into many roadblocks. I want to provide a few clarifications: first, tiny can be defined as anything under 700 square feet. What we really want is a house under 1000 square feet, which could also be classified as a small house. Second, we are not looking to be mobile as some tiny house owners are – we are not looking to tow the house and use it for traveling. We would want to build it on a foundation. Third, we are not looking to be off the grid – we want electricity and plumbing. Last, we want to do this 100% legally, and that’s where the biggest roadblocks have been.

House at River Ridge Escapes, photo by me
House at River Ridge Escapes, photo by me

Where can you put a tiny house?

Though I’m in Tennessee, I want to share my experience because I suspect it is typical of many regions of the United States. I found it very confusing to figure out what you can build and where you can build. If you watch popular TV shows about tiny house living, they make it seem like you can just park one anywhere. But I’m afraid that that’s just not true. There are many details, ordinances, and regulations. When I started the process, I didn’t even know how to find the information. Even now I’m certainly no expert, but I wanted to share my experience in hopes that it helps others navigate the same process.

I’ve spoken to several tiny home builders and real estate agents about buying or building a tiny house. None were able to give me enough information or direction. Real estate agents especially did not seem very motivated to work with me. From a financial perspective, we were only looking to buy a small piece of land under $30,000, rather than a huge house in the hundreds of thousands, thus less of a commission for them. A couple of agents were somewhat helpful, but only to a point. One even told me that I could “plop one down anywhere I wanted,” which is completely inaccurate and misleading.

Well, kind of. I can buy a tiny house and park it in my backyard tomorrow. But I cannot legally reside in it full time.

Dining room of a tiny house, photo by me
Dining room of a tiny house, photo by me

Zoning: County, or City?

Though I thought real estate agents would be most knowledgeable in zoning laws, they often referred me to the county and city zoning offices to find out for myself. I called both zoning offices multiple times over several months and left messages and I’ve never received a return call from either. I was going to have to take a day off from work to visit the offices in person, but I never even got that far.

Eventually, I figured out that zoning is different in the county versus the city; that sections of each have their own zoning regulations; and that individual subdivisions within the city and county often have their own restrictions. Each of these has requirements about minimum square footage, lot size, foundation type, home shape (to prevent mobile homes), etc. Many of these are rules are created as safety regulations, but some were created simply to keep poor people out of certain neighborhoods.

We looked at many pieces of land in person and online. Some were in the city and some were in the county, but this isn’t always easy to determine. When I’ve asked real estate agents directly, I often did not get a clear answer. Here are some of the small, quick tricks you can use to determine which zoning to even start with:

      • Look at the garbage cans – if those are city-issued, then it is city zoning.
      • You can tell by school zone if schools are separated by city and county (where we live, it all falls under the county).
      • Check the public library system to find out if it serves the city or county.
      • Find out which utilities (water, gas, electric) service county and city separately, you can determine the zone that way.
Tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me
Tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me

Zoning Classifications

We found several pieces of land into which we made serious inquiries with real estate agents. Regarding one particular property, the agent responded: “This particular property is zoned R1 so you could build on it but I’m not sure if there is a minimum size or not and also, since it’s in a subdivision, there are probably restrictions on what can be built…If there are no subdivision restrictions, you would probably have to get a special permit for a tiny home…It is my understanding that zone R5 is the only one not required to get a special permit. If I were you, I would make a trip to the zoning office and try to get them to break down the process for what you are wanting to do.” That was a lot of information for me to understand in just one paragraph, especially since I am not versed in zoning laws.

Many areas do not have a separate classification for tiny homes. Zoning classifications are not standardized and can vary greatly. Even if a municipality follows the International Residential Code (IRC), there are usually amendments and exceptions. Generally, most indicate the type of use with a letter or combination of letters, for example, R for residential or C for commercial. There is usually a number to indicate the type of development. For example, in our area* R1 refers to lots for single-family dwellings.

R1: Residential buildings

The definition of R1: “Single-family dwellings, excluding factory manufactured homes constructed as a single self-contained unit and mounted on a single chassis.” I have been unable to find the minimum square footage for new R-1 construction in our city and county, except that they follow the standards of the 2012 International Residential Code (IRC) with many amendments and exceptions. The 2012 IRC requires a minimum of 120 habitable square feet in at least one room. Other rooms must be at least 70 square feet with 7-foot ceilings. But in some county municipalities adjacent to Chattanooga, the minimum is 1400-1500 square feet for newly constructed residential buildings.

R5: Manufactured residential homes

R5 is intended for single wide manufactured homes in specifically designated places. In other words, here R5 means trailer or mobile home park. In many places throughout the United States, tiny houses are relegated to mobile home communities. Tiny houses that are 400 square feet or above are often classified as manufactured homes. Many of the tiny house models we liked were either right at 400 square feet or just over. In the city, a manufactured home is defined as a structure, transportable in one or more sections, which is at least 8 feet wide and 32 feet long (256 square feet) “and which is built on a permanent chassis, and designed to be used as a dwelling with or without permanent foundation,” according to the Chattanooga Code of Ordinances.***

A1: Agriculture use

In our county, A1 zoning is “intended for agricultural uses and single-family dwellings at 2 units per acre maximum.” One real estate agent and one tiny house company informed me that I could “probably get away with a tiny house” on a lot with that zoning. But we don’t want to “get away with it” and hope we don’t get caught, experiencing consequences of hefty fines and a relocation later. We want to do this legally.

Travel trailer or camper

If a tiny house on wheels (THOW) is classified as a travel trailer, they are only allowed to be used for “short-term occupancy for a period not to exceed thirty (30) days, for frequent and/or extensive travel, and for recreational and vacation use.”** So you can technically own one and park it wherever an RV is allowed, but you cannot reside in them full time or permanently.
Kitchen of a tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me
Kitchen of a tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me

Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions

On top of figuring out the county zoning for areas outside of the city, many subdivisions have what is called Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs). These rules govern the use of lots in the subdivision or neighborhood and are usually enforced by a homeowners’ association. Again, many of these rules are created as safety regulations. But some were put in place to prevent the poor from moving into those neighborhoods.

Unfortunately with every single lot that we inquired about, we hit a roadblock, usually in the form of said CC&Rs. Some had a minimum square footage requirement of 1500 square feet, and two required a minimum of 2500 square feet! I honestly don’t even know what I’d do with a house that size. Another real estate agent recommended a vacant double lot zoned as R2, on which we could’ve built a small duplex and rented out half. But it also had a steep grade and would have required a double foundation or a poured wall foundation. This combination seemed too much for us to take on financially and physically.

Elevation of a tiny house on the beach
Elevation of a tiny house on the beach, image from architecturaldesigns.com

Commit with no guarantee

If we decided to build a small house on a foundation and got past any relevant CC&Rs, then we could apply for a special permit through the applicable zoning office. But we would have to buy the land first, and then to apply for the permits we would have to bring the zoning office architectural or building plans. If this order is correct, we would have to purchase the land, then work with a general contract or architect and pay them to draw up the plans. So we’d have to commit financially to the land and the plans before we’d even know if we could build the small house we desire.

Retrofitting an Older House

There are some single-family homes in our area under 1000 square feet, but most of them are older homes. When you purchase an older home, as we did, you must be prepared for the problems of an old home. Homes built before the 1980s can have asbestos, as our house did, and asbestos remediation is expensive. Homes built before 1978 often have lead paint and contractors will not perform work on your house until it has been tested. Some argue that you can “get around” testing for things like asbestos and lead by doing the work yourself. But the risk is exposing yourself and your family to known highly carcinogenic toxic materials. Older homes sometimes have mold or mildew issues. Old construction materials may have been made or treated with dangerous chemicals, such as old insulation, lead pipes, and varnishes.

I’m not against owning an older home, but I wish I had known these things before buying one so I could have been prepared financially. For our family, we want newer construction, and many tiny houses tend to either have newer building materials or be newly constructed. Additionally, the cost is often higher to retrofit or “gut” an old house and rebuild the interior with updated plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc. than it is to buy or build a new tiny or small house.

Interior of a small A-frame house
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash

Tiny House zoning issues

Tiny houses are not allowed in many places, and this is most often due to the property tax structure. Property taxes are a major income source for local governments and they often pay for a variety of services including schools, fire and police, infrastructure, libraries, garbage and recycling, and too many others to list. Property taxes are usually based on the value of your land and home. The more square footage of the home, the higher the taxes, and the more income the municipality takes in. So there is not much motivation there to allow tiny or even small houses. The system discourages small and sustainable living.

Movement on the rise

There are cities in Florida, Oregon, California, Arizona, and several other states that laws that allow full-time residency in small or tiny houses. Tiny house communities are popping up in different areas, like the ones I mentioned at River Ridge Escape in Georgia. Some argue that the tiny house movement is a trend and will be short-lived. Others claim that the movement is here to stay so that people can live the life they want by not being tied down by a huge mortgage.

Thank you for reading, I hope this information is helpful. I am not trying to discourage anyone from trying to go tiny. As for me and my family, the effort to build in our specific area has been tabled, but it is not off the table! If there are any errors or misinterpretations in this post, it is only because my understanding of building codes and ordinances is rudimentary and I’ve largely had to figure this out on my own. If you have updated information or your own experience to share, leave me a comment below!
Blue tiny house with rounded door
Image by Kool Cats Photography on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Footnotes:

*Information obtained from the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency.

**Information obtained from Chattanooga Code of Ordinances, Chapter 38, Zoning.

***Chattanooga Code of Ordinances, Section 10-8.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Are Tiny Houses Illegal in Your State?” by Maria Fredgaard

Article, “Tiny-house owners are facing evictions or living under the radar because their homes are considered illegal in most parts of the US,” Insider.com, December 14, 2020.

Article, “Where Can I Build a Tiny House?” by Maria Fredgaard

Article, “A woman who parked her tiny house on her parents’ property in New Hampshire was forced to move out after the local government said it was illegal,” Insider.com, December 30, 2020.