“I want to live in a nice environment, not in a trailer park with a bunch of meth-heads.”
Like many others with whom I spoke, Lauren Thomas, a forensic psychologist who rents an 1800-square-foot home in Encinitas, has been tiny-house shopping online but still hasn’t made the move. “I’ve been looking into it for two years, but I don’t want to buy a tiny house until I have a place to put it.” The dilemma, opines Thomas, is that unless one opts to erect a tiny house on a foundation, which entails going through a municipal permit process, there are few if any places in the county where it’s legal to situate one’s pint-sized abode on a long-term basis.
Thomas, who at 60 is nearing retirement after decades evaluating state prison inmates, says that zoning restrictions, along with RV parks’ typical six-month occupancy limits, pose a formidable barrier. As a consequence, most tiny housers, she claims, live off the grid (at least officially), hooking up water and electricity lines surreptitiously. “A lot of younger people are willing to live beneath the radar, but I’m not. She’d prefer to own a house at the beach, but it’s not feasible. So, Thomas, who has budgeted up to $75,000 for a tiny house plus $650 a month to park it, muses in the alternative, “I’d like a really cherried-out tiny house.”
Online, it’s easy enough to window-shop for tiny houses. “Here’s a cute restroom with a shower that totally works!” A comely middle-aged woman, accompanied by her daughter, is conducting a video tour of a 172- square-foot home. Next, she scrambles up a steep wooden ladder to a loft where she ducks on hands and knees to avoid being crowned by the rustic pine ceiling. She gushes, “You know, it’s equipped with a queen-sized mattress but it’s big enough for a king!”
And so it goes in the wishful world of the tiny-house movement, where television shows, websites and discussion forums incessantly promote and proselytize. But while it’s one thing to extol the virtues of “living small,” it’s quite another to live full-time (on a voluntary basis) in claustrophobic quarters.
Architectural model of Jill Dickens’s tiny house. It is currently under construction in Northern California.
Jill Dickens, a graphic designer who rents an 800-square-foot bungalow near the intersection of Florida and Madison in University Heights, is determined to make it happen, to go smaller still, to go tiny. “It all depends on what you want out of life. If I spend $1350 a month to live here, it puts me in a great area but it’s not going to give me a whole lot of extra money to spend on things I enjoy, such as travel.”
As with many nascent tiny housers, Dickens’s leitmotif centers around change and adaptability. “For years, I lived in my parents’ home, which was 2500 square feet, five bedrooms. I was taking care of my mom, who had Alzheimer’s. I thought I’d always live there, but it didn’t turn out that way; my daughter and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment. I’d been in my parents’ house so long that I had no idea how much crap I had. That first move, I did a lot of shedding of excess stuff and it felt fantastic. When my daughter moved out, I thought, I don’t need this much space, so I found this cottage.”
Jill Dickens settled on a tiny house from Liberty Cabins of Crescent City, CA.
“About the time I moved in, I started hearing about tiny houses and thought, Oh, my God. I’d love to do that maybe five years down the road. I consider myself a minimalist (not that I’ve always been) but as I get older, it makes me feel better to not have as many things. It’s about spending less energy on things and more energy on how I spend my time. For my goals in life, it’s all about mobility. My plan is to sit on someone else’s land, whether it’s my landlord’s or someone else’s, put the money I was gonna put in rent into savings — and buy a lot myself to put my tiny house on. You can take a tiny house on wheels to a campground, but they charge you almost as much as renting an apartment, so that’s the downside.”
Dickens admits there are other logistical hurdles.
“You can’t finance a tiny home like a conventional house; you have to get an RV loan or a personal loan. Also, in my case, I can’t borrow against my retirement as a first-time home-buyer because it’s not considered a home; when they’re on wheels, they’re legally considered RVs.”
Claustrophobics need not apply?
“Well, yeah,” laughs Dickens. “But it’s pretty big for a tiny house.” Big enough for her needs? “Yes, definitely. I’ve paced it out on the floor where I’m living now, and I don’t see a problem at all.”
While Dickens has a concrete idea about how small her dream tiny house will be, she still hasn’t figured out where to buy it.
“I’ve looked online at SoCal Cottages in Del Mar. My plan was to go up to Del Mar and do a little tour of their establishment, but their houses are just so ugly.”
(As it turns out, SoCal Cottages is nothing more than a sales office in a small suite on Camino Del Mar in Del Mar; there’s nary a tiny house at the site.)
I used to quip, “mobile homes are neither mobile nor homes.” But what about a minuscule house, mobile or not? Is it really a “home” in the grand American tradition of four walls, a man’s castle, and a refuge from the teeming hordes? I queried Mark Silva, of Silva Studios in Clairemont, for his take.
“It’s interesting that you ask that. There’s a bunch of stuff on the internet, like, ‘Do it yourself tiny homes on wheels.’ To me that’s not a tiny home, it’s a mobile home, which is really nothing new. It’s on wheels, it’s not permanent. I’m an architect and maybe I’m swayed by that, but to me, anything on wheels is just a mobile home, and they’ve been around forever.”