Last year, 66-year-old Lauren Knoblauch sold or donated nearly everything she owned, from her two-bedroom home on a suburban Seattle lake to her furniture and many of her clothes. She moved everything else, two small carloads’ worth, into her new home: a downtown apartment that, at less than 150 sq. ft., is smaller than the average U.S. master bedroom.
The move came as Knoblauch, who works in inmate rehabilitation, pondered her impending retirement. “I started thinking about what I was passionate about,” she said. “I wanted to see opera in Europe, to spend money on what was exciting to me.”
Her new apartment, which costs $575 a month — less than half the $1,400 average for a Seattle one-bedroom — puts her about 20 minutes from Symphony Hall by foot and a short bus ride from the Opera House. With new financial flexibility, she’s traveled to Germany and Ireland to see opera performances. “I’m loving it,” she says.
The burgeoning tiny house and micro-apartment movements, which generally describe accommodations smaller than about 400 sq. ft., are sometimes seen as young person’s trends, with budget- and environmentally conscious millennials and Gen Xers seeking to slash living costs while lessening their environmental footprints. Some familiar with the industry, however, say they are increasingly of interest to older people at or nearing retirement age.
About 10,000 people live in tiny houses in the U.S. — the Pacific Northwest, Colorado and the Carolinas are particularly popular areas — though just a fraction are older; many more people, especially those in expensive cities, live in micro-apartments, according to Ryan Mitchell, owner of the website TheTinyLife. Their numbers are growing, he says, as modifications that make the homes more accessible to older residents, such as staircases rather than ladders and designs that keep everything easily reachable, become more commonplace.
While their appeal is varied, the principal attraction is price. Smaller homes can give seniors “more disposable income and the ability for many to comfortably survive within their Social Security means and/or part time work,” says consultant Erik Blair, a tiny house advocate. “The number one reason to get into a tiny house: You can save 70% or more of your recurring cost of living.”
Why older Americans want to retire in tiny houses
For older Americans, many on fixed incomes that may not heavily supplement their Social Security, the cost of living is of utmost importance. Nearly 60% of workers 55 and older have saved less than $100,000 for retirement, while 24% have saved less than $1,000, according to the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute. Both figures are much lower than financial advisers recommend.
Enter tiny houses, which are relatively inexpensive to build, buy and maintain. It usually costs between $10,000 and $100,000 to buy or build one, according to Blair; the average U.S. home costs nearly $200,000. Tiny apartments tend to cost much less than larger rental units in the same area.
In both cases, less space means lower utility payments: Mitchell, who lives in a 150 sq. ft. home, says his average monthly bills are around $20.
Less storage space, meanwhile, can reduce the impulse to acquire new stuff because, simply put, there’s nowhere to put it. “When I want to buy something, I have to think of what can I get rid of,” said Knoblauch. Often, “I realize I have everything I need already.”
“There are no big trips to Sam’s to get tubs of ketchup,” joked Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, 52, who lives in a 480-square-foot home in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, where she plans to retire, after years in a larger house in suburban Kansas City, Kan. “They won’t fit.”
Money isn’t the only reason tiny houses and micro-apartments appeal to retirees. Many empty nesters long to downsize, surveys show, even if they can afford more space. With their children grown, extra rooms can attract clutter and require maintenance; some, anticipating an eventual move to a nursing home, like the idea of simplifying early.
“I used to spend an entire Saturday cleaning my house,” said Fivecoat-Campbell. “Now I can clean it top-to-bottom in under two hours.”
For still others, the houses allow them to live near family while retaining their own space. So-called “granny cottages” can be placed in the yard of a family’s home, allowing residents to live both independently and close by. They’re often fitted with amenities useful to older residents, including grab bars, barrier-free showers and elevated toilets that can reduce falling risks, and wheelchair access.
‘I love this place — life works’
Tiny-house living isn’t without challenges. Knoblauch doesn’t have a full kitchen or bathtub; she has just one sink; and her clothes hang on a free-standing rack rather than in a closet. Fivecoat-Campbell wishes she had space for her now-deceased mother’s china cabinet and other full-size furniture.
Meanwhile, the modifications to make smaller dwellings work for older residents, who may have trouble with ladders, bending over, and other contortions, can increase a unit’s expense.
Still, many who choose this life say it’s worth it. Knoblauch calls her apartment “lovely, well-maintained, quiet and pretty,” and says the opportunities her micro-apartment afford her — from the ability to travel the world to see opera to her lcoation’s walkability to the simplicity of owning less stuff — outweigh the downsides.
“I love this place,” she said. “Life works.”
The appeal of smaller houses and apartments is often as philosophical as it is practical. Residents choose other priorities — from travel to golf to cooking — and use their newfound money and time to enjoy them more fully, sometimes abandoning decades-old habits to do so.
“As we get older and the children move out, empty-nesters want to find new hobbies, travel and explore simpler living on their own terms,” said Blair.
That, in turn, can mean renewed freedom and flexibility. Says Knoblauch of her new life: “I feel so liberated.”