Jenna Anderson and her partner Sean Goff have just finished the custom-built home of their dreams.
The couple, in their mid-20s, used quality materials like walnut flooring, blue-stained pine beetle paneling, and stainless steel appliances. They designed the house themselves and spent the summer constructing it by hand. The entire structure is about 170 square feet, 10,000 pounds, and cost $25,000.
The couple built it over a portable trailer foundation with the help of Jenna’s parents, in the front yard of their Winter Park Highlands home. Jenna and Sean are now en route to Portland, Ore., with their tiny home in tow.
“The bottom line is, for $25,000, we own our house. We don’t have a mortgage, we don’t pay rent,” Jenna said. “It hugely reduces our cost-of-living, so all that money can be saved and set aside for other things we want to do.”
Tiny houses are a small but growing trend nationwide. Although there are no hard numbers or figures to illustrate, supporters of tiny living point to a number of factors driving the lifestyle switch – the economic downturn, social consciousness, environmental concerns and a desire for independence.
‘A different option’
When the housing bubble burst in 2007, driving up both foreclosure rates and unemployment, it also took a heavy toll on young people. According to an August 2013 Pew Research Center analysis, 36 percent of the nation’s young adults between 18-31 lived with their parents in 2012, compared with 32 percent before the Great Recession. By 2012, only 63 percent of these young people had jobs, compared to 70 percent in 2007.
For Jenna and Sean, the recent economic toll on young people has helped fuel their desire for small living.
“I think it has a lot to do with the mortgage crisis, with the economy,” she said. “People can’t afford to buy their own homes at the ages they used to able to. Young people like us aren’t in a position to do that right now, or don’t want to incur that much debt.”
Tiny living gives the couple a chance to live independently, with their income going to something they own outright instead of rent.
“It’s a different option, it’s a way to own your own house,” Jenna said. “(It’s) an investment you can sell later while still not owing the bank a bunch of money.”
The real estate bubble also fueled an unusual trend. Since the 1970s, the median size of homes has ballooned by 36 percent in the West and 42 percent nationwide, according to U.S. Census data. Over the same period, the average number of people per households has shrunk by 14 percent.
“We don’t need that much space, this is plenty,” Jenna said.
The reduced space will also save the couple on utilities. They expect a 100-pound propane tank to easily last them for a month during cold weather.
“The cost to heat something like this is next to nothing,” Sean said.
A sustainable way to live
Jenna grew up in Grand County, but moved to Portland for college. She met Sean, a musician, soon after completing her teaching degree. They set off traveling the world, where they became accustomed to a downsized lifestyle.
“We were living out of our backpacks for nine months and on other people’s couches, using pit toilets and not having any kind of space of our own,” Jenna said. “People all over the world live in so much less.”
Jenna and Sean look to reduce their impact with smaller living. They used salvaged materials for much of their home’s construction. When contractors in the community learned about what they were doing, they donated supplies like leftover exterior siding and roofing. They repurposed an old garden shed storage cupboard into a dual-function kitchen cabinet and dining table, topping it off with a leftover piece of granite.
“When you’re living in such a small space, things have to work really well, and they have to be organized,” Jenna said.
The bathroom cabinet is made out of a shelf from a Riverside Hotel bank auction. The sink basin is an old pan Jenna found with her mother, Marilyn, at a junk sale.
Jenna’s father, Reed, helped the couple with most of the construction. He said the house can be fully powered by solar electricity.
“It’s all ready to convert, it’s down to 12 volt, LEDs, everything,” he said.
The couple also made an effort to use local materials in the construction, especially beetle-kill pine.
“That’s one thing I felt strongly about, being from this area,” Jenna said. “It was important for me to have the beetle kill, to use that resource that’s here and so readily available.”
Once Sean and Jenna arrive in Portland, they’ll live at a semi-communal village with several other tiny houses. They’ll share a garden, storage garage and larger common building with music room, kitchen and living room.
“It’s a sustainable way to live, it’s a small footprint on the land, it’s affordable,” Marilyn said.
Jenna and Sean also appreciate the freedom their tiny trailer-mounted home affords.
Sean said people often ask the couple why they didn’t buy an RV if they’re seeking a mobile, independent life.
“Our response is this is a house. It’s a house that happens to be on wheels,” Sean said. ”The space is specifically designed to live in full-time, not to camp in … you don’t see tongue and groove beetle kill in an RV.”
Designing the house themselves and building it from the trailer up has also given the couple repair know-how and self-reliance. They know every inch of their home and how it functions.
“When anything goes wrong, which it very well may, we’ll know how to fix it because we put it there in the first place,” Jenna said.
Living small in Grand County
Although the couple is taking their tiny home with them to Oregon, Marilyn works as a local realtor and said there’s a place for a tiny living movement in Grand County.
“This could be the affordable answer for housing in this community, if it was done right,” she said. “How many skiers come out here? There needs to be a lot where this becomes a village.”
But small houses often hit barriers with planning and zoning before rolling into a new area. Perhaps not surprisingly, calls to local building departments around Grand County were met with befuddlement and good-natured laughs.
“I don’t have any problems with little tiny houses,” said Harold Howland, building official with the Winter Park Building Department, which permits houses in Winter Park, Fraser and Granby. “I’d have to look at each case-by-case.”
Winter Park building code requires one habitable room with a floor area of at least 120 square feet, which could potentially support a tiny house – most are 400 square feet or less. The house would have to meet other codes, like having a kitchen and bathroom with running water connected to a municipal sewer or septic system. Lofts used as sleeping areas, like Jenna and Sean’s home, would need an egress window.
“I think it would be harder to get through zoning,” Howland said.
The Chief Building Inspector for Grand County, Scott Penson, has also never been presented with plans for constructing tiny houses independent of other structures. Building codes for his department, which permits homes in Kremmling, Grand Lake, Hot Sulphur Springs and unincorporated portions of the county, require a minimum of 400 square feet for structures.
“I know these ‘tiny houses,’ for lack of better terms, seem to be smaller than that,” Penson said. “Planning and Zoning is working on revamping regulations, I don’t know if that’s on their radar.”
Reed Anderson has a broad background working in construction, home building and remodeling. After helping his daughter build a successful dream home, he laughed when asked if he was ready to start taking orders for tiny houses.
“If we had a cost efficient place to do it, we would consider it,” he said, gazing at the piles of tools, tarps and construction materials still stacked in his front yard.
“The bottom line is, for $25,000, we own our house. We don’t have a mortgage, we don’t pay rent ... it hugely reduces our cost-of-living, so all that money can be saved and set aside for other things we want to do.”
Jenna Anderson, tiny homeowner