New American Dream: Living in a Home the Size of a Storage Container

For these aficionados, good things come in really, really, really small packages

by Elizabeth M. Economou | Updated 13 Oct 2017 at 2:03 PM

With traditional home ownership now out of reach for many Americans, tiny homes — some barely the size of storage containers — are gaining traction as more folks are looking to limit their impact on the environment, simplify their life, and live more frugally.

On average, tiny homes measure about 400 square feet, but some are as large as 600 square feet, or as diminutive as 190 square feet. That’s a far cry from the sizes of most houses, which clock in at around 2,000 to 3,000 square feet.

Prices for tiny homes range from about $25,000 to roughly $120,000.

Representing builders from Colorado, New Mexico, and Alabama, tiny homes were on display not long ago at the Colorado Tiny Homes Festival, hosted at The Wild Animal Sanctuary. The event's aim was to inform consumers about the process and benefits of going "tiny."

Practically speaking, "less is more," said Caroline Blazovsky, a nationally recognized "Healthy Home Expert." "Tiny homes offer the ease of less maintenance, mobility options, less expense, and a more manageable lifestyle, overall."

"All in all, it takes a certain kind of person [to live small] — one who seems to value experiences over materialistic ownership of items and space — to consider moving into such small dwellings," said Derek Diedricksen, author of the book, "Microshelters: 59 Creative Cabins, Tiny Houses, Tree Houses and Other Small Structures."

Millennials are one group that fits the bill. "They are at an age where they are not yet established, aren't yet making all that much money, and haven't lived long enough to accumulate goods, nostalgia items, heirlooms, and all the other things that seem to mount and multiply with time," Diedricksen told LifeZette.

Related: Now You Can Buy a Tiny Home for Yourself on Amazon

Yet millennials are not the only ones embracing the charms of small abodes. People age 50 and older actually make up nearly 40 percent of tiny house buyers, in contrast to 21 percent of millennials.

"Besides gaining financial freedom, many 'tiny housers' have the bragging rights of building their own homes, and the ability to design a custom home to suit their specific needs, styles, and wants," added Diedricksen, a host and home designer for the HGTV series "Extreme Small Spaces" and "Tiny House Builders" in addition to the DIY Network.

Nearly 70 percent of "tiny house" people have no mortgage.

But living small is more than an architectural aesthetic or stylistic predilection. Many say it is also a growing movement geared toward offering an economic reprieve to conventional home ownership — and a more intentional way of living.

"I don't want to be tied down to one location. I don't own land. And I don't want to be house poor,"  said Mellissa Matarese of Pennsylvania — which is why she's decided to build her own 270-square-foot off-grid mobile home, with her own hands.

According to TheTinyLife.com, nearly 70 percent of "tiny house" people have no mortgage, compared to 29 percent of all U.S. homeowners. In fact, these days, it is not uncommon for homeowners to spend up to 50 percent of their income on the roof over their heads.

Matarese's project, meanwhile, is named "Minimus," meaning tiny in Latin. It is a collaboration with Delaware Valley University, a team of sponsors including Habitat for Humanity, and local volunteers.

Its mission: to inspire a more Earth-conscious community.

Related: Honey, I Shrunk the House

"It's a way of living more gently, kindly, and consciously," said Matarese, 35, who owns Mesa Lifestyle, an eco lifestyle company based in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

She added, "This project is my dream, my education, my service to the community, and an act of reverence for our shared home, planet Earth."

Yet living small is not for everyone, cautioned Diedricksen. There is obviously limited space, for one thing. And "you're going to have to put an end to your binge-buying days if you want to make it work," he said. This shouldn't be an issue, considering 65 percent of tiny home owners have literally zero credit card debt.

While tiny homes are popping up across the country, they are more popular — and romanticized — in more liberal places like the Pacific Northwest, where the demographic skews young. "Areas near Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, are booming with this movement, but there are East Coast pockets, too, such as Asheville, North Carolina," said Diedricksen.

These markets, incidentally, have seen housing prices skyrocket, turning traditional home ownership into an elusive wish for many. In Seattle, for example, the median — not the average — home price has topped $700,000.

For Blazovsky, meantime, good things come in small packages. "A tiny home can help you get organized and live a more carefree lifestyle, with less worry about home projects and more focus on daily living," she said.

Related: The House That Mom Built

That's precisely what Matarese intends. "I believe it is our human responsibility to do what we can to ensure adequate resources and a cleaner, healthier environment for future generations. I want to do my part in making this possible."

Elizabeth M. Economou writes about higher education, health, and real estate. She is a former adjunct professor and CNBC staff business writer.

(photo credit, homepage image: Tammy, Flickr; photo credit, article image: W. L. Tarbert, Wikimedia)

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