In addition to the tight quarters, there are many considerations that come with buying a tiny home. Here's everything you need to know about tiny houses, including zoning laws, purchasing tips, and ideas for maximizing your small space.

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With the popularity of the KonMari decluttering method and growing trend in minimalism, today's consumers are increasingly giving up their objects for a "less is more" attitude. And with TV shows like Container Homes and Tiny House Hunters, it’s no wonder the tiny house movement is gaining traction. But even tiny homes come with big considerations. Luckily, we’ve gathered everything you need to know about tiny living, from lifestyle changes to zoning considerations, to help you decide if you’re destined for downsizing.

Young couple talking in doorway of their tiny house
Image courtesy of Getty.

What Is a Tiny House?

Averaging at less than 400 square feet, modern tiny houses (also referred to as mini houses or micro houses) embody minimalism. Fewer possessions, less upkeep, and simpler living are just a few of the factors that appeal to tiny home buyers—not to mention, cost.

Asha Mevlana, a tiny-home owner and realtor at Better Homes and Gardens® Real Estate, experienced these perks firsthand. Her amplified tiny home in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was featured on Tiny House Nation and named Dwell magazine’s #1 Rated Home of 2017

“An upside is the opportunity to pare down to just what is necessary and to what brings you joy,” says Melvana. “Living tiny requires you to give up and maximize space. When people have space, they tend to fill it. When there isn’t a lot of space, you have to be selective about what is important to you.”

According to Melvana, a tiny home can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $150,000 depending on the materials and features you decide to use. Luxury tiny houses can run well over $100,000. “If you build on a trailer, you have the option to be mobile, to travel, to see other parts of the country, and to not pay for land,” says Melvana. “You can live with no mortgage and be able to save money and do things you want to be doing rather than trying to pay exorbitant rent each month.”

Not only are tiny homes more affordable than your typical single-family home, they’re also more environmentally-friendly. According to research done by Maria Saxton, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental design and planning at Virginia Tech, those who downsize experience a 45 percent reduction in ecological footprint on average. This can be attributed to things like recycling, solar power usage, and water conservation. And as sustainability and energy-efficiency continue to creep up on homeowners’ lists, this feature is especially luring for potential tiny-home buyers.

Even the way a tiny home is built can help reduce waste. Made-to-order (aka prefab) tiny homes are made in a factory using machinery that has more precision when cutting materials and therefore less waste. Tiny homes also save on insulation costs, and there are many recycled options available. Whether you prefer a prefab or DIY tiny house, consider upcycling shipping containers. Not only is it an unexpected way to create a home, but its durable material is long-lasting and tough enough to withstand harsh weather.

Tiny House Zoning Considerations

Building materials aside, there are two main types of tiny homes: those on wheels and those on a foundation.

Legally, tiny homes on wheels are considered recreational vehicles (RVs) and must be registered as so within your state. Many are restricted to an 8-1/2-foot width and 13-1/2-foot height due to federal and state highway rules on transporting structures. Other than that, owning a tiny house on wheels is fairly straightforward. “If you have a tiny house on wheels then you won’t need to worry about zoning laws but rather just a place to park it,” says Melvana. You can pay to stay at a camping site or RV park (but be warned, they won’t let you stay forever), or ask a friend for permission to park on their lot.

If you’re trading wheels for a foundation, zoning becomes a little more complicated. “It is important to understand that zoning is separate from building codes and each city has different zoning codes for tiny houses,” says Mevlana. “One common issue for tiny houses on a foundation is that zoning often requires a minimum square footage for a main residence, though you may be able to apply for a variance. If you don’t have a variance, you may have to build it as an accessory dwelling unit, meaning it would be a secondary dwelling unit on a one-family lot.”

Accessory dwelling units (or ADUs) can include tiny houses in the backyard and apartment units over garages, among other configurations. Because of this, ADUs can be tiny houses but tiny houses aren’t always ADUs. Multiple ADU tiny homes can come together around one larger structure, thus creating a tiny home community. The bottom line? Check with your city's zoning laws and building codes before purchasing or building a tiny home on a foundation.

Top Locations for Tiny Home Living

Once you've decided to purchase or build a tiny home, you'll need to choose a location. So where is the best place for tiny home living?

“If you think about the motivation of a tiny home, it’s generally where the land is most expensive,” says Amanda Pendleton, Zillow lifestyle expert. “Down payments are tough to stay for, so it’s the alternative where it makes it more reasonable.”

Many tiny-home owners opt for warmer year-round locales that are close to job centers and city centers. Leading locations for tiny home living include California, Florida, Texas, and North Carolina. “Oregon is a particularly popular area,” adds Pendleton. “We see more tiny homes in that one area.”

How to Find a Tiny House

Wondering how to buy a tiny house but don’t know where to begin? Peruse move-in ready options through Tiny House Listings or the Tiny House Marketplace, or if you’re going for a custom look on wheels, check out Tumbleweed. Not only are they the country’s biggest RV contractors, but they’re also Green Certified. Tumbleweed tiny homes start at around $55,000.

Another source if you prefer a DIY tiny home: Tiny Home Builders. They’ll set you up with almost everything, from tiny home plans to trailers. You can even buy tiny homes on Amazon. A Wisconsin-based company as seen on HGTV’s Container Homes, MODS International sells a 40-foot tiny home for just under $40,000.

Muji, a Japanese-based tiny home building company, just released their Muji hut, an ultra-zen tiny home option for those looking for a serene space. Shipments to the states are not available yet, but this sleek tiny home company is one to keep an eye on.

Try Before You Buy

Not sold on small-space living? Spend a few days living in a rental tiny home to get the experience before committing. Pack your bags and head to one of Tumbleweed’s tiny home hotels. With 13 locations across the United States, you’re bound to find a destination you’ve yet to explore. Just outside Portland, the Tiny House Village at Mount Hood is a golden getaway for those looking to soak up the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and put tiny-home living to the test. Other Tumbleweed tiny home rentals can be found in Sedona, Austin, and near the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

Tips for Maximizing Space in a Tiny Home

Even if the price is right, you'll want to make sure a tiny home fits your lifestyle as well. Because there is less room, you'll need to get creative with your decor and likely sell or donate many possessions. We spoke with Pendleton to help create a list of top tiny house ideas for making a scaled-down space seem larger.

Embrace Multipurpose Areas

In a tiny home, every area has to be flexible in how it is used, says Pendleton. “A kitchen will not be your kitchen all the time in your tiny home, because it could be your office, dining room, and maybe even your closet at any point of the day,” she says. Look to features such as a drop-down table that could become a guest bed or pop-out windows that double as a bar for your deck.

Let in Natural Light

Natural lighting can go a long way in making a tight room look more spacious. Look for a tiny home with larger windows to help promote natural lighting. A skylight can also help visually expand a tiny home.

Get Creative with Storage

A majority of your items will most likely need to be recycled, given away, or tossed. “However, the items you still have will need a space, which can be a challenge in less than 400 square feet," says Pendleton. "Simple solutions like hanging up your pots and pans instead of storing them in drawers, or keeping extra blankets and pillows in an ottoman or trunk, are good space savers.”

Opt for a Loft Bed

Loft beds are a cozy way to save space, plus the raised placement helps carve out a separate area from the rest of your abode. If you can, choose stairs instead of a ladder. This will make middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom far less daunting. Plus, with the help of comfy pillows, stairs can easily double as seating for when friends come over.

Choose Custom Furniture

Make the most of every square inch with custom furniture. Look for pieces that fit your tiny home's layout. Can't find any? Have a piece custom-made or try your hand at a DIY furniture project. Plus, you'll have fewer rooms to furnish, so you can save money for a one-of-a-kind item that fits your tiny home just perfectly. Check out our must-have tips for choosing small-space furniture. Don't want to buy new? Try one of our small-space furniture arrangements.

Multi-Use Appliances

As you outfit your tiny home with appliances, look for items that perform multiple functions. “Many of us are familiar with the stackable washer and dryer, and maybe some even have experience with combination washer/dryers, but the popularity of tiny homes has given rise to appliances that do double duty,” says Pendleton. “Although these products may not be widely available at every major appliance store, it could be something to look into if you are serious about moving into a tiny home.”

Use the KonMari Method

Tiny home living calls for decluttering, not only before you downsize, but after too. Encouraging family members to think twice about whether something sparks joy before buying it to reduce clutter in your tiny home. Goodbye, impromptu purchases and hello conscious shopping.

Looking for more inspiration? Check out our complete list of tiny-home transition tips!


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