Financial Considerations of Buying a Tiny House

Tiny home living isn't for everyone, but the trend continues, even during pandemic-related lockdowns. According to a late 2020 survey, 56% of Americans said they would consider living in a tiny home and the tiny homes market (globally) is slated to grow by $5.80 billion between 2020 and 2024.

Television shows like Tiny House Nation and Tiny House, Big Living have promoted downsizing as a lifestyle. Living in a smaller home may mean financial freedom from a hefty mortgage or sky-high rent for some tiny house dwellers, and for some, it is a way to live within a more eco-friendly home footprint.

There are several financial considerations in choosing a tiny house—one that's just 100 to 400 square feet all told—from the type of construction, amenities, financing the home, and how to buy the land it sits on.

Key Takeaways

  • The tiny house phenomenon continues to be a trend in home buying even during a pandemic.
  • Tiny houses can cost upwards of $10,000 to $100,000, or more depending on materials, footprint, accessories, and amenities, which can be paid in cash or financed through specialty mortgage companies.
  • You will also need to purchase land appropriate for your new tiny house, but you may only need a fraction of an acre.
  • Like any home, there will also be ongoing costs including maintenance, utilities, and property taxes.
  • The tiny home trend began in the early aughts and continues to be popular a decade later.
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Buying One New

The up-front cost of a tiny house depends on its size, finishes, and amenities, as well as whether you build it yourself, have one built for you, or buy a pre-owned house. Expect to pay anywhere from a few thousand dollars to more than $70,000.

The beginning of the tiny home trend is credited to Jay Shafer, who built his first tiny home in 1999 in Iowa. He later founded in 2003 one of the best-known purveyors of tiny houses, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. The company sells four tiny house models that it will build for you: the Elm, the Cypress, the Farallon, and the Roanoke.

Typically these homes range from 26 to 30 feet long (some are longer) and are designed to sit on trailer beds and function like RVs. Each base model comes in a variety of sizes and floor plans with a loft. The Cypress is the best-selling model with a price tag that starts at $89,959. The Elm is the original tiny home model designed by Shafer and starts at $91,959. The Farallon and the Roanoke are the two newest models, with lower price tags, starting at $84,959.

Numerous options are included in the base price, but specific options add slightly to the cost, such as a trim package, front steps, adding a second loft, or even adding a set of stairs. Other options, such as skylights, custom interior design, or propane energy in addition to electricity, add to the cost significantly. Tiny house delivery is $1,179 if you live in Colorado and increases to $6,579 for the East Coast. Regardless of the house model, the trailer to put your tiny house on is a hefty additional cost, starting at about $4,000 based on trailer length.

Shows like Tiny House Nation and Tiny House, Big Living, are available to stream and may provide insight and inspiration to those who are considering a tiny house lifestyle.

Tiny House Plans

Tiny Home Builders, founded by Dan Louche, who built his first tiny house in 2009, will also sell you plans for a tiny house. If you want something between total DIY and a finished product, the company will sell you a shell of a tiny house that includes the trailer, framing and sheathing, and Rain & Ice Shield wrap and metal roofing.

For a bit more money, your shell can include the windows, siding and trim, and electrical and plumbing rough-in. Both shells require you to finish the interior at an additional cost.

Tiny Home Builders will also completely build a tiny house for you, right down to the appliances, including air conditioning, an induction cooktop, a microwave, and a tankless water heater. Basic shells start at $15,700 for a standard, 12-foot model; prices top out at $68,000 for a completed 28-foot house with dormers. There are plenty of sizes and price options in between.

Build It Yourself or Buy Pre-Owned

You might be able to cut your up-front costs significantly by buying a tiny house plan and building the house yourself. You’ll need to be confident about your construction skills and have hundreds of hours of spare time. Tumbleweed Tiny Homes offers customizable plans for nine models designed to be on foundations. In addition, Tumbleweed shares 3D tours on the website.

The biggest costs of DIY, besides your time, are materials and tools. According to Tiny Home Builders, you can expect to spend a minimum of $18,000 and $25,000 in materials alone.

You could also buy a pre-owned tiny home and search for listings online. One place to find listings for existing tiny homes is TinyHouseListings.com. As of Nov. 28, 2021, there were approximately 261 tiny houses $30,000 or less located around the United States.

Finding Land

You’ll need land to put your tiny house on. How much land you want, where that land is located, and whether you rent or buy the land will determine its cost. Most cities’ zoning laws won’t let you purchase a piece of land to put such a small dwelling on, so you’re most likely looking at renting, not owning, the land under your tiny house. The American Tiny House Association is a good place to start learning about the local regulations for tiny homes.

If your tiny house is on a trailer and local laws allow homeowners to park trailers on their property, you may be able to rent land from a traditional homeowner for a few hundred dollars a month. However, municipalities that allow homeowners to park trailers on their property don’t necessarily allow people to inhabit those trailers as a primary residence, so make sure to learn about the local laws before you park your house.

If frequent travel is part of your tiny house lifestyle, you may be able to park your house at various campsites, as long as you don’t stay longer than the maximum number of days a site allows. A trailer park or mobile home park might be another option, but height and other restrictions sometimes rule out this option. If you already own land that will legally and logistically accommodate your tiny house, your land costs will be zero.

As of late 2021, supply chain issues and building material shortages have caused a spike in prices for homebuilding and home design materials. If you are constructing a tiny home or any home, you may have longer wait times for materials.

Financing a Tiny House

While tiny houses are much less expensive than traditional homes, you can't get a mortgage to buy one, unlike a conventional home. Your best bet might be a recreational vehicle loan or travel trailer loan from a credit union if your tiny house meets the criteria to be classified as an RV or travel trailer. A Waco, Texas-based company called Rock Solid Funding specializes in helping consumers find these loans, with terms ranging from three to 20 years and interest rates ranging from 4.5% to 17.99%.

Another alternative is a personal loan, but it will have a much higher interest rate than a traditional mortgage. If your tiny house is cheap enough, you might be able to charge it to one or more credit cards, but the interest payments will be expensive. No mortgage also means no mortgage-interest tax deduction, and a credit card or personal loan interest is not tax-deductible. Financing with a low-interest credit card could be complicated due to the high amount of credit you need to take out on one card.

If you have and will continue to own a traditional home, you could use a home equity loan or line of credit to finance your tiny house; the interest would then be tax-deductible. However, you'd be putting your primary home up as collateral, meaning you could be foreclosed on if you cannot make the loan payments.

To finance a tiny house, you'll need excellent credit, meaning a score of at least 670 or higher, to get an unsecured loan, and good credit, 580 or better, to get a secured loan. The better your credit, the lower your interest rate. Saving up and buying your tiny house with cash is the cheapest option. If you must use financing, here's a chart that will give you a rough idea of how much different options cost. In addition, there are lenders like LightStream, who offer specialized tiny home personal loans. LightStream offers a loan that's specifically designed for tiny homes.

Sample Traditional Home vs. Tiny House Financing Costs for a Borrower with Excellent Credit
         
    $250,000 traditional mortgage with zero down   $60,000 tiny house loan with RV or trailer financing   $60,000 tiny house loan with home equity line of credit financing   $60,000 tiny house loan with personal loan financing (excellent credit)
  Interest rate   3.4%   4.0%   5.020%  10.9%
  Maximum term   30 years   15 years 30 years   7 Years
  Monthly payment   $1,712.06   $443.81 $322.00 $1,027
  Total interest   $150,131.84 $19,886.30 $55,953   $26,270.58
  Total principal + interest   $400,131.84 79,886.30  $115,953   $86,270.58
Sources: Investopedia.com mortgage calculator, Forbes RV calculator, TruChoice Federal Credit Union, First National, and Lightstream Loans. /Interest rates as of Nov. 29,2021

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Ongoing Costs and Incidentals

Heating and cooling bills will be significantly lower than for a traditional home since you're changing the temperature of a much smaller space. Consider the tiny home's insulation before you buy or build; a well-insulated home will be more comfortable and cost less to heat and cool. Electricity will also cost less since tiny homes don't have the space for tons of energy-hogging appliances.

You won't have the enormous property tax bills that come with traditional homeownership. Still, if you live in a state with personal property taxes, you'll likely pay an annual personal property tax on your tiny house as an RV or trailer. You may be able to deduct the personal property tax on your federal tax return if you itemize your deductions. But without the massive expense of mortgage interest, you might not have enough deductions to come out ahead from itemizing and end up taking the standard deduction.

A couple of other costs some tiny-home owners find themselves with are fines for violating local housing and zoning laws and monthly storage-space rental for excess personal belongings. Additionally, even if the house is smaller, it's no less essential to insure it. As such, it's worth considering one of the best tiny house insurance policies currently available.

The Bottom Line

There's much more to tiny house ownership than the potential to save lots of money. It's about simple living, freedom, environmental stewardship—and living life to the fullest following your value system. Living in a tiny house might give you more money to have life experiences or more time to enjoy non-work activities.

There are trade-offs when you move into a tiny house. These can include a lack of privacy if you have a large family, coping with property and housing laws designed for traditional homes, and handling friends and family members who might disapprove of your "alternative" lifestyle.

The financial considerations are just the beginning of deciding whether to become a tiny house owner. It's a more significant life decision than most moves to new housing and will require patience and downsizing from a more traditional-sized home. Experts recommend researching tiny house living before purchasing one.

Article Sources
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