Tiny House Building and Living: Living Large in a Small Space

This summer I am going to work on this blog a lot more. I haven’t posted in awhile because my camera conked out on me, and it is hard to do a very interesting blog without a few photos. It is also time to get everything planted on the farm.

Recently I discovered that there are a lot more folks than just us building and living in small houses. There is a website called This site is for anyone interested in the tiny house movement. When people say tiny house that generally means anything under 800 sq ft.

I feel the need to write a blog explaining what we have learned on our journey building our own house. One thing I noticed is that it pays to build the darn thing yourself. Some companies are taking advantage of the tiny house movement. I have seen some prebuilt tiny houses on wheels that cost more than my 600 sq. ft. house will by the time it is finished. By the time it is finished and furnished we anticipate having about $45,000 in it maximum. For this price we able to have the following features when the house is done: 

  1. Oak floors throughout

  2. A 160 sq ft sun room with nice double pane windows

  3. A $1,000 shower

  4. River Rock Facade Underpinning

  5. A fully up to code 1,000 gallon septic system

  6. Solar hot water and lights

  7. 45 year metal roof

  8. Concrete Siding

  9. 2 x 6 walls with R-19 insulation

  10. Calico Hickory Cabinets and Bookshelves throughout

  11. 1/2” tongue and groove Pine plank walls and ceilings throughout

  12. A full water system. We were lucky and there was a well we could hook into without drilling our own

Compare that to $50,000 for 89 square feet for a Tanglewood tiny home. To be fair the price is roughly $20,000 if you buy the kit from them. To me this seems outrageous and discourages people from joining the tiny house movement. If you have that kind of money and still want a tiny house but don’t want to do it yourself. I am sure that there are carpenters in this economy that will do it for for a lot less and you will be giving a local person a job.

So how did we do it?

We lived in a 1978 Holiday Rambler for almost 2 years while we got our house to the point it is at now. If I had it to do over again we would have built a nice 12′ x 12′ building to live in while we built the house. The RV thing can be a bit rough if you are like us and buy one that nothing works in except the gas oven. Oh well, live and learn. We made it through it and are well on our way to completing our house. We wore a lot of clothes in the winter and dealt with a lot of dampness in the winter. At the time we had no truck so I got to carry laundry about ½ mile round trip. We carried our water about 300 feet in Jerry cans. At the same time we began to get more livestock and got married during all this. For my wedding present I got Linda Lou, our first Dexter cow.

Plans for a mini cabin were purchased online and changed them slightly to suit our tastes. We only spent $30 for the plans.

The house site got changed once when we realized that our road was too bad to get a concrete truck up here without putting out a lot of money. So we did not get a full basement like we wanted. The footers for the house were dug with an auger but we had to shovel all the dirt out of them by hand.

After that we had to mix and pour all the concrete using a concrete mixer bought at Northern Tool. We mixed 20 bags of Portland. For awhile we were lifting the 94 lb bags but we found a Lowes that carried Portland in 47 lb bags so that made things just a little bit more comfortable. In all we mixed 10,000 lbs of dry materials. It was one of the many times I wished we had an ox. Instead I got to move all the gravel to the concrete mixer by garden wagon. Building your own house has the plus side of getting you into shape!

When we were ready to start putting together the main floor joists the road was so terrible that the delivery truck could not bring our 20′ treated 2x8s that we had to special order, up to our construction site. So we got to carry 20 ft boards ½ mile up the mountain until my cousin figured out how to attach them to his truck so we only wound up carrying about half of them by hand. Our road is an ongoing problem. It is hard to get everyone to come together on maintenance.

It sounds rough but looking back it was well worth it. I won’t go into the whole tale of the house construction here though. I have a previous blog post on GRIT that tells a bit more and contains pictures. I would like to highlight a few things to think about when building your own house. 

  1. Be careful who you hire to help you. 

    Chances are there are some things you will want someone else to do on your house because you don’t feel comfortable doing them your self. Beware. The only times we have had severe mistakes made on our house was when we hired someone else. We had to have another person move our chimney because the first person we hired put it in the wrong place. That was a very intensive fix. No one likes to cut a new hole in their roof and then patch the other spot.

  2. Be realistic about how long it will take. 

    It will not get done as soon as you would like it to. Things happen. Also by building slow you can minimize how much debt load you are carrying at once or if you are lucky, avoid any debt all together. I realized after the first year or so that you might as well throw your time line out the window, especially if you have too many other projects going at once, like starting a farm. Even now though I still find myself beating myself up about how we need to get the house done faster. I have to remind myself that it will get done, just not that fast.

  3. Consult lots of books 

    Buy some books for reference. There are many good ones out there. Lowes or Home Depot have good selections. We bought one on plumbing and one on electric. Make sure there are lots of pictures. It really helps a lot.

  4. Don’t pay too much for house plans. 

    House plans can cost very little or a lot. Do your self a favor and don’t give anyone $700-$1,500 for house plans. We got ours from Sheldon Designs in New Jersey. They were about $30. The most expensive plans Sheldon Designs have are under $300 and are for a large house. I am sure there are many reasonable places to buy plans if you look online.

  5. Get a copy of your local building codes even if you have to buy it. 

  6. Be nice and respectful to your building inspector. He or she is really not as bad to deal with as you might think. Also the rules are the rules. 

    Our building inspector has been very helpful during the process of building our house. If you need any questions answered you can always call during office hours and ask. Our inspector even offered to come out and help lay out our plumbing scheme for us. The only people I have ever heard complain about the building inspector seem to be the type that want to do things their way and not follow the rules so they get an attitude. It doesn’t help any to argue. If the inspector tells you that you have to do something a certain way than that is what you have to do. If you make their life hard they can make yours even harder.

  7. Network 

    Sometimes you can get building supplies and services by bartering or just knowing or being related to someone. I guess this is referred to as the Good Ole’ Boy Network here in the South. Say your brother works for a septic company or Lowes or something. You might be able to get a good deal on something or trade.

  8. Make sure you have the proper permits. 

    It can be confusing as to what permits you need. Make sure you have them before you start construction. The building inspections department in your county will be able to point you in the right direction. The fines for not having a permit are enough that it is just not worth the risk to start construction without one. Some places don’t make you get a permit if your building is under a certain size.

  9. Realize that living in a small house means you are not going to have a lot of room for things you don’t use. 

    Building small means that you might have to reduce the amount of possessions you have. This can feel really good and liberating. Reducing your possessions means less things to keep track of, less cleaning, and less storage costs. I realize that having a storage shed or shop is something we will need on the farm but at the same time I know plenty of people that have 2-3 storage buildings full of stuff they never use and they are usually a disorganized mess and often you have to deal with pest problems. Why spend all that money on stuff you don’t use? Put it towards building your small house or reducing debt.

    I am going through our stuff for the 3rd time and getting rid of everything we don’t use. We send it to Goodwill if we think they can use it and in return we get a tax deduction. The goal is to have our possessions reduced down to the bare basics for when the house is done and not accumulate a lot of junk in the future.

  10. Take lots of pictures of your progress. 

    This is a good way to encourage yourself. You can put them together in a slide show and see just how much you accomplished. This helps a lot when you are frustrated or feeling like you took on too much.

  11. Build Small but not Too Small 

    If you have children or are planning on it you are going to need more space. Some states might have a problem with a couple trying to live in a 200 sq ft house with several children. In North Carolina a building is not considered habitable unless it has 150 sq ft minus the bathroom and kitchen. Check your state regulations so you don’t get in trouble for building too small. At the same time I seriously doubt anything would be said if you were living by yourself or as a couple in a very small house. When kids are involved it can be a bit more complicated. Another thing to remember is that you can always add on to most houses one way or another.

We have a bunch of fencing to take care of this week and then we are going to start working on the house again. When we have worked on it, things progressed pretty fast. We have been getting the farm into good shape and starting the farm business so our progress has been a bit slower than if we had just worked on the house and nothing else. At the same time we now have a small herd of cows, lots of fencing, and produce our own meat as well as grow a garden.

Currently we have to get the septic system installed and finish the inside. The electric and plumbing, and insulation is in. It took awhile to figure out the plumbing and electric but we did it with the help of books and hiring some help. Some places will not let you do your own electric so make sure you check before doing it yourself.

My hope is that this blog post will encourage others to live large in a small house. It is amazing how large 600 sq ft can feel if the floor plan and layout are well planned. We don’t plan on building on to this house until we have a second child and we haven’t even had the first one yet. You really don’t need a huge space and you especially don’t need to take on a huge debt load for 30 years for space you don’t use or constantly have to clean. My husband grew up in a small house his parents build and he said he never really noticed it when he was small because he was running around outside playing all the time. Years ago in these mountains, our little cabin might have had 6 people living in it.

I will post more pictures soon. We just purchased a good Nikon camera so the quality should be better than in previous posts. Well I am going to post this and check on my ducks. We have baby ducks hatching today!

  • Published on May 5, 2011
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