Thinking small: Compact, cheaper living in 'tiny houses'

Greg Cantori plans to downsize when he retires. Really, really downsize.

His retirement home is 238 square feet — one-tenth the size of the average new American house — and sits in his Anne Arundel County yard. He and wife Renee can hitch it to a truck and take it with them wherever they go.


"It's so cheap — that's what's so cool about this," said Cantori, 52, who envisions a surf-and-turf future, alternating between the house and a sailboat. "We bought the house for $19,000. We can live an extraordinary life for very little money."

It's an example of the "tiny house" movement, which has collected a small but growing — and passionate — group of adherents. Some like the freedom from a big mortgage and high energy bills. Some, the freedom from roomfuls of stuff. And some see it as a promising option for workers whose rent overwhelms their paychecks.


Tiny houses fall into two categories. Some, like Cantori's, are technically travel trailers — tagged and road-ready. Others have foundations and aren't going anywhere.

The houses usually manage a lot of function in a little bit of space — kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, laundry room — and they're often cute to boot. Gables. Wood siding. Even porches.

"These are beautiful works of art," said Joe Coover with Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., a California firm that sells tiny homes — as small as 65 square feet — and tiny-home designs.

U.S. houses got bigger for decades, ballooning from just under 1,700 square feet in the early 1970s to 2,500 square feet last year, even as household sizes shrunk, according to Census Bureau figures. But the housing crash, foreclosure crisis and rough recession have pressed some to think differently about how much space they need. And a house you can move with you has a certain appeal to anyone stuck in a place worth less than its mortgage.


But whether you can actually live in a tiny home depends on more than your ability to pare down your possessions. Location matters. Zoning, building codes, health codes and even private covenants in subdivisions can effectively render a tiny house illegal.

In the eyes of the law, there's such a thing as too small. Some jurisdictions bar people from living in travel trailers, too, no matter what they look like.

"That's the No. 1 issue — zoning," said Steven Harrell, owner of Tiny House Listings (tinyhouselistings.com), where 20,000 to 50,000 people visit per day to check out tiny houses for sale. "There are a lot of people advocating, 'Hey, what's the big deal? Why don't you ease square-foot [regulations]?' Times have changed, the economy has changed, people are having to make choices. And tiny houses are one of them."

Baltimoreans can't live in a travel-trailer tiny home, or any other sort of travel trailer. But modest foundation-built houses are allowed in the city as long as their width is 16 feet at minimum. Also required: one room of at least 120 square feet, a kitchen — which can be in that room — and a separate bathroom.

"You're asking how little can you get, and the answer is 'pretty small,' " said Michael Braverman, the city's deputy commissioner of code enforcement.

He doesn't think Baltimore has any super-tiny homes, but there's a 1950s-era cottage in Roland Park that's not much more than 500 square feet.

Fronda Cohen, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County, said anyone hoping to live in a tiny house would want to call the planning department with a specific location in mind, because rules vary by zoning.

"You probably could build the house," she said, but you would need to sort through all the rules to be certain.

In Washington, advocates hope to make inroads on rules affecting small residences as officials overhaul zoning regulations. Three tiny-home enthusiasts are building examples in an alley lot as a showcase — not to live in, because they can't. (Their homes fall in the travel-trailer category.)

Brian Levy, part of that group, thinks small places in a pricey city make sense — either alone on tiny lots or sharing a bigger parcel as an "accessory" structure.

"There's all these empty spaces around the city," said Levy, who lives in a Washington rowhouse near the lot he's building on. "If you take an aerial photo [and look at certain parts of D.C.] … it's striking that about 50 percent of the land is open space in the backyard. And right now, you can't build anything back there."

The alley-building group, dubbed Boneyard Studios because the lot borders a graveyard, wants to get people thinking about the possibilities — and seeing what small looks like. Levy thinks that's important because "trailer" conjures up deep-seated, knee-jerk reactions.

"In contrast to the manufactured-housing park, the tiny homes are typically about one-fifth the size, they've got gabled roofs, … they're designed and built by architects," Levy said. "And people, they stand in line for an hour to have a look. Calling a tiny-house community a trailer park is like calling Dupont Circle rowhouses tenements."

Tiny houses aren't the only example of small living. "Micro-apartments" of a few hundred square feet are popping up in some expensive cities, such as San Francisco, for young professionals who'd rather spend their free time downtown than in a sprawling living room.

Matt Hoffman, vice president of innovation at Enterprise Community Partners, the Columbia affordable-housing giant, said small dwellings aren't a solution for everyone. But they're a useful choice to have. More than 10 million people in America are "housing burdened," paying over half their income on rent, he said.

"We want to see a range of housing options for people," he said. "It's not a one-size-accommodates-all."

Part of the early drive for minimum-size regulations was to stamp out dangerous tenements, Hoffman said. But small doesn't have to mean hazardous.

"It seems like it's the right time to re-examine whether we can move back in a direction where smaller can accommodate people in a healthy and safe way," he said.

The cost for a tiny house varies. Coover, a workshop host with Tumbleweed Tiny House, said the company's ready-made homes sell for about $40,000 to $60,000. But people who buy plans, purchase materials at a home-improvement store and build it themselves — as in free labor — will probably spend $18,000 to $20,000, including appliances, he said.

One customer managed to keep the costs to just $5,000 by salvaging wood and waiting for great deals on other supplies, Coover said.

Of course, that doesn't include the cost of land to sit the house on. Some tiny-house folks buy. Some rent. Some find people with extra space they don't mind sharing.

In Cantori's case, it's sitting near his bicycle shed in his Pasadena yard. His actual residence isn't huge, either: just under 1,400 square feet for a family of four and their two dogs.

Cantori has spent his life in modestly sized places. At 19, he bought a dilapidated sailboat, fixed it up and lived there for nearly five years — all 180 square feet of it. His next move was to a studio apartment in Baltimore. Living cheaply has allowed him to pursue the nonprofit career he wanted, save money and go sailing on the side.


His tiny home was built by a lawyer from Kansas who intended to live there with his family of three. Then the family grew by one. So he sold to Cantori, who flew west with his brother two years ago, rented a U-Haul and drove back to Maryland with his new home hitched to the back.


For Cantori, the affordability of a tiny house is part of the draw, but also the ability to use less energy, take up less land and generally be "lighter on the environment." A 6,000-square-foot house not far from his neighborhood baffles him. Who would actually use that much space?

"The walk-in closet's bigger than our tiny house," he said.

His future retirement home is robin-egg blue, with a porch out front. Inside, there's a tiny stainless-steel fireplace, a closet and a combination washer-dryer. A table in the living room/dining area seats two, or up to five if folded out. The kitchen has an RV stove, microwave and small refrigerator. In the bathroom is a full-sized shower and a composting toilet. And up top, two lofts — each a bedroom.

Cantori thinks it looks spacious, thanks to high ceilings, white walls and 16 windows. There's just nothing superfluous inside.

"No wasted space," he said. "It's all about not wasting."


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