Let’s establish one thing first. I don’t like to spend a buck unless necessary. I would not consider myself frugal or frivolous. I am just careful about expenditures and I don’t care to squander money. That said, let’s talk about an oft-argued upon topic in the tiny house universe.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO BUILD A TINY HOUSE?
Just this past week I read a gem of a comment in a tiny house group: “The tiny house movement has become another great thing ruined by the capitalist pigs. They sea [sic] the money and they run after it. They don’t care about the same vision Jay Shafer saw a couple of years ago. They just sea [sic] dollar signs. For the cost they want now for a tiny house I might as well just buy a normal home on land.”
There are just so many things wrong with that statement. Conjuring up the points of capitalism, the erroneous history of Jay Shafer, the cost of building a tiny house, the use of the term “normal”; it was a painful read. I read it anyway. I pondered it. I started to respond a couple of times. Then I digested it, lived with it, and came to the following conclusion. The cost to build a tiny house is relative to the person/party building the home, the level of legality of the house, and the market it is being built in. For the sake of argument, here are a couple of ideas we should use:
- Average house size in the United States >> 2150 sq.ft.
- Cost per sq.ft. in today’s real estate market >> $125
- Cost of said 2150 sq.ft. house >> $268,750
- A “normal” house >> 1100 sq.ft.
- A small house >> 600 sq.ft.
- A tiny house >> less than 400 sq.ft.
- A micro house >> less than 150 sq.ft.
I saw a quote recently that said, “The small house movement is not about cramming one’s life in the smallest space possible, it is about pursuing a more effective lifestyle through one’s environment in pursuit of a balanced, enjoyable life. It is better living through simplicity.” I love that thought. I have been saying for years that what is tiny to one person may not be tiny to another. What is tiny to 6 people may be huge to 2 people. It is all relative. So to say that a tiny house should not cost more than (random number assignment) $25,000 is absurd. Your version of what a tiny house should cost may not exceed $25,000. Everyone has a different version of what fair pricing is.
While a “normal” house built by licensed contractors is averaged nationally at $125/sq.ft. a 300 sq.ft. tiny house custom built, will run about $300/sq.ft. Now that, my friends, is highway robbery. It is cheap by volume, yes, but expensive by proportions. One of the primary considerations is that when building in small fashion, contractors cannot take advantage of bulk purchasing as they would on a larger house. For instance, the contractor would only need 16 sheets of plywood to dry in the walls of a 24′ tiny house. On a larger house that would only cover perhaps the exterior walls of one room! The price break on plywood at most lumber yards is set at 50 sheets (or a bundle). So a contractor/builder constructing a tiny house doesn’t get to take advantage of bulk rates and therefore has to pay more per sheet.
It is also important to note that a tiny house on wheels begins with a trailer. I have written before about why salvaged trailers are not a smart idea and why you should only build on a properly rated, tiny house specific, metal trailer. At 24ft. long that is going to run about $5300. So even before the first nail is hammered or screw is drilled in, your budget is at a $5k deficit.
The third consideration is that when building a tiny house or having one built you are pitting your own time and experience up against those of a professional and licensed builder. While you may be Bob Vila and know your way around house framing with your eyes closed, you also have to factor in time. How much is your time worth? In order to build a tiny house on wheels are you having to forego steady work and focus only on the construction of the house? Are you having to work full-time and build only in small increments of maybe 3-4 hours per day? As the saying goes, time is money! This doesn’t even get into the efficiency with which a professional builder may be able to add in gratis.
The fourth consideration is how much luxury you want. Take a walk through Lowes or Home Depot or Menards. Everything you see has a price tag. We already established that plywood costs money. Well, so do nails, screw, spools of wire, bats of insulation, sheets of drywall, rolls of tape, etc. Everything has a price and if you want to have a beautiful wooden countertop properly installed and sealed for long-term, it is going to cost slightly more than your average Formica laminate countertop. Same goes with your fridge, your tile work, your mini-split, etc. Most people are left speechless when they find out the average tiny house has 8 electrical outlets at $1.87 each. That is $15 right there. Add an outlet plate cover and you are adding $3. May not sound like a lot but that is essentially the least expensive component to a structure build!
Am I making sense? The argument is not whether a tiny house on wheels is consistent with the micro house Jay Shafer built a decade ago. It isn’t about how it compares to a wholly legal, “normal” house. It isn’t even about how little you could build a tiny house for. The price to build a tiny house on wheels is solely about what you want the house to be and how much that house costs.
What do you think a tiny house on wheels should cost? Have prices gotten out of hand? Should customization even be relevant to the conversation or is this an issue for builders models only? Let us know in the comments below.