“Here lies Walter Fielding. He bought a house, and it killed him.”
Perhaps no one sums up the renovation experience better than Walter Fielding when he and his wife have to find a new house to live in but are forced to settle on a scam-shack because they can’t afford anything else. The movie is ‘The Money Pit’ and it is yet another reason why the 80s were so darned great. All nostalgia aside though the movie brings back a number of memories from my own brush with saving a house back in 2002.
Is it better to renovate or rebuild or just build? This question is not nearly as simple as it may appear; not financially and not logistically. Granted every situation is unique there seems to be an undercurrent in the tiny house movement that prefers to build rather than save. I fear the reasoning behind such a choice though is one based more on being able to say “I have a tiny house….yeah, one of those!” rather than saying “I saved a house from certain death.” There is much to be said for buying an inexpensive house that needs love and giving it just that. It does not cramp personal style. It does not mean it can’t have a number of custom features. And it does not mean you can’t live a tiny house lifestyle. In fact, it may mean you can show others how to live a sustainable life even within the walls of (insert audible gasp) 1200 sq.ft.
Let’s first get the obvious out of the way. 200 sq.ft. will almost always use less energy than an 800 sq.ft. house. A 200 sq.ft. house will almost always keep you from becoming a hoarder whereas an 800 sq.ft. might give you some space to packrat it in. 200 sq.ft. will always look smaller than 800 sq.ft. (as it should). But is building a 200 sq.ft. house always the smartest choice to make? I don’t think so.
THE BASIC FINANCES
If building a tiny house is going to cost you nearly $50,000 yet has no real value on the American real estate market you may want to consider spending that $50k on saving a house. What? No value? What are you talking about? Well, when a 200 sq.ft. house is illegal in a number of municipalities you can’t just call a real estate agent and have it listed. No one will pay for something illegal. While you’re at it you might as well try to unload the Picasso original you “borrowed” from the Reina Sofia Museum. At least with a saved and perhaps renovated (pre-established) house you stand a chance of enjoying your life there while still maintaining a real estate value.
On the other hand, the most sought-after renovation of homeowners is a two-story addition in which the kitchen and/or living room is expanded on the first floor and a master suite is built upstairs. That sort of renovation is shown regularly on channels such as HGTV and DIY. Roughly speaking though that sort of addition can cost upwards of $200,000. In more expensive markets like Washington state or New York state you obviously can’t build a home more than 600 sq.ft for that price. But if to save a house you have to spend $200k or more to make it truly functional for you than a renovation may not make much sense at all.
House Saves, Renovations, and Restorations, all typically cost more per square foot than a new construction. With a tiny house less square feet overall means less expense overall.
A typical renovation here in eastern North Carolina runs about $86 per square foot. If I were to purchase an 800 sq.ft. house that needed some structural work followed by new drywall and then wall paint, etc. I can expect to pay about no less than $34k. I can probably have a good tiny house built for about $4k less. The thing to consider though is if my municipality will allow me to park a tiny house amidst other homes as well as what a resale value in this market might be (if any). It certainly can lead to a very frustrating “come to terms” monologue.
When was the last time you heard of someone looking for a 3-bedroom / 1-bathroom house? No. That is not a punchline. Truth is in the 1930s an entire family would use the same bathroom (if indoor plumbing was even available). In 2016 though that configuration is neither ideal nor functionally sound. Building something new allows you to match up bathrooms to bedrooms and accommodate the number of people you need to. Granted a tiny house has just one bathroom building a small house (let’s say 500 sq.ft.) you have the option to have a bath and one-half as well as run the plumbing where you need to thereby saving expense on materials, time, and renovations.
This topic truly can go on and on but it is one certainly worth exploring. Tiny houses aren’t the answer to every housing question. McMansions weren’t either. But have we explored the ideas of infill, renovation, and rescuing?
Is it sustainable to tear down one house only to build another? Is a 200 sq.ft. new construct a better investment than a 600 sq.ft. rescue? Which way do you lean, and why?