Where Renovating Becomes Rebuilding

“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.

THE DISADVANTAGES

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? 

By Andrew M. Odom for the [Tiny House Blog]

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SusanB - March 31, 2016 Reply

You make a good point, that, while they’re cute and efficient, tiny houses have limited legality and resale value. Plus, I suspect not that many people would live in one full-time for years and years. With an older house, especially one that needs a fair amount of work, you can also get fabulous craftsmanship and woodwork that would cost a fortune to reproduce. Old houses have character and charm, and they were built to last. You can still stay small, but well-scaled small. It might cost more up front to buy and renovate an old house, but you will be putting money into a solid investment, and will be far more likely to gain more than you put in than if you build a tiny house.

DianeW - March 31, 2016 Reply

I have recently purchased an 800 s.f. house, 2 BR 1BA and feel like I’m living a tiny house lifestyle. Following a divorce I’ve downsized from 1400 s.f. 3BR 2BA with a garage and basement and had to make some hard decisions about what to take to the little house. I used to camp every weekend so have decided to live in this house like I lived in my camper. I have necessities, but I also have special things for hobbies and comfort. I think everyone finds the level they can comfortable live at. I was above that level before so am astoundingly happy in the little house.

Rob - March 31, 2016 Reply

Long before I discovered tiny houses I bought myself a (gasp) 1500 square foot house with garage and all the trimmings. 6 years after I bought it it got some renovation – updated bathroom, wood floors (bamboo downstairs) to replace the 1980s ugly carpet and new doors and windows. A new roof and on top of that 5500 Watts of PV panels. It was a bit of a chunk to lay out, of course, but my total energy cost (heating & A/C) are approximately $500/year. The low-flow everything means that my water bill is mostly made up of the cost to be connected. For that matter 1/3 of my energy bill is connection fees.

Tiny houses are very cool, but I’m living a relaxed and low-possession count life in my existing house.

Lisa E. - March 31, 2016 Reply

I disagree with your premise that the reason people want a tiny house on wheels (THOW), as opposed to a foundation house, is that they get to say they have a “Tiny House” as some sort of fad status symbol.

I can tell you that status has nothing to do with building a THOW in many cases, like too poor to afford a foundation house and all the property taxes and maintenance that go with them. I own just such a house now and can’t wait to get rid of it. I live for the day when I build my THOW. Whether it is joblessness, student debt, a couple just getting started or retired on a fixed income, the Tiny House Movement is a god-send for people who need to live off-grid in a world that caters to people with high-end jobs and big incomes.

And another thing: many of the THOW builders are using recycled and reclaimed materials that would otherwise go to fallow. Are these folks better than renovators who buy and use brand new materials and supplies to make foundation home improvements?

While you seem to have your life well in hand, I’m going to suggest that just because it works for you doesn’t mean it should become an axiom for all.

Tiny Houses On Wheels have lots to offer people with the right set of needs. Personally, I’ll be more than happy to say good-bye to housework and big bill repairs and maintenance because when tradesmen come to my house to fix something, they take a look around and the bill suddenly doubles. It doesn’t dawn on them (or more likely they just don’t care) that the house was purchased years ago, that jobs have gone overseas since then, and that the owner is now living on Social Security. Nope, they just want the big kill which often means nothing gets done at all.

    Andrew M. Odom - March 31, 2016 Reply

    I hear what you are saying Lisa and I thoroughly appreciate your commentary. Let me assure you though having lived in two THOW scenarios that just because you live in a THOW you are not exempt from housework, big repair bills, or maintenance. Those things are often inescapable no matter what size/shape house you live in. From your last sentence it seems you have had a bad experience or two that is acting as the foundation of your argument. If that be the case, then your situation can’t be an axiom either. Whatever the case though…each person will have a very different experience even if in the same lifestyle.

Diane - April 2, 2016 Reply

I am truly looking for people’s opinions as t why choose a THOW to an RV?
I assume it is not cost as so many tow behind “campers” run far less than what I am seeing for a THOW. What about pulling weight?

Nancy@LittlehomesteadinBoise - April 4, 2016 Reply

We’re in 1,200 sq ft house down from 2200 after our kids grew up. We’ve used all kinds of used things to bring it up current (from the 70’s). Not all reno has to use new items, which keep your prices down. We bought a new/used $250.00 front door for $40.00, sinks, you name it. IF you have the time, you can do it on a smaller budget, re-sale though? I’d forget about that. That’s also not really sustainable living, IMO. How many of those folks raise a lot of their own food, have room to store it once processed, and don’t rely on their town/city from most of their foods, water, etc? Low energy use is great but ya gotta eat!

garyinbama - April 5, 2016 Reply

Andrew Thank You ! this post is spot on . I am in process of 2 rehab’s right now. I got them as state tax deeds both had houses that a sane person would have bulldozed. But They had good bones to redo with so my labor, salvage and new material is becoming my kids first homes. If I can take 2 Junker’s and 12000$ and get my last 2 kids out of my house :). New builds are nice weather a “TINY” or a THOW but a lot can be done with old beat up small home. Oh one is 1200 sq.ft. and the other is 720 sf. Did I mention I get the kids out of the house :).

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