Johnny's Hawaiian Small House Story - Tiny House Blog

Johnny’s Hawaiian Small House Story

My story. I’m a self employed housekeeper/gardener/painter. Back in the 1990’s I set about buying a house. Can you guess what sort of reaction I got from mortgage bankers when I told them what I do for a living and how much money I earn?

I did all sorts of research with many weekend field trips and after a few years I found a piece of undeveloped property that I could afford with cash. I then I had plans for my home drawn up for a few hundred dollars.

I saved up for a septic system, a foundation, and then a shell, etc. I scavenged furniture from thrift shops and pulled things off the curb on bulk trash day. I’m not too proud for that. No Sir. It’s been twelve years now and the place is about as done as it’s likely to get. Looking back I could have made do with less space, but I love my little 480 square foot mortgage free cottage.

All those people who thought I was crazy for not building a “real” house? A lot of those folks lost their giant homes to foreclosure…

The cottage is located on the Big Island of Hawaii. The house was built over a period of several years beginning in 1999, but the cost for the house itself was about $31,000 – not including the land.

Other costs include $2,800 to connect to the electric grid and about $5,000 for a septic system. It’s impossible to drill a well in the area due to the brackish water so close to the ocean so the cottage is on rain water catchment from the roof. I started with a 1,000 gallon water storage tank for $800 and recently added two more larger water tanks for a total of 6,000 gallons at a cost of about $4,000. This was all done on a cash basis over a twelve year period.

The furniture is all second hand and objet trouve (trash sounds better in French…). I don’t think I spent more than $15 on any one piece besides the mattress which was bought new. Of course, there was a lot of time spent cleaning, sanding, staining, and painting the stuff.

Thanks Johnny for sharing your story and pictures, if you have a small house story of your own please email it to

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Corby - July 15, 2011 Reply

An inspiring process and a wonderful looking home!

One question… Where’s your shower/tub?

    Jackie Wesson - July 15, 2011 Reply

    Very beautiful. Ditto on the shower/tub question. Where do you clean up?

      Johnny - July 20, 2011 Reply

      Ms. Wesson,

      The shower is outside the house on the back patio. There is a spiral privacy screen and lots of large plants all around. I’d be happy to send you photos.

      – Johnny

    kimk - July 15, 2011 Reply

    If you look at the blueprint, you’ll notice that there is a walk-in closet. Walk through the closet to get to the bathroom.

      Corby - July 15, 2011 Reply

      I’m still only seeing a toilet and a sink… Maybe the weather’s always nice enough to shower outside, though!

jen - July 15, 2011 Reply

r u single? j/k

dan d. - July 15, 2011 Reply

Incredible! It looks so beautiful for a nearly recycled home!

Zer0 - July 15, 2011 Reply

That looks absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing an inspiring story.

Jessica - July 15, 2011 Reply

@Jen- Ha!! With a house that cute, I was thinking the same thing! 😉

Lynne H - July 15, 2011 Reply

Inspiring, clean and roomy! Very nice. Yes, where is the shower? Probably one outside?

    Johnny - July 20, 2011 Reply

    The shower is outside the house on the back patio. There is a spiral privacy screen and lots of large plants all around. I’d be happy to send you photos.

    – Johnny

Kelly Kleiner - July 15, 2011 Reply

Beautiful home. It looks to me like the shower is outside, right next to the back door.

    Jackie Wesson - July 15, 2011 Reply

    There’s a washer/dryer outside and a laundry sink next to it (you can see it on the blueprint and the pic). No shower/bath though.

April - July 15, 2011 Reply

Great story!!! There’s nothing wrong with using salvaged material – it’s better than creating more waste! Way to go! Beautiful location, too!

sue - July 15, 2011 Reply

Great story! It looks like heaven and must feel like it too, especially with no mortgage! Beautiful home ~ congrats!!!

Leslie Yeager - July 15, 2011 Reply

What a wonderful, sleek little home. Love the furnishings and how you’ve put it all together. Great taste and eye!!

kimk - July 15, 2011 Reply

You did an awesome job! I praise you for your thrifty, hardworking, creative way of bringing materials together to make a simple, comfortable and beautiful home. It is an inspiration to many of us who will never be able to get a mortgage, showing it is still possible to build a home.

Also, there is great value in salvaging material. I see so much thrown out daily that can be re-purposed with a little work. You have shown a great example of how that can be done.

Awesome work!

Grant Wagner - July 15, 2011 Reply

Congratulations on taking the better way to home ownership.

I used to live in Hilo, and this reminds me a lot of the houses there. Many are not much larger. I would love to carve out a bit of a homestead near the wet side of Waimea. That place has the clearest night sky.

Debra in a 320 square foot cottage - July 15, 2011 Reply

Hi Johnny! I am so happy to see your story! Your place is just so serene, you are an artist. A true small home dweller – a pro among all of us novices. It is nice to see someone do this with grace.

Heather - July 15, 2011 Reply

WOW!!! You have so inspired me to keep onto my dream of doing this…soon. 🙂

Susan Lavoie - July 15, 2011 Reply

This is really a lovely, efficient, economical space. Kudos!

steve - July 15, 2011 Reply

Thanks for sharing your plans and pictures with us, Johnny. I am a builder and live in a rather large home that has to go. I am planning to build something in the 635 sq foot range, but I do love your plan. It has inspired me to make the move even sooner.

Nan - July 15, 2011 Reply

480 sq ft of paradise and mortgage free. way to go, Johnny!

kevinsmicrohomestead - July 15, 2011 Reply

If we were all that patient and willing to pay as we go what would bankers do then ? well done . mortgage free is the way to go . how much free time do you have and how little can you live on as a result of this investment ?

Tara - July 15, 2011 Reply

This is another great post about individuals bucking the system and doing what the mainstream deems impossible. Very inspiring…my family and I will be following in your footsteps soon.

    Johnny - July 20, 2011 Reply

    I didn’t buck the system so much as the system rejected me. No bank would give me any kind of loan. No conventional builder wanted to bother with such a small low-profit project. The county still won’t “final” the house because they are waiting for me to finish it (since they can’t wrap their minds around the idea that the place is already done).

    – Johnny

Jyoti - July 15, 2011 Reply

Absolutely gorgeous. A home to be proud of.

Sandy - July 15, 2011 Reply

Best use of space on any tiny house I’ve seen so far. Love it!

The Kitchen is exactly how I plan to do mine. Great job!

jlbraun - July 15, 2011 Reply

Does it meet code? Is it required to meet code where it was built? Have you taken any flack from the local government about it?

    Johnny - July 20, 2011 Reply

    Oh, Lord… The whole code thing…

    I built the cottage with permits and inspections but they county has never been willing to sign off on it for one B.S. reason or another. It’s completely to code, except for the things I didn’t include like bedrooms and an indoor shower. (There’s a fabulous outdoor shower.) So I’m in legal limbo, but don’t care.

    – Johnny

JT - July 15, 2011 Reply

Very nice !!

Victoria - Ozarks Crescent Mural - July 15, 2011 Reply

It is lovely! Nothing beats being debt-free. Good for you for having the tenacity to hang in there 12 years. Most people want instant gratification, but now you have something that will last you the rest of your life. I think the square footage is the ideal size.

Carlos in ATx - July 15, 2011 Reply

You’re a most fortunate man. There are tons of folks who be happy just to be mortgage free much less mortgage free in Hawaii. It’s a beautiful home. I’d have like to have seen some pic’s of your rainwater harvesting system.

Tambo - July 15, 2011 Reply

BRAVO to you.I plan on doing almost the same thing,just a little smaller,I have lived on boats before so I have real need for space.Would love to hear more details on your path to mortgage freedom.Do you have a website?

    Johnny - July 20, 2011 Reply

    There’s no path. You just do what you can one step at a time.

Claudia - July 15, 2011 Reply

Your house is gorgeous, and I’m incredibly impressed and inspired by what you were able to accomplish for a fraction of what people usually pay for a home.

Many thanks for sharing your experiences with us!

deborah - July 15, 2011 Reply

I’m not sure but I think the shower is outside the back door. Would make sense in that climate.

I absolutely love it, although I require a bathtub for my RA. Kudo’s!!!

Daniel - July 15, 2011 Reply

I really like this. Very nicely put together.


480 sq ft tiny house in Hawaii | Politics in the Zeros - July 15, 2011 Reply

[…] housekeeper / gardener built his own tiny home on the Big Island and it’s mortgage […]

Windsor - July 15, 2011 Reply

What an awesome story, I’m so proud of you! This s a gorgeous house.

Bryan - July 15, 2011 Reply

Perhaps the whole of the bathroom is a shower stall. With a drain in the floor, waterproof materials (wraparound curtain) and a good ventilation system the sky is the limit.

Just try not to get the toilet paper wet.

    MJ - July 16, 2011 Reply

    Funny, Bryan! I actually do have a enclosed, up to about 6 feet from the ceiling, at least bathroom – toilet/shower stall, outside (attached to an outside wall really), where I really do have a high up nail to hang the tp to keep it dry during showers! Don’t know if that is the situation here or not, but it’s my first laugh of the morning. Yes, living in a tropical environment makes that possible.

    Love this story and the beauty of the house on all levels. We really can make our dreams reality with patience and hard work. Good for you, Johnny!

Randy - July 16, 2011 Reply

WOW! Great job! Not only have you created an awesome and inspiring little home but I am totally blown away that you did all of THAT on a pay-as-you-go basis! TAKE A BOW! Really, really nice job on the place .. all the way around! Extremely good eye for detail! (Ignore the “catty” comments about a single guy and decorating … they’re just envious! 🙂 )

    Nan - July 16, 2011 Reply

    where did anyone make “catty” comments? Everybody has been extremely generous in their comments.

    I guess one sees what one wants to see?

      Paige - July 16, 2011 Reply

      I interpreted the single guy comments as compliments.

minhus - July 16, 2011 Reply

Cute little home and one I could definitely see myself living in. You found that gorgeous dining room table in the trash?

Very awesome story and amazing accomplishment of being able to live in your own home in Hawaii mortgage free!

    Johnny - July 20, 2011 Reply

    Hey there,

    The top part of the dining table was $5 at an auction. No one else wanted it because it had no base. I found a base for free from a family I worked for who were going to throw it away because the glass top broke. The six McGuire woven leather and rattan dining chairs were found at a second hand shop for a total of $75. The wool rug under the table was free from a friend-of-a-friend who was going to toss it. This all happened over a period of years.

    – Johnny

Mike - July 16, 2011 Reply

Excellent job, Johnny. And I am in awe of your patience. You are an inspiration.

Benjamin - July 16, 2011 Reply

Good job and it really looks cozy!

Do you have to pay property taxes there? That would be the only expense I can think of that could be a burden.

    Johnny - July 20, 2011 Reply

    Property taxes are about $700 a year ($60 a month +/-)and I pay for home owner’s insurance like everyone else in case there’s a fire.

Joe3 - July 16, 2011 Reply

KUDOS…You are an inspiration to all of those who dream about doing this….Your place looks wonderful, and more importantly…liveable.

cj - July 17, 2011 Reply

I second Joe. You have a lovely home.

PBeat - July 17, 2011 Reply

Excellent work! I think you can add: general contractor, furniture refinisher and interior decorator to your resume, as well. At the risk of being gauche, I’m also curious about the property’s size and cost.

    Johnny - July 20, 2011 Reply

    Since you asked, the lot is 64′ x 125′. I would have liked more land, but the place is a block and a half from the ocean, so I made a trade-off. I paid $3,000 cash for the land back in 1999. Hawaii had been in a deep recession for ten years due to the poor Japanese economy and the off-shoring of sugar production to cheaper countries. This particular vacant lot was in a failed subdivision that was almost entirely unbuilt. In addition, the land was in probate when the owner died without a will. His adult children wanted to unload it fast so they could get at the real money elsewhere. I offered them the $3,000 and fully expected them to balk and counter with a higher price, but instead they just said yes. Kismet.

James - July 17, 2011 Reply

Johnny is an inspiration. It is interesting how, even in American culture, those of us who fall into or chose lower earning livelihood’s of service or the arts often come off as apologetic, as though we aren’t as educated or ambitious as a person in degree’d professions that earn high wages. For an individual to have the desire to have a comfortable home of their own, has the creativity, and is willing to plan and save as well as doing some of the grunt work themselves, and it’s all payed for, that person is not only smart, but is living a responsible and successful life. I applaud you Johnny!

    Johnny - July 20, 2011 Reply

    I actually do have a university degree (went to Rutgers and did a study abroad thing in England). I just prefer not having a “real” job.

    – Johnny

Cephus - July 17, 2011 Reply

You’re the man Johnny! Doing it Debt free is the best way to go and there is nothing wrong with repurposing what others throw out. That is plain and simply smart.

Boston Dave - July 18, 2011 Reply

Very impressive, Johnny. You deserve a lot of credit for seeing this project through and you should be proud to have done it within your budget. I think it’s just great.

Jamie - July 19, 2011 Reply

This is a great looking house, and it looks even better mortgage-free! Enjoy living the good life without the stress of debt hanging over your head.

bill - July 20, 2011 Reply

Great Job…

Gabrielle Songe - July 20, 2011 Reply

Thank you for sharing your story of how you acquired the land, planned and built your home without a mortgage and for providing photos. Congratulations on a home close to the beach and an attractive, simple lifestyle. Warm regards, g.

Zach Beall - July 20, 2011 Reply

how do you get plans drawn up I like yours I just don’t live in an area where I can do all of that outside but I don’t need a closet that big I could extend the bathroom into the closet but who do I go to to get plans drawn up

it’s sinking in « tracy gesell & kaleidOscope9 - July 22, 2011 Reply

[…] I was greatly encouraged this week when I read a story on the tinyhouse blog (I’m part of the tinyhouse movement) where a guy in Hawaii put his home on the blog.  it had taken him 12 YEARS to finalize his home, step by step, cash out of pocket, no banks, mortgage-free, 12 years.  w.ow.  and I’m whining about 3, one of which I was working & living in Vermont..doh. check out the story, […]

BeckyA - July 24, 2011 Reply

Beautiful. All your planning and hard work was amazing and well worth your future there. I think these tiny house ideas are so clever. My best to you. It’s a perfect setting in my eyes.

Robert Williams - July 24, 2011 Reply

Thanks for the article. I plan to retire to a vacant lot that I will inherit from my maternal grandparents out on the Big Island and now I have an idea of how much to set aside for septic and water storage infrastructure. I will electrically remain off the grid ….so that will at least be a savings of $$.

Aloha from Arkansas,


mia - July 30, 2011 Reply

I’ll gladly take this off your hands 🙂

aesya - August 1, 2011 Reply

i love seeing everything in this little neat house; the paint, furniture, arrangement,photo frames, even the fruits ooh, the simplicity of the entire house is sooo calming. Its home! Great job, great saving!

Gina - September 28, 2011 Reply

Very nice job everything is really nice you’ve done great job. I’m wondering if the government charges you lots of money for property tax. I’ve heard living in your area is expensive that no one can afford to live there except the military or other government employees. Is that true?

claudia - January 28, 2012 Reply

great story and house…please don’t apologize for recycling things left on the curb – it is creative and keeps objects out of landfill! besides maintaining a small footprint – recycling is the next best thing!

kathy - March 12, 2012 Reply

you house is great!

Samuel - March 21, 2012 Reply

I watched the interview and this is an amazing house for $30,000 plus $3,000 for the land.

I would love to buy a house like this in a few years and take a few years off.

Sami Noor - October 1, 2012 Reply

I own alot in LA County, and need some help in building
a Tiny House on the lot!
Who can help me getting all the formalities and
the construction work done.
I am willing to pay a good price!
Any help will be highly appreciated!
Thanks in advance

bruce k - April 7, 2013 Reply

You say you could have done with less space … so why did the shower get relegated to outdoors. I love the idea of an outdoor shower, but I am not sure I would want all my showers to have to be outdoors!

A really beautiful job and a beautiful story. Best of luck with your rightsized life and thanks for sharing this story.

Steve - December 19, 2013 Reply

My friend and I often talk about doing something like this but we doubt we could jump through all the hoops & rules put in place. Congrats on finding a way through the codes & permits and getting yourself a sweet spot. I also have my the bed as the most important feature of my small apt.
I’m wondering what that plot of land is worth now.

TJ - October 5, 2014 Reply

great inspiration to me! my wife and I recently bought in hpp and hope to build something small and not so uppity up. have some fruit trees and chickens etc. I love it!

David - December 28, 2014 Reply

Johnny, As I am readying to build on my lot in Honokaa, I would love to ask you a couple of questions. My email is if you would email me, I would love to email or speak with you directly. Beautiful little home you built! I hope you’re very happy and living the Aloha dream! David. (direct). PS, I will be back on-island Jan 5 2015 for a couple of weeks.

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