Tiny Guesthouse Challenge

Another of my jobs (besides writing for the Tiny House Blog) is taking care of my elderly mother’s five acres, located in the high mountain desert of Nevada. The property consists of a 2,000 square foot house, a large yard with hundreds of trees, a barn and a tiny house located at the back of the property.

The house was built in the 1980s as a guesthouse and has been used for numerous guests and visiting family members. It is 12 feet by 8 feet, single story, on a cement slab foundation, insulated, and has electricity and a wall mounted heating unit. The interior is a single room with a tile floor, three windows that look out on the nearby Tahoe Range and the garden and skylights that face south. The ceiling has charming rafters and is decorated with items from my mother’s native Denmark and Sweden.

However, the house does not have a kitchen or a bathroom. I’ve made it my Spring plan to add a bathroom onto the house, add a small kitchen unit and include more storage options and multi-purpose furniture. Future additions may be a back deck and a front cement slab and some landscaping. If the house is remodeled in time, it may be rented out to our neighbor’s elderly mother. She will then be closer to her daughter and can be around when my mother is home alone.

I thought I would get the Tiny House Blog community’s input on what they would do if handed this little challenge. The house does have room to extend out to the south, access to water is nearby and there is enough space behind the house to add a septic system if needed.

Here are some ideas that have been tossed around:

I have been consulting the book, In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House into Two Homes by Michael Litchfieild, on issues on dealing with contractors, inspectors and permits. In addition, I would love to get our reader’s suggestions on what other issues I should be thinking about before beginning the project.

Photos courtesy of Christina Nellemann


By Christina Nellemann for the [Tiny House Blog]

Join Our eMail List and download the Tiny House Directory

Simply enter your name and email below to learn more about tiny houses and stay up to date with the movement.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Hope Henry - November 7, 2011 Reply

Please check zoning laws. Many have tried to ignore city, county, or state laws (or did not check into them), or decided to skip getting a permit, and were then fined, some required to demolish their improvements and/or structures.

    Christina Nellemann - November 8, 2011 Reply

    Agreed. What is usually the maximum amount of “bump-out” remodel you can get away with without needing a permit?

      alice - November 8, 2011 Reply

      In my area a bumpout is considered part of the total area of the building, so that if 8×12 is the maximum you can build and you already have an 8×12 you can’t add an 8×12 or smaller bumpout, it would then be a 16×24 or whatever rather than 2 allowable 8×12 buildings. We also have a rule about how many “accessory” buildings you can have, so even if you make a separate building it may or may not be allowed depending on how many buildings you already have. They measure on the outside of the building rather than inside usable space too, dirty rats, though luckily it doesn’t include overhanging eaves.

Michelle Schmittler - November 7, 2011 Reply

For the kitchen, have you checked out http://www.acmekitchenettes.com? They have a LOT of options for all-in-one units (2 or 4 burner, microwave or not, all in a lower cabinet setup or with uppers also, gas or electric stovetop but electric oven only it looks like) and even handicap accesible ones.

    Christina Nellemann - November 8, 2011 Reply

    Thanks for the link Michelle! I like these units much more than the ones I linked to.

    Mary - November 13, 2011 Reply

    My cabin came with one of the early ACME kitchen units, model ROE5-48. I even found the paperwork still attached to the back. The sink/countertop is stainless steel and the front is “coppertone.” It has a four-burner stove, oven w/drawer below and a fridge, which I use as pantry space since the compressor finally went out after 40+ years!

The Good Luck Duck - November 7, 2011 Reply

It’s very sweet!

I would go the composting toilet route. Ours does require a bit of wrangling and wrestling to empty, so physical capacity of the tenant could be an issue. There are also incinerating composting toilets, I’ve been told, which might lessen the physical component.

What kind of regulations do you face around graywater?

    Christina Nellemann - November 8, 2011 Reply

    We live in an unincorporated area of the county. Our neighbor actually uses graywater from his outdoor kitchen to water his vegetable garden. It will have to be something that we ask the contractor.

lawrenanne - November 7, 2011 Reply

I second the idea of a composting toilet, but think carefully about where to get good mulch, and how to empty it if an elderly person will be living there. I’ve used a sawdust toilet for 8 years– just a regular toilet seat attached to the wall with a 5-gallon bucket underneath and think it’s great but emptying it was a bit iffy when I broke my hip last year. Also, if you use a greywater system, make sure you read “Greywater Oasis” or something similar; digging the leachfield to the right depth is critical if you want to keep the right bacteria intact. Good luck! It’s a really cute house.

    Kristin - November 8, 2011 Reply

    I was just wondering, where do you empty the contents of your buckets when they get full?

Diane - November 7, 2011 Reply

I don’t know about the enlarging ideas, but I am caregiver to my 88yr old dad.

Are you considering making adjustments for a handicapped individual? I did read that you’re condsidering renting to an elderly neighbors mom.

Right off the bat I noticed the small rugs that are a tripping and slipping hazard. The larger tiles may be a bit slippery also. I would suggest using larger low pile area rugs in bare tiled areas. There are many patterned and less costly area rugs that fit the bill.

If the bathroom is put in, a suggestion of the safety bars to assist in getting off the toilet or even a raised toilet. Bars also need in a shower for safety. At the age of 56, I catch myself using these aides without thinking about it.

These are just a few suggestions for an elderly tenant.

I think the house is wonderful. I’d love to rent it.

    Christina Nellemann - November 8, 2011 Reply

    Thank you Diane. Our neighbor’s mother is quite spry and active still, so we may do the minimum to the house and our neighbors would install any additional equipment needed for her. Then if needed, we can rent the house later on to a person of any age. Maybe a tiny house B&B?

clark - November 7, 2011 Reply

rather than figuring out an addition that will be as large as the existing house, and a possibly uncomfortable interface… what if the kitchen and bath were in an adjacent building, with a deck between the two? the deck could have a nice outdoor sitting/dining area. maybe the two buildings almost touch and the deck is alongside? the visual impact of two staggered similar bldgs might be more harmonious than one larger one.

    ImReady - November 27, 2012 Reply

    If you were to make another, separate building, you need to consider passing from one to the other. The weather could be a factor, as well as safety, like during the night, for animals or intruders! Just a thought…

Hal - November 7, 2011 Reply

Don’t know if this will help but here’s the video link to my tiny guesthouse:
Good luck on your project!
As an aside on the subject of permitting I would say it’s far, far better to just have good relations with the neighbors and leave the “nyet patrol” out of the equation…

    Christina Nellemann - November 8, 2011 Reply

    Hal, I’ve seen your guesthouse video before and still want to do a post on it. 🙂 It’s lovely! Our neighbors are like family to us and we are excited to be able to work together with them on this project.

    Dale - July 12, 2012 Reply

    I absolutely LOVE the motorized bed! And the tub in the floor is inspired – but how do you fill it? Does the water go into a graywater tank or run off as irrigation into the garden?

    Really nice design with the green roof, too. You’ve covered a lot of areas of very practical tiny house living! Congrats!

Kevin - November 7, 2011 Reply

Super-insulate, solar panels, solar hot water, LED lights, make it a net-zero energy space. If it is for a fixed income elderly person they would surely appreciate not having to spend on utilities.

Marsha Cowan - November 7, 2011 Reply

Yestertack is a fascinating concept just like so many furniture apparatus designed to take advantage of small spaces, but my experience has been that the less doors, drawers, and other moving parts you have in a small space, the better, and even if a piece of furniture does do double duty, it will end up doing one thing and never be transformed again. Go simple. Use bins, baskets, cubbies, holes, hangers, open shelves, etc., and furniture that is designed to do its job without a lot of chango-presto!

    Christina Nellemann - November 8, 2011 Reply

    Now that I look at it, I agree with you 100 percent Marsha. KISS is one of my favorite phrases. I think the concept of the Yestertec (and that beautiful woodwork) is appealing, but the cost is not.

Barb - November 7, 2011 Reply

As I age (now age 51), I’m acutely aware that bedroom lofts, ladders and wet baths (very slippery) are in my past and not in my future. Ideally, I think a small bathroom addition with a septic system would work nicely. A little acme kitchenette (or similar) would be wonderful and could fit nicely along an existing wall. Tall cabinets requiring a step ladder might not be a good choice, but two or three kitchen cupboards at standard height would probably suffice. A small bathroom probably requires at least 5×6 space. Also, you might consider covering the slippery tile floor with carpet. For such a small space, you could probably get a remnant and use it like a wall to wall area rug.

Your little guest house looks homey, beautiful and welcoming. What a wonderful place! best of luck to you!

    alice - November 8, 2011 Reply

    Pull down shelves are a great way to get around the too tall cabinet issue. http://www.rockler.com/product.cfm?page=10842 You can have your cabinets up higher to take advantage of vertical space while still being able to use them without a step stool. Unfortunately they aren’t cheap. Not sure if a DIY version would be easy, but I’m sure somebody out there can figure it out.

Kevin P. - November 7, 2011 Reply

I think clark’s idea for a separate kitchen/bath unit is a great idea. I would guess if the unit is small enough it could fly under the permit radar. Instead of an open deck between the units however, perhaps a covered/enclosed walkway between the two buildings would be best. Looks like the days and nights get a bit chilly up there and I’m sure an elderly person doesn’t want to go out in the dark cold night and cross an open deck to go to the bathroom.

    Christina Nellemann - November 8, 2011 Reply

    I agree Kevin. We do get some extreme weather here and because of the small space, having the kitchen and the bathroom within the main unit might be more beneficial to whoever stays in the house. However, we will look for any way to avoid the expensive permit process.

Randy - November 8, 2011 Reply

Kent … if the long-range goal is to rent the little cottage out to an elderly tenant, I’d go ahead and install a septic system. In my part of the country it’s about $1,800 to install but it will save the elderly tenant a lot of “maintenance” that composting toilets need to empty, etc. The grey water idea from the shower is awesome and the shower itself is awesome as many senior folks find it easier to step in/out of a shower rather than hoist their [sometimes] frail selves out of a tub. A kitchenette, deck and front patio are all super ideas that will maximize the livability of the little house. I’m not yet elderly (getting’ there) but the housekeeping for a small home is particularly appealing to me. The open one room is the extremely convenient for that house. Good luck with the project! Sounds like you’re off to a great start and I’m sure your Mom will enjoy having someone nearby to talk to. Believe it or not, the #1 problem for our elderly is loneliness so sounds like you’re hitting the mark on all the boxes. Be well.

Jeff Sties - November 8, 2011 Reply

Maintaining body temperature is a big issue for the elderly. If you can, expand to the east or west and add windows facing south. Your tile over concrete floor is perfect for soaking up the added solar gain.

Go with a septic system and maybe look into whether a mini, ductless split heat pump will work in your climate. Add insulation, weatherstripping and think about replacing old window units which create drafts. Instant or ‘on demand’ tankless hot water makes more sense in this situation than a standard HW tank.

Check with your building department: in my area, seasonal cabins and small homes without ranges/ovens get exemptions. Cheers –

    Christina Nellemann - November 8, 2011 Reply

    Thanks Jeff! Yes, we were thinking of extending the house out on the South side (where the small window is) so that the bathroom could get some southern sun. The electrical wall heating unit that we have actually heats up the tiny place very well, however, the windows (single pane) will need to be replaced.

Anne B - November 8, 2011 Reply

I like the aesthetics of a separate room for kitchen and bath. Also keeps the heat out of the sitting area during summer. But, as an aging female who sometimes has to use the bathroom every 2 hours in the night, I am opting for a toilet area in or close to the bedroom. The shower and kitchen as separate is still doable as a gray water setup. Personally, I will be going the composting toilet route, but I agree that in the case of an aged occupant, get a septic and flush toilet near the sleeping area. I like the houses that separate the toilet area (with small basin for hand washing) from the shower area. The frequency of showering is much less than toilet use, so why must they be in the same room?

Rebecca B. A. R. - November 8, 2011 Reply

You should look at putting on screen doors that are mostly glass. During good weather then, the person could get extra light by having the main door open, and the screen door either open with the screen or open with the glass–and they could lock it.

Benjamin - November 8, 2011 Reply

Would have liked to see a photo including the ‘charming rafters’ and skylight.

I suggest that the addition for the bathroom be a little narrower than the rest of the house to give it the traditional look of an evolved home, and to break up the uniformity a bit.

Bunny - November 12, 2011 Reply

I think a composting toilet might be intimidating to an elderly person to use. I would go standard septic for sure. Keeping the bathroom in the same building is important too. I use the bathroom at least twice a night. My 75 year old mom does too. I know it gets cold there and having to pass through the cold would not be a great idea. If your bathroom is for an elderly people, even spry, it might be a good idea for a sitting shelf in the shower with hand holds. My mom gets unsteady at times and she won’t use the shower anymore.
I love how pretty your little house is on the inside. I know who ever lives there will love it.

BigGoofyGuy - November 12, 2011 Reply

I think those are great ideas. I am not a carpenter but they sound like something I would do (or have done). I think it would be even nicer with a kitchen and a bathroom.

Phil Taccetta - November 13, 2011 Reply

Having lived with a Sun Mar composting toilet for the better part of a decade, I highly recommend a Separett urine diverting toilet. Much easier to deal with. The bucket is lined with a compostable plastic bag. 4-6 straw bales make an excellent compost “bin”. If you decide on a flush toilet, google “Watson Wick” or “Pumice Wick”,a good alternative to traditional septic systems.
I also agree with Kevin’s 11/7 post. We are on our 31st year off-grid and are now on Social Security. The only costs we have are property tax, propane (about $40/mo.)and 1 cord of firewood.Passive solar adobe design and a modest PV system takes care of the rest.

sesameB - November 14, 2011 Reply

Thanks for sharing this. I loved reading about it and the visuals. rock on!
A woman of color with nappy hair, (single by choice) living happy in south central sunny Arkansas, drinking spring water and barefootin’ living in a ‘tiny’ house
PS: the USA has more single adults than any other nation in the world except for china and India. There are more single head of household than there are married households with children. America has gone from being “Married with Children to Home alone” — Bella DePaulo is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara.

Victoria - Ozarks Crescent Mural - November 14, 2011 Reply

I love the inside. I’ve forwarded this post onto the person that built the house I live in because he’s such a great builder and perhaps he’ll have some good ideas.

John - November 14, 2011 Reply

If you are around city codes you will of course have to abide… some are easy to get along with others are non negotiating punkin heads… You said water supply would be easy… maybe for waste drain you could build a small holding tank near the cottage to run the drainage to… place a grinder pump inside the tank and have a pressurized system from there to the main house system whether septic or sewage… building a scaled down kitchen would not be a problem but baths are… maybe a small ceramic tiled area for a sit down shower with a hand held shower head…. you will have to saw and jack hammer out some of the existing concrete floor if you can’t add on to your existing cottage…. You can do it.

Good Luck,

Brook - November 22, 2011 Reply

What a great little cabin.
If it were my place, I would add a small, free standing kitchen unit in a matching style.
I would build a separate small bath house directly next door or as an addition.
For convenience, I would find an antique chamber pot. I still have my great-grandmothers chamber pot and the cute little velvet topped stool it sits inside. The idea is to have a convenient pee pot for the occassional night pee.
This Summer I lived in a tiny house in Truckee. It had neither plumbing, heat or electricity. It was a wonderful, simple and quiet home for my 2 year old son and I. We had friends on the land in a Tipi and camping. It helped my son become quickly potty trained. Between 7 of us we used 3 bags of compost as our composting medium. I was amazed at the speed of decomposition. I chose to process the approximately 25 gallons of compost through a hot burn pile.
I really love this site. I am a professional builder and licensed contractor in California.I am getting my Nevada license. If your place is near Reno, I would be glad to take a look and give you a free inspection and opinion. I am very interested in doing workshops and your project would be a great one for the tiny house community to get behind. I bet with community effort you could design and build your idea at little or no cost. (Heck, I’ve got a storage yard full of lumber, windows, tile, roofing and so does every other builder.)
Glad to help,

    Christina Nellemann - November 28, 2011 Reply

    Brook, you are an angel! How fun to live for the summer up in Truckee (one of my favorite small towns). I will be contacting you from your website.

Backyard Guesthouse Redesign - October 29, 2012 Reply

[…] google_ad_width = 336; google_ad_height = 280; Some Tiny House Blog readers might remember the backyard guesthouse project I was working on last fall. Well, the Tiny Guesthouse Challenge is complete and my mother’s backyard guesthouse now has […]

Leave a Reply: