There are many stories of couples drastically reducing their belongings and moving into a tiny house in order to save money. However, there seem to be fewer stories of couples who are using their tiny house lifestyle to become financially independent. Jess and Todd Palmer of Tiny House of New York are not only on their way to being on FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early), they are offering to assist others to do the same with their tiny house and financial independence consulting service.
Todd and Jess (and their two pups) in their Tiny House of New York.
“We were working on FI well before moving into a tiny home but knew this would give us the ability to do accomplish it that much quicker,” Jess Palmer says. “We believe the ability to achieve financial independence early in life is a better option than having more square footage at our disposal. I’ve said it before, but what we gave up in square footage, we gained in freedom—tenfold. This is a long-term lifestyle for us no matter our bank account numbers. We can save exponentially by cutting down on our housing costs and put that money into other things more important to us.”
Jess and Todd built their own 200 square foot tiny house in 2017 and parked it on family land in the Northern Catskills of New York. Todd built most of the house himself with the help of a carpenter. The couple also had help from friends and family and completed the house during summer and fall weekends. All together, the home cost about $55,000 to build.
Jess was so kind to give us more information on their tiny house in the woods, their plans for financial independence, and their tiny house consulting business.
The couple also offer a tiny house consulting business.
Can you tell us a little more about the building of your tiny house?
Prior to living in a tiny house, we lived in a conventional, 1,100 square foot house in Albany, NY. We did a ton of research before taking this leap, and that included lots of reading and YouTube video-watching, as well as scouring Instagram After seeing so many designs, we knew there were features from others’ homes we liked, and some we didn’t.
From there, we designed our home on our own—the old school way, with graph paper and pencils! We sketched out designs, only to erase and start over—many, many times. There was a lot of debate between us, and a lot of give and take about what features of our future home were must-haves and what weren’t.
We knew a few features we wanted to absolutely make room for: glass French Doors for lots of light, a wood stove for heat, stairs at the back of the house, a couch for lounging rather than a bench, a king-sized bed in the loft, multiple skylights, and a four burner stove (that was also a debate but we ultimately found a nice, small apartment sized stove that works for us).
By sketching out and measuring and lots of trial and error, we had a good idea of our design, and at that point, it was time to order the windows, skylights, doors, and SIPs (structurally insulated panels) and begin building.
What type of land are you on? Are there any local codes or laws you have to consider in your area when it comes to tiny houses on wheels?
We’re in the woods, located in the Northern Catskills of New York State. We live on family property and pay for the utilities for our home and the other home on the land, as well as help with taxes—that is our contribution to the “rent” so to speak.
The legalities of tiny houses differ from place to place and are, at best, fuzzy. Many towns and municipalities require homes to be built on foundations, and many have a square footage minimum—at 200 square feet, we wouldn’t meet those.
For months, we looked for land to buy in Upstate New York/The Catskills, and figured we’d “hide” our home in the woods—not to skirt paying taxes but to be able to build the home we wanted. Ultimately, we decided to build on family land, and are extremely fortunate we had this possibility.
I’d recommend to someone else looking to live in a tiny home—Check Craigslist for land to rent, and even get creative and reach out to farms, or other landowners who have acreage—perhaps you’ll find a small section of land to rent. A lot of tiny home dwellers have had luck this way.
We did not worry about codes but we did ensure our home was “road legal” in its size so that we can move it without extra permitting. We also did ensure we had a back door for additional egress, and we have windows in the loft and the main floor.
In 2016, we knew we wanted to make a change in our housing and give ourselves the ability to more freely move and eventually become much more nomadic. The idea of putting down permanent roots was not appealing to us. It’s a big world, and we want to see more of it. We felt as though putting down roots would make that more difficult.
Slowly, we began looking into alternatives, and the tiny house life really appealed to us because if we needed to, we’d be able to move our home to a different location. We’d also be able to close it up easily and take off for other locales with ease. Three times so far this year, we’ve closed it up and left for several weeks; it’s our home base when we return to the Northeast. We don’t travel with it but we do travel because of it. It’s also small, cost-effective, green in that it’s a small footprint, and is energy efficient. As two people extremely concerned about our environment and the effects of climate change, living more sustainably appealed to us. This home checked off a lot of the boxes that are important to us.
What are your favorite features of the house and what did you find to be the biggest challenge while building?
Our favorite features are our wood stove, and our skylights/windows/doors. The winter was made bearable and cozy with our tiny but mighty wood stove which kept our home approximately 75 degrees all winter, no matter how cold outside. Our pups gravitated to spots by the fire all season and also seemed really happy with how warm they stayed.
We have nine windows, three skylights, and both our front and back doors are glass, so we get a ton of natural light. It’s really rare we need to use lights, actually. Even in the winter, we got so much light; it really helps to feel like we’re bringing the outside in as much as possible. We’ve been able to enjoy beautiful sunny mornings, as well as stunning sunsets and everything in between just from the comfort of our home because there are so many windows. At night, we can often see the moon and stars as we go to sleep through the skylight in the loft, and in the summer, we can see the fireflies right overhead. We’re outdoorsy people, so this has been right up our alley.
The biggest challenge while building was the time that everything took! If we predicted something would take one day, it would take three. We naively thought this entire house would be built in six months. We’re at the two year mark and we’re not totally done yet! Timelines are somewhat pointless. We had to learn a lot as we went. Not to mention, we both work full time, so we were working on weekends and some evenings, but it wasn’t a full-time build.
Todd taught himself how to wire our home for electric. That’s something he had to be careful and diligent in, so it took some time to complete. The same goes for creating our small bathroom. Every inch counts and we wanted our bathroom to be unique but well crafted. Sometimes that means projects simply take a lot longer to ensure they’re done well.
Tiny House of New York’s 5 tips for accomplishing financial independence.
- Ensure your housing costs are manageable. There are expensive tiny houses and less expensive tiny houses. Make sure you make a decision that will truly result in a savings. For instance, our tiny house will become a cost saver for us after three years when you compare it to the housing costs (including taxes and maintenance) of our previous home. So we’re making sure we make it at least one more year.
- Any extra money you save from living tiny, we recommend you pretend you don’t have—automatically save and ideally, invest it. We invest in low-fee index funds through Vanguard and know that is the favorite with most of the FIRE community.
- Track your spending. Once we started doing that, we realized there were places we could cut more and find more money to save and invest.
- Everyone’s path to FI will be different. Some of us have higher paying jobs. Some of us living in lower cost of living areas. Some have children, and some don’t. Some have pets to care for; some don’t. But I believe many Americans can find ways to live under their means and save more. We live in a consumerism-obsessed nation. We need to tune out the messages we hear on a daily basis telling us to keep buying more. Most of us already have more than we’ll ever need. If we spend less and save more, we can own our lives, rather than banks owning them for us, ensuring we stay as cogs in the wheel. There is nothing appealing about that to us.
- We want tiny house seekers to know that while you can save a ton by living this way, you can still really, really enjoy life. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever been happier. We never give up eating or drinking well—we just do it at home more times than not. We entertain guests more in the summer months outside than we do in the winter when we’d be stuck indoors. We spend a great deal of time outside—hiking, biking, running, kayaking, camping—and those are all usually free or inexpensive ways to enjoy yourself. Living intentionally and according to your values is a priceless feeling.
“We truly have everything we need.”
“We weren’t forced into making the decision to live in 200 square feet. We chose this life and we’re very fortunate to have been able to,” Jess concludes. “Many people across the globe already live small because they have to, and many human beings live without the amenities we have. I never want to take what we have for granted. When I go to sleep in a bed in a warm house in the dead of winter, I think about it. When I wake up to the sunshine streaming in through the loft windows, I think about it. We truly have everything we need.”