10 Things You Should Know Before Moving Into a Tiny Home

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By Michele Koh Morollo
Take it from the experts—we asked 10 tiny home owners what they wished they'd known before downsizing.

When space is limited, less is more, and quality and craftsmanship take priority over quantity. Oftentimes, it's this creative, minimalist mindset that inspires individuals, couples, and families to swap their larger abodes for small space living and tiny homes.

Making such a drastic change, however, doesn't come without its challenges. That's why we spoke with 10 tiny home owners: to get an insider perspective on scaling down, and practical advice on how to do it.

Graham Hill

In 2010, Graham Hill, the founder of eco-friendly website TreeHugger, crowdsourced the design for his 420-square-foot apartment in New York City. Named LifeEdited 1, the apartment has functional areas that amount to more than twice square footage, thanks to a flexible layout, a custom-built moving wall, and transformable furniture.

When the Penelope bed by Clei is tucked into the wall, the full sofa reappears; the unit includes two recessed nightstands with flip-down shelves.

When the Penelope bed by Clei is tucked into the wall, the full sofa reappears; the unit includes two recessed nightstands with flip-down shelves.

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"If you're lucky enough to live in a well-designed, small space, and have taken the time to edit and organize your life nicely within it, there's a certain calmness that comes with that," says Hill. "Living within your means financially and environmentally feels terrific, and having the right stuff (and not too much of it), in the right place, is a beautiful thing."

His advice to potential tiny home owners is to "edit your stuff": look for multifunctional furniture that can help you save space and money, and to "buy less, but better."  

Clever cabinets from Resource Furniture save space for extra appliances, like a dishwasher. The counter is Bianco Carrara marble.

Clever cabinets from Resource Furniture save space for extra appliances, like a dishwasher. The counter is Bianco Carrara marble.

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He continues, "Smaller spaces can get messy quicker. The good news is that they can be tidied up quicker as well. Small spaces tend to force you to be a little more organized on the fly, and not to procrastinate, but rather to take a few extra seconds to put your things back where they belongs. I've heard it said that every object should have a home...and I think that's great advice."

The Mayes Family

Gabriel and Debbie Mayes, along with their four young children, used to live in a 5,000-square-foot house before they converted a 250-square-foot school bus into their family home.

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"We used to find ourselves spending time in different rooms of the house, but now the kids read to each other in their bunks, go on biking adventures—and we all curl up together on the couches and watch movies together," says Debbie. "Being in such a tiny space can be stressful at times, but we have so much more opportunity to connect. It's completely changed us."

For the L-shaped kitchen, the Mayes' chose an under-counter fridge/freezer unit for more counter space. The 23-inch Vigo sink is deep enough to bathe a baby or hide dirty dishes.

For the L-shaped kitchen, the Mayes' chose an under-counter fridge/freezer unit for more counter space. The 23-inch Vigo sink is deep enough to bathe a baby or hide dirty dishes.

For those looking to do DIY work on their own tiny home, Gabriel says, "Definitely do your research on builders, or how to properly do the work, and come up with the floor plan if you’re doing it yourself."

Sheena and Jason Armstrong

When Atlanta–based couple Sheena and Jason Armstrong found a 1975 Airstream on eBay, they spent 10 months upgrading it themselves, and by 2016, were living in their amazing, 180-square-foot trailer home that they've lovingly named Mavis.

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For them, the best thing about living in a tiny home is being more connected to nature. "Because of the small space, you are almost at all times just an arm's reach from a window or door," says Jason. "You can easily hear the birds, the rain, and almost always feel the warm sun rays pouring through the windows. You just don't get that in a traditional house."

No matter the destination, the couple's poodle, Riley, always tags along.

No matter the destination, the couple's poodle, Riley, always tags along.

However, they warn that there'll be an adjustment period when downsizing. Sheena recounts, "If you're living with another person in a small space, you'll learn a whole new level of patience and tolerance! Expect to be bumping into things for a while, and listening to noises you didn't even know your significant other made.

"To us, stuff equals stress. I recently asked Jason what he hated most about tiny living, and he paused and said, ‘I'll have to think about it.’ There really aren't any downsides anymore. If you'd asked us for the downsides in the beginning, the list would be a mile long. But now, the simplicity outweighs it all." 

Macy Miller

Boise, Idaho–based architectural designer Macy Miller’s 196-square-foot house cost just over $11,000 to build, and is an inspiration to an ever-growing community of tiny house enthusiasts.  

Boise, Idaho–based architectural designer Macy Miller built her own 196-square-foot home, which she shares with her partner, James Herndon, their newborn, Hazel, and the family’s Great Dane, Denver. The exterior cladding, which Miller stained for a uniform effect, is a mix of nearly a dozen types of wood plank, including poplar, oak, and fir.

Boise, Idaho–based architectural designer Macy Miller built her own 196-square-foot home, which she shares with her partner, James Herndon, their newborn, Hazel, and the family’s Great Dane, Denver. The exterior cladding, which Miller stained for a uniform effect, is a mix of nearly a dozen types of wood plank, including poplar, oak, and fir.

Miller says that she had thought it would be difficult living in such a small space, especially with kids, but after more than six years of living in a tiny house, she realizes that she couldn't have been more wrong. "It's not hard to live tiny," she says. "It's made our life so much better. We can work less, which gives us more time to do things together."

Porcelain floor tile from Daltile is a durable, easy-to-clean substitute for wood. The family does laundry in an efficient Summit SPWD1800 washer-dryer combination unit. Miller saved money in the kitchen by using a reclaimed sink and faucet and drawer pulls from Ikea.

Porcelain floor tile from Daltile is a durable, easy-to-clean substitute for wood. The family does laundry in an efficient Summit SPWD1800 washer-dryer combination unit. Miller saved money in the kitchen by using a reclaimed sink and faucet and drawer pulls from Ikea.

Macy says it's important to understand why a tiny house appeals to you in the first place. She explains, "If it's a matter of convenience, or it seems ‘easy’ or ‘cute’, you may need to rethink it. Tiny houses aren't the cheapest, or easiest path to shelter, but they can be an incredible tool to use to position yourself for a lifestyle you want, whether that's adventure, travel, passion-driven work, time with family, or financial freedom. Tiny houses are—exactly as Le Corbusier said—machines for living. They provide you with exactly what you need, so you can save time, money, and energy to live the lifestyle you really want."

Duff Bangs and Ashley Rodgers

Seattle couple Duff Bangs and Ashley Rogers took a leap of faith, quit their nine-to-five jobs, sold their condo, and started traveling in a 200-square-foot tiny trailer that they designed themselves. Now settled in Eastern Washington, Bangs and Rodgers have their own business, Modern Wagon, which is driven by their mission to build affordable tiny homes that are ready to hit the road.    

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They both agree that the best part about living in a tiny home is having less stuff. "A limited amount of storage space makes us very conscious about purchasing new things, which, most of the time, we don’t even really need," says Rodgers.

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"If you’re thinking of a trailer home, think about where will you park," says Bangs. "Consider your utility hookups, and how and where you are going to connect your power, water, and sewer. You will also need to consider your power and water usage as your capacities (such as a smaller hot water heater) can be limited when living in a small space."

Nina Tolstrup and Jack Mama

For their 140-square-foot micro-apartment in London, Studiomama founders and husband-and-wife team Jack Mama and Nina Tolstrup designed adaptable furniture units to create cohesive, flexible living zones.

Jack Mama enjoys a book on the lounge seat with a pullout ottoman.

Jack Mama enjoys a book on the lounge seat with a pullout ottoman.

"Rent a small place on Airbnb to try out small-space living first," advises Tolstrup. "Instead of getting rid of a lot of stuff in one go, put things in storage, then slowly dispose of them a year or two later, when you realize that you don’t really miss, or need them."

A breakfast booth looks out to the street.

A breakfast booth looks out to the street.

She continues, "Use the freedom a tiny home is giving you to get out more. Use your city, invite your friends out to nice places, travel more. Making your home tiny should make something else you care about grow bigger."

Making your home tiny should make something else you care about grow bigger.

—Nina Tolstrup 

Trina and Steve Sholin

Phoenix–based, RV fixer-upper couple Steve and Trina Sholin lived in a 28-foot travel trailer in Alaska, and were inspired to renovate this 440-square-foot Keystone Montana Fifth Wheel. They then put this renovated trailer on market, in order to start a new trailer renovation project.

Wood details and a simple, white-and-black color scheme give the RV's interior a bright, modern, Scandinavian feel.

Wood details and a simple, white-and-black color scheme give the RV's interior a bright, modern, Scandinavian feel.

"I think some of the best things that come from living tiny is the time you gain," says Trina. "Time you can spend with your family and friends doing more of what you love. I don’t think we realize how much time we put into cleaning, organizing, and maintaining a large home. The most surprising thing was how easy it was to live with so few possessions."

The Sholins purchased this Keystone Montana Fifth Wheel camper in Arizona.

The Sholins purchased this Keystone Montana Fifth Wheel camper in Arizona.

Jay Nelson

San Francisco–based artist Jay Nelson enjoys designing cool campers, trucks, and other mobile structures, but what caught our eye was the tiny hut he built in Hawaii, which marries the best of a permanent home with tiny house elements. Nelson built the 12-by-16-foot hut with the help of his friend, filmmaker Jess Bianchi, who is now the property's current owner.

Jay Nelson is hopeful that the interest in tiny homes will encourage us to minimize consumption and environmental footprints, but warns that micro-spaces can be challenging for many.

Jay Nelson is hopeful that the interest in tiny homes will encourage us to minimize consumption and environmental footprints, but warns that micro-spaces can be challenging for many.

"I've lived in a lot of tiny, micro, and alternative housing," says Nelson. "You imagine living in a tiny home as a way of simplifying your life, but the reality is a little different. For example, living in a camper without a toilet presents challenges that we might take for granted. The important thing is being realistic about what you and your family need, then building your home around those needs."

"It might be more realistic for people to consider small homes between 500 and 1,000 square feet," says Nelson.

"It might be more realistic for people to consider small homes between 500 and 1,000 square feet," says Nelson.

"If you’re thinking of downsizing, it’s important to consider the climate that your home will be in. I think the tiny home really works well in warmer, tropical climates where you can spent a lot of time outdoors, especially if you are a family with kids," he says.

Natasha Lawyer and Brett Bashaw

After months traveling cross-country in a Volkswagen van, Seattle couple Natasha Lawyer and Brett Bashaw knew they loved tiny home living. They did a DIY overhaul of a 1971 Sovereign Airstream that they'd bought for less than $5,000, which they lived in for some time. Though they've since sold it, they now live in a 166-square-foot cabin with a 400-square-foot ceramic studio that they use as a living and working space.

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Says Lawyer, "You have to choose to live differently in a tiny home. It’s a more intentional, and thoughtful way of life. As you bring in new things you need, you’ll have to let go of old things, or you'll be buried alive in your possessions."

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Lawyer and Bashaw have also changed the types of gifts they get for each other, choosing experiences over things: "For instance, I'll get Brett a class instead of a new item, or we'll go on a trip instead of buying something new. It can be a little difficult, and there are definitely parts of it I struggle with. Tiny living is about how you want to live and spend your time, and I think ultimately, you need to be honest about this."

Anna Jacobs and Damian Schmitt

This couple from Oregon renovated and lived in a 1966 Airstream Overlander, which they dubbed Gilda, and learned loads about the pitfalls that one can encounter with tiny home DIY projects.

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One thing the couple hadn’t fully anticipated was the amount of work renovating a vintage Airstream would involve. "Nobody thought the project was going to get finished," says Schmitt. Adds Jacobs, "We thought it would take around eight months to renovate, but it ended up being closer to 15 months." 

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But they persisted, and now believe that their inexperience led to the best possible outcome. "Nothing really went the way we planned. It took longer, and cost more money than we thought it would—but in the end, it was also way more rewarding than I ever thought it would be," says Schmitt.