In a verdant forest in Washington State, Stephen Proctor’s new life awaited. The visual artist sold his home in Nashville to head west, where he imagined living untethered amid the flora and fauna of the Columbia River Gorge in a newly purchased tiny home. But after making an inquiry with the county about electrical and septic hookups—and an address—a foreboding yellow tag appeared on his front door. "You know the line from Lord of the Rings?" says Stephen, "‘One does not simply walk into Mordor?’ Well, I was like, ‘One does not simply live in a tiny house.’"
On the advice of longtime locals—and given the number of ad hoc living arrangements in that remote area of Washington—Stephen expected to settle in with nary a hindrance from the government. So few zoning laws surrounding tiny homes had been established by local jurisdictions; how could he clear hurdles that didn’t yet exist?
However, because a local permitting official had never dealt with tiny homes before, Stephen suddenly faced a minimum of $10,000 in inspection fees, and it would be at least four months until the process could even begin. To start, state-licensed tradespeople would have to peek under the hood, removing all the finishes of his new home. What’s worse, a tiny home consultant warned that without clear legislation by the city, county, or state, there might be no end to bureaucracy. "This is not the stuff they tell you about on Tiny House Nation," recalls Stephen, referencing the reality television show that’s all happy endings.
He ultimately folded, selling his tiny home with the intent to build a similarly small cabin—this time with a foundation, and in accordance with established building codes. Across the river in Oregon, where laws are more lax, "none of this would have happened," he says. In places that have yet to adopt rules surrounding tiny homes, it’s buyer beware.
Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, where cities are adopting progressive measures to solve for housing shortages, tiny home dwellers still exist in limbo. "I don’t get mail there," says Ryan Tuttle, who has been careful to keep a low profile since her home-on-wheels is registered with the DMV as an RV. That status is by far the easiest and most affordable way to live tiny—you don’t need to permit the build as you must with an ADU, and since zoning laws don’t apply, you can park it anywhere there is already a primary residence. But, since you technically can’t remain in an RV for longer than 30 days on end, treating one like a permanent home can attract the attention of whistle-blowing bureaucrats or nosy neighbors who cry NIMBY.
The loophole living arrangement serves Ryan well since she’s often traveling for work as an outdoors photographer. While home, she can visit family who live nearby or head outside to parks, taking advantage of the Bay Area’s year-round good weather. She has a good relationship with the homeowners from whom she rents the lot, and stays in her neighbors’ good graces. Even so, the situation isn’t guaranteed. "I’m hesitant to post pictures of the outside of my home," says Ryan, who fears that revealing her location could invite a shake-up. To live in a tiny home this way, she says, you have to get used to flying under the radar.
Tucked away securely on her parents’ wooded, five-acre parcel in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Emma McAllan-Braun and her family of four live peacefully from their farmhouse-style tiny home. "It’s perfect for our children to play, and for us as a family to enjoy the outdoors," says Emma, who went tiny to simplify. "It’s about focusing on quality time instead of weighing ourselves down with clutter." Though the benefits of unloading excess are clear, the limitations of a 311-square-foot home, too, quickly crystallize.
Entertaining guests is out of the question, "which is a major downside," says Emma, who can’t host gatherings with friends or family. While having access to so much outdoor space is a boon, in the damp Canadian climate, her and her husband’s two girls are constantly tracking in mud and dirt, making cleanup an around-the-clock job. Privacy and personal space, which can be taken for granted in a traditional living arrangement, has suddenly become a luxury that the family of four has had to sacrifice. "It can be overwhelming if you don’t have a space to retreat to," Emma warns. In tight quarters, when one person is up at night with a cold, so is everyone else.
One aspect of tiny home living that often goes unexamined is that it’s often not a lifelong commitment. Emma and her family have been able to exercise patience with these less glamorous aspects as they finish the build of a larger custom home. After selling their previous home, they took the opportunity to downsize and simplify, knowing it would always be temporary. Even if Stephen’s tiny home dream hadn’t hit snags in Washington, he, too, had plans to eventually build something bigger and more permanent in due time. Ryan’s custom tiny home in the Bay Area gave her a shot at a version of homeownership, and one that was tailored for her current life as a roaming photographer. "I saw it as a five-year thing," she reflects. "Down the line, I’d love to have my own land, and build a house on it. This was never meant to be forever."
Ryan spent two years planning for her tiny home. Part of that was the design phase with tiny home company Minimaliste, and the other part was becoming a kind of trailblazer while she figured out where to put her home and how to live in it safely. (She writes at length about her experience on her website as a guide for others, and even provides consulting services.) In terms of becoming the owner of a custom home, two years is a relatively short timeline. It might feel a lot longer, though, when the startup phase involves navigating a legally murky space, and you only plan to live in your tiny home for about as twice as long as it took you to move in.
In the hilly outskirts of San Diego, Mariah Hoffman’s tiny home was the ultimate test of patience. Where others purchased expertly built homes with the intention of later selling them, Mariah spent five years pouring sweat equity into her own design, applying savings skimmed from each paycheck and the trade skills she taught herself along the way: welding, carpentry, and the Japanese wood-charring technique known as shou sugi ban, among others. "It was pretty intensive," she says. "I probably spent a few months on charring wood alone." Her tiny home, affectionately titled Lola in honor of her Filipina grandmother, is the result of not a small amount of grit.
"It was hard, it really was," says Mariah. "Every phase tested me emotionally, physically, and financially. You go through a learning curve—new trade, new materials, and then on to next phase." Things rarely went as planned: Original designs had to be pared way down, and revisions were made on the fly to constantly balance design dreams and pragmatism. While French doors that opened to a back deck would have been a beautiful element, that wall, it turned out, was "better real estate for bed placement," says Mariah.
With backbone, persistence, and relentless pursuit of a vision, she emerged transformed from the experience, along the way challenging the notion that a traditional house is the only means of making a home. Very few will venture so far.
Whether constructing your own tiny home like Mariah, or simply taking on the challenges that living in one poses, eschewing traditional modes will always require major shifts in lifestyle and mindset. "There are some downsides that people need to take into consideration when making the switch," says Emma, "but we love our tiny home. Of course, there are sacrifices."
And, if you’re willing to make them, your tiny home life awaits.
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