A Look Into the Tiny House Movement with an Interview of Tiny Home Pioneer Jay Shafer

The Tiny Home Movement

‘Home Downsizing’ has started to catch on like wildfire, particularly in the last year. Many people are simply no longer able to pay their mortgages after being laid off or getting their wages cut. Others can meet the expense of their mortgage, but are choosing to avoid or give up larger homes and mortgages for a simpler (and cheaper) lifestyle. That’s where ‘tiny houses’ come into play. Not surprisingly, these ‘tiny homes’ can have a ‘huge’ impact on your personal finances.

My Love for Tiny Homes

My next move will result in me moving to a ‘tiny house’. I currently live in a 998 square foot home, tiny by most people’s standards, but I want to push the limits (500 square feet and below). To get a first-hand testimonial of what it’s like to live in a tiny house, I interviewed Professor Jay Shafer, the founder of the Four Lights Tiny House Company and one of the leaders in the tiny house movement.

Jay’s revolutionary approach to house design has stirred international dialogue. In his The Small House Book (self-published 2000), Shafer explains why smaller dwellings make good sense and how superior design can be achieved with less space.  He has continued to share his philosophy by creating Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and thru such venues as Fine Homebuilding, The Wall Street Journal, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and at the University of Iowa’s School of Art, where he served as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Drawing for more than a decade.  Professor Shafer currently lives in an eighty-five square foot home of his own creation. Check out his tiny home tour on YouTube.

Also, a plug for the tiny house blog – one of my favorites (not affiliated with Jay)!

Interview with Tumbleweed Tiny House Company Founder – Professor Jay Shafer

20SF: Thank you for taking the time to meet with us, Professor Shafer. First order of business for our readers. What exactly is a ‘tiny house’? Are there certain square footage dimensions that a dwelling would need to be under to be considered a ‘tiny’ house?
Shafer: I try not to put too fine a point on it. A 300 square foot house certainly qualifies as tiny in this country, but I wouldn’t rule out 4000 square foot houses so long as there are a lot of people living inside. So long as the space (no matter how big) is being used well I’d call just about any house tiny.

20SF: What first attracted you to tiny houses and how did it transform into a business for you?
Shafer: I love tiny houses for a number of environmental, economic and practical reasons. But what first attracted me to them was how much more beautiful a well utilized space is. Waste is ugly; efficiency is beautiful. I find poorly designed, over-sized houses hideous.

tiny home

20SF: You don’t just design and build tiny houses, you live in one yourself, right? Which of your tiny house models do you live in? (please provide link to picture I can include)
Shafer: I live in the 89 square foot Epu model (shown to the right and in the linked to YouTube video).

20SF: What is your favorite thing about living in a tiny house?
Shafer: It’s totally liberating. With no mortgage to pay and relatively little maintenance to do, I’m left to doing the things I love to do.

20SF: What is your least favorite thing about living in a tiny house?
Shafer: Sometimes I forget where I park it. (Note: Jay travels all over the country with his Epu tiny home to share tiny home ideas with communities).

20SF: How much can one expect to pay for a tiny house?
Shafer: You could build one for almost nothing if you recycle materials and do the design and labor yourself. Otherwise, about $50,000.

20SF: Who are tiny homes ideal for?
Shafer: They’re popular with cultural creatives (folks on a mission to do something with their lives other than make house payments).

20SF: For those of us who have lived in larger homes with plenty of space, what advice and pointers do you have? Is it a tough transition or not as hard as one might think?
Shafer: The hard part is figuring out what you need to be happy and getting rid of all the other crap. Once that’s done, the transition is easy.

20SF: What are some of the unexpected issues that you run into when making the transition?
Shafer: Deep philosophical questions come up. Why can’t I get rid of my art, my books, my wine cellar? It’s looking at those elements we have the hardest time giving up that will reveal the most to us. A lot of it comes down to idolatry… the worship of the idea of something over the appreciation of what that idea represents.

20SF: On the business side of things, how many tiny houses have you sold? Is business growing swiftly?
Shafer: I only sell one or two houses per year, but I sell about 50 sets of plans during the same amount of time. Business is booming.

20SF: The ‘tiny house’ phenomenon seems to be gaining popularity here in the states. Do you think there is a direct correlation with the rampant foreclosures, layoffs, and salary cutting that has resulted from the economic crisis? Or is this movement part of a larger cultural shift of people wanting to escape consumerism, clutter, and debt, and get back to the basics?
Shafer: I can’t be sure, but the perfect storm of increased environmental awareness meeting an economic downturn seems to have had a positive effect on my business.

20SF: At 20somethingfinance, we’ve highlighted the importance of living within your means, particularly when it comes to housing. In the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics income report, on average over 34% of the average household’s income is spent on housing? This seems outrageously high. In your view, how much should we be spending on our housing?
Shafer: We should spend whatever we want to spend, so long as we don’t expect others to bail us out of irresponsible spending. That said, I have a hard time figuring out why anyone would or should pay more than 10% of their income on quality housing.

tiny house

20SF: What kind of financial freedoms can a tiny house provide versus a traditional house?
Shafer: Oh, the sky’s the limit! There’s no need to let house payments rule your world.

20SF: On the real estate market, 3 and 4 bedroom homes are the standard. Have you found that people selling tiny houses have had trouble finding buyers because it is not the social norm?
Shafer: There are tiny 3 and 4 bedroom tiny houses, such as Tumbleweed’s 681 square foot Ernesti, and, as you suggest, the market for the one bedroom units is limited.

20SF: Do you have any final tips or advice for someone seriously considering making the move to a tiny house?
Shafer: Know what makes you happy and get rid of everything else. It will change you life!

20SF: Thanks for taking the time to meet with us, Professor Shafer!

Tiny Home Discussion:

  • Would you consider moving into a tiny home?
  • How much living space do you think you actually ‘need’ to live comfortably?

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