Tiny houses, just like big houses, can range in price greatly depending on size, systems, materials, and whether you build it yourself or hire someone to build it for you. Whether a house is 300 square feet or 3,000 square feet, how you intend to use the house will dictate what systems and materials should be inside, and how much you might need or want to spend on them.
Big Houses and Tiny Houses: Apples and Oranges?
Conventional houses are measured based on the home’s price per square foot. It’s tempting to compare the cost of tiny houses to big houses with this ratio, but there are two main reasons that this isn’t a super helpful comparison:
- Some of the costs of a home will be the same no matter how big the house is. A smaller fridge, range, and sink don’t necessarily come with smaller price tags. Small appliances and fixtures can actually be more expensive because they’re not as common. Additionally, the labor costs for installing these appliances and fixtures (like installing a metal roof, or connecting the electrical and plumbing) will likely be nearly as expensive as they would be for a larger home because of efficiencies of scale.
- The price per square foot ratio does not take into account the cost of financing a mortgage. For instance, a 1,500 square foot house that sold for $250,000 (or $166/sq ft) costs a great deal more to finance and maintain than is represented in the cost per square foot number. A homeowner will pay more than $179,000 in interest alone for a 30 year mortgage on $250,000 at 4% interest, so the total cost will be closer to $429,000. Furthermore, this figure does not include insurance and maintenance costs.
On the other hand, a 150 square foot tiny house might cost around $40,000, which works out to roughly $266/sq ft. So although the price per square foot is much higher for a tiny house, the total cost is less than a 10% of the total cost of the larger home. Just the down payment on the larger home could cover the full cost of a tiny house! And the costs of maintaining and living in a tiny house are a fraction of the costs of a big house.
Budgeting for a Do-It-Yourself Tiny House
Want to build a tiny house yourself? An experienced builder with access to great salvaged materials and friends who can help out for free could build themselves a small (84-136 square foot), simple structure for $15,000, much like Dee did.
According to this infographic by Ryan from The Tiny Life, the “average” do-it-yourself tiny home of 2013 – built by its owners with some help from friends and some hired help, and with a mix of salvaged materials and new materials – cost about $23,000. But take that with a grain of salt – since then, material and labor costs have increased a little, and average tiny house sizes have increased significantly. The average tiny house trailer used to be 16 feet long, and now tiny house trailer manufacturers are cranking out 20 to 28 foot long trailers regularly. So a DIYer in the same circumstances today might want to think about budgeting $30,000-$40,000 for materials and hired help.
How Much Does it Cost to Buy A Tiny House?
And what if you don’t want to build your own tiny house? Let’s compare a few different approaches to buying a 24 foot long tiny house, which has become the new “standard” size, offering around 184 square feet on the ground floor.
- A Craigslist contractor (or first time DIY builder), making first-time mistakes, might quote $35,000-$45,000.
- A reputable tiny house builder working from a base model and making minor customizations for each client might quote $50,000-$75,000.
- A fully custom, never-before-built house from an experienced builder may cost $80,000-$100,000 with all the bells and whistles.
Another way to approach buying a tiny house is to buy a completed shell. A tiny house shell typically includes the outside of the house, solid structure and weatherproofing – many aspects of the build that stress DIYers out the most. The interior is totally unfinished, and the client can take on the interior build out themselves, knowing the house will be structurally sound and safe from the elements. This can save tiny house buyers a significant amount of money if they’re up to the challenge of finishing the interior.
For more on buying a tiny house, check out this incredible resource from Derin from Shelter Wise, one of the most experienced custom tiny house builders in the market, on his Tips for Buying a Tiny House.
Building a $10,000 Tiny House?
Dee Williams built her 84 square foot Kozy Kabin Tiny House back in the summer of 2003, when things were cheap, for approximately $10,000. With prices today, Dee’s Kozy Kabin would cost closer a typical DIYer $15,000-$25,000 to build.
She managed to spend so little on her build because she used salvaged materials and the free labor of friends and innocent neighbors walking by. Saving money typically requires spending something else: time. Dee spent hours walking the isles of Portland’s Rebuilding Center and the Habitat for Humanity Restore on nights and weekends, scoring killer deals on salvaged materials, which also often take longer to work with than new materials. She estimates she spent well over 300 hours building her house over a three-month period in the summer…while also working full-time. If you’d rather save money and spend time, look to Macy Miller as another great example: her reclaimed pallet siding looks fantastic and was free, but took a long, long time to create. For most people, building a tiny house on a budget like that isn’t realistic, but these women show what’s possible if you’re willing to really roll up yours sleeves and get to work.
Another thrifty alternative is to sacrifice big on space. Shelter Wise’s Salsa Box Tiny House, shown above, is 96 square feet on one level, without a loft. What it lacks in floor space, it makes up for in affordability – the material cost for this house can be achieved for just $8,000, including a simpl trailer. That doesn’t include labor costs from plumbers, electricians, etc, but a savvy builder could make this design work on a serious budget.
How to Save Money on Your Tiny House Build (and How Not To)
Knowing when and where you can effectively cut costs is important if you want a beautiful home within your budget. For instance, we do not recommend pinching pennies on your trailer because a trailer is the foundation of a tiny home on wheels. We know many people who have spent as much retrofitting a trailer as they would have spent purchasing a brand new trailer custom built for their tiny home! Don’t buy a used trailer, and don’t buy trailer that is not designed to carry the load you’re about to put on it.
Similarly, installing salvaged, single-paned windows may seem like an affordable solution in the short term, but you’ll be paying for it every month in your heating and cooling bills. Salvaged framing lumber may also seem like a great way to save money, but chances are you’ll spend more in labor costs as you wrestle with it. So we recommend purchasing new materials for the structural components like your foundation and framing.
On the other hand, scouting for salvaged finish materials can both reduce the overall cost of your tiny house and increase its character. Look for previously-loved cabinets, flooring remnants, trim, and gently used appliances – anything that can take a few dings without sacrificing safety or functionality. Building your tiny house with the smartest materials and using advanced building techniques will keep you comfortable and feeling like royalty in a tiny castle.
Want to Learn More?
The cost of your tiny house is ultimately up to the choices you make about what you need: will you buy or build? Do you need the biggest thing out there or something smaller good enough? Do you want every appliance in a modern condo or will you pare down to something simple?
To learn more about building or living in a tiny house so you can answer these questions with confidence, before you start investing big in your future home, check out these resources:
- Why did a tiny house feel right to them?
- How did they go about designing, building and moving in?
- What is life like now that they’ve been living there, for between a few months and ten years?
- Tiny house construction basics, including how to properly anchor a stick-built structure to a trailer.
- Tiny house building science, including moisture control, ventilation, heating, and cooling.
- Tiny house systems, including electrical, gas, and water systems.
- Codes, insurance, and regulations.
- Parking options and pocket communities - how to create the place you'll call home.
- And a guided tour of the Caravan Tiny House Hotel to see multiple tiny houses in person.
Register Early and Save!Discounted early bird pricing is in effect until September 22nd, 2017, and pairs who register together can save an additional $25 per person! To save with buddy pricing, add two registrations to your shopping cart, then enter coupon code: 50offbuddytix Both offers expire and regular pricing of $350 per person begins on September 23rd, 2017