Buying A Tiny House? Read This First

Are you looking into buying a tiny house? Now comes the hard part – finding a tiny house builder. New tiny house builders are opening up shop every day. While it’s great to have options, it’s also a very confusing market for potential buyers.

We’ve heard from a number of people lately who bought tiny homes from professional builders, and now need significant repairs within the first year of living. It’s disappointing, but avoidable, so we asked an expert how to have a good tiny house buying experience.

The Hikari Box Tiny House: A Modern Tiny House Design by Shelter Wise, who shares their tips for buying a tiny house on wheels
The Hikari Box Tiny House by Shelter Wise

When Derin Williams from Shelter Wise started building custom tiny homes in 2012, he was among the first tiny house builders in the country. While Shelter Wise no longer builds custom homes, they still build their popular Hikari Box and Cider Box designs, and Derin shares his unique expertise on tiny house design and construction through local and online consulting. Contact Shelter Wise to inquire about purchasing a house or to set up a consulting session with Derin. With years of experience seeing how his own homes and the homes of others have stood the test of time, here are some of Derin’s tips for buying a tiny house.

Experience is Everything

Your builder should have a few tiny house builds under his or her belt. The standard remodeling contractor or new construction builder won’t have enough experience to build their first tiny house correctly. They will make mistakes. Some traditional builders will say, “It should be easy,” but it’s not. There are things that traditional builders are not aware of when it comes to building tiny spaces that also must hurdle down the road at 60 mph. There are nuances when building on a trailer, and special attention required to provide a safe and healthy environment.

Your builder should be providing you with references from past clients right off the bat. If not, ask for them. And no, their family and friends do not count as “client references.” And yes, you should still get references even if you saw their work on TV. TV cameras and professional lighting can make a home look amazing, but it may look very different in person, and may not live quite as large as they say. A “luxury” or “high-end” tiny house does not always mean a quality tiny house.

You may also want to connect with the tiny house community in your area (try searching for local Facebook groups, like Portland’s) to see if you can get in touch with someone who has worked with them.

Cider Box Tiny House Plans
The Cider Box Tiny House by Shelter Wise

Get a Contract and a Warranty

For goodness sakes, get a legal contract. Emails, handshakes, smiles and warm, fuzzy feelings are not a substitute for a good contract. Your builder should be providing this, and if he or she is not, then find someone who will. You can lose a lot of sleepless nights over debates about what was never written down and signed on, so get it all in writing. If your builder’s contract looks fishy or contains provisions you’re not comfortable with, request an explanation or ask to make changes. Contracts are usually written to protect the contractor, so you may need to speak up to protect yourself. You may even want to have an attorney who specializes in construction contract review the contract – in the end, their fee could actually save you money, and many sleepless nights.

If the builder provides a warranty, does it carry across state lines? If your builder is in Utah and you move your home to California, what happens when you have a plumbing leak or a window won’t close? Ask about distance and timelines for potential warranty-based repairs – and as with the contract, get it in writing. Typically warranties only cover workmanship and do not cover product failure. But let’s say, for instance, that your siding starts warping. If it’s a standard product that’s been installed on thousands of other homes, then the issue is probably an installation (aka workmanship) failure. But in order to prove this, the home would need to be partially deconstructed to reveal the cause of the problem. Who covers this cost when it’s one year later and you had a one year limited warranty? That’s a true story, unfortunately.

Your builder should also be able to show you that they are insured and bonded and better yet licensed, or at least that they meet the state requirements where they are located. Ask for proof of insurance, and ask what it covers.

Do they need to be RVIA certified?  Not necessarily. For some customers it’s important to get an RV loan to purchase the house, but RVIA certification doesn’t operate as a stamp of quality workmanship. RVIA certification was designed for spaces that are meant to be used occasionally and not as full time homes – which is how many people are using their tiny houses on wheels. RVIA certification does promote certain health and safety requirements, but skips others that we think are pretty important – such as the use of interior products made with toxic chemicals that will be off-gassing into your tiny breathing space for years to come. We encourage people to do their own research on what RVIA certification offers them, but we also caution that “RVIA certified” does not mean “high quality tiny house certified.”

The Bunk Box Tiny House: A Modern Tiny House Design
The Bunk Box Tiny House from Shelter Wise

Avoid Common Construction Errors

Truly experienced tiny house builders have seen tricky construction issues evolve over time, and are aware of challenges that novice builders are probably not thinking about. These are some of the construction challenges most common in tiny homes on wheels:

  • The biggest issue I’ve seen is an inadequate thermal break between the metal trailer and the floor. A thin roll of foam called sill sealer is nowhere near enough to create an adequate thermal break. It was never designed for this application, it was designed to seal air leakage between a concrete foundation and the sill plate. The thermal break between the trailer flange and the interior floor just loves to collect moisture. It also positions that moisture right at the base of your wall, setting you up for rotting sill plates and black mold in cupboards and other hard to reach places.
  • Improperly flashed skylights
  • Windows improperly installed, specifically head flashing
  • Improperly flashed wheel wells. Wheel wells are proving to be a real messy issue in some tiny homes. They must be properly flashed so that water in any direction – up, down or sideways — has nowhere to enter. A thick bead of caulking is not enough. Wheel wells also tend to be a huge chunk of metal, aka a good conductor of cold and heat. They must be insulated to highest practical R-value possible, and be sealed very well. An improperly sealed wheel well will allow large air gaps that create a pressure differential that pulls hot, moist air into the cavity, and causes problems from mold to structural issues.
  • Leaking entry door thresholds. Thresholds of doors in tiny houses on wheels typically see a lot of weather with no porch roof to protect them, not to mention while they’re heading down the road.
  • Chilly showers from improperly installed hot water heaters. We do not recommend electric tankless water heaters, by the way.
  • Inadequate ventilation and too much humidity in the house. Is your builder installing a bath fan, kitchen hood vent, moisture sensors, HRV (heat recovery ventilator), a dehumidifier? Tiny homes are typically being built with pretty tight construction methods, which are great for energy efficiency but tough for humidity that can’t get out of a tight house. In colder climates and wet climates, you’ll want to know how your builder will approach these issues. A tiny house built in Florida is different than a house built in Oregon.
  • Electrical problems like improperly-sized circuits that can’t carry the proper electrical loads, causing your circuit breaker to trip continually.
  • Doors and windows not opening. This can occur when your trailer isn’t level on your home site, or when the trailer wasn’t level when the windows and doors were installed.

Be An Educated Buyer

Educate yourself and take a workshop on building a tiny house – even if you’re not building yourself. It will arm you with the right questions to ask, and help you decipher whether to call back that Craigslist contractor who said he could build you anything.

Do your homework about legality and parking. Tiny homes are not legal permanent residences in most places. The TV shows gloss over this finer point, but it’s true. Yes, there are plenty of people living in tiny houses, and there are areas in the country that are beginning to allow them, but for the most part they are still not legal and are subject to county code violations.

Many tiny house folks are interested in using salvaged materials to save money or get a unique look for their house, but know that you’ll have to pay more for labor to have them installed. Salvaged goods are great, but they often take extra elbow grease to work with. If your builder says using salvaged materials will cost more, they’re not ripping you off, they’re just being honest.

Shelter Wise Salsa Box tiny house design
The compact Salsa Box Tiny House is an affordable and mobile backyard office or guest room.

Shop Smart When Buying A Tiny House On Wheels!

Throughout the shopping and building process, be kind and respect other people’s time. Builders are people too, and they’re usually doing the best they can and not trying to rip anyone off. But in this new and confusing market, it’s your responsibility to be a smart shopper. Do thorough research on your builder, educate yourself about the process, and you should be able to find someone to build you a solid tiny house that should last for many years.

More About Derin Williams and Shelter Wise

Shelter Wise currently offers two models of tiny homes on wheels: The Hikari Box Tiny House in 20 and 24 foot lengths, and the Cider Box Tiny House in 20 and 24 foot lengths. After 5 years of building custom tiny homes, Shelter Wise has retired from the custom home market but can still produce their most popular home designs through a construction partnership with Mods PDX, experts in modular construction. The Hikari Box Tiny House starts at $65,000, and the Cider Box Tiny House starts at $70,000.

Contact Shelter Wise today for a tiny house on wheels that will stand the test of time, or for a one on one consultation with Derin for his unique technical expertise.

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