Extreme Downsizing

Tiny house dwellers are shucking their stuff and saying goodbye to mortgage payments - all in an effort to lead more meaningful lives

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Published in United Church Observer in March 2015

Two years ago, Kayla Feenstra’s offer on a house in Abbotsford, B.C., fell through at the last minute after the bank told her she needed to increase her down payment by an additional $10,000 because she was self-employed.

“That was my epiphany moment,” says the 31-year-old landscaper. “I started thinking, do I really want a $300,000 mortgage? How much space do I really need?” Turns out, not a lot. In fact, a mere 130 square feet would do it.

Feenstra, who grew up helping her father construct houses, built her simple shelter, which she nicknamed “Jack in a Box,” on a trailer bed.

The off-grid home on wheels features solar panels, a composting toilet and an 1,800-litre tank to collect rainwater. Its airy 11-foot ceiling accommodates the six-foot-two Feenstra, who shares the quarters with her cat, Jinx, and 100-pound dog, Scotch.

The house cost her $15,000 to build - less than the original down payment the bank wanted.

Her modest abode, currently parked on the blackberry-covered land of a local for whom she provides property services, has allowed her to have a richer life. “This fits with my sense of spirituality - it’s less materialist, more connected to nature, gives me the solitude I need and there’s definitely a lot less stress financially,” says Feenstra, who attributes her desire for the simple life to a three-year stint spent volunteering in Haiti in her early 20s.

“I don’t want to be a slave to a mortgage. I want to have the freedom to do what I want and not be 70 years old when my house is finally paid off.”

The desire to scale back, live simply, leave a softer footprint, become more self-sufficient - and a whole lot happier - is propelling a tiny house movement of people like Feenstra who are tossing their worldly possessions and opting for low-maintenance living quarters that rival the size of a storage locker.

These maverick homesteaders say having less stuff, fewer bills, no mortgage and reduced expenses means they can work less and live more. As tiny house designer Jay Shafer, one of the leaders of this micro-housing revolution, says, “Your world gets bigger when you get small.”

Choosing this radical lifestyle has its challenges. For one, you’ll have to give up your big-screen TV, king bed and industrial-grade appliances. For another, you’ll likely wrangle with lots of red tape since restrictive zoning rules and building codes can make it challenging to find a place to put your tiny house. And if you’re squeamish about the idea of emptying a composting toilet, it may not be for you.

Tiny houses typically measure less than 500 square feet, and those on wheels must be less than 120 square feet to be classified as mobile homes - and thus be exempt from the need for building permits. They cost $10,000 at the low end if you build your own and up to $80,000 or more if you order a custom model from a specialized tiny house builder. “These are not a bunch of rickety shacks being built by crazy people,” says Feenstra.

Indeed, some high-end diminutive dwellings are the Monacos of the tiny house world: small but opulent, with fancy features such as granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and bamboo flooring. Manufacturers add to their allure by their own tiny houses in the backyards of their family homes, an ingenious way to escape hectoring parents. Space is typically too tight to accommodate families - it’s mostly empty nesters and millennials who are drawn to these miniature residences.

There’s no denying the financial benefits of this mini-housing revolution, especially when you consider that most of us dedicate almost half our income for almost all of our working lives to putting a roof over our heads. And the costs keep climbing as houses have ballooned in size to encompass multiple powder rooms and three-car enclosed garages. The average size of a new Canadian home in 2010 was 1,950 square feet, nearly double the 1975 average house size of 1,050 square feet.

Meanwhile, the average number of inhabitants has dropped from 3.5 in 1971 to 2.5 in 2011. Nationally, the average house price is $420,000, more than six times the typical income of 25- to 34-year-olds. For many, owning a dream home has become a financial nightmare, one that binds them to jobs they hate and makes them stay in unhappy marriages because of fear of financial ruin.

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