Tiny House: Preparation

Earlier this year an idea got into my head and would not get out again. Time and again I would remind myself that it was a foolish idea, and yet there it was.

I wanted to build a tiny house.

At first it was just an idea, something to idly muse on, do a bit of research while I was figuring out what I was going to do with my life once my startup failed to start up once and for all. But over time it became a goal, a focus, a guiding principle. After all the years of making code, the idea of building something in the real world, of imagining a more desirable lifestyle and taking real, concrete steps towards it, was incredibly appealing.

Of course, a lot happens between thinking “Hey, maybe I really want to do the tiny house thing after all”, and pallets of lumber stacking up in the yard. First comes the research in earnest. Looking up zoning regulations and checking the designation of possible build sites. Trying to find how much it costs to get a tow vehicle capable of hauling a 10 ton trailer (hint: they are not cheap). You also might want to convince your friends that you are not just following a fad (I don’t watch any of the shows that are cropping up) and that you’ve proven your minimalism chops with a bit of #vanlife. There was number of square feet to consider, layouts, off-grid capabilities, exterior look and feel, etc.

Unfortunately, the hardest, most expensive, and most significant decisions come right at the beginning. For example: What design to follow, and who builds it? Now, you can get yourself a utility trailer for a few thousand bucks (although the waiting list is months for one designed for tiny houses) and some basic plans for a couple hundred, but building your dream house from scratch is quite an undertaking, and one that is not guaranteed to succeed. On the other hand, if you want to have keys to your beautiful new home simply handed to you by a reputable builder, then you might pay $70,000 or more, and for me the challenge and learning by doing was a big part of why this inspired me in the first place, so that was out.

Of all the issues to research, the parking question can not be over-stated. There are really very few places where they can legally live if you don’t count RV parks, which are not what I was looking for. Fortunately my dream was to move it to the mountains of Colorado, and they have several tiny house communities. Furthermore, in my particular situation I had a friend I was already living with who had RV hookups on his property as well as a full woodworking and metalworking shops. The space, tools, and expert knowledge were all there, I just had to let go of my fears and go for it.

In the end it was an email that hooked me. Tumbleweed, a well-regarded (but expensive) builder had an extra unit that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I called them up and found out the unit had been sold, but the extremely friendly salesperson picked up on my desire for a quick turnaround and said if I was willing to use stuff they already had on hand she could squeeze me in their pipeline and have a shell ready in just over a month. When it turned out they had a huge window, and a glass door with flanking side light glass sitting around and offered it to me for the standard cost I was sold. A few back and forth emails, a signed contract, and I sent off $34,199. My hands shook with excitement and nerves. Turning back was no longer an option.

After all the agonizing, making pro/con lists, and searching my feelings I was now the proud owner of a Tumbleweed shell. A shell means a professional fabricates the trailer, and adds walls and a roof and then you finish building it from there. I also opted to get windows installed, so the structural elements and weather sealing were all professionally done. I decided not to have them do electrical or plumbing, because I felt confident doing that myself, even though it meant not getting certified as an RV, which had some implications down the road.

I talked with their designer and we ended up repositioning the window to make it more centered, which I’m really glad of, though it will make the stairway tricky. Then we quickly laid out the interior so they could frame out the hot water heater and AC unit. Tumbleweed had a whole team of people on the call to make sure that any questions could be answered and I wasn’t going down any bad paths. They really seemed invested in my success even after I sent the money and the process made me feel like I was in good hands and really helped my confidence. Pretty soon I was getting build pictures, first just framing lumber, but soon it began to look more substanstantial.

My overall goal was to not skimp on materials, and to spend the money to make the interior really nice, counting on sweat equity to keep the budget under control. But I wasn’t too keen on paying $2,500 to have the house shipped out to California. I thought about flying out and renting a truck to drive it back, but it was hard to find a company that would even allow it. I tried to use a company called U-ship to get transport bids, but there was some learning curve to that process. In the end I found a guy in Colorado with a truck, a good attitude, and decent cargo insurance, and agreed on $1,500 for the move.

With that, everything was in place. The journey begun. Now I just have to live it.