Almost everything around Lyons, Colorado is immense. Sandstone mountains in vivid red and orange hues rise high above the one-story shops on the town’s main drag. Plains, speckled with trees, stretch on for miles on Route 36, and just a few feet away, the Rocky Mountains tower almost 5,000 feet above town.
But down a dirt road off of Main Street, the houses are less than 200 square feet.
It’s here, on a 10-acre property, that three local men have taken a growing craze — the tiny home movement — and twisted it to bring them financial success, opening a hotel comprised of miniature homes.
In 2015, Lyons residents Kenyon Waugh, Stephen Beck and Jason Malito, along with three other partners, invested $500,000 to create WeeCasa, an overnight resort originally comprised of 10 tiny homes. Today, the property has 22 homes available for rent and, for the first time, the partners are finally seeing a profit — an overall revenue of about four times what they initially invested, or $2 million, says Waugh, the company’s “WeeEO.”
The idea was born out of a local tragedy. In September 2013, the town saw more than 19 inches of rain in an eight-day period. The South and North St. Vrain Creeks, which surround the land WeeCasa is on, flooded, demolishing the mobile home park that sat on the property for more than 30 years, and killing one Lyons resident.
“During the flood, the sirens were going off until one in the morning,” says Beck, WeeCasa’s operating officer. “There were 32 trailers here. We got everybody out, thank goodness. Nobody was left behind. But every trailer was unsalvageable. They were all piled up in the back.”
After the flood, the Federal Emergency Management Agency designated the property as a floodplain, prohibiting permanent residences. The property’s private landowners asked Waugh and Beck if they would be interested in co-owning the land. The partners cleaned up the property and, in 2014, started renting it out to weddings, Beck says. Soon after, Waugh came up with the vision for a tiny house hotel where wedding guests could stay, inspired by a hiking trip he and his wife took through the Appalachian Trail in 2002.
“Living out of a backpack for 142 days and carrying only 16 pounds on my back really made me start to think about how you could live with a small amount of stuff,” Waugh says. “When we came back, I started learning about tiny houses and really became fascinated with tiny houses.”
The property owners were given permission to construct WeeCasa under the condition that the tiny homes have wheels, as they could be easily moved in the event of another flood. Location was key to their business. Lyons is home to two of the state’s biggest musical festivals: the July RockyGrass bluegrass festival and the August Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, where festivalgoers picnic along the wooded banks of the St. Vrain River as the sounds of banjos ricochet off the soaring red rock walls. The town is also home to Oskar Blues Brewery, one of the early founders of the craft beer movement. On Tuesday night, locals convene for a weekly bluegrass jam with pints and violins in hand. Of course, the town’s proximity to major hiking destination Rocky Mountain National Park doesn’t hurt tourism, either.
The next step was to secure capital, and both Beck and Waugh agreed it wasn’t a challenge. Beck, one of the original employees of Crocs footwear, had saved a small fortune from when Crocs went public in 2006. Waugh, a computer programmer, sold his company, Spatial Energy, to space imagery company DigitalGlobe in 2014, and acquired the funds necessary to start WeeCasa.
In 2015, Waugh and Beck began the search for their tiny homes. And even though they are no more than 240 square feet each, every inch of the homes begs to be explored. Slide a wood barn door over a few inches and you’ll reveal a pantry. Climb up a library-style ladder to collapse onto a queen-size bed on a 70-square-foot loft. But be careful not to sit up or you’ll bump your head on the wood paneled ceiling.
These units are a far cry from the Middle America, steel-clad trailer homes. They are luxury hideaways, with some featuring wall-mounted flat screen TVs, washer/dryer combos, sleek kitchen appliances and a tile shower with a rain showerhead.
Each home has its own personality. New this season is the “Hobbit House,” a 170-square-foot home that looks like it’s straight out of Middle Earth. Fake leaves and vines top the wood paneled cottage. Enter through a circular door to reveal a kitchen with a four-burner electrical stove/oven, and a staircase with an intricately carved wood handrail leading up to a cozy sleeping loft. Nearby sits the 26-foot “PA Dutch” home with butcher block countertops, an indigo tile back splash, a large porcelain sink and air conditioning.
The outdoor common areas make for a glamorous campground. Brightly colored Adirondack chairs and picnic tables surround fire pits on the neatly manicured lawn. Look up and strings of lights vie for attention with stars overhead.
La Junta, Colorado-based Sprout, a three-year-old custom tiny home building company, provides the majority of the tiny homes and, back in 2015, agreed to build eight units for WeeCasa.
“They were a startup, we are a startup, I thought it was worth the risk,” says Rod Stambaugh, Sprout founder. “We took a 50% down payment, built 8 units and delivered them, and we financed that on a monthly basis to WeeCasa.”
Stambaugh says Sprouts’ smallest homes start at about $64,000, and bigger homes cost about $115,000. Today, those initial eight units are paid for free and clear, as is a ninth unit built by another tiny home builder.
But securing the financing to buy the tiny homes was a bit of a challenge. Banks and financial institutions will often only give financing for homes with certain building certifications, Waugh says. Until last year, there were no tiny house building standards for insurers or financial institutes to confidently underwrite financing for, he says.
Both WeeCasa and Sprout paired up with Littleton, Colorado-based Mercury Leasing, LLC, which partners with banks to provide financing for commercial customers and vendors.
For individuals, finding financing is more difficult. “From a financial point of view, you expect tiny home, tiny cost and that’s not necessarily the case,” says Todd Light, owner of Mercury Leasing, which won’t offer loans to individuals.
LightStream, a division of SunTrust bank, is one of the few, if only, financial institutions that offers tiny home financing and loans, says LightStream Business Development Officer Todd Nelson. The bank offers unsecured loans to tiny home owners with good credit from $5,000 to $100,000 with a 3.24% to 10.59% interest rate.
“For this unsecured product, historically, it’s always been the loan of last resort,” Nelson says. “You can go to your bank and get an attractive rate for a mortgage or a loan for a car. But if you say you want to buy money unsecured that doesn’t fit into predetermined categories, they say, ‘We don’t give out loans for that.’”