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Price Check: What It Costs To Live Small

Story image for Tiny Homes from GOOD Magazine

Tiny houses.

We all love them, with their wee-size frames fit for a forest gnome and their Instagram-worthy décor that makes us want to throw away all our belongings—except for one decorative pillow, three books by Jack Kerouac, and forty-five potted succulents.

We also love them for their supposed cost effectiveness. Many of us daydream about the simple and inexpensive lifestyle these houses can offer: no more rent or mortgage payments; no more debt; no more living paycheck to paycheck.

These days, Americans are spending up to half their income on their homes—the average price of which is $309,200 (though don’t forget to include interest, taxes, and repairs). It can take decades for a family to pay off the loans for the roof above their head, or even in some cases, their $146,000 mobile home. The tiny house movement definitely has its allure—but are micro homes truly as cheap as they are chalked up to be?

As someone who has been intrigued by tiny houses for a long time, I’m curious—especially because I’ve seen more and more “tiny homes” listed at $500,000, like this bungalow in Brooklyn or this minimansion in Maryland. So, I went in search of tiny house minimalists across the country to get the real scoop on what it’s like to live small.

Materials: $15,000 to $30,000

The average cost of a tiny house is roughly $23,000. But to keep this number low, owners typically have to maintain a square footage of 186 square feet—which is smaller than most people’s master bedrooms—and build their own home with mostly salvaged materials, such as reclaimed windows or flooring.

Each home begins with the frame, which, depending on whether you want to be stationary or mobile, can be a foundation or wheels—both cost around the same ($10,000-$15,000). The standards of every tiny home include: doors ($500-$1000/each), windows ($100-$500 each), flooring and shelving ($5-$10 per square foot), and cabinets ($100-$650 per linear foot). After adding up the framework, tools ($1,000), plumbing ($2,000), electrical ($500) appliances ($1,000-$4,000) and other odds and ends, the costs for the most basic home typically range from $15,000 to $25,000—which is a higher cost per square foot than a conventional house, but cheaper overall. A 186-square foot house built for $25,000 will cost $134 per square foot, while the average 2600-square foot house built for $300,000 will run you $115 per square foot.

Filmmaker and tiny house dweller Christopher Carson Smith anticipated spending $15,000 on his 124-square foot home in Boulder, Colorado, but ended up dishing out $26,000. He admits that he probably could’ve spent even less by finding more used materials, but when you’re building your home with your bare hands, time and energy becomes a valued commodity. “You can get a free hardwood floor if you’re willing to remove it from somewhere else,” Smith says, recommending Craigslist, PlanetReuse, or nearby demolition sites.

In order to stay around his $25,000 budget, Alek Lisefski, who works at a consulting group for  tiny house rookies, had to build the 160-square-foot home himself—while working a full-time job. “It’s a big commitment to take on a project like this, Lisefski says. “It was challenging physically and emotionally. I was working nearly full-time while building, and taking every evening and full weekends to build. It was an exhausting routine.” Alek ended up spending roughly $30,000, which included the cost of the trailer ($3,500), windows and doors ($5,500), roofing and siding ($4,000) and “all the nice stainless appliances” he wanted for his “dream house” ($3,500).

If building your own home sounds like too cumbersome of a task, you have two options: buy a completed home or contract a builder to customize your home for you. A basic completed home from the most popular builder in the industry,Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, will run you about $62,000, while a contractor will average at about $35,000. There are many pros to doing both—mostly not losing a lot of time and energy doing it yourself, but Lifeski recommends doing your research carefully before buying. “Make sure you find former customers and personally check with [them] to make sure they are happy