After hearing all the hype about tiny homes — the TV shows, lifestyle websites and magazine photo spreads — Lee Saenz decided that building the dinky dwellings would make a great part of his second career.
He formed a company called Adventure Cabins and began building little houses with rustic pine exteriors and state-of-the-art interiors. All that was left, Saenz believed, was for viewers of shows like HGTV’s “Tiny House Hunters” to beat a path to his San Bernardino workshop.
But after five years in business, Saenz has sold only five cabins. Two sit ready to go, with one marked down from $50,000 to just $29,000.
“There are so many roadblocks out there to selling them,” said Saenz, 75. “If they want to buy it, they don’t have the land. If they have the land, it’s not zoned for a tiny home. Or they don’t have enough cash.”
At first glance, the tiny home movement seems like a perfect multipurpose solution. Often priced at $50,000 or lower, they could be affordable to millennials burdened with student debt and baby boomers with skimpy retirement savings.
Tiny homes usually range from 100 square feet to 400 square feet, but they can be as small as 80 square feet (think garden shed) or as large as 700 square feet (roughly a three-car garage). Home shoppers concerned about climate change like that lighting, heating and cooling a tiny house has a minimal impact compared to a more typical 2,000-square-foot house.
But getting there is the difficult part. It’s not a bust, but there is certainly no boom as far as many builders are concerned.
Tiny homes, according to a 2015 analysis by the Pew Charitable Trust, are “cheap and energy efficient,” but “lost in the enthusiasm is the fact that in many places, it is hard to live in them legally.”
Finding land is difficult, particularly in densely developed communities with strict zoning laws on the number and size of units allowed. Vacant land must be carefully investigated for back taxes and liens. In places like drought-stricken California, there can also be building moratoriums.
Insurance is another complication since the trusted companies able to obtain it with relative ease are often RV builders.
Financing, typically one of the least fun experiences of buying a regular home, can be even more problematic. Some tiny home builders offer it, but many do not.
Saenz has no trouble getting customers financed in his primary business making food carts, industrial grills and portable sinks. But “I haven’t been able to find it for the cabins,” he said.
Most difficult of all, experts say, are laws in many cities and counties that mandate new single-family homes must be at least 1,000 square feet in size.
Many tiny homes are built on trailers, but that mobility can run afoul of local government restrictions on overnight parking or “camping” on one’s own land for more than 30 days. Even in some places where indefinite camping is allowed, it can be rare to be allowed to install utilities…
“It’s a revolution that probably won’t happen.”
— Steven Marshall, founder of Little House on the Trailer in Petaluma