Thinking small: Compact, cheaper living in 'tiny houses'

Some fit their life into a couple hundred square feet - or less

May 09, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Greg Cantori plans to downsize when he retires. Really, really downsize.

His retirement home is 238 square feet — one-tenth the size of the average new American house — and sits in his Anne Arundel County yard. He and wife Renee can hitch it to a truck and take it with them wherever they go.

"It's so cheap — that's what's so cool about this," said Cantori, 52, who envisions a surf-and-turf future, alternating between the house and a sailboat. "We bought the house for $19,000. We can live an extraordinary life for very little money."

It's an example of the "tiny house" movement, which has collected a small but growing — and passionate — group of adherents. Some like the freedom from a big mortgage and high energy bills. Some, the freedom from roomfuls of stuff. And some see it as a promising option for workers whose rent overwhelms their paychecks.

Tiny houses fall into two categories. Some, like Cantori's, are technically travel trailers — tagged and road-ready. Others have foundations and aren't going anywhere.

The houses usually manage a lot of function in a little bit of space — kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, laundry room — and they're often cute to boot. Gables. Wood siding. Even porches.

"These are beautiful works of art," said Joe Coover with Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., a California firm that sells tiny homes — as small as 65 square feet — and tiny-home designs.

U.S. houses got bigger for decades, ballooning from just under 1,700 square feet in the early 1970s to 2,500 square feet last year, even as household sizes shrunk, according to Census Bureau figures. But the housing crash, foreclosure crisis and rough recession have pressed some to think differently about how much space they need. And a house you can move with you has a certain appeal to anyone stuck in a place worth less than its mortgage.

But whether you can actually live in a tiny home depends on more than your ability to pare down your possessions. Location matters. Zoning, building codes, health codes and even private covenants in subdivisions can effectively render a tiny house illegal.

In the eyes of the law, there's such a thing as too small. Some jurisdictions bar people from living in travel trailers, too, no matter what they look like.

"That's the No. 1 issue — zoning," said Steven Harrell, owner of Tiny House Listings (, where 20,000 to 50,000 people visit per day to check out tiny houses for sale. "There are a lot of people advocating, 'Hey, what's the big deal? Why don't you ease square-foot [regulations]?' Times have changed, the economy has changed, people are having to make choices. And tiny houses are one of them."

Baltimoreans can't live in a travel-trailer tiny home, or any other sort of travel trailer. But modest foundation-built houses are allowed in the city as long as their width is 16 feet at minimum. Also required: one room of at least 120 square feet, a kitchen — which can be in that room — and a separate bathroom.

"You're asking how little can you get, and the answer is 'pretty small,' " said Michael Braverman, the city's deputy commissioner of code enforcement.

He doesn't think Baltimore has any super-tiny homes, but there's a 1950s-era cottage in Roland Park that's not much more than 500 square feet.

Fronda Cohen, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County, said anyone hoping to live in a tiny house would want to call the planning department with a specific location in mind, because rules vary by zoning.

"You probably could build the house," she said, but you would need to sort through all the rules to be certain.

In Washington, advocates hope to make inroads on rules affecting small residences as officials overhaul zoning regulations. Three tiny-home enthusiasts are building examples in an alley lot as a showcase — not to live in, because they can't. (Their homes fall in the travel-trailer category.)

Brian Levy, part of that group, thinks small places in a pricey city make sense — either alone on tiny lots or sharing a bigger parcel as an "accessory" structure.

"There's all these empty spaces around the city," said Levy, who lives in a Washington rowhouse near the lot he's building on. "If you take an aerial photo [and look at certain parts of D.C.] … it's striking that about 50 percent of the land is open space in the backyard. And right now, you can't build anything back there."

The alley-building group, dubbed Boneyard Studios because the lot borders a graveyard, wants to get people thinking about the possibilities — and seeing what small looks like. Levy thinks that's important because "trailer" conjures up deep-seated, knee-jerk reactions.

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