In recent years, we have seen a slight increase in inquiries from folks interested in tiny house living. I presume this is because:
- Since 2008/2009, there has been an increase in people deciding that stuff and debt got them (or their parents) in trouble and they are seeking simpler, less expensive living options
- The influx of TV shows about tiny house living makes it look really cool
Now, let me start of by saying that those that are embracing tiny houses and those that embrace full-time RV living often have very similar ultimate goals such as simpler, less expensive, less consumer-driven living that also happens to be "greener" than living in the average house in the U.S.A.
However, as full-time RVers for over a decade, naturally we will be biased toward RVs. And we were having trouble figuring out exactly why someone would choose a tiny house over an RV. So, before I sat down to write this post, I did quite a bit of research on tiny houses to educate myself and try to fairly present pros and cons of each.
I found articles that provided "characteristics" of those that live in tiny houses, and many of those characteristics apply to full-time RVers. In this article "What Is The Number One Indicator Of Someone Actually Going Tiny?", almost all of the responses from tiny house experts could be written about full-time RVers.
Not surprisingly, there are a lot of articles out there asking the question "Why not just live in a RV?". The most compelling answer is that most tiny house folks are looking to live in their small dwelling in one location semi-permanently or permanently, and their intended location may not be suitable year-round for an RV.
Tiny houses can be built with stronger, more durable material, and better insulation to withstand colder winters and higher winds. Some say that they like the fact tiny houses can be customized more than RVs so they are more functional for the persons that will be living in it, and that the customization makes them visually more appealing on the outside (the term "cute" is often used).
But if people prefer tiny houses over RVs if staying put, why are so many built on trailers? Well, I wish I could say most are built on trailers for the mobility or the desire to be able to move the tiny house across the country in the case of a job change or other such circumstances. But the truth is they are built on trailers mostly to avoid building codes and zoning restrictions. From the article "Is A Tiny House Just An RV In Disguise?"
It turns out that your question — why not just buy an RV? — is a common one for the tiny-house curious. There are several reasons why not, which we’ll get to in a moment, but first, a quick explanation of why these houses are often on wheels. It’s not for mobility; rather, they’re wheeled to better swerve around local building codes that dictate minimum square footage or other requirements. If it has wheels, you see, it’s not technically a house. If your primary reason for seeking an incredible shrinking home is for travel, you’re better off with a lighter, more aerodynamic RV.
The tiny house websites are honest stating that if the goal is travel, an RV is a better solution. RVs are designed for travel, though many designed for full-timers are not at all "lighter" than a tiny home on wheels. It's also important to point out that building a tiny house on wheels limits the options of construction to the width of the trailer (maximum 8.5 feet wide or a special permit is needed to move it). Height also becomes an issue as upward expansion is limited by the statutory 13.5 - 14 feet of most low clearances.
A big pro cited for tiny houses is the building material, and the fact that the RV industry uses more toxic materials in their lower-priced units that aren't designed to be lived in (and some higher-end units as well). In my opinion, this is somewhat overstated because in tiny house vs RV comparisons, the RV used in the comparisons is almost always a small, vacation-style travel trailer that is not designed to be lived in. The travel trailer being compared is often lighter weight and far less expensive than a tiny house. Here is one such article on the Green Builder website which uses a small travel trailer to make the claim - "Tiny Houses Are Cool, But An RV Lifestyle May Be Greener".
If I were promoting tiny houses, I would compare them to larger RVs designed more for full-time living which can be far more expensive and far heavier. But perhaps that reduces the toxic materials argument - I don't know.
At any rate, tiny house living has more hurdles than RV living. From the The Tiny Life website - The Top Five Biggest Barriers To The Tiny House Movement:
- Social Pressures
The land and laws barriers are intermingled. The biggest issue for tiny houses is where they can be built or placed. If you want a tiny house on a foundation, then where are you going to put it? If you own a lot or land within municipal limits or within a designated community, there are often minimum square footage building restrictions to make sure all the houses within the regulated area are of similar size so there is no diminution in property values. There are also building codes and other zoning restrictions.
Many tiny house enthusiasts want cheaper living closer to town so they have plenty of resources and activities nearby. However, the closer to town, the more expensive real estate is and the more likely it will be to run into building code, permit, and zoning issues. But just because you may have land in a rural area doesn't mean you won't run into some of the same problems. And it is a bit disturbing that many tiny house websites talk about limiting visibility and being out of the sight of code enforcement officials or nosy neighbors.
Again, that's why many tiny houses are built on trailers. It avoids many of the building code issues because then it's not a "house". But there are still restrictions on where you can park a trailer and what can legally be considered a "dwelling". Some places allow a temporary structure known as an "accessory dwelling unit" or ADU to be placed on property that already has a legal house, but many of such allowances require that the dwelling unit be used for a specific purpose such as providing care to an elderly or disabled person in the main house.
Also, just because a tiny house is built on a trailer doesn't mean it will be allowed to park in places where RVs are allowed such as campgrounds and RV parks. Often those places have the option of not allowing anything other than true RVs.
Of course, many tiny houses are now being built by RV industry certified manufacturers, so they can be given an RV designation. Interestingly, most websites I visited defined a tiny house as 400 square feet or less which happens to be the size designated in 1982 by HUD to help distinguish an RV from a "manufactured home" which has more stringent building code requirements. However, having an RV designation still doesn't mean they have to be allowed by private park owners.
Of course, most public campgrounds have one to two-week stay limits, so they aren't usually an option for long-term living in a tiny house or an RV, and I think public campgrounds are still quite confused as to how they are to deal with tiny houses on wheels so I suspect there is inconsistent handling across the country.
Now, even if you have a tiny house on wheels and it has an RV designation, that still doesn't mean that you can always use it on even your own private land. We have discovered many counties, even rural counties, where you are not allowed to "live" in your RV on your own property.
Some RV owners travel from place to place and do what we call "stealth camping" to park for free in various places where it may be legal, illegal, or a gray area. The stays are usually quite short. But, as mentioned previously, tiny houses on trailers are not great for moving from place to place frequently, and they certainly aren't "stealthy".
The good news for tiny house folks, is that there are tiny house communities popping up in various places across the country and zoning laws are starting to change (ever so slowly). In my research, I found some older RV parks that are converting to tiny house communities and getting zoned for such use. I saw one that was clearly a former KOA and it appeared they cut a row of pull-through sites in half, to create more sites (half the size) for tiny houses. Now whether or not those communities are in areas where tiny house people want to live remains to be seen.
Getting a tiny house financed is another problem. Apparently, traditional lenders aren't all that anxious to lend as they don't find tiny houses to be valuable collateral, which may negate any theory that re-sale values might be higher than for RVs. Tiny houses built by RV manufacturers tend to have a bit more luck, as those are financed through the equivalent of an RV loan. However, the best option seems to be save up, self-fund, and pay cash.
Full-time RVers can also run into difficulties with financing. Lenders are just funny about mobile collateral where the borrowers aren't tied to a location where they can be tracked down easily.
The barriers of Social Pressure and Fear as discussed in the article I linked to above are very similar to what full-time RVers go through in their decision-making and transition phases.
This is one of the better Frequently Asked Questions pages I found - Tiny House Frequently Asked Questions. It's from a tiny house design website, and I think it does a good job of bringing up a variety of issues.
Here is an article from October 2016 called "Giant Hurdles For Tiny Homes". It talks about some of the land, zoning, building, and financing issues I mentioned above and how sales have cooled for some. It discusses how some tiny house sellers are having to get creative and morph into providing units to different markets or modifying the products for different uses.
I also just did a quick internet search to see if I could get a feel for tiny house information versus full-time RVing information. It certainly seems that tiny houses are still hot on the web. I also did a search using the term "nightmare" with "tiny house" and "full-time RVing". That exercise has no statistical conclusion, but it was interesting. Give it a try.
So, on one hand, us full-time RVers have a lot in common with those that want to live in tiny houses, but most of us intend to be quite a bit more mobile. Our "houses" are built for mobility and the places where we can stay have been well-established for years and years. Often our homes on wheels are larger and more comfortable on the inside, but the size, features, and mobility may come with a much heftier price tag than a tiny house.
The bottom line, in my opinion, is this.
If you want to compare tiny house living with RV living with the intent of being mobile, an RV wins hands down. The more travel the greater the gap and the less travel the lesser the gap.
If you want to compare tiny house living with RV living where the intent is to remain stationary, the tiny house may or may not win depending on your budget, the climate, whether or not financing is necessary, and whether or not you can actually, legally put your tiny house or your RV where you want it.
Either way, the main thing is to educate yourself and know what you are getting into before making a mistake. On the RV side, that's why we're here. :) But once you've done your research and homework, where there is a will, there is a way. And we wish you nothing but the best in whatever decision you make.