April 18, 2019
Welcome to our very first #AskTheDreamTeam Q&A blog post!! We are stoked to be kicking off this initiative with such an amazing group of people who are eager to answer your toughest (or silliest) tiny living questions!
This week, we are responding to one of the most common questions regarding tiny houses—should I build a tiny house myself or buy a tiny house from a builder?
There is no right or wrong answer, and it will ultimately come down to your budget and timeline. We suggest taking some notes while reading the answers to jot down what points stand out to you. Grab a sheet of paper and draw 4 quadrants—pros of buying, cons of buying, pros of building, and cons of building!
So sit back, grab your favorite cup of Joe, take some notes, and enjoy!
If you have time to spare, then you can custom build your tiny home exactly to your taste and needs. Keep in mind that most professional builders work on a 12-week minimum timeline (ours took about 16 weeks), and some DIY builds can take up to 2 years, depending how much time you can set aside to work on the house. If you are on a time crunch, buying a tiny home is going to seem really attractive.
We found prices to be quite comparable between new builds (from a professional builder) and used tiny homes. DIY tiny houses can be much cheaper, but hopefully you planned your schedule accordingly and have the space to work on it, let alone the know-how.
In just moving into our brand-new house, I think the biggest pro to buying a house that has already been lived in is that if it was taken care of, a lot of the kinks should be sorted out already. If you are new to tiny living, there may be a lot of unexpected bumps in a new build that may take some breaking in.
On the other hand, when you build a tiny house or hire a builder, you will have a say in the entire design, and you will know that the functionality of the home will be perfect for you.
When we started our process in early 2014 we watched as many YouTube videos as we could and thought we got a good sense of what it would take to self-build and what cost it would be to do it ourselves. We wanted our tiny house to be 28 feet long. For this size, we kept seeing a number of around $35,000, and only a few months to build it ourselves.
Awesome, sign us up for that! That’s cheaper than some cars. Who cares that we’ve never built a house or even a small shed, for that price we’ll make it work. How hard can it really be? It is tiny after all.
Oh, if only it was going to be that easy, but we learned that deciding between building yourself or having one built for you was far less complicated than we originally thought. After all, you want to simplify, not complicate, your life, right? Well, we will start from the foundation of the trailer and go from there.
Building from scratch is the most involved but the most rewarding of any other options available. No matter the challenges that lie ahead, the feeling of accomplishment cannot be compared to anything else. The biggest advantage of doing the complete build yourself is that you can go at your own pace and not stray too far from your budget.
You can truly pay as you go, which is something that would not be available in the other option of having someone build for you.
You will also learn by doing, which we feel is one of the best ways to learn any skill. You can read up on the techniques that you would need to build a house and putting those skills into practice is the most rewarding experience.
You will make mistakes—you will make lots of them—but that is the beauty of learning, and these mistakes, no matter how costly they may be in wasted materials, will never be forgotten. You can then pass on the things you have learned to other people looking to go down the same path that you chose to simplify your life.
With tiny house builders popping up all over the country, it is easy to see that the movement is growing and the ability to find a reputable contractor to build your tiny house is getting easier.
Hiring a contractor to completely build your tiny house just for you is the easiest option available, but this easy option does come with a large price tag. Most custom tiny house builders charge from $45,000 for smaller 18’ tiny houses and up to well past $150,000 for the custom style ones you have likely seen on TV.
One of the biggest downsides we have seen with ordering a complete tiny house through a builder is space planning and practical design. There are virtually no builders out there that actually live in a tiny house, so there is a major disconnect with space planning. We have yet to meet a builder or owner of a tiny house company that has ever slept a night in one of their tiny houses.
Many builders may feel they understand what the customer wants in their design, and it may look great on the Pinterest boards, but so many custom tiny houses we see lack practical space planning for long-term living in a tiny house. Sometimes we joke about the real reasons we see tiny houses built on TV shows pop up for sale almost immediately after the show airs is due purely to poor space planning and layout.
The Australian Tiny House market is minimal and a reasonably new industry. There are not many tiny homes available for sale, so finding an established home that meets individual requirements is very difficult. Therefore, most people choose to build their own home or hire a professional to build it for them.
With absolutely no building knowledge or skills and a limited timeframe, I am very pleased with my decision to hire a professional builder to build my tiny house. I approached a tiny house builder who was open to my input and modifications at every stage of the build. Hiring a professional builder gave me piece of mind around the quality of the build. He was an experienced builder who had built several tiny homes before.
Although it would have ended up costing me more than a DIY build, I found comfort seeing that the quality of the finish was excellent and the home was completed within a planned time frame.
Building your tiny home yourself, as a DIY builder, would be a very rewarding experience. There are many stories of unqualified people building their own beautiful, professionally finished tiny homes from scratch. With online tutorials and manuals available, the challenge of a DIY build may take you a significant amount time (not to mention the blood, sweat and tears), but is very achievable, will ensure it is custom built to your exact needs, and will save you a lot of money.
Each tiny home journey is so unique, but we knew that for us, designing and building ourselves would be an adventure in and of itself—and that we’d have the memories (good and bad!) to last us a lifetime.
And it’s true. It is still such a surreal feeling when we’re sitting down at night reading or watching a movie, enjoying a glass of wine, and looking around in awe, thinking: wow, we built this. It’s especially crazy when we look back at photos of an empty trailer sitting in the woods just two years ago, and now there’s an entire home built atop. It’s pretty incredible to consider how much we can do with our own hands.
We looked up to a lot of the early tiny house builders and trailblazers such as Dee Williams, and had done at least a year of research - including reading and scouring YouTube - and had a fairly good idea of what we wanted in and from our home.
In addition to minimizing and downsizing, we’re part of the FiRe movement (Financial Independence, Retiring Early) and as such, thought that from an economic standpoint, we’d have more control over the expenses and costs if we built ourselves, plus we’d save on labor if we DIY’d it. Our home certainly isn’t the least expensive tiny house to ever have been built, but because we weren’t on a strict timeline and could pay for materials as we went along, we could save more than if we had the home built.
One of the cons is that it does take a lot longer if you’re doing it yourself while working full-time jobs, as we were/are. Neither of us is in construction, though we learned a lot working on DIY projects at our first home; but Todd had to learn how to wire and set up our electrical which was nerve-wracking!
We also had to learn to be patient—you want your home to be finished, but you want it done right, and every project seems to take about three times as long as you imagine it will! Our home isn’t entirely finished yet (but close; we’re finishing our bathroom this month) and our build started in June of 2017—so it’ll be close to two years of time from start to completion.
We bought our tiny house from TruForm Tiny, and went through the design process with them. For us, buying a custom tiny house was the right fit, for a few primary reasons - both time and money. Geography can affect each of those things.
We knew we wanted to transition to tiny living in about 6 months, and asked TruForm to start building 3 months before we wanted it. We both worked full time, and had a newborn baby, living in the expensive city of Cambridge, MA. Rent in the Boston area (like many coastal and urban areas) is crazy, and it’s difficult to find the space necessary to build a tiny. Let alone the time to do it when working full-time, etc.
Buying tiny allowed us to avoid finding and renting a workspace, the cost of tools, etc. It also allowed us to get out of our 2-bedroom apartment months earlier (if not a year) than it would have if we were self-building. When rent is over $2,300 / month this can actually save you tens of thousands of dollars.
Additionally, buying tiny from a reputable and certified (RVIA) builder made it easy for us get a really great loan. Being completely debt-free was never the primary goal for us. Having a safe and beautiful custom home, at a great value was. We were able to get a 15-year loan at 5%, which is pretty good.
The cost of self-building can mean putting large expenses on credit cards with higher rates, or unsecured loans which have both higher rates and shorter loan periods. Even with a monthly RV payment (“mortgage”), the loan rates and terms mean that we can still set aside savings, given that we are paying less to own than half of what we paid to rent.
From what we’ve heard from other clients, it seems that professionally built homes retain their value. We know of at least three TruForm tinys that have re-sold for at or slightly above their new cost. In that vein, our home today would cost tens of thousands more to build than it did just 2 years ago.
So, while you don’t build equity in the same way, you may still see a return on your investment, or at least not a substantial loss - particularly compared to renting in expensive markets.
Our tiny house was built by a professional builder and we helped out where we could by doing the tiling, painting, staining and sanding. We were lucky to find a builder who was happy to work with us by allowing us to do some of the work ourselves. We both work full time jobs and didn’t have much building knowledge so it made sense for us to hire a builder to build our home.
We were also renting at the time and needing our tiny home completed quickly so we could stop paying rent. We believe the saving we would have created by building our home ourselves would have been wasted on paying rent.
We spent a lot of our time sourcing cheaper materials for the build which saved us a lot of money.
We still got a buzz from going to see the house being built at all of its stages and helping doing the finishing touches. We also have the peace of mind that it was built to a very high standard by a professional.
Such a good question! We knew from the start that building our own tiny house was the route for us and here is why.
A huge appeal to the whole tiny house thing for Michael, was to build it himself. He wanted to be involved, he wanted to get his hands dirty, he wanted to figure out each and every step we needed to take.
For him it was a challenge and that was the most exciting part for him, as he is such a creator and problem solver. It was incredible to be able to watch his brain work throughout our build and to see how he came up with solutions and ideas and then put them all into action. He is my hero and I was beyond impressed with his ability to build this house for us, with my help and guidance of course! Lol.
The other main reason we decided to build our own tiny house versus buying one was because we knew it would change our lives. We now have a house that we wake up to every single day knowing that every single screw, every cut, every decision was all us.
We feel so lucky to have done this. It strengthened our relationship, it brought tears, both good and bad, it brought such happiness and pure joy. It taught us so much! From qualities in ourselves to how to run electricity through your walls, to how to work side by side with one another, and even to how to be present in the moment and take things day by day.
One thing with your own build is that you never know what’s coming next. Things don’t go as planned all the time. But I am so proud of us for rolling with the punches and I can’t help but cry just thinking about it because we did this—just him and I. And that is something we will hold onto forever.
There’s a saying when it comes to construction projects: ‘There are three things you want a project to be - cheap, fast, and good. But you can only ever pick two.’
So, your options are: 1. If it’s cheap and fast, it’s not going to be done well. 2. If it’s fast and good, it will cost you. 3. Or, if it’s cheap and good, it will take a while to finish.
Let’s assume that no one wants to go with Option 1. In my mind, the buy verses build decision comes down to whether you want to go with Option 2 or Option 3.
Truthfully, I could write pages upon pages about this, because it is a huge topic! But I’ll try and keep it relatively succinct here, with some easy to digest pros and cons.
Good luck on your journey!
For us, this was an easy decision.
In the time frame that we wanted to move out of the big house into our tiny, we had a slim chance of building the home ourselves or having it built. We had about 90 days.
Our home was 80% finished when we found it, and we added a couple of features that were specific to our needs. We definitely got lucky with such a gorgeous build, and were happy with the design overall. The small touches we added were a space for Oliver’s litter, some lighting, and a flush toilet instead of compost.
A huge pro for buying a tiny house is letting the professionals do the work. We aren’t builders, so we thought it would be best for us to find someone who is. One con to buying a tiny house is not having the freedom in design. If you choose to build a tiny yourself, you can get exactly what you want. You can also likely save a lot of cash if you opt to build your home yourself.
Overall, this decision depends on the time frame you are working with, your specific needs, and your budget. I felt we made the right choice.
So far, we've only ever bought.
Since our primary goal was to quickly flip our annual $30,000 rental expense into a housing investment, we didn't want the extra time involved in building it ourselves. Moving into a tiny house also carries some risk from uncertainty, and we didn't want to add even more risk by having to build for ourselves.
To the savvy consumer, working with an established builder also means you can leverage your builder's existent media presence. Letting brand partners know that we were working with New Frontier gave us a big leg-up on securing sponsored goods for our new home.
At the same time, we're now looking to set up our second tiny house and we're really interested in building our own. Our two biggest motivations: cost and control. We loved working with David, our builder, but we'd like to keep our next house even tighter to our specifications. Building for yourself is the only way to completely control the design.
We also think that we can cut upfront costs by about half. Of course, we'd put in a lot of our own labor instead, but we'd have a lot more freedom to find sponsors and eliminate the builder margin.
Overall, I'd probably recommend that first-time buyers work with a builder, but it's completely dependent on your personal goals for the project.
Brandon and I both have always been handy people, BUT never had we built an entire HOME, large or tiny!
Before we decided if we could build a tiny house, we drove a couple hours away and stayed in one overnight. (Of course, we dreamed up this big idea of building a tiny house ourselves before we’d ever even seen one in person!)
We knew that if we could see one in person, then we would KNOW for sure that we could build a tiny house or not. Literally, within the first 5 minutes we were inside of that tiny house, Brandon and I looked at each other and said, “we can build a tiny house!”
If you are thinking of building a tiny house yourself, here are a few thoughts:
Building your own tiny house is less expensive because you don’t pay for labor and you can customize your design. But you need a build site, power tools, some help, some knowledge and skills or lots of guts if you don’t, and it will take forever (more than 6 months is forever).
Buying a tiny house means you’ll have it in less than 6 months and the process is less stressful. But it is more expensive, you can’t fully customize it (the builder will say no to some of your quirks) and you’ll miss out on all the fun.
I did both. I customized the design of my tiny house based on my builder’s template, I helped in the actual build and I let them do the hard stuff. I stayed within my budget, the tiny house was completed in less than 3 months and I didn’t miss out on all the fun. In summary, I had the best of both worlds. You can read about it in my blog.
We engaged an architect to help us design our home and a friend to build it for us with Dan project managing.
For us, we had one chance to get it right. So, to design and build our own home to our specifications outweighed the cons. Yes, we wish we didn’t go over budget – but the extended build time has been forgotten and we now have a home we love.
Even if you have no experience, you can do it! Just know that it will likely be one of the most challenging and rewarding projects of your life. A DIY tiny house build will always take longer than you think it will. This was true for us and many other DIYers we’ve met. Originally, we thought it would take three to four months to complete.
It took us nine months to build our tiny house, and would have taken at least double the amount of time if Christian, our primary builder, wasn’t able to work full-time on it. When every waking moment is spent building, it takes a toll on your relationships. Keep that in mind when you try to decide if DIYing is right for you.
There’s much to consider when trying to decide if building your own tiny house is feasible. Access to available land, tools and a support group are crucial to success of DIY builds. If you don’t have building skills, research and prep will make a huge difference. The good news is there are more great online resources and workshops than ever before.
In addition to having a place to build, you’ll need a place to store materials. A great way to save money is to keep an eye out for free, low-cost or discounted materials on Craigslist or at a local salvage yard. We saved a couple thousand dollars with the many salvaged and reclaimed materials in our build—from an old farmhouse, Habitat ReStore and trees fallen in a tornado. Processing these materials was labor intensive and time-consuming.
Ultimately, our tiny house build cost approximately $20,000. That’s only about half or more of what similar professional build would have cost us. Consider a shell, if you want hands-on experience with almost unlimited customization. The best part, the builder will complete some of the most difficult tasks for you!
Are you more inclined to buy a tiny house from a builder or DIY build one yourself? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
If you'd like to submit a question for next week's Q&A series, be sure to tune in to our Instagram Stories every Thursday night to ask away!
September 13, 2019 30 Comments
September 13, 2019 2 Comments
My name is Alan—founder at Dream Big Live Tiny Co! A few years ago, I quit my consulting job to pursue a life full of adventure. After traveling around the world for a year, I sold most of my stuff and moved into an 160-sqft tiny house. Now I spend most of my time showcasing incredible people living with less in pursuit of more freedom, as well as incredible tiny houses around the world!
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