Apr 4, 2017 · 9 minute read

By: Colleen Valles

Tiny homes are getting big. Big in the national psyche, that is, not big physically.

More and more people are becoming aware of them, watching TV shows about them, and looking into what it takes to live in one. A quick search for “tiny house” on Amazon shows 1,142 titles in books alone. While their popularity is growing in the “isn’t-that-cool” category, they’re still pretty fringe in the “I-actually-live-in-one” category. Put another way, they’re still in the early-adopter phase, that place where the cool kids start doing something before most people even know about it.

For most stuff, I’m not an early adopter. I’m kind of a middle-of-the-pack adopter: I’m not one of those people who knows about things before everyone else, but I’m generally not too late to the game.

But like many people, tiny houses caught my fancy. And as I live in one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States, visions of owning my own home, even a tiny one, danced in my head: I could provide stability for my kids! I could help out my parents! I could cut down on commute time! I could save money on rent, and in four years, I could own it outright!

So I stepped out of my comfort zone and into early adoption. I met with a builder, borrowed lots of money and got started on my own custom tiny house.

tiny kitchen
This is the tiny but mighty kitchen in our tiny house. It even has an oven!

Seven months later, in January of this year, I took delivery of The Escargot, a yellow tiny house that I was to park in my parents’ back yard. We had talked to the neighbors, who were OK with the idea, and curious about tiny homes.

While I became an early adopter, the city I live in isn’t. There are no provisions for living in tiny homes on wheels in Silicon Valley. The general consensus is they’re something to pursue for homeless people, but not for those in-betweeners — the people who aren’t homeless, but who are rent burdened, meaning they spend too much of their paychecks on rent, and therefore can’t put enough money away to save up a 20 percent down payment on a $600,000 fixer-upper. (Sometimes they don’t have enough money left over after rent to pay for food or transportation. It’s a broad spectrum, and thankfully I’m not on that end of it, but for too many in this area, the choice between paying for rent or food or getting to work is real.)

So I dipped into my savings and had an RV hookup put in — the tiny house is a trailer after all. I figured if all went well, we could live in the house for a few years, then move it when we needed to. Yes, I was operating under the radar of local ordinance. Yes, I knew it was a risk. All early adoption is. I just didn’t expect it to blow up quite as fast as it did. We got the house in the back yard on Tuesday. On Friday, I came into my parents’ house to find a code enforcement inspector there. I was to learn later that the neighbors behind us changed their minds and decided they didn’t like the house after all.

This meant that before we could even move in, I had to deal with a violation. As it turns out, because it’s a trailer with a license plate, The Escargot could stay there, but we couldn’t live in it, and the RV hookup had to go.

Since owning, but not living in a tiny house is completely beside the point, I had to figure out what to do next. There are other places to put it, but none that work for us, so after much worry, lots of sleepless nights and almost all of my savings that took years to accumulate, I had to move it out of the back yard, pay the city for a permit to remove the RV hookup, and I’m now selling The Escargot. Brand new, never lived in. Know anyone who wants a tiny house?

view from master
A view of the bathroom, kitchen and high loft from the master bedroom in the tiny house.

So that’s the update on the tiny house situation. My one foray into early adoption blew up in my face, cost me tens of thousands of dollars, lots of heartache and So. Much. Work.

I am not telling you this so you feel sorry for me. I took a risk, and it didn’t pan out, in, like, the most epic, public way possible. I AM telling you this so you can learn from my mistakes. Wanna live in a tiny house? That’s awesome! The more successful early adopters there are, the better for those who want to join the movement but don’t have the capacity to handle the risk (as I discovered the hard way that I didn’t.)

Here are some lessons I learned that could help you navigate the barely charted waters of tiny house living.

Decide your capacity for risk

Hey Early Adopter, just how far are you willing to go? Sure, maybe you’ve lined up super-early to be the first to get the latest gadget from Apple, but this is much, MUCH bigger (physically, psychologically, economically, risk-ly. Yeah, new word there).

Are you willing to fight city hall? Are you willing to risk the ire of your neighbors? Are you willing to have to pull up stakes and move, perhaps frequently? How much money can you stand to lose on this endeavor?

Our situation went further than I was willing to pursue, for a lot of reasons, including all the people it would affect. Are you all in, and is everyone affected all in too?

Be honest with yourself. It’ll make a huge difference if you run into difficulty down the line.

Don’t rely on the kindness of strangers

Live and let live means nothing in this realm. Nothing. Because strangers may care about you in the abstract, but when it comes down to it, they’re going to choose themselves, and sometimes even appealing to their humanity does no good.

It all depends on the person, of course, but expect that someone is going to have a problem with you, even if they’re nice to your face. People in general don’t like confrontation, and the only loyalty most have is to themselves. I realize this sounds cynical, and it’s certainly not true in every instance (I prefer to believe it’s not true in most instances), but if you’re trying to fly under the radar, plan on taking some enemy fire that could shoot you down. It’s best to plan for the worst and be pleasantly surprised.

Have a backup plan

Everyone else’s hindsight is 20/20, so do yourself this favor if you’d like to lessen the judgmental comments later.

You may think there’s no need for a backup plan because your Plan A is solid, but have one anyway. You don’t have to share it, but if it becomes necessary, you can implement it, and people will praise you for your foresight, maybe. Chances are, your backup plan will be leagues below your original plan, and it’ll be a disappointment to have to go to Plan B, but that’s still better than the tightening in your chest when you realize “Oh SHIT, I have no place to put this tiny house. What am I going to do?” Seriously. You do NOT want to be in that place.

Work with The Man

The best way to make tiny house living easier for everyone is if there are clear guidelines for its legality. Work with your elected officials, write letters, show up to meetings and offer suggestions. Let the policymakers understand that the faces of the tiny house movement are many and varied, and let them know that their constituency is interested. Continued effort means eventually change will come about at the local ordinance level, making this lifestyle easier on everyone.

Do what you can. I can and have written letters and talked to people I know in city hall. With a baby, I can’t really attend meetings, but I can submit my comments online. Be aware of different ways you can make your voice heard, decide what will work for you and do it!

All our voices together will make a difference. I may not be able to live in my tiny house now, but I still plan to advocate for them, especially as a choice for living in an urban area. The housing crisis here affects too many people not to.

Think positive!

Being a pioneer isn’t easy. I mean, look at the reputation for toughness that the early American Pioneers have. I’ll bet when they set out they weren’t thinking, “Well, here we go, leaving for parts unknown. We’ll probably all be dead soon.”

I’m pretty sure they were thinking the outcome of their adventure would be a better life, and that’s what we have to keep in mind as early adopters of the tiny house lifestyle. There are people who want to help — the builders of my tiny home, Molecule Tiny Homes, have taken customer service to a whole new level, as they’ve helped me through this tough time. Friends, family and even people I barely know have spread the word, given helpful advice, and offered to help out. The tiny house community, and often our own communities, are very giving. That positivity can help keep you going if things go sideways.

master bedroom
The “master bedroom” over the gooseneck hitch is tall enough for an adult to stand up in. Both lofts also have sliding doors to afford some privacy in the tiny space.

You can keep that positivity going too. Tiny living didn’t work out for me, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t still do what I can to help others go tiny. I also plan to continue to try to live small and light upon the earth; I have downsized considerably, and plan to even more. I still believe this is an important movement, and I am rooting on the thousands of others who are choosing to go small to make their lives bigger. I hope my mistakes can help others be successful early adopters.


Colleen Valles
I'm Colleen, a writer, mother, knitter, pet mama and tiny house enthusiast who truly believes that everybody should slow down and simplify to make room for the things that are most important in their lives. I'm on a journey to do just that, to be able to spend more time with family and friends, riding my bike and working in the garden. Sign up to get awesome content right in your inbox, or follow me on social media.