The betrayal of the tiny house

About two years ago, maybe a bit longer, I began to hear about the tiny-house movement. No, it’s not about living in the Barbie Dream House, but you’re closer to the truth than you think. The idea was that people, fed up with high mortgage payments, loads of possessions, and a high cost of living, would shed their huge houses for a tiny alternative, many of which they built themselves.

There were articles; websites; and then, after a time, TV shows about building, buying, and living in tiny houses. Now, keep in mind that most people define a tiny house as having 400 to 500 square feet of living space.

In 1978, the average American home was 1,780 square feet and, in 2013, it was 2,662 square feet, despite the shrinking of the average size of the American family. One other detail to keep in your mind: The last state room my wife and I had on a cruise ship was under 200 square feet and that included a full bathroom, queen bed, and an ocean view.

Many of the hallmarks of tiny houses are almost nautical, in that, like the accommodations on boats, every square inch of space is used in as efficient a manner as possible. Storage is found in every nook and cranny, large appliances are avoided, and many accommodations are made that most of us would find tough to live with (folding furniture, loft sleeping, one room).

And the folks in these shows and documentaries all say the same things: They want lower costs; simpler lives; fewer possessions; and a focus on experience and living life, as opposed to working non-stop to afford stuff.

You might peg these folks as crunchy-granola, left-wing, hippie folks who love kale and run vegan restaurants on the side, and, in some cases, that might be true. But mostly they just want lower bills and fewer things cluttering their lives.

I have no problem with those goals and, in light of our current economy and world situation, they seem quite sane. But, alas, the forces of capitalism have invaded and kind of hijacked the tiny-house movement.

Now a tiny house can be bought just like a regular house complete with custom finishes, multiple sizes, all sorts of gizmos and at a price that is no longer any great bargain. Many early tiny-house people were able to build or have built a livable structure under $20,000, but now you can easily spend triple that.

I even saw one model that opened at the touch of a button like the pop-out on a big travel trailer. This is not your mother’s tiny house.

Some of the shows follow people who have their houses built by “tiny house experts” but, from what I saw, the experts were just greedy carpenters who had glommed onto a new market. One guy was quoting prices so high I swear he was salivating on camera.

Now, the thing is that, while a new house for many people can cost anywhere from $275,000 to $750,000 depending on size and locale, one could look at a tiny house at $60,000 as a bargain. Well, I don’t see the bargain when one features a single tiny bathroom, many times with a composting toilet and maybe a total of 400 square feet of living space and the other features many bathrooms and 2,000 to 5,000 square feet of living space.

Some people have suggested the tiny-house people are too extreme and most Americans could never downsize that much. That might be so, but what I think we really need is a small-house movement.

What if you could buy or build a 750- to 1,000-square-foot house that featured good-quality materials, energy-saving features, and decent-quality workmanship for maybe $75,000 to $150,000 depending on size and locale?

I’m talking about a house like our parents and grandparents would have lived in. I’m talking about kitchens that don’t feature granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances. Bathrooms that have sinks that look like sinks and not modern art. And houses that are built in clusters or on large lots for the sake of green space and privacy (pick your preference).

Tiny houses will never be the norm in this country but they certainly point in a positive direction. Now, if we could just get things out of the hands of the money-grubbing marketers and greedy developers and into the hands of people interested in serving the people as well as the planet, we might have something.

Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg notes that he and his family live in half of an 1880s-era house in the village of Altamont. They rent out the other half to a tenant. There are no granite countertops in either apartment.