What global nomads and the tiny house movement have in common

There’s been a minor revolution brewing lately. Not a big one, but a tiny one. But as tiny as might seem, it just might turn half the world upside down.

For many years…centuries, even…Americans have been told that bigger is better; that a massive almost-mansion is our entitled birthright, and prosperity is our deserved fate. That we can have everything we want, and need not worry about frivolous nonsense, like responsibility. Even the American Dream, to which all Americans must supposedly aspire, is purely one of materialism:

Fight Club quote we buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like
Fight Club was about thinking, not fighting.

In the last few decades, we’ve seen American homes expand. Not in the number of residents, but in sheer size. Even with fewer and fewer people living in them, our homes have grown, adding extra bedrooms, larger kitchens, loftier ceilings, spare bathrooms, guest space, state-of-the-art appliances, and the inexplicable superfluous living room. I hate the superfluous living room.

American home size 1973-2011
Ew.

But we’re Americans, after all. We deserve our dream home.

Too bad we couldn’t afford it.

American houses sold by year, 1963-2009
Ouch. (source)

How the mighty have fallen.

The housing collapse was no isolated incident, nor was it entirely the fault of eager homeowners; Americans are deeply in debt, with stagnating wages, chronic unemployment, and dreary long-term prospects. We might find our way out of this, but it’s not going to be easy…and no amount of optimism is going to change the fact that we’re probably going to be stuck this way for a long, long time.

And that’s why some people are trying something radically different. Instead of pursuing the grandiose, they seek out the minuscule, abandoning the Bigger is Better approach with all the gusto of humble practicality.

Behold, the Tiny House, in all its itsy-bitsy glory:

Tiny house exterior
Photo by Tammy.

It’s kind of a big deal. Metaphorically, anyway.

The bedroom is usually tucked away on a 2nd-level sleeping loft, making the main floor surprisingly spacious:

Tiny house interior
Photo also by Tammy.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Most people take one look at a tiny house and say “I could never do that.” They talk about all the wonderful things they’d miss, and the dinner parties they could never have; the kids that would have nowhere to play, and the adults who would have nowhere to hide. They might admire the resolve and discipline it takes to build and live in one, but couldn’t imagine taking even one step.

But if you start listening to tiny house lovers, it starts to make a whole lot of sense.

For them, it’s not a compromise. Big houses are. They’re massively expensive to buy and maintain, with cavernously empty, unused space that needs to be heated, cooled, lit, furnished, and vacuumed. And for most reasonably-sized families, what’s the point? Bills pile up every month, whether you enjoyed that spare kitchen or not.

A tiny house, on the other hand, might cost about $50,000, making it 90% cheaper than the average American home. It’s even less if you build it yourself, for which their are innumerable instructional videos and diagrams to assist in doing just that.

You could easily save half a million dollars in mortgage costs and interest payments. That’s money that could be better spent on medical care, education, kids, travel…mmm, travel…and whatever else you might need, or enjoy.

Are all the empty rooms of a spacious house really going to enrich your life enough to be worth trading all that away? Probably not. For a lot of people, it makes a lot more sense to take that dream trip to Paris than to have an outdoor pool.

And that’s really the whole point. When tiny house fans see a 5-bedroom home, they imagine all the vacations they’d have to cancel to pay the mortgage; the savings that would evaporate to fill unused rooms with superfluous furniture; the doctor visits they’d skip to maintain a 3-car garage; the stability they’d undermine, building a house of cards.

When people see a tiny house, they think about everything they’d have to give up; but when minimalists see a McMansion, they think exactly the same thing.

So, what does all this have to do with infinite wandering?

Plenty.

Hobos with a bindle
He’s my hero.

For many of the same reasons that have motivated certain people to choose a tiny home, others have chosen none at all. For the nomads, any home is a burden. But if you can fit your whole life into a backpack, home becomes the whole world.

Travel means a lot of things to a lot of people, and for some, it’s to seek the sort of enrichment that can’t be found in the comforts of home, no matter how many bedrooms it might have. For others, it’s because they’ve abandoned their possessions to collect memories instead. Others find themselves enjoying the simplicity itself.

Between the tiny housers and the nomads, you hear a lot of the same stories about what they’ve left behind; dead-end jobs, crushing bills, rush hour commutes, and a life fading away, without much worth remembering.

Tiny living, whether it’s in a home, an apartment, or a backpack, isn’t really about having less; it’s about living more.

Sometimes it takes a disaster for us to realize we’ve got a problem, and the housing collapse hit particularly close to home. Literally. Americans will have to deal with a whole lot of reflecting in the next few decades…but when I see entire movements dedicated to getting priorities in order, I start worrying a bit less.

Plus, I kinda want one.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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28 Comments on “What global nomads and the tiny house movement have in common”

  1. I am totally down with this. The house up top reminds me of my old dacha – a teeeeeeny tiny cabin in the countryside. It was the best place in the world.

  2. I completely agree with this post. I am all for the tiny house project. Living in America, I see people with huge trucks (even in the city), huge houses, a lot of things, and the mentality that more is better. I’m a minimalist, working my way down to a backpack so when I graduate college, I can move around more.
    I hate the idea of owning a house with a mortgage and car payment only to be working in order to pay it off.
    I’m all for the tiny house project for the people who are able to do it. It would not only save money but also be better on the environment!

    1. Yes, the environmental benefit is also a big one for a lot of people. If you can light your whole house with a single lightbulb, you’re probably reducing your impact to practically zero…especially if you’ve got a solar panel on the roof, which lots of these have.

  3. Just came from finland and estonia trip. Used airbnb flats.
    The world is ready to live in borrowed homes – to stay agile and mobile.

    All I want for myself is a small finnish hut, clean air and nice neighbours. Cant find it in the US.

  4. Could not agree more! Tiny home living, one bag travel, maybe in a near future we will see a One Room movement also. One of greatest aspects of Tiny home lovers testimonials is how they use so much more public & shared space and how much they have in the process!

    Almost sounds like traveling!

    1. Yeah, most people think tiny homes are terrible for having people over for dinner, but if your house is tiny, your lawn is probably huge.

  5. I love the tiny house movement, because it gets people thinking about alternatives and evaluating what they really need. Personally, I like a bit more space. I think 40 square metres would be ideal – enough room for a modest bedroom, large kitchen (I really want a big kitchen – not ashamed to admit it!) living room with a clean-air fire. Bliss. And an acre or two of land. Pretty hard to find in NZ though, with trends going the other way – large homes on postage-stamp sized sections. :-(

  6. Unfortunately, actually living in one of these on your own land is illegal most places, as there are laws against “illegal camping” and the State will make you have a $2500 State-approved composting toilet.

    1. The laws are messy…I think that’s why people put them on wheels, so that it counts as a mobile structure, instead of a house, which I think generally makes it easier to handle the legal issues.

      1. Doesn’t matter. Building on wheels only gets you out of local building code into HUD code. You still can’t live in it because most state “health” codes mandate $2500 toilets. Disagree with them, and they send men with guns to take your house away.

        Remember, you voted for this.

        1. Um, voted for it? Not really. Besides, there has to be some kind of toilet, and if it’s not connected to the sewer system, I’d want it to be quite a good one.

  7. My tiny house on wheels “Thousand Crow” is under construction right now, in Vancouver, BC. I will be living in an RV park for the first year, and looking for a cozy backyard in the future. I will have paid for it in full by delivery Sept 30th, and will possess the one and only key. After 30 years of landlords and renovictions, that will be a wonderful day.

    It really is something almost anyone can do if they plan and save up for awhile. And my tiny house does not have a loft with its dreaded ladder…instead the bed is in a drawer under a mezzanine and disappears when not in use. Check my website for floor plan, images, and construction pics. Hooray for tiny houses!

    1. Sounds great. I think it’s nice to have an alternative to the upper floor sleeping loft, especially for families with little kids, or older people who don’t want to climb ladders all the time, though I haven’t seen too many of them.

    1. I’m not that knowledgeable about the movement in general; I’ve just seen the houses and think they look great, and wanted to discuss the parallels between them and modern-day nomads. Thanks for the tip though.

  8. I have been so happy that the conversation has begun to shift away from Big House! Credit Cards! Trucks! in recent years. My husband and I both really want a tiny house, but right now we can’t afford the land to put it on. I’m not getting hung up on that, though, because I think it’s all about embracing the idea of less stuff = more freedom (if all things are held equal, of course). We downsized our lives and now I’m able to leave my job to go back to writing. Obviously we’re lucky that we can even be in a position to make those decisions, but again, with all things held equal, I can attribute it to this mindset. If I had stayed on the path I was before — frugal but still assuming each apartment had to be bigger and better than the last — I would be stuck in the cubicle. Plus, seriously, how do people find the time to clean big houses? My dog’s hair is covering enough square footage as it is.

    1. I like to have so few things in such a small place that cleaning anything is a 5 minute operation that I barely notice. My other rule is that I can only have as many clothes as I can reasonably fit on the closet rod before it looks like it’s about to break.

  9. Love this post! I’ve adored tiny homes for a long long time because not only are they so liberating, but they stop you from accumulating bullshit you just don’t need. It’s harder to accumulate clutter when you constantly have to think “Do I have room for that? No? Then I guess I don’t need it”. Travel is the same way, even if you’re living out of a suitcase on wheels instead of a backpack.

    As well as that, think of the environmental benefits. Tiny homes and nomadic life can give you such a light footprint (provided you do your research and do it right, of course). With the resources that McMansions take just to run (let alone build!) it’s not only the homeowners that struggle, it’s the whole planet.

    1. Yes, I’ve always found it weird when people with SUVs or humongous houses complain about high energy bills. Some of them don’t even bother using CFL or LED bulbs, which is just throwing money away. Weird. Oh well though.

  10. I love tiny houses and have been watching the whole movement for a couple of years now. Over 20 years ago I tried to buy one in Canada and the banks wouldn’t mortgage a house under 1000 square feet – ridiculous now at least they make exceptions for smaller homes. But I gave all that up to travel, sold everything and now have 1 suitcase makes life so much easier and no rent or mortgage to pay traveling as a housesitter.

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