Little houses, big trend?

Little houses, big trend?Bryce Prunty likes living small. In 2002 he bought a one-bedroom, 225-square-foot condominium, steps from the beach in Santa Monica, Calif. The unit is one of 14 small converted apartments making up a close-knit, landscaped complex on one of the most popular -- and expensive -- stretches of real estate in the U.S. He paid about $1,022 per square foot.

The 37-year-old tech-job recruiter loved the tiny pull-down dining room table, the mini-appliances, one closet -- in the entire unit -- and the miniature staircase leading up to the sleeping loft. No pantry in the unit, no counters, no clutter. Perfect.

Three years and a fiancee later, he moved up to a 600-square-foot condo in the same complex, a ballroom compared to the first one, but still a tight squeeze.

Nonetheless, "it's not a problem living in small spaces," Prunty says. "You get rid of the big couch and the clutter, and your life is simpler." He and his wife and baby daughter now occupy a 700-square foot house, but still own their tiny condo, which they rent out. "It's easy to get renters. People love it."

As home values sink and utility costs climb, small -- no, make that tiny -- houses have captured the imagination of devotees of diminutive living. First-time buyers, downsizing couples and singles are among those embracing the no-frills lifestyle. Clutter? Gone. Big bills? History. Mortgage? Probably not.

In fact, this trend may take us back to the future. In 1900, the average size of of an American home was 800 square feet, according to the National Assn. of Home Builders. By 1970, it had ballooned to 1,500 square feet, and in the first quarter of 2010, the average home size was 2,384 square feet.

But size doesn't matter to some people.

"It's really freeing to trim back on the things that tend to use up our time and money," says Gregory Johnson, co-founder and director of the Small House Society, a clearinghouse of small-home information founded in 2001. It promotes smaller-housing alternatives. "I feel I can enjoy life more richly by living simply."

For him, that's a 360-square-foot apartment, which he shares with his wife in Iowa City, Iowa. From 2003 until 2009, Johnson lived alone in what's considered a tiny house --140 square feet -- parked on his parents' property in the same town. "It was quaint and attractive and ended up in Better Homes and Gardens." It had neither a shower nor a bathroom. That's what parents' homes are for, right?

Small-house enthusiasts aren't just granola-chomping, off-the-grid types trying to outdo Henry Thoreau. Johnson works full time as a technology support specialist at the University of Iowa. He is now married and happens to love simple -- and small-spaced -- living.

Johnson's not alone. The Small House Society has an e-mail list of 1,500 people, Johnson says, and each month between 30,000 and 50,000 people curious about small homes visit the website. "Several thousand" tiny homes have been built around the country, says Johnson.

Jay Shafer, founder of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and a nationally-known, small-home trendsetter, lives in an 89-square-foot home in Sebastopol, Calif. He's occupied tiny homes since 1999.

"The hardest thing for new owners is figuring out what you need to be happy," says Shafer, "and getting rid of all the other [stuff]." Fitting one's needs into a very small, well-decorated space is not hard. You just don't move around a lot.

Tiny homes are defined as occupying from 65 square feet to 140 square feet. Tumbleweed's designs are attractive and include a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, all squeezed into the size of a walk-in closet. Small homes typically occupy more than 120 square feet and can be as large as about 800 square feet, but most top out at about 375 square feet, based on Tumbleweed's floor plans.

The cost for a Tumbleweed floor plan is about $16,000, Shafer says. Most of his customers build their own dwellings. "If we build it, it costs about $39,000." A self-built 800-square-foot house runs about $80,000. Most are mounted on wheels, like RVs, but look like well-designed mini-houses, with gabled roofs, nice paint jobs and other fine-carpentry touches. About one-third of owners use the homes as their primary residences; one-third are vacation cottages; and one-third sit in backyards, often used as guest houses or offices, Shafer says.

Once the humble homes are off the wheels, the owners are subject to city building codes, in which kitchens must be a certain size and bedrooms must occupy a certain square footage, depending on the location, Shafer says. There also are electricity and plumbing requirements. So many owners keep them on wheels.

Financing such residences can be problematic. Banks prefer bigger, one-bedroom homes that have good resale value, says Shafer. Some small homes are financed with home-equity loans from the owner's existing home.

How do the homes do in resale? "I've only sold my own," Shafer says, "and I got the same price that they cost to make. They neither appreciated, nor depreciated." Probably because they're constructed with the highest-quality materials, he and Johnson say. They withstand forces of nature and don't get as much wear and tear.

"I can't imagine going back to living big," says Shafer, whose tiny house sits on the same property as his bigger home -- 500 square feet -- that he shares with his wife and child part of the day. "It's so liberating living this way."
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