At 33, Lily Mai is the picture of the young, hip professional woman. She and her husband, Michael Halsey, met in Miami and have migrated to several major cities, Chicago and San Francisco among them. They work hard, they love to travel, and over time they came to realize that much of their energy — and income — was going into the maintenance of their high-rise urban apartment. They decided to make a change.
The couple moved to the mountains. They now live with their two dogs (and a baby on the way) in a 400-square-foot house at The Village of Wildflowers in Flat Rock, where Mai is the onsite property manager. Lily and Michael are part of the small-house movement that’s gaining momentum across the nation, attracting devotees in every demographic, group from free spirits to young marrieds to empty nesters.
In the wake of the Great Recession, with its related subprime-mortgage crisis of 2007-’09, many found themselves burdened with debt and servicing more house than they needed or could afford. The “bigger is better” paradigm started to shift to a new way of thinking about housing. (With her book-turned-lifestyle-phenomenon The Not-So-Big House, architect/author Sarah Susanka anticipated the movement more than a decade ago.)
The terms “tiny” and “small” houses are sometimes used interchangeably, although “typically, ‘tiny’ stops at 400 square feet” according to Teal Brown, co-owner of Wishbone Tiny Homes, a builder in West Asheville.
“Ultimately, the number is relative to the number of people living in the space,” explains Brown. “Two people in a 400-square-foot house is the same as four people in an 800-square-foot house. In our book, ‘small’ is 401 to 1,000 square feet.”
Communities such as the Village of Wildflowers are an important piece of the movement, Brown acknowledges, although “tiny homes are so versatile in their functionality that there are many viable scenarios,” he says.
“The small-house movement really began with people who were looking to live off-grid,” notes Gil Gilman, the developer of The Village of Wildflowers. “That’s not for everyone, but it brought attention to the idea that there is another way of living besides building ‘McMansions.’ It inspired a minimalist approach, where the focus is on who you are instead of what you own.”
Economic considerations are a major factor. With a typical building cost of $20,00 to $50,000, a small house can be an attractive alternative for those on a limited budget, or a way to free up cash flow for other pursuits.
“I’ve been interested in the ‘new’ tiny-house movement because of the great romance most people seem to be sensing — freedom from conventional mortgages and the connected release from the financial obligations,” says Larry Vickers, a WNC-based design/builder who was part of the ’70s back-to-the-land push. Vickers was building small, energy-efficient spaces before they gained a title and grew into a movement.
“I equate living ‘tiny’ or ‘simple’ to shooting straight,” he adds. “At least you know what you are aiming at, and have a sense of why you are doing the thing at hand.”
Wishbone not only builds, it offers its own lending division to help people get around some of the logistical hurdles of the lifestyle, which vary from city to city due to zoning laws.
“There’s nothing illegal about building a tiny home as long as it meets zoning restrictions, building codes, and any relevant neighborhood covenants and/or deed restrictions,” confirms Teal.
And even for would-be homeowners who run into zoning problems, the rules are evolving almost constantly. “All sorts of changes are happening very fast with the tiny-house movement — the other day, I received a call from the Transylvania County Property Tax Assessor, who was trying to figure out how to tax these homes,” says Brown. “I told him he couldn‘t if it were on wheels, because it was considered an RV. If it is on a foundation, it would be taxed like any other home.”
As might be expected with the limited space to heat and cool, utility costs are minimal. In the case of The Village of Wildflowers, many homeowners put their residences into the rental pool while they travel, providing additional income at times when the space would otherwise be vacant.
While the footprint and proportions of such structures may seem a bit daunting for the average homeowner, careful design can create an unexpected amount of storage and livable area. Decks are encouraged. Built-ins are a must. (Vickers is continually addressing design challenges with his own tiny-house prototype.)
If there is a place to splurge on a smaller-scale house it’s on luxury finishes and amenities. Wishbone’s custom designs range from modern to craftsman-style, some with with artisan touches. The Village of Wildflowers offers packages that include granite countertops, stone tile baths, and hardwood floors — as well as dishwashers, flat-screen TVs, and even brick fireplaces. “You’re downsizing,” says Mai, “but you’re not losing all the conveniences. You aren’t making any sacrifices — you’re gaining a sense of freedom because the upkeep is minimal.”
Community is also a key element at The Village of Wildflowers, where denizens tend to congregate at one of the dog parks (“Petite Paws” is specifically designated for small dogs) or at the Community Center and pool. Catered meals from area restaurants are available at the Center, which can be eaten in the communal dining room or as take-out. Add in the well maintained, 26-acre campus with a lake open to all residents and the available concierge services (dog walking, shopping, housekeeping, etc.), and living in 400 square feet doesn’t seem so untenable after all.
For Lily Mai, and others like her, small-house living is the ideal choice. “We’ve been planning this for three years,” says Mai. “We wanted to be in a place where we can raise our kids, spend quality time with them, travel, and not spend our lives working to support an unnecessary lifestyle.”
Local Small House Resources: The Village of Wildflowers, www.thevillageofwildflowers.com; Wishbone Tiny Homes, www.wishbonetinyhomes.com; Asheville Tiny Home Association, www.facebook.com/AshevilleTinyHomeAssociation