Tiny Home Living for Seniors

Tiny house in a beautiful meadow wit sunshine

The tiny home movement has sparked a debate about what it means to live the good life. Some view it as a way to live a richer life free from the trappings of consumerism and materialism. Others view it as a threat to the ideal of upward mobility or an indicator that the American Dream is no longer achievable for many. In essence, the tiny house movement is a housing trend in which people move into small homes to live more simply.

The Tiny Home Defined

Green Future1) defines a tiny house as a living space less than 250 square feet that is generally built on wheels. The mobility and size are important characteristics of its design.

Most municipalities require habitable structures to have at least 300 square feet of space and include cooling, heating, and running water. To avoid the property taxes that larger homes incur, tiny homes are typically less than 250 square feet. Because they are built on wheels, they can function as recreational vehicles and be moved to areas with less stringent zoning laws.

In comparison, a small house is usually between 250 to 1,000 square feet. It's built on a foundation like a typical house rather than on wheels.

Reasons for Living in a Tiny Home

Tiny houseThere are three primary reasons that some people choose to live in tiny houses:

  • They can't afford the high costs of rental units or the seemingly perpetual payments on a 30–year mortgage.
  • They want to reclaim the time and peace of mind that living large can constantly consume.
  • They want to reduce their ecological footprints.
  • Lack of Affordable Housing

In its report, The State of the Nation’s Housing 2017 2), the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University determined that 39 million households are living in housing they cannot afford. The report also stated that the decreasing supply of low–cost rental units, decreases in the value of tax credits, and possible loss of subsidized housing threaten to widen the already considerable gap that exists between the demand for and supply of affordable housing. Furthermore, the aging population increases the need for housing that is both affordable and accessible.

Seniors are increasingly overburdened.

One–third of older adults dealt with cost burdens in 2015. This included 54% of renters and 43% of owners who had mortgages on their homes. In addition, the portion of older adults who have mortgage debt and the median amount of this debt is increasing. Between 2001 and 2013, for example, the portion of homeowners age 65 and over who had mortgages increased 12 percentage points to 36%. Median debt increased 26% to $73,000.

Severely–burdened households, those who pay more than 50% of their income for housing including utilities, don't have enough money to pay for other basic necessities. Approximately, 12% to 18% of people 55 years of age and older are members of severely–burdened households. Those who are 65 years of age and older and are part of the lowermost expenditure quartile made considerable cuts in healthcare spending. They decreased healthcare spending to only $99 per month compared to the $263 that their counterparts with no cost burdens paid.

A Desire to Change Lifestyle

Some people who've joined the tiny home movement want to create a more peaceful, meaningful existence. Living in small dwellings makes it possible for them to consume less and focus more on other important aspects of their lives.

They have decided that they don't need as many possessions as they thought they needed. They desire more free time and freedom to pursue the activities that enrich their lives—like connecting with their surroundings, pursuing interests and hobbies, spending more time with family and friends, becoming more involved with the community, traveling more, and building their own businesses.

Concern for the Environment

Green tiny houseAccording to the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan3), the US population places an enormous burden on the environment.

One method for determining the environmental impact of humans is to estimate the number of earths required to sustain the world's population if everyone lived a certain kind of lifestyle. One study estimated that five earths would be needed to support the global population if every person had consumption patterns similar to the average US citizen.

The US population is projected to grow from 325 million in 2017 to 416 million by 2060. Unless consumption patterns are changed to account for the planet's finite natural resources, environmental catastrophe could be eminent.

Concern for the environment is one of the reasons that some people choose to live tiny. Tiny homes place fewer burdens on the environment in the following ways:

Less Consumption

Tiny house dwellers consume less. They don't need as many possessions like furnishings and clothing. They don't have huge amounts of storage space like larger homes, so they don't have the option to store large amounts of items so they can buy more things. Less consumption means less waste and less waste means less burden on the environment.

Less Building Waste

In her article, Tiny Houses Are Becoming a Big Deal 4), Carol Kaufman (a contributor to AARP Livable Communities) reported that it takes seven logging trucks of supplies (that is, three–quarters of an acre of forest) to construct the average new home. In comparison, it only takes a half of a logging truck of supplies to build a tiny house.

Less Energy

Tinyhousebuild.com5) reported that the average home uses 12,773 kilowatts per year, which releases approximately 16,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. In contrast, a tiny home uses 914 kilowatts of energy and releases roughly 1,144 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. Heating an average home releases 8,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually while heating a tiny home releases only 558 pounds.

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Seniors Are Choosing to Live in Tiny Homes

A growing number of seniors are choosing to live in tiny homes. The need for more affordable housing is one reason for this decision.

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, the largest manufacturer of tiny–house recreational vehicles in North America, found that seniors are purchasing their tiny homes for these reasons6):

  • As an alternative to the traditional recreational vehicle
  • As a tiny home that can be parked in family members' backyards, thus providing a way to retain privacy and independence while living near loved ones
  • As a means to create 'a less stressful and more fulfilling' lifestyle

GOBankingRates.com7) discussed several reasons why some seniors may want to live in tiny homes:

Live Mortgage Free

Seniors who can pay cash for their tiny homes can live mortgage–free. Others can reduce their mortgages by moving into tiny homes. Listed below are cost ranges—depending on design and size—for tiny house construction from five builders:

  • Tumbleweed Tiny House Company8) – $62,000 to $90,000
  • Next Door Housing9) – $42,000 to $57,000
  • Elder Cottages10) – $41,000 to $62,000
  • Tiny Home Builders11) – $37,000 to $61,000 (for completed homes)
  • Timber Craft Tiny Homes12) – $45,000 to $95,000

Seniors can also enlist family and friends to help them build their own tiny homes. TheTinyLife.com13), an online resource for those interested in living tiny, estimated that the average cost to build a tiny home is $23,000.

Freedom to Travel

Traveling thanks to a tiny house Tiny homes built on wheels can be moved, so seniors can travel if they like. They are more suitable than recreational vehicles for long–term living because they tolerate cold better and can withstand more wear and tear. However, large trucks and a considerable amount of gas are required to transport the homes.

Lower Utility Bills

Tiny homes require far less energy to heat and cool than large homes, so utility expenses are less. This gives seniors more money to pay for other needs.

Less Maintenance

Tiny homes have fewer appliances to repair or replace and less square footage to maintain. Therefore, tiny homeowners generally spend less money and time on home improvements.

Because appliances like toilets, sinks, and refrigerators are customized for small places, tiny homeowners may have trouble finding appropriate repair services. These appliances might also be more expensive to replace.

Tiny Home Design Ideas for Seniors

Traditionally, tiny homes were built with lofts, ladders, and vertical storage spaces to provide more floor space. These features don't necessarily accommodate the needs of seniors. Since one of the key advantages of tiny homes is customized design, seniors can incorporate accessibility features like those listed below into their designs.

Fold–down seats, tables, and worktops that provide empty space for maneuvering wheelchairs or other mobility devices

Full–size showers with fold–away shower seats and handrails

  • More lighting
  • Non-slip floors
  • Ramps instead of stairs at the front door
  • Single levels
  • Sliding doors to accommodate wheelchairs
  • Stairs instead of ladders

Disadvantages of Living Tiny

Although tiny homes provide seniors with many benefits, they also have some drawbacks.

A Place to Park or Build

Seniors need to find a place to park (or build) their tiny homes. Zoning laws may even prevent them from parking their homes in family members' backyards. Managing sewage and obtaining water and other utilities can also pose problems. In areas where zoning is more liberal, they may have access to utility services like owners of traditional homes.

Long Distances to Gather Supplies

Depending on where tiny homes are placed (for example, in rural or more remote areas), seniors may need to drive (or travel) fairly long distances for supplies. This requires money, time, and/or gas, which can increase their expenses and ecological footprints.

Less Storage Space

Crowded tiny homeAlthough tiny homes can have a fair amount of storage space, it may not be enough to store a large number of provisions. Therefore, seniors may need to make more frequent trips to stores for supplies. Less storage space also prevents them from buying in bulk, which saves money.

Less Room for Guests

It's not impossible to entertain guests in a tiny home, but the limited space makes it hard to have a large number of visitors. Some people view the outdoor areas around their homes as an extension to their living quarters. From this perspective, homeowners have more space for parties and other gatherings (if weather permits).

If the demand for affordable housing continues to outpace supply and expenses continue to rise, increasing numbers of seniors could experience housing insecurity. Tiny homes can address this distressing problem while enabling seniors to continue to live independently. Seniors who want to live more simply, regardless of their economic circumstances, may find that tiny living is an ideal solution.

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