(Tiny) Homeward Bound

Designing and Building My Tiny House

Category Archives: trailer

Trailer decisions

So, as I said in the last post, I have decided to go for a tiny house on a trailer.  But all decisions lead to more decisions to be made.  In talking to friends, they asked why I wasn’t just thinking about buying an RV, ripping out its guts, and refinishing the inside (like Jay Shafer did).  Or buying an old school bus and doing the same (called skoolies).  Then, I’d get a waterproof shell that I knew was good on the road.  No worries about leaks or, even worse, the roof falling off as I drive down the road.  And I could have the same satisfaction of the hands-on construction work of creating my own home.  Also, it may be easier to move around and potentially to tow my little Honda Civic behind it.  My Civic certainly won’t be able to tow any trailer so changing locations may require multiple trips, one to move the trailer and one to move the car.  And yes, I know in the ideal world, I just wouldn’t have a car.  Trust me, I didn’t have a car for 10 years.  But, I kiteboard.  A lot. Which means driving to beaches with several kites and boards and wetsuits.  So, a car is necessary.  Anyway, back to the trailer decision.

But, there are a couple of downsides of using an RV or bus.

1. First, I think it may limit the places I can park.  In certain neighborhoods, I can see neighbors being OK with a cute little house parked in the backyard while they wouldn’t be OK with an RV or school bus.  A cute little house on wheels is easier to put in a neighborhood and have people think its just cute, versus an RV or a school bus.

2. With a school bus or a drivable RV, I run into the issues of the road worthiness of the engine.  Engines are a bit of a mystery to me (perhaps having to do with my not owning a car for 10 years).  So, taking on a used engine, figuring out if it’s a good used engine, fixing it, all that seems like a whole new challenge for me.  I like challenges and am sure I could figure it out, but I have a feeling that house construction is going to be plenty challenging enough for me for the next bit.

3. Insulation, waterproofing, and all of that sounds like it can be a challenge.  Most RVs are not made for full-time living or winter living.  There definitely seem to be horror stories about condensation, icing, leaking shells, and all of that.  There are horror stories on the internet for everything…but these aren’t things I really want to mess with.  Whether my construction will be any better is a question as well, but at least I have some control over that.

4. I really, really want a sleeping loft.  It makes so much sense to me.  Why waste floor space with a bed?  Of course, I’m writing this as I sit on my bed, but part of that is that it takes up the bulk of the room I’m renting.  Anyway, RVs have lower ceilings than my plan, which makes lofts harder.

Clearly, I’m leaning a bit towards a cute tiny house on wheels.  Something like a Tumbleweed House.  But, I plan to tweak floor plans and roofs and all of that.  Because that’s the fun part of building your own house.

Foundation vs. Trailer

OK, so I know I want a tiny house, but immediately, there are all of these decisions to make.  Which is the fun part.  And the scary part (what if I decide the wrong thing).  Anyway, some are decisions that need to be made up front and others are things to mull over.

The first big decision is putting my tiny house on a foundation or a trailer.  Here are the things I’m considering with this decision:

  • Build considerations:  Trailers have weight limits (based on trailer axle ratings and how big a truck you want to use to move the trailer).  Also, they are subject to some serious wind and vibrations while being driven down the highway so have to be built super-strong.  Both of these means there are definitely some extra building considerations for trailers, which is a concern given my basically non-existent building experience.  On the flip side, there are lots of good online resources for building your own trailer.   Foundation takes the lead.
  • Size limitations:  Trailers can only be so wide (8 ft without requiring a wide load permit) and so high (13.5 ft), which generally leads to a long skinny house with limited loft space.  And, I don’t think I’d want a trailer longer than about 20 ft.  A house on a foundation has a lot more flexibility in design (except when you consider the next issue on the list).  But, the goal of a tiny house is to go small – so size limitations may not be a bad thing (although I’d like to make sure I’m not going so small that I can’t live comfortably in it).  Also, I can cheat a little on storage by stashing some stuff in my parents’ basement (not exactly the goal of a tiny house…but I’m a believer in cheating a bit at the beginning and working your way to the end goal).  Still a preference towards a foundation.
  • Permits: Depending on the location, houses on foundations over a certain size (usually 100, 120, or 200 square feet) require permits.  And basically any building with bathrooms or kitchens require permits.  Permits are expensive and likely would mean bringing in an outside contractors.  Tiny houses are often under the minimum size requirements for zoning so require variances in order to get permits.  All of this is a major hassle which I would like to avoid.  Trailers for the most part do not need permits, so that’s a major plus on the trailer side.  And things tip heavily towards a trailer.
  • Water/Composting/etc: I’m not quite sure what to call this category, but a fixed foundation house has the advantage of having land around it.  Which makes it much easier to think about composting, using greywater irrigation, and harvesting rainwater as well.  All of these are possible to do with a trailer, but it requires a little more creativity (I think).  Another plus on the foundation side…but not a huge one.
  • Location: Clearly, a tiny house on a foundation is at a fixed location.  This means a) I have to know where I want to be for many years because I don’t want to build a house and then decide to move 3 years later and b) I have to own land there.  Which is definitely an added expense.  My life is a bit nomadic these days.  I spend 9 months living out of a backpack, followed by 7 months living in North Carolina, and I don’t know where I will be for the next 4 months.  So, living in one location for the next 10 years is very hard for me to fathom.  This is really the tipping point for me to decide to go for a house on a trailer.  If 4 years down the road, I know I want to be in one place, I can buy land and park my trailer there for good.  I can even potentially add on a small shed to act as a studio/office if I need some additional space.  And putting my house on a trailer wins!

P.S.  I am far from the first person to have this debate.  See other musings on this topic at: http://smalllivingjournal.com/issue-16-how-to-design-build-a-home/ryanmitchell/trailer/