As houses get bigger, some opt to downsize into 'wee' homes

  • Article by: ERICA RODRIGUEZ , Orlando Sentinel
  • Updated: December 26, 2013 - 6:27 PM

As houses get larger, some opt to simplify their lives in “wee homes.”

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Lake County builder Jack Smith, left, has built three tiny houses on one lot — “wee houses” — as rentals for young professionals.

Photo: Tom Benitez • Orlando Sentinel / MCT,

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At first glance, the pint-size cypress-wood cabin Emily Faulconer is building looks like a hand-hewn, portable home for hobbits.

Just 200 square feet, Faulconer’s future “wee home” in Osteen, Fla., 30 miles northeast of Orlando, is set atop a special trailer that she plans to eventually make her permanent home. It will include bare-bones amenities such as a mini-kitchen and tiny bathroom and living area, constructed in a less expensive and more environmentally friendly space than a sprawling suburban home.

“I like living simply,” said Faulconer, a 31-year-old assistant professor of chemistry who chose the tiny lifestyle after escaping a 2,300-square-foot home she no longer could afford.

While home sizes have gotten larger in the past few decades, a small-house movement is afoot, advocating downsizing to save money and put less strain on the environment. Champions of the cause don’t have a hard-and-fast way to define a “small” home, which can be as small as Faulconer’s or the bigger — but still itty-bitty — rental cottages built by builder Jack Smith in Tavares, Fla.

His tropical-themed cottages top out at 576 square feet for two bedrooms and go as small as 424 square feet. Smith hopes his houses, which feature vaulted ceilings and granite kitchen countertops, will give residents a sense of home without the frills.

“It’s kind of like the hotel-room concept,” Smith said. “We go there to shower and sleep. It’s a sense of home without all the extras.”

Leading the “tiny home” charge are builders such as Dan Louche, who tours the country teaching people how to build mini homes such as Faulconer’s. Louche, owner of Tiny Home Builders of DeLand, Fla., said many aspiring homeowners watched their dreams slip away as the housing market crumbled. Those building smaller houses, on the other hand, can often finance one without taking out a mortgage.

“They can save up to live in a house for free after just two years,” Louche said.

The shift in attitude flies in the face of home construction trends. The post­recession building trend has been to go bigger, not smaller, said Stephen Melman, director of economic services director for the National Association of Home Builders. Melman attrib­utes this to tighter lending rules that have kept many first-time buyers out of the market.

“By and large, builders are building to the market,” Melman said. “What buyers are out there tend to be higher-income right now, so they’re purchasing larger homes.”

Home sizes have grown 50.9 percent during the past 39 years, based on census data. In 1973, the average new home reached 1,660 square feet and had ballooned to 2,505 square feet by 2012.

Even though Americans are known for sprawling homes, those who live small say having less stuff means having less stress and staying organized.

“Basically, there’s a lot of stuff that can just be done away with,” said Gregory Johnson, president of the Iowa-based Small House Society. “A lot of it is not an architectural challenge. It’s an internal challenge.”

Those choosing to construct smaller homes can face obstacles including local building codes. Smith, for instance, had to get a special ordinance to build his tiny homes so close together on one lot.

Louche said it’s typical for many living in “tiny” cabins to “fly under the radar” for fear of being shut down by government code enforcers. “Most people just kind of do what they’re going to do and see how it turns out,” Louche said, adding that some people chose to build to local RV or mobile-home codes.

 

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