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Tiny House

Decisions
A Comprehensive Guide To
Planning Your Tiny House

ETHAN WALDMAN
Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition

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Copyright 2014-2019 Ethan Waldman, All Rights Reserved

This eBook contains affiliate links. I have not recommended any products that I did
not use or research myself.

Tiny House Photography by Susan Teare, Rikki Snyder, David Seaver, and
Oliver Parini.
For Milford Cushman
Your brilliant design work,
patience, and insight helped
make my tiny house a reality.

And for my parents


Thanks for letting me turn your barn and
backyard into an active construction
zone for over a year.
Table of Contents

Introduction 6
Author’s Note 7
My Story 8
What This Book Is Not 10
What This Book Is 11
How This Book Is Structured 12
A Few Words About Decisions 13

Part 1: Big Decisions 16


Is a tiny house right for you? 17
Tiny Houses and the Law 18
Should you build it yourself or with help? 22
Tiny House Story: Tammy Strobel & Logan Smith 26
Working With a Pre-Built Shell 28
Should you build it on wheels or on the ground? 30
Tiny House Story: Laura Lavoie 35
What should the overall size be? 38
Should you use pre-made plans or custom plans? 40
What kind of trailer should you use? 42
Tiny House Story: Andrew Odom 46
When should you start? 48
What does it actually cost to build a tiny house? 50

Part 2: Systems Decisions 51


Heat 53
Tiny House Story: Macy Miller 63
Water 66
Shower or not? 72
Plumbing in Freezing Temperatures 74
Hot Water 77
Toilets 81
Electrical 86
Tiny House Story: Chris and Malissa Tack 91
Refrigeration 94
Ventilation 97
Table of Contents cont.

Part 3: Construction Decisions 100


Nails vs. Screws 102
SIPs vs Stick Framed vs Advanced Framing vs Metal Framing 105
Tiny House Story: Lina Menard’s SIPs Building Timeline 108
Subfloor 115
Sheathing 117
Roofing Materials 120
Insulation 123
Windows 129
Flooring 132
Kitchen 134
Interior Finishes and Trim 137
Technology in the Tiny House 141

Part 4: Living Tiny 143


Moving Your Tiny House 145
Preparing Your Tiny House Parking Site 150
Tiny House Story: Traveling in a Tiny House with Alexis Stephens 156
and Christian Parsons
Tiny House Insurance 159
Ants, Wasps, Carpenter Bees, Mice, Scorpions… 161
Tiny House Security 162
A Few Final Thoughts 164

Part 5: Resources 166


Construction Guides 168
Online Education 168
Hands-On Education 168
Zoning and Codes 168
Tiny House Plans 169
RV Parts 169
Appliances 169
Introduction

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Author’s Note: August 2019

Photo credit: David Sears

It is now the summer of 2019, and over six years have gone by since I picked up my new utility
trailer and started building my tiny house. It has been almost four years since I published Tiny
House Decisions, and so much has changed for me personally! At the tiny house, witnessed
by 150 of our closest friends and family, I married the woman I was dating at the time I built
the house. Writing, speaking, and teaching about tiny houses went from a passion to my full-
time profession. I’ve been featured in the homepage of Yahoo, The Boston Globe, and Design
New England; spoken at the National Tiny House Jamboree, Dwell on Design, and Tiny House
Conference; and responded to thousands of your questions in the form of emails, Facebook
comments, and more. In 2016, I created a private online group called Tiny House Engage
where people who are actively researching and building tiny houses can get my help on a
weekly basis. In 2018, I launched my next big project, the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast, which
teaches you how to plan, build, and live the tiny lifestyle.

Things have changed in the tiny house world as well. What started off as a fringe movement
has grown to one of national prominence thanks to several popular reality TV shows as well
as image-sharing platforms like Instagram and Pinterest. Whatever it is about tiny houses,
people love them, and it’s very infrequent that I meet someone who has never heard of the
movement.

Even tiny house construction, from what designs are popular to features and favored
materials, have changed. In 2012, my 10,000lb moveable tiny home on its 22-foot trailer
was on the larger end of what was common. Now, 22 feet would be considered smaller than
tiny, maybe even micro! Common lengths now are in the 28 to 34-foot range, and it’s not
uncommon to see triple-axle trailers with houses weighing up to 20,000 lbs. Houses are being
framed with metal studs for reduced weight or without studs altogether by utilizing Structural
Insulated Panels (or SIPs).

As the movement changed, Tiny House Decisions stayed the same. The original content is still
relevant and useful, and in this updated version, I haven’t taken anything out. I have, however,
added lots of new topics to reflect how tiny houses have changed. I’ve also added a completely
new section to the book: Part 4, all about moving into and living in your tiny home.

Thanks for a great six years, and I can’t wait to see the tiny home YOU come up with.

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My Story

Hi, I’m Ethan. I started building my


tiny house on wheels in June of 2012
and finished around September of 2013.
But like most tiny house stories, mine
started long before I ever fired up a
chop saw.

Rewind to the fall 2011, when I was


working a traditional 9-to-5 job. I took
a month off for a bicycle tour, and
when I returned, I knew I couldn’t last
in the corporate world much longer.
There just wasn’t enough flexibility to
accommodate the life that I wanted to
live. I didn’t feel inspired by the work
that I was doing, and I felt like time was just accelerating. I could envision myself ten years
later on this trajectory: a little older, a little weaker, a little bit more tired, sitting in the same
cubicle, doing the same work, and for what? There was no way that I was going to let my life
continue down that track.

I knew that I wanted my own business, too. I had been working with a business coach for close
to six months. Cloud Coach, my technology coaching business, was already up and running. I
had even launched my first product with reasonable success. I was resolute in my desire to get
out of the corporate world altogether.

But there was still something missing from the picture.


I knew that being in business for myself could mean
fluctuation in income--the feast-or-famine business
Though the idea of
cycle and general uncertainty of being on my own. My learning carpentry
main worry was having to come up with $1,000 each
month for rent and utilities. Even though I felt really had always intrigued
good about my new business and its potential, I me, I’d never
didn’t feel responsible quitting my job without some
more stability. I knew I would be a fool to just leap and considered building
hope I would start making money before my savings
account went dry and the rent came due. I also knew
my own home.
that my current lifestyle, though not extravagant,
would be threatened. I enjoyed (and still enjoy)
skiing in the winter, bicycling in the summer, eating organic food, and traveling periodically
to visit family that’s scattered around the country.

I don’t remember what first got me interested in tiny houses, but I had certainly seen them
before. I remember seeing a flyer on the corkboard of a cafe advertising a tiny house workshop
in the woods of Vermont. It promised that anyone could learn how to build a simple 10-foot by
10-foot structure in a weekend.

Though the idea of learning carpentry had always intrigued me, I’d never considered building
my own home. There were all the associated costs to consider: buying land, paying an
architect, hiring engineers, electricians, etc. Not to mention the property taxes, which would

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essentially be like rent. And the biggest problem, as a (then) 26-year-old and newcomer to
Vermont: I wasn’t sure how long I would want to stay here. It seemed silly to invest in a house
when I might just turn around and choose to leave in a year or two.

It was while reading an article on Tammy Strobel’s blog, Rowdy Kittens, that I noticed a link
in her navigation bar: Our Tiny House. Curious, I clicked through and found myself reading
Tammy and Logan’s story of downsizing and eventually building their tiny house on wheels.
I was immediately hooked on the concept. Here was a structure I could build without permits,
park without paying taxes, and live in for very little money. I realized that with my steady
salary and some existing savings, I could potentially put away enough money to build a tiny
house in the summer of 2012.

And so, with my newfound determination and goal, I went into what my wife, Ann, calls “hobo
mode.” I spent money only on what was absolutely necessary; everything else went into a
savings account dubbed “the tiny house fund.” As the months went by and the dollars added
up, the plans I’d made started to feel more real.

The first purchase I made with my tiny house fund was a set of plans. I decided on
Tumbleweed’s Fencl (since renamed Cypress), a popular and (relatively) large tiny house on
wheels. There were some things that I wanted to change about the design, but overall, I liked
the layout and styling. The plans weren’t cheap, but shelling out the money really helped
cement my decision and gave me something to show people who asked about the project.
Other purchases followed, and slowly I collected the supplies I would need to start. I decided
to work with an architect to create custom plans rather than use the ones I’d purchased out
of the box. Around the same time, I made the major decision to quit my job and gave the
company my notice. Finally, on June 1, I worked my last day at my corporate job and began
construction on my tiny house.

The day brought with it an incredible mix of emotions: fear, excitement, freedom.

Then the real work began: the work of building a house.

I had never done construction before. Sure, I was handy with a cordless drill and could use a
chop saw, but as far as the actual construction of a structure? I had no idea. My estimate of
how long the project would take is laughable now. I thought that I would have my house done
by the end of the summer. In reality, the project would take what most other DIYers seem to
take to build their tiny houses: just over one year.

My year of trial and error, building, learning, and struggling has lead me here: to
Tiny House Decisions.

I’m excited to share with you all the information I’ve collected throughout my tiny house
journey. Before we dig into the actual decisions, through, there are a few things we need
to cover.

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What This Book Is Not

To help you understand what Tiny House Decisions is, I’d like to start by telling you what it is
not.

It is not a construction guide.

I have no intention of providing detailed how-to’s for framing, roofing, siding, or any other
construction, as I am not qualified to do so. I was a complete novice builder when I came to
this project, and I have left it a competent amateur.

What I am good at is online research. And I did a lot of it throughout the planning and building
of my house. I wrote Tiny House Decisions so that you can benefit from the countless hours
I spent reading forums, reviews, and scouring other tiny house blogs for knowledge along
the way.

If you do have questions about the actual process of building your tiny house, you’ll find my
recommended books and websites in the Resources section at the end of this book.

It is not a set of plans.

This book won’t show you where to place each stud or how big the rough openings for your
windows should be. Instead, it will guide you through deciding what goes in, on, and through
your tiny house.

My tiny house was designed by the talented folks at the Cushman Design Group in Stowe,
Vermont. We started by looking at tiny house designs from Tumbleweed, the ProtoHaus, and
the Tiny Tack House, to name a few, but the final design is unique to my house.

After working with the Cushman Design Group, we put together a digital set of plans for
my tiny house that I now offer for sale. If you’re interested in learning more, visit
thetinyhouse.net/plans.

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What This Book Is

When I started building my house, I launched a blog at thetinyhouse.net, but I quickly fell
behind on my posts. After a long day of work on the tiny house, I didn’t have much energy left
to write about what I had just done.

So I started a Facebook page, Building The Tiny House, as a way to quickly upload and share
pictures of my progress. I continue to be amazed at how many people are interested in these
photographs and brief observations. At the time the first edition of this book was written, the
Facebook page had close to 4,000 likes, and as of August 2019, that number has grown to
over 50,000!

What has amazed me even more than all the likes, though, is all the questions. I literally get
questions from people every day.

• “How did you set up your water system?”


• “What kind of trailer did you buy?”
• “Do you have to build a tiny house with a loft?”
• “What kind of stove is that?”
• “Why did you decide to build your house on wheels?”

This book is about those decisions. In the following pages, I’ll answer those questions and
many more. I’ll walk you through the decisions I made, what I ultimately decided for my own
house and why, and how those decisions affected the overall project.

You can use this book both as a resource while building your tiny house and as a guide during
the planning phases to determine what to look out for.

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How This Book Is Structured

The book is broken down into four main parts. Throughout them, you’ll find both insight and
advice from my own process plus relevant stories from other tiny house owners.

Part 1: Big Decisions


In this part of the book, we’ll unpack some of the huge up-front decisions that you should
make before you start on your tiny house. For instance, are you going to build it yourself,
with help, or hire it out? Will it be on wheels or stationary? How big should your house be?

Part 2: Systems Decisions


In this part of the book, we’ll go through all the major systems a tiny house needs. There
are many options when it comes to each system. I’ll break down the pros and cons of each
before revealing exactly what appliances, materials, and tools I decided to go with.

Part 3: Construction Decisions


In this part of the book, we’ll take a broader look at the construction materials that went
into my house. For example, we’ll delve into my subfloor. I’ll explain how it was all put
together and why I would do it differently, if I were to do it again.

Part 4: Living Tiny


In Part 4, we’ll cover all the things you need to do once your tiny house is done being built,
from preparing a site to moving your house safely.

Tiny House Stories


The decisions I ultimately made were unique to my project. Though they were based on my
research, there really is no right or wrong answer to a lot of these questions. Throughout
the book, I’ll share interviews with other tiny house builders and dwellers so you can see
how they answered the same questions, often differently. Look for them with the mustard-
colored headings (sorry Kindle readers). Additionally,if you’ve opted for the corresponding
package, you’ll have video interviews to enjoy.

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A Few Words About Decisions

As you make decision after decision about your tiny house, you’ll run into some common
issues you’ll need to take care of.

Your Mileage May Vary


I’ve made this as honest and accurate an account as I could. However, keep in mind that my
house was built in and for the climate of Northern Vermont. The challenges I faced (arctic
weather, humidity) are much different than the challenges one would face in, say, the
Arizona desert.

Additionally, zoning rules literally vary from town to town, so what I may have gotten
away with may not be acceptable where you’re building. You will face the choice of asking
permission vs. flying under the radar. It’s up to you to make the final decision, since our
situations will most likely be very different. To help you, I’ve included my favorite resource on
building codes and playing nice with your municipality in the Resources section.

The Paradox of Choice


Have you ever noticed how the more options you have, the harder it is to choose? Choice really
is a paradox. And that’s not just my idea. The latest research is showing that the more choice
we have, the less happy we are.

Perhaps that’s one of the many reasons why people are choosing to build and live in tiny
houses: Less space means less stuff, which means less choice and, hopefully, more happiness.

Unfortunately, if you do decide to build your own tiny house, you’ll have to face down plenty
of choices before you can enjoy a simpler life in your new home. In fact, you will likely be
overwhelmed with choice literally every step of the way.

As hard as fielding all the decisions is, though, I can tell you from my own experience that it’s
absolutely worth going through. There’s nothing quite like creating something so thoroughly
yours from scratch. Think of it this way: Building a tiny house is like making a huge deposit
in your “choice” bank. When it’s done, you can kick back and enjoy not making choices for a
while.

Financial Decisions
Have you ever heard the saying that you should never allow money to drive your decision-
making process? Sadly, most of the decisions you’ll make while building your tiny house will
come down to money.

But that’s not the whole story. Every decision is about money, but it’s also about something
else. It could be about money vs. safety when you’re deciding what kind of CO2/propane
detection system you’ll use. Or it could be about money vs. warmth when you’re deciding
between pricey spray foam insulation and less expensive foam panels.

Why is that worth noting? Because unless you have an unlimited budget, you’re likely going
to have to sacrifice some of what you want in your tiny house in order to keep costs under
control. It’s of the utmost importance that you strike the balance between features and cost to
come out of the experience with a home that’s livable for you.

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Consider yourself warned: Once you start building, you will fall in love with your house. You’ll
want to put into it the best that your budget will allow (or more). I did have an overall budget,
but I did not have it broken down by category. For example, I sprung for a standing seam metal
roof because I just knew it would look fantastic on my house. I was lucky; the fact that
my project went only slightly over budget for
materials was miraculous.

I’m far from alone in my experience. One of the most The best way to plan
common challenges I’ve heard from other tiny house
builders is that they went into the project with an for going over budget
unrealistic budget. There are plenty of examples of
people building tiny houses for under $10,000 or even
is to budget for it.
attempting to use one hundred percent salvaged
materials. However, it’s not the norm, especially if
this is your first tiny house.

Luckily, you can address this problem before you make a single purchase. The best way to
plan for going over budget is to budget for it. Whatever number you come up with, make sure
you’ve built in some buffer for the unknown.

I recommend having as detailed a budget as possible. People like Macy Miller have put out
very specific information on how much they spent. There are enough people who have built
tiny homes and documented their experience online that you can get a decent idea of what it
will cost to build one like yours.

Trade-Off Decisions
Building a tiny house will force you to make decisions in a much different way than you are
used to. Since tiny houses are all about limits, many of your decisions will be trade-offs. For
example, you could choose to use 2 x 6 construction in your floors to get more insulation down
there, except that you’d have to subtract two inches of headroom from your loft to keep your
house within the road-legal height! Or you could decide to make your house wider than the
trailer, except then you’d need a permit (and a chase car in some states) in order to move
your house.

It bears repeating: Tiny houses force you to make decisions in a different way. Many decisions
are give-or-take: If you choose one option, you lose another option. Here are some more
examples of trade off-decisions:

• Put more windows in for natural light but make your house harder to heat.
• Wire your house 120v so you can “plug in” anywhere but make the application of solar less
efficient (since you’ll have to convert your solar (DC) power to AC using an inverter).
• Choose the aesthetically pleasing Dickinson Newport heater but lose the ability to control
the temperature in your house via thermostat.

Are you starting to get the trade-off concept? Good.

Snowballing Decisions

On top of all that, these decisions don’t operate in a vacuum. They carry all the way through
your project…

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Partial credit.

That’s what I used to get in ninth grade algebra class when the answer I came up with was
wrong, but the steps that I took to get there were sound. More often than not, my mistake was
caused by a careless calculation error in the early stages of solving the problem that threw off
my final answer.

I learned an important lesson in ninth grade algebra: When you’re solving a big long equation,
once you make a mistake, that mistake is carried all the way through. The same is true of the
decisions you make while building your tiny house. Each decision gets buried in layer upon
layer of new construction, making it hard to undo. Even more important is the fact that in a
tiny house, where space is at a premium, once you locate one thing in your house (like where
the couch will be), the rest of the layout becomes infinitely less flexible.

For example, I decided to work with a designer to come up with a very specific set of plans for
my tiny house. This decision prevented me from having a more “free-flowing” build, where
I might have scavenged for windows or other reclaimed materials and fit the house around
them. Instead, I had to use the brand of windows we designed for and the sizes they offered.

Here’s another example of a decision carrying through: I decided I wanted my door off to the
side and not in the middle of the rear wall. So I framed the house that way. By moving the door
off to the side, I had to shorten it so that the rough opening for the door wouldn’t intersect
with the structural top plate of the front wall. Later, I discovered that I would have to get a
door custom built, because the height of my door was much shorter than a “normal” house
size. I now have a gorgeous, custom-made French-style pine door from LePage. It cost
over $1,500.

Whether you’re just starting to build your house or still dreaming about how you might make a
tiny house happen, I hope that this book provides you with the answers to your questions.
Ultimately, new questions will replace your old ones, but after reading Tiny House Decisions
you will have a much better framework for researching, answering, and deciding.

Now let’s get into it!

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Part 1: Big Decisions

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The big decisions are all of the questions you’ll need to answer

before you can really start planning your tiny house build.

Sure, tiny houses are cute, but is living in one really for you?

If you’re dead set on a tiny house, should it be built on a

trailer like mine? Should you build it yourself or hire help?

All of these are “big decision” questions that we’ll explore in

the following pages.

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Is a tiny house right for you?

You may assume you’re past this question, but I think it’s an important one to cover before we
go any further. People who look at gorgeous, quaint tiny houses on Pinterest all day are not
getting the full picture. Aside from all the space issues, living in a tiny house comes with its
own set of challenges. The biggest one of these is that tiny houses are frequently either illegal
or fall in a legal grey area when you decide to live in one full time.

The laws in your individual municipality will be different than the laws in mine, but building
a tiny house will likely mean building a structure that doesn’t fit so neatly within the letter of
the law. Out of this very challenge, though, comes an opportunity: One of the big advantages
to building on wheels is that your house will likely not be subject to building code, because
the house is not considered a building. This is good because it allows you to build whatever
you want, wherever you want, without any interference. However, when you turn around and
decide to live in that same house, since it’s not considered a house by the building code, it
will be subject to other rules. It’ll likely be considered a “temporary structure” or lumped into
the same category as an RV or travel trailer. Do you see the paradox here? You can build the
house any way you like because it’s not considered a legal “house,” but that very same rule will
prevent you from living in it legally full time.

As far as I can tell, even in my rural town of Morrisville, Vermont, my tiny house falls
in the same category as a “camper.” The code states that campers “shall not be used as
living quarters for more than 30 days within a 12-month period.” So if you take a literal
interpretation of the code, I am breaking the law. And it’s likely that your tiny house will be
illegal in one way or another, too:

• It may be legal for you to build but illegal for you to live in all year round.
• It may be legal for you to park but illegal to hook up to utilities.
• The way you park it may be illegal; for example, it may need to be on a concrete slab or a
certain distance from other structures.
• Your loft bedroom may be illegal due to lack of egress.
• It may be illegal for you to build a “house” without a flush toilet.

I could go on, but I think you see the point.

I’m not saying that these laws are fair or come from a system that’s designed to encourage
small or sustainable building (it’s not), but this is the reality of the current legal landscape.
And it’s something that you, as a potential tiny house owner, need to be aware of.

What the legal gray area means for my tiny house, at least, is that I am unwilling to purchase
land for the house. Since I rent the land that the house is on, I could always move if I got in
trouble. If I were to purchase land and then get kicked off, I could be in a situation where I’ve
spent a lot of money for land that I can’t live on in my tiny house. That would not be good. If I
wanted to purchase land, I would follow the advice Ryan Mitchell gives in his book Cracking
the Code and work with the local municipality to get a pass to put my tiny house there before I
ever started building.

However cute they are, keep in mind that tiny houses are still new and the establishment is
still figuring out what to do with them. I have no doubt that the tiny house movement will wind

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