Pennsylvanian Janice Kenney’s home is small–much smaller than you imagine.
Kenney lives in a 140-square-foot structure that many people would consider cramped. There’s no shower and only the barest stove. She sleeps in a loft in what isn’t quite a second floor.
“This thing is definitely much smaller than what I planned on,” said Kenney, who’s lived in her tiny abode for the past year and a half.
But while Kenney’s home might be small, she’s not planning to leave. Kenney is part of the small house movement, a growing group of people who seek a simpler life that is both affordable and environmentally conscious.
The movement, which began to take off in 2000, has grown in popularity since the housing bubble in 2006. Bridget Thornton, head of public relations and marketing for Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, said the movement has seen a spike in popularity–both in the number of people purchasing small homes and from businesses like Tumbleweed–in the past several years.
“In the past year we’ve seen a huge amount of growth with our business and several other businesses doing what we are doing,” she told Movoto Real Estate in an phone interview from the company’s headquarters in Northern California.
While she has no hard figures for why there’s been an increase, Thornton said people are reaching retirement and looking for more efficient space, and people are becoming more concerned about their environmental footprint.
While the small house movement has been in the public eye for more than a decade, there’s much that people don’t understand.
It’s Not All About the McMansion
There are a number of opinions on how the movement came about. Some who have purchased or built small houses fretted over the environment, others saw it as a way to cut down on rent payments, and some simply wanted less clutter.
Gregory Johnson, co-founder of the Small House Society and one of the movement’s luminaries, said some people confuse the movement’s goals.
“People think that this small house movement is anti-big,” Johnson said. “The small house movement isn’t about people who live big. It’s about making options available for people who want to live small.”
Johnson should know. For six years Johnson lived in small house. During that time Johnson wrote, “Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned From Living in 140 Square Feet,” and traveled the country promoting the concept. He later married and sold his house to Kenney.
When Johnson decided to live in a small house, later dubbed the Mobile Heritage, he was spending $260 a month to rent an efficiency apartment.
“I thought I could buy a home on the small scale and then I thought I wouldn’t have any rent at all,” Johnson said.
Johnson contacted Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and co-founder of the Small House Society. The two men worked together to build the Mobile Heritage.
Since then, Shafer, who lived in a 96-square-foot home for 10 years, started Tumbleweed, a business that builds small homes and sells plans to DIY-ers. At the same time the movement started to gain traction.
“People started to see they were over consumptive,” Thornton said about the movement’s early days. “They saw this as a way of moving from over-buying…to just a simpler life.”
But it wasn’t until the housing market collapsed that the movement began to grow.
“I think once the bubble burst in the real estate market that’s when it really started to take off,” Thornton added.
Hippies, Eccentrics, and the Mainstream
The popular image of people who might live in a small house are ex-hippies or those who push against the mainstream. While this might have been true at the beginning of the movement, much has changed.
The people who purchase homes, building plans, and attend the company’s workshops are predominantly single women in their 40s and 50s.
“You would think it would be the Portland hipster,” Thornton said. She added: “This is a woman-dominated movement.”
These homes are most popular in coastal regions, especially in the north eastern Atlantic area. Other areas include Winnipeg, Washington, Oregon, and Texas.
“They are big out in Texas,” Thornton said. “You would think they have these big palaces out there, but no.”
Where Does Your Stuff Go?
One of the major tenets of the movement is simplifying your life. This means getting rid of things that aren’t useful in order to live in a smaller home.
Some within the small houses movement believe it’s wasteful to collect items and then not put them to use.
“People could be using all those sentimental things and in the mean time they are rotting in a damp storage area,” Kenney said. “It’s selfish to keep this stuff when people could be using it.”
This doesn’t mean it was easy for Kenney. She said it took two years to downsize her life.
“When I’m in the house there are still little knickknacks I’ve keep…I feel like I have a lot of stuff,” she said.
Johnson said one of things that has made the movement grow is the advent of technology. Books and music can be digitized.
“You look around and all that stuff is gone,” he said. “I think that’s significant.”
When preparing to move Kenney went through her belongings, trying to figure out what to keep.
“I found if I took pictures of all these items that were of sentimental items…it was a way to let it go,” she said. “In the year and a half do you think I’ve gone back and looked at a single one—absolutely not.”
“My entire life is lighter; that’s the only way I can explain,” she added.