If the thought of ever scraping together enough money for a down payment on a home seems out of reach, what with record high home prices and big student loan bills, you might be glad to know that you can own a piece of the American Dream for much less than the $275,000 current average list price for a traditional home. You just have to get a bit more creative with your idea of home.
From decked out RVs to minimalist tiny houses, you’ve got lots of options that come in well under $50,000. But since these are all alternatives to traditional homes, in most cases you’re on your own when it comes to figuring out where to put them. While you can hypothetically park an RV anywhere, for example, you’re going to need to rely on some kind of a power and waste hookup, which can cost an average of $1,000 a month (unless you set up solar and empty your own sewer tanks). And if you opt for a container home or yurt, you’ll need to buy a piece of land to put it on unless you have a really good friend with a giant backyard. You’ll also need to figure out your city’s zoning and building codes to make sure you can even put a yurt in the backyard.
You’ll also need to get used to living in a pretty small space. If you opt for #vanlife or a towable tiny home, for example, you’ll need to make do with around 200 square feet. Some spaces provide up to 500 square feet, but you’ll still need to either purge your book collection and outdoor gear or pay for the dreaded storage unit.
If you're committed to owning a home on the cheap without having to spend decades of your life paying a mortgage, here are five of your best bets for owning an alternative home:
Tiny homes are typically smaller than 500 feet and have enough room for a tiny kitchen, bathroom, and a lofted queen-sized bed, but not much else. While most are on wheels, others can be built on solid ground if you can get a permit for them.
Rebecca Doll built her own tiny house on a rural piece of land owned by a friend in Ridgway, Colorado. “[It] allowed me to build something that was mine, learn carpentry, save up money in the long run, pay for a yoga teacher training course, and spend time road-tripping to see my friends all over the West,” she says. “What would have been the cost of living went toward actually living.”
With a down payment of $2,523 and a monthly payment of well under $500, you can get a basic pro built tiny home, or you can get started building your own with this newbie checklist and building course.
Average cost: $25,000
Pros: Cheap, customizable, and quick to build
Cons: You need to build a platform, which costs at least $2,000, and replace the yurt cover at least once every 15 years. You’ll also need land—either yours or a friends—with building codes that allow for yurts.
Inspired by the portable homes used by nomads in Central Asia for thousands of years, the modern-day yurt is a round, heavy-duty tent with anywhere from 115 to 700 square feet of living space. While the word “tent” may procure images of a nylon camping tent, yurts are built to withstand winds of up to 105 mph and heavy snow loads.
Yurts are completely customizable—think skylights, decks, fabric color—and can be set up in a single day. Interior walls and lofts are often added in to break up the one-room space and provide privacy for the bedroom and bathroom.
Companies like Colorado Yurt Company provide customers with everything from floor plan examples to yurt installation services, while also supplying free information for DIYers.
Average cost: $20,000 (DIY), $45,000 (pro built)
Pros: Reuses out-of-service containers and provides an instant structure for a build time that is 30 percent faster than a conventional build
Cons: You'll be living in as little as 160 square feet, will need to put down a foundation, and figure out how to keep the metal structure from getting too hot or cold
A container home is made from one or more shipping containers, often used like building blocks to create a multi-bedroom home. On average, a shipping container costs $2,000, which is hard to beat when you consider the cost of building a similarly sized structure from the ground up. The two standard sizes are 20 feet by 8 feet (which works out to 160 square feet of living space) or 40 feet by 8 feet (or 320 square feet).
Crystal Glynn and her fiance Matt Sandoval recently built their own container home in Colorado with the hopes of selling it and using the profit to build a traditional house. “We did it because we wanted to ideally save money and not pay someone else’s mortgage,” says Glynn, who’s been living in the container home for six months. “It changed my idea of what’s valuable in my life. I’ve really cut down on spending because I don’t have anywhere to put things.”
RVs and campers
Average cost: $15,000 for a used EuroVan to $58,000 for a Class A RV
Pros: Complete freedom to travel when and where you want and no utility bills
Cons: The more you drive and the larger your rig, the more you pay in gas. Overnight camping with sewer, water, and electric can be expensive while setting up your own solar and emptying your own sewage can be a pain.
From VW EuroVans to Airstreams to buses, this alternative home trend is likely the most affordable and easily the most mobile. Your home is what you make it; you can go high-end with a Class A, souped-up Winnebago or go the minimal route with a van sans bathroom.
There are no utility bills, but depending on how often you travel, your gas bill will skyrocket since RVs typically get just 10 to 20 miles per gallon. The trick with a home on wheels is finding safe, overnight parking and either a utility hookup or full-service bathrooms. KOA’s RV parks are located across the country and provide a full hookup, while Boondockers Welcome—the couch surfing of the RV community—connects travelers with locals who allow campers to park on their property.
Average cost: $150,000
Pros: You'll get more space than other alternative housing options, a large down payment isn’t always needed, and monthly payments are fixed
Cons: Finding an affordable option isn’t easy if you’re not considered low income
The setups of housing co-ops can vary, but the general idea is that instead of buying a home or apartment, you buy shares, which entitle you to a partial ownership in the organization. In co-ops, participants often share the cost of maintenance and amenities, so rather than paying rent or mortgage, members pay a monthly fee to cover their share of expenses (mortgage, property taxes, maintenance costs, insurance premiums, utilities).
While some co-ops are just as expensive as buying a house, affordable options exist and are typically referred to as limited-equity co-ops. Detroit’s Blackstone Manor Cooperative serves low-income buyers who pay as little as $3,830 to buy a share, and under $430 a month to cover carrying charges. Using a more upfront pay structure, Wild Sage Cohousing’s affordable units in Boulder, Colorado were priced as low as $157,000 for a 3-bedroom with HOA dues varying by square footage. In Washington D.C., a 1-bedroom in Capitol Manor is going for $150,000.
National Association of Housing Cooperatives has a complete list of co-ops, the 6th Principle Coalition lists only limited-equity options, and the Partnerships for Affordable Cohousing provides information on previous and upcoming cohousing projects.