Over the last five years, there’s been a lot of talk about tiny houses. You'll know them as those kitschy little cabins that can be knocked up for cheap and moved about on trailers. Stories about tiny houses tend to dwell on their affordability, ecological sustainability, and the minimalist lifestyle that they entail. There’s even some hope that they represent a solution to Australia’s housing affordability crisis. But what’s it like to actually live in one?
“It’s a cool concept. It’s like, ‘I’ll build a tiny house and it will cost me $25,000; I don’t have a mortgage,’” says Tallis Clarke, who spent a few months building one just outside of Sydney earlier this year. Ultimately, though, Clarke says the place was just too small for him to live in for any decent amount of time. After building it from scratch, renting it out as an Airbnb, and eventually selling it, his summary is: “I probably wouldn’t live in one myself, to be honest.
“It’s just tiny,” he laughs. “We’re talking about a space which is 4.8 metres by 2.4 metres in the living room, and then you’ve got a 1.2 metre by 2 metre bathroom. If you’re a single bachelor in the woods it’s kind of cool, but to have another person you’d have to be really organised, really tidy, really clean—and that’s not me.”
Tallis is a 28-year-old landscape gardener from Sydney. He has a girlfriend, and he wants to have a big family one day, so tiny house living wasn’t really suited to him. He got the idea to build it after he and his girlfriend stayed in a few tiny house Airbnbs on a trip to New Zealand and, to be fair, he pursued it more as an investment than a long term housing solution. He reckons he spent about $25,000 on materials, plus his labour, and then he had it on his dad’s property at Maroota. He says he was pulling about $300 a week by listing it as an Airbnb.
This was a tidy little investment for a while, but eventually Tallis needed some cash and decided to try to sell it for $50,000. It turned out to be quite a difficult sell, and after a few months he got $35,000 for it.
If Tallis is the pessimist in this story, then Darren Hughes, a mid-40s Kiwi bloke, is the optimist. Darren is a confident, fast-talking guy who has worked as a personal trainer, marketing consultant, and has been a “corporate man” for the National Australia Bank. Now he works for an inventory and stocktake company, runs the Tiny Houses Australia Facebook page, and has a side business selling custom-built tiny house trailers. And for him, tiny houses are a way of life.
“Whenever I present on stage,” says Darren, who dedicates a chunk of his time to promoting tiny houses at events, “I ask the audience to imagine a life with no mortgage, no personal debt, no car loans, no credit card debt.
“Most people can’t imagine a life like that but it is possible,” he says. “We’re not saying live like a monk. But if you get rid of all the stuff in your life and the things that you don’t really need, and move into a smaller space, it will give you the cash flow and time freedom to do more of the things that you want and spend more time with the people that you care about.”
It sounds quite utopian—but it’s also probably unappealing for a lot of millennials, who tend to live in cities and statistically spend 69 percent of their disposable income on drinking, takeaway food, and partying. According to VICE Australia’s millennial money survey, almost half of millennials say they’d prefer to rent longer and be close to the things they need. On the other hand, a tiny house is probably the only house that a millennial will ever be able to afford.
“The number one reason is the cost,” Hughes admits. “It’s still substantially cheaper than any house in the country, pretty much.” For those with building skills and a nose for a bargain, a tiny house can be put together for as low as $10,000. At the other end of the scale, you can commission a specialty building company to knock you up a primo tiny house for a cool $120,000.
When you cut through all the hype, it seems that tiny houses are really just appealing to people who can’t afford regular houses. And even though house prices have been dropping in Sydney and Melbourne over the last few months, housing is still prohibitively expensive for most millennials. According to Australia’s biggest money survey, only 18 per cent of millennials say they can afford to buy a house in a location of their choosing. And yet 85 per cent of millennials want to own a home someday.
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