If you’ve been following the tiny house movement for any amount of time, there’s a good chance you’ve come across a story about someone getting ripped off by a tiny house builder. Heck, I’ve interviewed several people on this show whose builders have gone bankrupt or not delivered on what they promised. This week, I’m interviewing Frank Olito, the resident tiny house expert at Business Insider. Frank has also noticed this trend in the industry and has focused his reporting on it. In this episode, you'll learn about what happens when you work with a bad builder, what recourse you can take, and how to avoid bad builders in the first place.
In This Episode:
- Going beyond the pretty pictures and into the lives of people who live in tiny houses
- Who really lives in tiny houses?
- A disturbing trend in the tiny house movement and why it's happening
- Is there any recourse for a bad builder?
- Tips for tiny house builder research
- What if you notice some red flags from the builder you're working with?
- Tiny house builders, please keep this in mind
- Builder vs DIY prices explained
- Where can you live legally in your tiny house? And why we cannot answer that question.
- The effect of the movement's growth on pricing and accommodations
- Costs of builds that you may not consider
Links and Resources:
Frank Olito is Insider and Business Insider's tiny house expert. He reports mainly on alternative living, focusing on tiny houses, RVs, van life, and skoolies. As Insider's resident tiny house expert, he has stayed in several tiny houses, attended a tiny house convention, interviewed countless tiny house owners, and chatted with numerous tiny house builders.
All photos courtesy of Business Insider
A tiny house festival
A tiny children's room
Lindsay and Eric Wood's unfinished tiny house
A tiny house village
The living room of The Venice, a tiny house Frank stayed in
The Muellers outside of their tiny house
The Orlando Lakefront Community
The Woods towing their unfinished tiny house
Frank Olito 0:00
You know, you scroll through Instagram, you see these beautiful photos, but you're not really seeing what it's actually like to live in these tiny houses. Of course, there are hundreds and thousands of positive stories of people living in these tiny houses and going super well. But I also found that there's some side of the movement that many people don't know about or don't even talk about.
Ethan Waldman 0:20
Welcome to the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast, the show where you learn how to plan, build and live the tiny lifestyle. I'm your host, Ethan Waldman, and this is episode 143. with Frank Olito. If you've been following the tiny house movement for any amount of time, there's a good chance you've come across a story about someone getting ripped off by their tiny house builder. Heck, I've even interviewed several people on this show whos builders have gone bankrupt or not delivered on what they promised. This week, I'm interviewing Frank Olito, the resident tiny house expert at Business Insider. Frank has also noticed this trend in the industry and has focused his reporting on it. Stick around to learn about what happens when you work with a bad builder, what recourse you can take, and how to avoid bad builders in the first place.
Before we get started, I'd like to wish you a Happy New Year. Whether you've been listening to the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast since the beginning, or you just found the show, I really appreciate that you're here. If you're listening on thetinyhouse.net and want to get the new episode each week download a podcast app (like Overcast or Cashbox) and search for Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast, then hit Subscribe. You can also find the show in Spotify and Apple Podcasts. Your questions, emails and feedback keep the show fresh and as long as you keep listening, I'll keep making it. Happy 2021.
All right. I am here with Frank Olito. Frank is Insider and Business Insider's tiny house expert. He reports mainly on alternative living - focusing on tiny houses, RVs, van life, and skoolies. As Insider's resident tiny house expert he has stayed in several tiny houses, attended a tiny house convention interviewed countless tiny house owners and chatted with numerous tiny house builders. Frank Olito, welcome to the show.
Frank Olito 2:32
Thank you so much for having me.
Ethan Waldman 2:33
You're very welcome.
Frank Olito 2:34
I'm excited to be here.
Ethan Waldman 2:35
Yeah, likewise. So I was curious how you came to the tiny house movement as a reporter. Were they kind of like, "Hey, Frank, this is your beat now?" Or was this something that you kind of pitched to them and said, "This is something I'm interested in?"
Frank Olito 2:53
Yeah, definitely. So I would say about two years ago, tiny houses really wasn't on my radar. Like I maybe saw a few posts on Instagram on social media here and there, but it wasn't really on my radar. And I was hired at Insider as a generalist reporter. So just covering anything and everything - a catch-all position, basically. And I noticed that those stories that we were producing around tiny houses (because other people reporting on them in the company) was performing super well, those were really super great performers on the site. And readers were just eating up those stories. But we were just doing tiny house stories here and there. And I was like, Hey, guys, I think this is a an area that we can really expand our coverage on. Really, there's a lot of this movement that we can still cover much more extensively. And I started doing that very slowly. But around probably a year ago, I started to pitch a story to stay and visit a tiny house community down in Orlando, Florida. And I stayed there for three or four nights. And I stayed in a tiny house that was on Airbnb in that community. And I stayed there during while I was staying there. I really just fell in love with the lifestyle. It was like, wow, this is a lifestyle that people can actually do full-time. And I found it fascinating. And while I was there, I also got to speak to all of these tiny house owners that were living in the community. And from them, I really understood what this lifestyle really entailed. And I also got the chance to tour their tiny houses to like Remember, this is my first time really experiencing the tiny house lifestyle movement in a first person way. And when I returned from that trip from Orlando, and I started writing these stories from that trip, they really blew up on our website in for lack of a better term. They went viral. Millions and millions of people were interested in these stories. And that's really where it all began.
Ethan Waldman 5:04
Wow, yeah. And that's like, I found the same thing. You know, before I even built my own tiny house, I was, I was doing a different business online. And I was I was kind of it was called Cloud coach, I was doing tech consulting. And I noticed as soon as I started writing about my tiny house, it was just like, it felt like I was swimming upstream writing about tech. And then as soon as I started talking about tiny houses, it was like, riding with the current, like surfing downstream.
Frank Olito 5:36
Exactly. I had the same experience. I would say before that, you know, the things I was writing at insider and Business Insider, were much more general. And it was a struggle to get eyes on the stories that I was writing. And then as soon as I shifted my focus, you know, just bunches of people just came and read these stories, because it's just fascinating to people who are both inside the movement and also outside of the movement looking in.
Ethan Waldman 6:02
Yeah, sometimes coverage of the tiny house movement that's kind of written from the outside can be, you know, either clickbait-y or overly critical, kind of like, you know, 'The Hidden Downsides of Tiny House Living", you know. I wonder, you know, how you approached finding stories in in the movement?
Frank Olito 6:22
Yeah, I would definitely say that. I know those stories. I've also have written those stories of like, the disappointing photos of tiny houses. And I try and find the stories that show the human side of tiny houses, you know, these are actual people living their lives in these structures, I think we can easily get swept away in the tiny house hashtag on Instagram, and just see hundreds and thousands of photos of these beautiful photos of these beautiful Tiny Homes and forget that these are actual people living in them. And so what I try and do is I try and scour social media, look through Instagram, look at what other outlets are covering with tiny houses and find the people that actually have a story to tell. The deeper you go, you realize that you know, these there are families, full families, people of five living in a tiny house, you realize that there are retirees living in tiny houses, there are couples that are living on top of each other full time and these tiny houses. So when I'm looking for a story, I try and find that human angle. It's not just "Hey, look at this beautiful home", it's, "Hey, look at this beautiful home and see who's living inside of it."
Ethan Waldman 7:35
Yeah, that's a great way to approach it. And there are so many different kinds of people living in tiny houses. One thing that always surprised me was, you know, when I, when I started on my build, I was, you know, 26, I thought that it was going to just be all millennials. And it turns out that it really spans all ages. And and I would say that I'm seeing it skew more toward the baby boomer generation, who are actually building tiny houses and then staying in them forever, whereas the millennials, like me are building them and then after a few years, it's kind of like, "Okay, well, on to the next thing." Um, have you found that as well?
Frank Olito 8:15
Yeah, definitely. So I've spoken to a lot of tiny house owners that are retired, and this is their retirement home, you know. There's a growing movement of people not moving into a 50 year old plus communities, but they're actually moving into tiny homes, because it's a different way to live out their retirement. And then at the same time, I'm seeing younger people, Millennials, move into tiny houses as a financial movement. You know, it's a way to own a piece of property at a young age, at not a huge price tag. So I think the tiny house movement, tiny house specifically, are an answer. It's a different answer to many different people. But at the end of the day, it's just a different way to live, no matter who's in it, and why they chose to do it.
Ethan Waldman 9:09
When you contacted me something kind of specific that you mentioned that we could talk about was bad builders, for lack of a better term, or people who are having issues with their tiny house builders. Can you talk about what, what you've been finding in that arena?
Frank Olito 9:29
Yeah. So during my time of reporting on the tiny house movement, like I said earlier, you know, you scroll through Instagram, you see these beautiful photos, but you're not really seeing the other side of the movement of what it's actually like to live in these tiny houses. Of course, there are hundreds and thousands of positive stories of people living in these tiny houses and it going super well, but I also found that there's a pattern in this movement that there is some side of the movement that many people don't know about or don't even talk about. And the main thing that I saw is that tiny house owners are getting screwed over by their builders. You know, I would tour tiny houses, and the owners would be like, "Oh, yeah, those those floorboards that are coming up? The builder messed it up." Or, "You see this? The builder did X, Y and Z wrong." Or, "You see this? The builder did ABC wrong." And I started to see this happening on and on and and over and over again. And then I started asking people like, "Is this an issue that's happening in the movement? Do you see this constantly?" And they're like, "Oh, yeah, this is just something we're dealing with. Because we are such a new movement. This is something that we are dealing with." And at first it was quite, it was a little heartbreaking for me, because people who move into tiny houses, you know, they are sometimes moving out of their hometowns, they are sometimes quitting their jobs to move into their tiny house, they are downsizing significantly, they are completely changing their lives. Completely. And they are just doing this because they're hopeful of a better, more alternative way of living. And then they're hit, they're smacked in the face with this reality that now we have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars that we didn't expect to spend, because our builder made all these mistakes and screwed us over. And when I noticed this pattern, I realized I really wanted to really shine a light on it and bring and highlight it to show that the tiny house movement is not just a series of beautiful photos on Instagram, it's actually real people going through real issues. And this is one of the issues that they face. And when I was in Fresno, California for a tiny house convention, I met Lindsay and Eric Wood, who had a very significant story with their builder. Do you want me to get into that?
Ethan Waldman 12:00
Yeah, well, I've had Lindsay on the podcast, I was gonna say like, I've heard the same. I've heard this as well. And I'm glad to hear that that as a reporter, as a journalist, you you've noticed this trend and done some reporting on it. But yeah, why don't you you know, remind us about Lindsey, because it's been a while since she's been on the show. And I'm sure there are a lot of people who definitely
Frank Olito 12:23
have never heard of that, definitely. So I can just sum it up very quickly. I'm sure you can go listen to the other episode and Lindsey can probably explain it much better than I can. But Lindsay and Eric Wood basically went to a tiny house festival back in 2017, to find a builder for their tiny house. And they ended up finding a builder called Alpine Tiny Homes. They were based in Utah. And Lindsey and Eric Wood decided to go with this company because they felt super comfortable with them. They felt like they had a great introductory conversation. Everything was in line, they were ready to go. They agreed on a $90,000 tiny home. And they agreed that it would be built in four months. Flash Forward over to seven months later, the tiny house still was not built and they were way over the timeframe that they were given. And in the middle of that at the seven month mark, Lindsay Wood received a nightmare phone call. She learned that Alpine Tiny Homes, the builder that she chose, was actually going out of business mid-build. So basically, she was left with a shell of a tiny house: basically wood beams and a frame on a trailer. And she ended up spending $60,000. And Lindsay said it best when she said you know you could buy an entire tiny home with full appliances, high end amenities, for $60,000. And they just got a shell. And so when they received this basically unfinished home, they realized that a lot of things were still missing, you know, they agreed on a rooftop deck, they agreed on a six-foot window, they agreed on a rock climbing wall on the exterior. They also even agreed on like finishing the interior, but all of it was missing. To make matters even worse, what was finished of this unfinished tiny house was broken or poorly done. So the hatch on the roof was too tall. So if they went under an underpass, it would just rip clean off and ruin their roof. The roof itself was not insulated properly, so when it rained, it poured inside the tiny house quite literally. And most dangerously and most significantly, they learned that the builder put the house on the wrong tires and axle. So after two days of traveling on this trailer, they realized that it was the wrong size. So when they went to a new builder, the builder was like, "Your tires and axles are bent from withstanding the weight of your home." And at the end of it all, you know, they spent an extra $40,000 to finish and fix the mistakes that their builder made. And unfortunately, that's just one story. There's a bunch of other stories that similar situations have happened.
Ethan Waldman 15:26
Have you seen any benefit, is it worth the effort for people to make formal complaints, you know, such as, like Better Business Bureau or other organizations in hopes of kind of resolving the issues? What are you seeing people have for recourse?
Frank Olito 15:49
Yeah, so in Lindsay Woods' case, they signed an asis agreement, which basically said, that you take this tiny house, and no matter what you find at the end of it, we're not responsible for it, because you signed it off as this is okay as-is. And Lindsay felt that she needed to sign that contract, because she felt like they wouldn't give her the tiny house. So she felt this broken, incomplete tiny houses better than not having a tiny house at all. So in the long run, I think you'd have to ask her this directly. I don't want to put words in her mouth. But maybe she I think she might regret signing that as-is agreement, because she really can't follow through or sue the company for not finishing the tiny house and doing it incorrectly. I think that that's one case, I do see that the issue is quite significant, because it goes to the local state and federal government levels, because, you know, this goes back to really why is this happening? That's the real question. Why is this happening? And it's because there is no universal definition of a tiny home in the federal, state or local government. In the eyes of your local government, in most cases, tiny homes are just RVs. They are recreational vehicles. They are not meant to be lived in full time. So what does this mean? This means that builders are just popping up all over the country, because they don't need to build to a certain higher standard. You know, I've seen builders that have built one tiny house, their tiny house, and then call themselves a business and a company. And they're like, we can build as many tiny houses as we can. Since there is no federal oversight, this is possible. This is happening all over the US. And I think that is an issue.
Ethan Waldman 17:49
Yeah, I would agree. And one nice thing is that that is slowly starting to change, as there are some some certifications, some inspections that you can get, and also, you know, Appendix Q, which does start to define what a tiny home is. It's helping
Frank Olito 18:08
Yeah, but yeah, yeah, so appendix Q. The issue with that is obviously that it only creates standards for tiny houses on foundation. But I think the other part that people always forget, also is that, even though it's in the federal IRC building code, your state and local governments still have to pass it. So like, you can't just build your tiny house be like, "Oh, it's in the IRC," and then just expect that to be okay. Like, you still have to check beyond that right to make sure that your local government has passed it. There's so many caveats, even with the Appendix Q.
Ethan Waldman 18:42
Yeah, there's also nobody forcing a builder to build to any specific sense standard, because it's not like a single family home where you have to get a certificate of occupancy before you can move in.
Frank Olito 18:53
Ethan Waldman 18:55
It's, it seems to me that, you know, people have nothing against people who are in the trades. But you know, you look at a tiny house and you kind of think that's so much easier to build. But in my opinion, it's actually a lot harder, because you've got very complicated interface between the house and the trailer. And then you've got all these systems that you still have to fit in and have work correctly in a much smaller space.
Frank Olito 19:30
I think that issue comes from early in the movement because I think this movement really started as a DIY movement. It was a way to build a home on your own for cheap. And in some ways, the movement is really coming to terms with that. Is it still a DIY movement? It might not be anymore, and the fact that people are thinking that they can still do it on their own; they think it's easy, you know? And in reality, it's not. And there are builders who like say, "Oh, I am a construction worker, I build homes all the time - traditional homes." Yes, sure some of those skills will carry over but that doesn't necessarily mean you know how to build a tiny home for the same reasons you just mentioned. So I think the tiny house movement has to come to terms with the fact that it may no longer be a DIY movement. And it's not an easy thing to do this on your own, or that builders, any builder that has any construction experience can just build a tiny house because anyone can do it, because it's not as easy as it Looks.
Ethan Waldman 20:42
Yeah, that's great advice. You mentioned the as-is agreement. I know that non disclosure agreements have also - they're something that are on way more people's radar after, you know, learning about the metoo movement, and just the way that non disclosures were used to cover up abuses there. Have you heard of tiny house builders, enforcing non disclosure agreements?
Frank Olito 21:07
As of right now, I have not heard of that. Have you heard of that? Have you heard of builders using it?
Ethan Waldman 21:15
I'm not sure. I have an online community that I run. And I do have one member who has had some issues with their builder. And it'd be interesting to hear if there have been any non disclosures.
Frank Olito 21:27
Yeah, no, that'd be fascinating. I would love to look into that more. I haven't heard Personally, I haven't heard of NDA is being signed. I would say that if you're working with a builder that makes you sign an NDA upfront, I would say, definitely be wary of that. You know, push further be like, why is this needed? Like what's going to happen in the process that I need to stay quiet about? But yeah, I would say just be wary of that situation does arise?
Ethan Waldman 21:54
Yeah. I'm curious. You know, if a good friend of yours said, "Hey, Frank, I gonna, I'm gonna buy a tiny house, I'm gonna hire a builder to build me a tiny house. Um, you know, what advice would you have?"
Frank Olito 22:08
The most important piece of advice I would have is definitely to do your research. And I cannot emphasize this enough. Do your research, do your research and do your research even more. You know, like I said earlier, there are hundreds of tiny house builders on the market right now. If you just do a quick Google search, so many will come up. Some are more experienced, some are newer. I think what you need to do is when you find a builder that you like, really do your research on that builder itself. If you're just looking through their website and reading their testimonials there, know that that's heavily curated; they're only using their positive reviews there. So do your research beyond that, you know, there are a ton of tiny house Facebook groups: drop that builders name into the into one of those Facebook groups and be like, "Hey, guys, Has anyone used this builder before? And if so, what was that process like?" When you do that, you may get a ton of responses of people like, "Hey, that was super positive, that was super great. We had a great experience." You may get people who were like, "I've never heard that builder, or no one's ever used that builder." And I'd be hesitant to go ahead with that builder, just because you want to trust this builder. And you don't want to just choose a builder is their new and cheap. Because you're going to get what you get. You're going to get what you paid for. Also, keep in mind that if it's too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Like Lindsay said to me that, you know, they agreed on a rooftop deck, a rock climbing wall, and high end amenities for $90,000. She's like, in hindsight, that price tag didn't fit what we were asking for. So think about that. Just remember that if you get a price tag, that doesn't really make sense, but you're excited about it, because it is cheaper than what you expected, you should really stop in question. Also, if you do all those things, and you find out that this builder is really great and has really great people, I would also recommend going back to their website and finding a past customer. And even if it's a glowing review, I recommend reaching out to that past customer - find them on social media and ask them more in depth what their experience was like. Because they may have left something out in their review. They may have been like, "Oh, it was great. But this one thing happened," or, "This relationship with the builder may have been odd because of x,y and z." And remember that building a relationship with your builder is important. You know, I've spoken to tiny house owners were like, "This was a really great experience; However, my builder kind of left me out of the process. You know, they chose the color of the exterior of my home without even really talking to me about it." So when you choose a builder that you like and have great reviews sit down with them and make sure the expectations are in line with each other, you know, make sure that you're going to be involved as much or as little as you want. Because remember, this is the relationship. So I'll just repeat that, you know, just make sure you do your research and make sure you're building a relationship that you and the builder are comfortable with.
Ethan Waldman 23:54
Yeah, that is great advice, especially like, find a past customer. Get in touch with them directly.
Frank Olito 25:29
Exactly. Yeah, I think that's my best piece of advice. Because, you know, they people have been through this before. Well, actually, one of my favorite things of the tiny house movement is that everybody is in it to help other people. It's, I feel like it's such a tight knit community. Because there hasn't- everybody - There's such a small amount of people who have been through the process. And if you fall back on people who have gone through this process before, especially with the builder that you're going to go with the rewards from that is endless, limitless, I highly recommend it.
Ethan Waldman 26:05
I'm curious what advice you have, you know, so you, you've given us great advice in terms of, you know, if you're starting from scratch finding a builder. What about somebody who's currently working with a builder? And they're feeling like, not going so well? Or, you know, they've had there have been some red flags, there have been some concerns. There might not really be universal advice, but what would you say to somebody?
Frank Olito 26:36
Yeah, I mean, that situation is definitely tough. We've all been in situations where we're like, "Am I regretting the decision that I went with?" And I think it really starts with a conversation, you know, communication is always important. And if possible, do it face to face. I know a lot of tiny house owners go with companies that aren't even in their state. But if possible, you know, go face to face and sit down with them and be like, "These are the issues I'm having. These are the concerns I'm having." And then see if you guys can come to a solution together. I mean, of course, there are situations where you just won't see eye to eye on things. That's when probably you'd have to make more drastic changes. I'm not exactly sure, you probably already signed a contract. So it might have been, you can't get out of it. But I think it starts with the conversation. And being as open as possible about it.
Ethan Waldman 27:35
I'm curious if there's any particular kinds of contracts that you've seen, yet more abused than others, like, I know, in the in the traditional construction work world, there's kind of like new kinds of contracts where you can either say, "I'm going to pay you for your time plus the materials plus a markup," or they're going to give you a flat price and say, like, "We can build the house for this much and you only pay for any changes or you know, other issues." Do you have a sense of of which contract is more favorable for, you know, a customer in the tiny house, shopping for a tiny house.
Frank Olito 28:15
Yeah, I haven't actually dove into the contract world that much. But from my perspective, it seems like most people are just getting flat prices. And then paying a deposit up front. Something I mentioned in one of the articles I've written is that there was one company in Arkansas called Slabtown Customs. And they told their customers to pay $11,000 in deposit upfront, and then they just never follow through with the tiny, they never built them a tiny house. And then eight of those customers filed a lawsuit and then went all the way up to the attorney general who is now pressing, who filed a lawsuit against that builder. Of course, that is a drastic, drastic situation where you pay a deposit and then you get no product but from my perspective, it seems like that's the norm that people are getting a flat rate and then just paying a deposit up front.
Ethan Waldman 29:11
Right. And that's, that's great for you for the customer as long as they deliver. But if they run into financial troubles, or you know, they're starting to feel squeezed, then your house ends up suffering.
Frank Olito 29:22
Mm hmm. Yeah. I also say that, you know, the difference between a tiny house and a traditional house is that you rarely run into a surprise in a tiny house. You know, like, when you're renovating a home, you find mold, you find termites you find other things that are jacked up that price, a tiny house, you're starting from scratch typically, so you know exactly how much the materials will cost. You know exactly how much the appliances will cost. You know how much the labor would cost. So I feel like there are no surprise costs in tiny houses. So I feel like if you go with a more experienced builder, they know from the start exactly how much this tiny house would cost. So that's one of the benefits of going with an experienced builder that has built many tiny houses, you go with a newer, newer builder who isn't so comfortable or confident in how much this build would cost that should be a red flag to you. Just because they probably haven't built as many tiny houses as you would like them to do actually give you a firm call upfront.
Ethan Waldman 30:33
I know that there are builders who listened to the show? Um, you know, what would be your advice to a tiny house builder for, you know, how to how to do it right. How did you right by your customers? I mean, should? I guess just the question coming out of my mouth sounds kind of obvious. But I'm curious what you would say?
Frank Olito 30:50
Well, I mean, I've spoken to many tiny house builders. And you know, their response is always like, hey, in any industry, you're going to have customers who are upset or unsatisfied with your work. In any industry, this is the norm. However, I would say to that, you know, this is a new movement. It's an unregulated movement. In some ways, it's a lawless movement. When I spoke to Zack Giffin of tiny house nation about this, he called it the Wild West right now. And I think builders should keep that in mind that they are being unregulated. And just because this is an unregulated movement, doesn't mean that you should be getting into this movement or a quick buck, you should keep in mind that these people, these customers, are real people; this is not just a product that they're going to use once or twice, this is their home, people are going to live in this full time, hopefully, presumably, for a few years, or 10 plus. They're going to be traveling sometimes with it, they're going to be traveling cross country with this tiny house. So I would say, you know, keep in mind that these are human people who are trying to start over in a new lifestyle, and just do the human thing there. You know, don't just do this for a quick buck. But keep in mind that this is not just a product, but it's actually a home.
Ethan Waldman 32:28
Yeah, that's, that's good advice. And if that doesn't appeal to them, then forget them.
Frank Olito 32:35
Forget them, exactly.
Ethan Waldman 32:37
Yeah, I think that you're onto something, with it being a new movement. And there's, there's this perception, because there's there's been a lot of media that has kind of said, look at this $10,000 tiny house that, you know, look at this amazing place. But, you know, if if you have a builder, quoting you, $40,000 or $50,000, which is what, you know, most people, I think the perception is changing, but I do I have heard a lot of pushback to like, "Oh my God, why are these 50 or 60 or $70,000, like, it should be so much cheaper than that." But when you when you look at just the materials cost, you know, when you're when you're talking about a 28 foot trailer, that's gonna be six or $7,000. Right there, windows and doors and all the appliances, you know, for a 28 foot tiny house, you're probably up around 25 to $30,000, just in materials. And so if there's no cost for labor in the price of your build, you know, there's a problem because that builder is not going to be really making any money. So why would they be doing this? Yeah. Or they're gonna just they're gonna skimp on on the materials that they've told you that they're going to use.
Frank Olito 33:55
Yeah, so I actually had this exact conversation with Zac Giffen from tiny house nation. He says that, in some ways, he blames himself and tiny house nation, because at the start of the movement, this show was showing tiny houses that could be built for 10, 15, $20,000. And the movement was categorized as this cheap, alternative way of living. And now you're scrolling through Instagram, and you're seeing these beautiful photos of these tiny houses. And the tiny house you probably have in your mind your dream tiny house does not cost anywhere near that. It probably costs 80, 90, $100,000 in some cases. I mean, I just talked to one builder who charges $175,000 starting price for his tiny houses.
Ethan Waldman 34:44
Is that David Latimer?
Frank Olito 34:45
Oh, I'm totally blanking on his name.
Ethan Waldman 34:47
New Frontier Tiny Houses?
Frank Olito 34:50
Yes. Yeah, I think so. I think so. Yes. Yeah. So I think that when these customers, these potential tiny house owners, go to these builders like you said, and they hear the actual price of these builders, instead of losing the customer, they're going to cut corners, they're going to use cheaper materials, they're going to use less labor, and then they end up with really shoddy work. I think that's definitely something that's happening within the movement right now.
Ethan Waldman 35:17
Do you have any tiny house related stories that you're working on right now?
Frank Olito 35:23
Yeah, so it actually goes right into this, I'm working on another story about the reality of the zoning laws that tiny house owners face. I think it goes hand in hand with the building codes. You know, I feel like another another dreamlike fantasy that people have when they're going through social media is that they're going to see the world and they're going to park your tiny house, wherever they want. They're going to park in their backyard, and their neighbor's backyard, they're going to park on the side of the road is just going to be this freeing, beautiful lifestyle. But, you know, in reality, that's just simply not the case, whatsoever. It's very limiting, where you can park your tiny house. The reality is that many of these tiny house owners are going to park their homes in RV parks, at campgrounds, and if they are lucky enough to get a parking spot in a neighbor's backyard or something, that's going to come with a lot of difficulties and pushback from local government. I'm seeing a ton of tiny house owners who are trying to live under the radar. And the stress that comes with that, you know, just park it behind this bush in this family member's backyard and hopefully no neighbor reports you and hopefully no zoning officer sees it on from the front road. And all of this comes back to the idea that there is no universal recognition or definition of what a tiny house is. To the eyes of the government, they're just like, "What is this thing? It's just an RV." And in the eyes of the law, you're not allowed to live in your RV full time. So tiny house owner after tiny house owner are getting evicted. Being like you can't live in this situation full time. You know, I spoke to one tiny house owner who was living in her parents backyard in New Hampshire. And then one day she got a notice in the mail saying, What is this" Like you you're over your property line. You have no plumbing, and it's on wheels. This could be an ADU and accessory dwelling unit, in addition to your family's home, but it's actually on wheels, so it's technically not. And so she tried to take it to the local government and fight it and debate it. But ultimately, ultimately they said "No, you cannot live in this full time. It's not a livable home." And she wasted I think I forgot exactly how much money she spent on it. But thousands of dollars on this tiny home that she can't live in, she ended up just moving out. And then her tiny house sat in her parents backyard for months, which is strangely legal. You can have the tiny house in your yard, you just can't live in it. So there are just so many zoning laws that are strange across the US. And it's also important to keep in mind that it differs from county to county neighborhood neighborhood. You know, there are some states that are super friendly to tiny houses and allow parking and in neighbor's backyards or at RV parks. But that differs even within those states. There are some counties that are more lenient, and then there are counties that less lenient. So that's a long winded way to say that I'm working on a story about the zoning laws that tiny house owners face.
Ethan Waldman 38:56
That sounds really interesting. I look forward to giving that a read. And it's so tricky, you know, as a I need somebody who gives tiny house advice and you know, has a website I hear that so often from people, you know, "Where can I live in my tiny house legally?" Or the other version of that question is, "Can I live in such and such town, you know, Wisconsin in my tiny house?" And to answer that question requires research. You know, you're dealing with a local municipality's zoning bylaws and there's no shortcut to figuring it out. It's either you have to call the office or you have to read the code and figure it out. And there can be so many paths to getting variances or to getting permission. But you're right that people who are trying to be under the radar that that does come with a big, you know, its own stress.
Frank Olito 39:52
Yeah, yeah, I mean, there are places in the US where it's super easy to do. And there are other places that are so strict. You know, it really comes down to a zoning officer in that hometown in that town, if there is a strict zoning officer that like just basically drives around and see who's following the rules and who's not, that's going to be impossible to live under the radar. And then there are some places that don't even have that position filled. And that's why it's easier to live under the radar in some places. But I guess it's also the beauty of the tiny house movement, you know, if you do get Kicked out, you can just move it someplace else if you have the means to do so. But yeah, like you said, it goes back to doing your research, just like when you're doing your research for your builder, either do your research for finding the place to park your tiny house, it all comes back to doing a lot of research before you really pull the trigger and say, "I'm gonna purchase a tiny house and live in it full time."
Ethan Waldman 40:53
As a journalist, are there any other kind of larger trends that you're observing in the tiny house movement?
Frank Olito 41:03
Yeah, I think the other trend I'm focusing on, we already touched on it a bit, but the rising price of the tiny house movement. We also talked about how the movement start, I think the movement started as a DIY, cheap, alternative way to live, you know, a very cheap way, and a very quick way to own property. But now, as the movement continues to grow, that's no longer the reality, you now have to hire somebody. And it's significantly more expensive than what you expected. You know, you can't really get the tiny house of your dreams for most people, some people can for $20,000 anymore. That's just not the reality. The tiny house that you are dreaming of, most likely, is closer to $100,000, now.I think the question there, what I want to explore some more is, is it worth it, then? Is it is this movement still worth it? If it's still, if it's now just as expensive to find a, because I can find a probably a home or a traditional home in some parts of the country, for a little more than 100,000, closer to 200,000. So does it make sense to cause myself this much pain to downsize? Meanwhile, there's no more, there's no longer that financial benefit. That's something I really wanted to explore and that is a pattern that I am seeing some pushback from. And, you know, I think also, it's making people second guess, buying a traditional tiny house on wheels. I'm of the mindset that tiny house is a catch all term. So that also includes like people living in camper vans, and living on sailboats, and living in schoolies. So I'm seeing that a lot of people are, instead of choosing to pay that price of a traditional tiny house, they're actually choosing to live in a different form of tiny house, they're choosing to live in a school or a camper van. And I think that's why this summer, we saw the extreme increase in this the extreme boom of the RV movement and the camper van movement. I think that the extreme price of the tiny house is the cause of that one of the causes of that.
Ethan Waldman 43:26
I don't think that the prices are going up for the same exact houses; I think that the houses have also changed a lot. Just from 2012, when I built mine, you know, I was at 22 feet, which was the largest tiny house that of plans that I could find at the time. And that was on the bigger end. And now that would be that would be teeny tiny. And so now you're seeing houses that have, you know, full size kitchen appliances, washer, you know, laundry, dishwashers, sometimes bathtubs, sometimes steam showers, I know Lindsay's has a steam shower, and those things all cost, you know quite a bit of money when you go up in size, not to mention the the increase in the trailer cost, and then just the fact that there's additional labor to do those things. You know, I don't, I don't think that the dream tiny house ever did cost $20,000 from a builder, you know, you could potentially build your own. And I know many people who, you know, all salvaged materials, built it themselves over the course of two or three years and places can be stunning. But you also in that $14,000 price tag aren't taking account for your own time, you know, thousands of potentially thousands of hours of your own labor that you had to spend not working your job or other you know, forms of income.
Frank Olito 44:59
Yeah, I mean I would definitely agree with that. But I would add that I feel like the people that are joining the movement today are not thinking of the tiny house that you build anymore. Through, I think the definition of a tiny house has changed. I think in the beginning of the movement, it was just a cheap, livable place. And now, it's like, look at everything we can pack into such a small space. Yeah, it's all about the luxury. And I think we are talking about the same house. I really wish I remember this builders name. But yes, he built this luxury home, with a chef's kitchen, two bedrooms, and he's calling it the family, the future family home. And I think that's what the future of the movement is really looking like it's looking, how are we going to fit more people, more different, like different owners into such a small space? So like, how can we fit a family in a luxury tiny house? Yeah, how can we entice a person that makes $200,000 a year into a tiny house? Because those people aren't interested in really saving money on housing, they're just interested in the lifestyle itself. So I think before it was a movement for a very small, niche group of people who wanted to live on the road, explore and minimize their life. And now, it's kind of this completely different movement with some of those other people still in it. But I think it's a different movement now, of people who have A) more money and B) are interested in luxury. So you think that the price has gone up significantly, because the definition of a tiny house and what people expect has changed dramatically over the years.
Ethan Waldman 46:48
Yeah, I also find it you know, there is one benefit, or there are many benefits, but one of the things that the that the movable tiny house or tiny house on wheels still has going for it is that it does allow someone to invest all of their money into the house itself. Whereas when you're buying a house on a foundation, you're also having to buy the land that that is attached to. Now, of course, as you've pointed out, not having land does come with its own costs, you're either gonna have to rent a spot, and then you have to deal with the stress. But that is still one thing that I think that the tiny house on wheels does offer is that you can just buy the house.
Frank Olito 47:32
Mm hmm. Yeah. I would also add to that, that a very small percentage of people that own tiny houses on wheels, travel with their tiny house constantly. The larger percentage of people that own tiny houses on wheels are stationary 90% of the time. So yes, you are just buying the house and not buying land. However, it I would say the tiny houses are traditional in the sense that they are you do need a piece of land to get that tiny house on.
Ethan Waldman 48:10
Definitely, definitely. Well, one thing that I like to ask all of my guests is, what are two or three resources, so it could be books, or people or YouTube channels or any resources that have helped you on your tiny house journey? So I suppose helped you in your reporting on the tiny house movement that you'd like to share with our listeners?
Frank Olito 48:35
I don't think there's anything specific. I think the main thing that has helped me in my reporting is the Facebook groups, the tiny house Facebook groups, I'm sure you're a member of a bunch of them. There are some for like every state for just random counties in the US. There are a bunch of just catch all tiny house Facebook groups. And I think those are the best places to really get to know what the movement is like, you know, people post what their tiny houses look like on the daily. They also ask each other a lot of questions. And I think that will help your listeners who are tiny house owners that have questions or even people who are interested in learning more about the movement and don't know where to start or where to begin or what to do next. It was a really great resource because like I said early, this movement is so small, and the best way to learn about it is from people who are already in it and who have done it. And I think those Facebook groups are the best places to get in contact with those people directly. I think that's the best place and then also this is going to sound strange but TikTok has also been a really great source of contact for me. Are you on Tick Tock? I asked everybody this.
Ethan Waldman 49:56
I have looked at it once or twice, but no, I would guess the answer is really no, I'm not on TikTok. I'll need to get a lesson on that.
Frank Olito 50:06
So there is a there is a whole growing movement on TikTok of tiny houses that people just like show off their unusual living situations on TikTok , and they usually go viral on TikTok. You did camper life. People live in their camper vans are most popular on TikTok. But there are a bunch of tiny house owners who also show what their lifestyle is like there. And it's very easy to contact people through TikTok. Usually people link to their Instagram account or their email there. And it's just another way to really get in contact with people super easily and super fun.
Ethan Waldman 50:49
That's great advice. I'm I'm looking forward to delving into tiny house world on TikTok.
Frank Olito 50:56
I recommend TikTok Tock in general.
Ethan Waldman 50:58
Okay. Do you have a little while for one last question?
Frank Olito 51:03
I sure do.
Ethan Waldman 51:05
Well, my last question was, you know, was there anything that I didn't ask you that you that you were hoping to talk about or share with the listeners?
Frank Olito 51:15
I feel like the one thing I want to add that I might have touched upon, I wouldn't be doing my due diligence as a reporter, if I also don't share the other side, the builder side, you know. We did reach out to Alpine Tiny Houses that Lindsey Wood worked with. They did not mention why they went out of business. However, they did confirm that what happened is true. But the company said that, you know, the company was upset with how things turned out for them. But they didn't go into detail as to why or how. And I also want to say that, you know, the builders are humans as well. Trying to make a living. And like I said earlier also that, you know, in any industry, there are people who are upset, who are feel unsatisfied with the product they are given. But, yeah, this is a pattern that is happening within the movement that I think people need to talk about more and be aware of, if they are looking into getting into the movement itself.
Ethan Waldman 52:22
Frank Olito, thank you so, so much for being a guest on the show. This was really informative, and I know that people are going to get a lot out of it.
Frank Olito 52:32
Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I feel like I learned a lot here too. So thank you.
Ethan Waldman 52:38
Thank you so much to Frank Olito, for being a guest on the show today, you can find the show notes, including links to Frank's reporting at thetinyhouse.net/143. Again, that's thetinyhouse.net/143. Once again, I'd like to wish you a Happy New Year and thank you for being a listener of the show. If you're not subscribed, download a podcast app like Overcast or Castbox, search for Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast and hit subscribe. That way you'll get the new episode every week when it launches on Friday morning. Well, that's all for this week. I'm your host, Ethan Waldman. And I'll be back next week with another episode of the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.