Have you ever heard the saying “you get what you pay for?” In a lot of ways, I think that saying is very true. Even though there is a wealth of building materials available for cheap and even for free, by using them you are accepting some serious trade-offs in your tiny house. In many cases, free stuff is worth the price.
If you've followed my story, you know that I used very few salvaged materials in my tiny house, and that is reflected in the final price-tag (about $25k in materials). I didn't use new materials in my tiny house because I had some kind of vanity. It's not that I think any less of salvaged building materials. It's just that they weren't appropriate for giving me a tiny house that would serve my needs in northern VT.
If you want to build your tiny house using salvaged materials, it's important to know which ones work well and which ones should be avoided. You don't want your cost cutting to cost you more in the long run. With that in mind, I've put together a list of five ways you can build your tiny house more cheaply using reclaimed materials, as well as a list of three materials I recommend you buy new.
5 Building Materials that are Safe to Salvage to Save Money on Your Tiny House
1. Hardwood flooring
You can almost say that choosing a hardwood floor is more about decoration than practicalities, because any hardwood flooring you lay down in your tiny house will go over your subfloor.
This means you can go for any style of wood you like. Perhaps you could find some flooring full of character from an old building that's being demolished, or even some modern laminate flooring that's leftover from a new build.
Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller struggled to find good quality hardwood flooring at their local reclaimed building supply lot. When some eventually did show up, they grabbed it, not even sure there was enough of it for their kitchen and great room. In the end, they had more than enough and used the leftover wood to make a reclaimed hardwood flooring tabletop!
Photo courtesy of Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller
2. Light fixtures
Again, light fixtures are not core parts of your tiny house build that you have to get right and stick with forever. They are extras that are relatively easy to switch out.
You can really go to town here, by choosing a style of light that really adds some personality to your tiny house. Just make sure any lights you choose work correctly, are compatible with the type of electrical system you've installed in your tiny house, and give off enough light to light up the whole house.
Of course you can install any kind of cabinets you like in your tiny house kitchen and bathroom, and you could save in a big way by picking up some that have been used before.
Catherine Zola bought five used cabinets for her tiny house from two restores and a dump. Altogether they cost her $150, which is less than she would have paid for just one, had she bought them brand new. Win!
That said, standard cabinets for normal houses are usually built as four-sided rectangles and attached to finished walls and floors. In a tiny house, you can forgo the extra sides and use the wall and subfloor instead. By installing standard cabinets, you could lose out on half an each in both directions. If that doesn't bother you, by all means go ahead. But if you want to be really efficient with your space, it might make more sense to build your own cabinets.
4. Tiles and other hard goods
You can also used salvaged tiles, appliances, furniture, and any other items that can be easily moved or removed. As long as these items are in a useable condition and don't contain any kind of pests or mold, you are free to fill your tiny house with them!
This is a fantastic way to cut costs because there are so many of these items out there and because there are so many ways to use them.
Ryan O'Donnell built his first tiny house from salvaged materials, including a wood stove, the cabinet door pulls, and the countertop tiles.
Photo courtesy of Ryan O'Donnell
5. Roofing and metal
You can reduce the cost of your tiny house build by building your roof out of existing roofing or materials such as metal. I've heard of people building their roofs out of barn roofing and salvaged tin, copper, and asphalt. Just watch out for asbestos and avoid reusing treated cedar shingles.
You can also use reclaimed metal for other parts of your tiny house, from your sink to your ladder to your shelves. You're only limited by the materials you find and your imagination!
Building Materials that I Do Not Recommend Salvaging
1. Framing lumber
Although it can be tempting, I would advise against using reclaimed lumber for the framing of your tiny house. Used lumber can be rotten or twisted and can contain all kinds of pests and insects. In short, it can be very difficult to work with and it might cause problems later on. The last thing you want to do is build your entire tiny house and then realize the framing is rotting from the inside.
When it comes to the core parts of your tiny house that cannot be removed and replaced, I would very strongly recommend using brand new materials. When you know exactly where your wood has come from and what its background is, it'll be much harder to go wrong.
Reclaimed windows are another popular item on bargain hunters' to-find lists, but I would advise against going this route.
It is important that your tiny house is as airtight as possible. Installing windows that don't fit perfectly can cause cracks and gaps, which will let in cold air and let out hot air and argon insulation. Cracks may cause structural damage to your tiny house, particularly if you move it a lot.
When you buy brand new windows, as well as the latest technology, you'll get the rough opening measurements before your windows even arrive. This means you can start planning and framing your house before you have the windows. However, if you buy or salvage windows from somewhere other than a store, you won't get these details beforehand, so you'll need to put off framing your house until you've found the windows you want.
Your trailer is the foundation of your tiny house. If you get this wrong, you're wasting your time, money, and effort. If anything goes wrong with it, you may lose your home. Unfortunately, used trailers tend to be weak, rusty, and expensive to refurbish. You have to know exactly what you are doing if you're going to do one up yourself.
Adam Odom built his tiny house on a salvaged trailer and he says in Tiny House Decisions that he would not make the same choice again. Buying and doing up a salvaged trailer may seem like a good idea when you compare the cost of a new one with the cost of an old one, but when you factor in the number of hours it will take to get it to an acceptable standard, it just isn't worth it.
I was originally going to salvage a trailer, but in the end I bought a custom Sure-Trac flatbed from Perfection Trailers. I am very pleased with my decision. Nowadays they are so many options when it comes to trailers. You could buy a new one, a custom-built one, or even a special tiny house trailer.
Which one would you rather live on?
I fully support people who want to live cheaply and build their tiny houses using reclaimed materials. I love coming across tiny houses that have been built for just a few hundred dollars, like this one. Examples such as these show just how little you need to get by.
But I am also very passionate about equipping tiny house builders with the information they need to make sensible decisions about their tiny houses. That's why I wrote Tiny House Decisions. If you want your home to be safe to live in, it's important to understand the implications of the design decisions you make.
If you do want to build your tiny house cheaply, I would advise using reclaimed hardwood flooring, light fixtures, cabinets, tiles, hard goods, roofing, and metal. You can also check out this post for more inspiration and examples of tiny houses that were build on the cheap.