In July, New Escapologist contributor Paula Billups and her partner Scott moved into their brand-new tiny home in Western Massachusetts. They built it themselves with some help from friends. It has 384 square feet of living space with a basement and storage loft. Congrats, guys!
After watching loads of Tiny House videos online–which are usually success stories and often quite miraculous feats of resourcefulness–I wanted to hear about the challenges and expenses that I suspect would be encountered if you just wanted to build a Tiny Home right where you are. I mean, before even getting started, the land anywhere near where I live would cost so much money you’d be better off buying an apartment or continuing to rent one.
I asked Paula and Scott to be candid, not only about cost but about some of the Tiny House practicalities I’ve been curious about for a while. The interview happened in October. Hence the pumpkins you can see in that exterior photograph.
We belatedly realized that every article we read on the subject was by someone in rural Oregon, rural Montana, Arizona, places where building regulations are lax and few. Try doing that in Massachusetts sometime.
Over the course of the build the requirements, permits, and bureaucratic hoop-jumps grew daily. Our original plan was for an $18k yurt, but you can’t have a yurt as a primary residence in Massachusetts. And the permitting and code for building primary residences here is stringent. We ended up building a more permanent dwelling. Once land, a well and septic system were accounted for, we spent about £150k.
We bit off way more than we could chew.
There is a dark side of tiny-house building, which is to say that some people in some areas can build a home for under $20k and more power to them. But there are plenty of places where local government makes that an impossibility. You don’t hear much about that amongst the Tiny House crowd. It can be done. It is worth it. But there is a splash of cold water for those who find themselves in such a situation.
This perfectly nice person talks a lot of old shit, but burried in said jobbie lies an undigested diamond:
My niece told me about a friend who was a property guardian – someone who looks after an empty property in return for cheaper rent – and so I researched different organisations and used Dot Dot Dot, which offers affordable properties and in return asks guardians to commit to 16 hours of volunteering a month. I ended up with a little four-bedroom townhouse in Abbey Wood in London. It’s a lovely place with a garden, a balcony off the kitchen, a workshop and a music room. It costs £560 a month to live here. Bills are extra and come to about £200 a month. I really like the community aspect of being a property guardian. So far, I’ve run a mosaic course in a residential home and helped out with some gardening locally.
A £760 month with the potential to divide the cost by four? Sixteen hours a month of friendly volunteer work? Sounds like a gig for an Escapologist.
I first heard about property guardianship circa 2008 when someone suggested I move into the recently-abandoned BBC Scotland building (which lives on, quelle surprise, as luxury flats). It all seemed more trouble than it was worth. While my rent would have been just £200, I’d have to work as an unpaid night watchman.
I just couldn’t quite bring myself to pay money to live in a perpetual state of one-eye-on-the-door paranoid half-sleep, while also slipping around in the ectoplasm of Scottish Light Entertainment.
A decade on, however, there are arguably worse housing fates than this. Especially if it’s possible to find yourself in a “little” four-bedroom London townhouse.
Although it’s expected to be knocked down in the next couple of years, when I’m not working or volunteering, I spend my time doing the house up. […] I spend about £200 a month on materials and furniture for the house.
Just don’t enact this part of the plan and you’re golden.
Well, chartered accountancy is rather exciting isn’t it?
Exciting? No it’s not. It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL.
[The tourists] stopped their cars on the crossroads and spent ages trying to capture my shed with their expensive cameras. I couldn’t understand it at first. My shed was not typical of Cornwall. It wasn’t picturesque, like the granite cottages. I decided, in the end, that the shed must have looked like freedom. It was clear, by then, that someone was living in the broken-down building. Someone–me–had managed to escape.
In Escape Everything! there’s a chapter in which I describe the lives of hermits, people who have gone off into the woods to live in sheds or lean-tos. My tongue was half in my cheek when I wrote that. I wasn’t really suggesting that anyone go live in a shed, while also allowing that one could. One really could do it, and I gave some examples of it.
The reason I did this is because the extreme idea of going out into the woods and not coming back–being legally homeless and living by your wits–is perhaps the worst case scenario (WCS) and, as I say elsewhere in the book, it’s important to identify and understand the WCS. Not only does it show you, clearly, what you risk and so you can own you fate but also you’ll find that a specific WCS probably isn’t as bad as the general sense of “ULTIMATE FAILURE” you might otherwise carry around.
Now, a great and well-told book-length case study of living in such circumstance comes from Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed. It’s a brand new book by Catrina Davies and I can’t reccomend it highly enough.
Catrina lives in an abandoned metal-sided shed that once served as her dad’s workshop. Although it was rough circumstance–family poverty, the housing crisis and, ultimately, capitalism–that led Catrina to her unusual dwelling, she approaches the situation with a beautiful Stoicism and finds that it at least dovetails with her values. At least living in the shed, practically for free, means she can write books and songs instead of slaving in horrible jobs to make ends meet and pay the rent on someone else’s overrated property. Her impact on the natural environment she loves so much is minimal.
The book goes into how she made it all work (getting the water mains online, furnishing it), the horrors (having to evict spiders and rats when first moving in), the heartbreak (being burgled and then crashed into by a car), and the moments it truly pays off (swimming with seals, gazing at the moon and stars).
The book is available now and is clearly an important addition to any Escapologist’s library. ’tis good!
Say you could still just bail when you felt like it. You know what you would look like when you did it? You would look like this raccoon.
Many thanks to reader and supporter MV for bringing this absconding racoon to our attention.
The Hairpin commentary on the racoon is a tad bleak. It posits that we can’t abscond anymore because “there is nowhere left to bail to. The darkness is closing in on all sides.”
I know what she means. Workers’ rights are being eroded. The precariat swells. Free movement is under attack. But I’m still at large and if I believed for a second that escape was impossible I’d lose my final marble.
“Happy to discuss,” as a bastard might write at the end of workplace email.
Re: the intangibility of debt. When I was 20 or so, I took out a $5,000 personal loan and a credit card with a $5,000 limit. The loan was to pay for the removal of my wisdom teeth and the credit card was because I thought it was just a thing adults are supposed to have.
I ended up moving overseas for two years instead of making any attempt to pay them off, and in that absence they just… lost track of me.
A few years later, I applied to get a copy of my credit report and there was no record of either of the defaults.
The only info they had on me was an address I used to live at, and one of the many jobs I’d (officially) worked at. There was almost no detail whatsoever. I’m not off-grid or anything; I’m on the electoral roll and I pay taxes so it’s not hard to find me.
So, yeah. I don’t think the whole red letter, scary-scary, “protect your credit rating at all costs” thing is real.
I think I probably got lucky – but only a bit. It was two unrelated financial institutions, so I think it must be pretty common. I figure the people who attend to low-level debt are just random people who aren’t great at their jobs and don’t care about them (nor should they), so of course it doesn’t get tracked well.
I don’t know if I can go as far as actually recommending people just stop paying their consumer debts off, but I can definitely recommend that people not feel like they are under a perpetual dark cloud. Because the bank sure as hell as isn’t thinking about it.
They’re independent fellas
They don’t live nine to fives
Monsters lead such interesting lives.
I just gobbled up Neil Gaiman’s little book, Art Matters. It’s a collection of thoughtful bits and bobs, including a speech he gave to new arts graduates, on the subject of art and writing.
It’s eminently quotable and there are a couple that will resonate with Escapologists:
I escaped from school as soon as I could, when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I’d become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.
And, most importantly:
The nearest thing I had [to a plan] was a list I made when I was 15 of all everything I wanted to do. … I didn’t have a career, I just did the next thing on the list.
That list is pretty much the same thing as the “life audit” I suggest making in Escape Everything! and NG was obviously very clever to do it at 15. It’s never too late though: stand back, take stock, and decide what it is you want to do.
The possibilities are endless. If not Endless.
Escape Everything! has been a much-needed source of reassurance and motivation for me over the past several months. Thank you for creating this book! After I finished it, I immediately started reading again, this time keeping track of my favorite passages.
My husband and I created our Escape Plan about a year ago, and I found the New Escapologist site shortly after that. We are about 6 months away from Escape. We are going to quit our jobs, sell our house, and take an extended road trip.
In Chapter 9 you joke about stating to one’s employer “I just hate work and want to be free” as a reason for wanting to work fewer hours. I had a good laugh and am seriously considering using this line when I resign from my job!
Thank you so very much for sharing your wonderful writing and point of view.
The final house inspection by the Nanaimo Regional District building inspector was on May 3, however it took a couple of more weeks to secure the occupancy permit as we had to replace the glazing in a stair bottom window with tempered glass so the inspector could sleep at night.
I’ve posted about it before (and possibly mentioned it in EE!) but New Escapologist contributor Rob West and his family have been building a house in British Columbia, escaping a stressful life in expensive London and Vancouver.
Well, after five years, they’re moving in and it’s a beauty. Look at that circular window! Congrats, Wests.