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How I bought a tiny home – one woman’s story

The exterior of the tiny home of Annie Colpitts is shown in Ashland, Va. Colpitts designed and helped build the home. — NerdWallet / Annie Colpitts photo via AP

HGTV shows have popularized tiny homes — typically those smaller than 400 square feet — in a big way. Many people are drawn to this alternative path to homeownership as a way to save before committing to a more expensive piece of property.

However, getting a tiny home is different from the typical homebuying process in several ways (e.g., you’re unlikely to find a real estate agent who can show you a dozen options). The process can be complex logistically and financially, so it’s important to know what you’re signing up for.

Annie Colpitts, a 30-year-old marketing coordinator, has spent more than a year in an 8 1/2-by-20-foot home that she designed and helped build. She lives 20 minutes north of Richmond, Va., and parks the home on a small piece of private property that she rents for $350 a month. Colpitts left a spacious downtown apartment — and paused plans to buy a conventional home — to embrace this new way of living.

Here, Colpitts shares why she chose a tiny home, how she financed it and what she would have done differently. (This transcript was lightly edited for clarity and length.)

What interested you about a tiny home?

Annie Colpitts

I had been thinking about buying a house in Richmond, but one friend had a really terrible home-buying experience involving major hidden issues, like mold and termite damage, which made me reconsider. The scale of a tiny house seemed so much more manageable to me.

I was also following “van life” on social media for a while and connected with the idea of tiny living. I was already living pretty minimalistically. As much as I loved the idea of living in a van on the road, I work a job that doesn’t accommodate a nomadic lifestyle, and downsizing to a fully mobile situation seemed unnecessary for my circumstances.

What was your living situation before?

I had always rented and bounced around a couple of different places in Richmond ever since I graduated from college. My last apartment was in the heart of downtown, and it was a pretty swanky one-bedroom with plenty of space for me (roughly 700 square feet). It was also cheap ($750 a month, excluding electricity and internet). I didn’t really have a reason to leave that living situation except that it felt like I was renting space that wasn’t mine, and I wanted a space of my own that I could modify if I wanted to. Also, as part of my job, I had worked with architects for the last five years, and being around them inspired me to create a home.

Can you describe the process, timeline?

The whole process took about a year. I first had the idea in November of 2017. I knew I wanted to come up with my own floor plan and design it myself, so I spent the first few months researching floor plans. About six months into the process, around May 2018, I contacted the bank for a loan. I moved into the home in December 2018.

Why did you decide to build your own?

A lot of people will piecemeal design a tiny home in their backyard or buy from builders who do everything from beginning to end, but my finances weren’t set up to support that. I needed to swap my rent payments for loan payments pretty immediately. I found a builder that offered a more affordable process — which they don’t do anymore — by taking my floor plan and letting me build parts of the home. They handled things like ordering windows and setting up electrical and plumbing and then let me do some of the more labor-intensive, less-skilled work.

During that “build week,” my dad and sister went out with me to their facility in Tennessee. We worked 10-hour days for six days straight on siding, interior paneling and more. The final home was delivered to me two months later. Because of this process, I feel like I have a better understanding of my house in general.

Any long-term goals for the tiny house?

I’ll live this way until it doesn’t work for me. Some people move into tiny homes until they pay off all their debt and then they can buy a house, but I don’t have that kind of philosophy. I love it right now. I’d like to buy some land and move my tiny house there and have more ownership and privacy.

But who knows? It’s possible that life circumstances will dictate a change. I don’t have to get anyone on board with this lifestyle because I don’t currently have a pet or boyfriend. If there’s someone I need to accommodate in the future, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

Has your tiny home changed your life?

I have so much more space in my head. Maybe it’s also because I don’t live in the city anymore, but I come home and feel calm immediately. This is my retreat. I didn’t have Wi-Fi for the first year, so I had a lot of analog time. I’m more intentional with what I fill my life with, both in terms of time and things. Now I can go to Target and only buy one thing.

What advice would you give to others?

You don’t have to wait for a tiny home to start living tiny. If you’re waiting for the physical new place to start making those changes, it’s going to be such a culture shock. While I was living in my apartment, I spent a year getting rid of stuff and growing comfortable with living with less.

I also stayed in a tiny home that was the same size as the house I wanted to build, and that was so crucial. You can do floor plans until the cows come home, but you need to try out the space to know how you’ll feel.

* Valerie Lai is a writer at NerdWallet. Contact her at vlai@nerdwallet.com.