Tiny House Building Tips + Tricks
Thinking of building your own tiny house? Here are a few important places to focus your attention as you plan out your project.
These tips are especially important if you plan on parking your house in cold or damp parts of the world, as tiny houses are extremely susceptible to humidity and mold growth which can compromise the integrity of the structure and damage your investment.
While it is possible to build a tiny house on a small budget, the following building materials should be purchased new. Attempting to save a buck upfront could cost you thousands of dollars in repairs down the line!
Let’s start with where NOT to cut corners on your build:
You wouldn’t build a traditional house on a weak foundation, would you? Sourcing the trailer for your tiny house is no different. Especially if you plan on taking your house on the road, your trailer should be brand new and built to safely and legally hold your house’s load.
Need a trailer for your build in New England? Here are two great sources for new, custom tiny house trailers:
Be prepared for new, tiny house trailers to cost between $4k and $6k.
Here’s a fun anecdote for why we only use new trailers…
In 2012, we decided to haul our very first tiny house to Oacoma, South Dakota. Our trailer had been sourced through Craigslist - it was an old lobstering trailer that we thought we were getting a brilliant steal on! Except that it was so salt rotted, we ended up hiring a welder to rebuild the weakened parts and to make it strong enough to hold the house. Being newbies at the whole tiny-house-on-wheels thing, we thought we were doing just fine - and saving money in the meantime!
All was well and good with our journey until one of the axles fell off the chassis in the middle of Indiana! One tire fell off entirely and one tire was popped. We ended up being stranded for five days while the repair man we had luckily located scrambled to find new wheel bearings for the rig - it turns out the trailer had already been Frankensteined once before we got our hands on it and had four different kinds of wheel bearings!
We were fortunate that our trailer was able to be repaired. However, we came pretty close to being unable to fix the problem. What would we have done, in the middle of Indiana, if the trailer guy had told us he couldn’t fix our trailer? I shudder to think!
Remember, the foundation of your tiny house should be strong - you can never replace it!! If you are investing in a tiny house, the investment starts with a trailer.
Nearly everyone I talk to who is thinking of building their own tiny house informs me they plan on saving money by sourcing their windows from Craigslist. However, if you are located in New England or other cold climates, new, double (or even triple!) pane and efficient windows should be at the top of your priority list!
Why are new, double pane windows are worth your investment?
Energy savings: tiny houses are already easy to heat due to their small size, but new windows also have less air leakage, which means you are heating your house more efficiently. Worn materials on old windows, such as poor seals, rusty hinges, or rotted wood, can also lead to air and water leakage problems as well as unwanted drafts.
More natural light: who doesn’t want a tiny house with as much natural light as possible, right? This may be a reason why collecting lots of old, cheap windows seems like a great shortcut to get the tiny house aesthetic of your dreams. However, lots of old, drafty windows can lead to unwanted heating or cooling. New windows are designed and made from materials that reduce these fluctuations and allow your house to heat and cool efficiently.
Reduced replacement costs: new windows are ready to go, right from the store. They are pre-hung and ready to fit directly into your framed rough opening. This reduces any additional materials you might need to buy to hang your windows or replace broken and shoddy parts. With any luck, new windows will last for the duration of your investment and never need replacing or touching up.
You will find that new windows really aren't all that expensive for the important role they play keeping your house bright and dry.
Some window manufacturers can even help you order custom windows to best suit your tiny house project, including fancy colored vinyl or hard to find dimensions.
True story: one time we removed the wall cladding in a tiny house to find the extruded fiberglass insulation was completely soaked through and the stud bays were filled with mold - and this tiny house was less than a year old!
Where did this excess moisture come from? Not from rain or snow melt outside the tiny house, but from condensation inside the tiny house! A winter’s worth of hot showers, wet winter gear, and a family of four had created lots of steam and humidity that was soaked up by the sponge-like consistency of extruded insulation.
The solution? Spray foam! Sure, the upfront costs of spray foam insulation can be daunting, but the benefits will quickly catch up in your wallet.
Spray foam insulation creates an air barrier to help stop unwanted drafts from sneaking into the house. This will help you efficiently heat and cool your house.
Spray foam is resistant to absorbing moisture, which means that, unlike extruded insulation types, it won’t act like a sponge, hold moisture, and lead to mold growth. Remember that mold growth, while definitely a scourge for soft pine framing members, is also detrimental to your health.
Another added bonus? You don’t have to install the insulation yourself! This is great for those who get itchy just looking at insulation, and in my opinion, is worth the upcharge in labor.
Need a reliable outfit to spray foam your tiny house in New England? Try Vermont Foam Insulation, Inc.
The last key to building a tiny house that is worth your initial investment is to make sure you have proper venting in all the right places. Proper venting will help you dispel moisture and humidity before it can become a long-term problem in your tiny house.
Some important, humid places to vent include the bathroom, the kitchen, and near the ceiling.
We highly recommend the use of an Energy Recovery Ventilator (like this model) in one of your house’s gable ends. This device exchanges the stale, humid air that rises to the ceiling with fresh air from outside. The magic lies in the ERV's ceramic core that heats even cold, winter air to room temperature before introducing it into the house, which solves a critical moisture issue and saves energy!
Don’t forget that propane heaters, water heaters, and refrigerators will likely need their own dedicated vents as well. Propane combustion uses oxygen and creates carbon dioxide and water vapor that can build up if improperly vented.
Make sure that your tiny house design has all the proper venting you will need, especially in conjunction with other air sealing measures like new windows and spray foam insulation. Your tiny house needs a way to exhale humid air and inhale fresh air that you and your propane appliances will eat up when the house is closed up for the cold winter months.
Many people commented on the strange, black netting that covers our the tiny houses. What is that?! That is a rainscreen underlayment - the particular brand is called Cedar Breather, but there are several varieties of rainscreen on the market. It is an underlayment that is applied between the exterior siding of the tiny house and the siding. It creates an air gap that prevents moisture from getting trapped between the building materials. It is vital to maintaining dry building materials and preventing mold growth - a prevalent issue in tiny houses.
Behind the rainscreen is the ZIP System exterior sheathing. It is plywood that already has a weather resistant barrier applied to it (the green “skin”) that eliminates the need for traditional Tyvek House Wrap. On the inside, we will apply an eco-friendly, closed-cell spray foam insulation for an R-value of 21.
ZIP sheathing, rainscreen, and spray foam insulation are three building materials that we always include in our builds and we will not compromise on these elements to save money. Trust us, they will make your tiny house investment last and keep your house healthy!
Do you still have your heart set on a DIY build with all the character and quirks that come from upcycled and creatively used materials? No problem! There are loads of places to introduce reclaimed materials such as the siding, interior wall, floor, and ceiling materials, the kitchen, and any other aesthetic element your house needs to make it truly yours. The opportunities are endless!
Paired with the new materials mentioned above, all your hard work and investments in time and materials will be sturdy and prepared to withstand the test of time.
Need help figuring out what materials you should use in your tiny house?
Tiny House FAQs
Where do I park my tiny house and what kinds of permits do I need?
We get this questions all the time! However, this does not have an easy answer. The needs of each potential tiny house owner will vary wildly. Some people can go wherever tiny houses are welcome. Others may be tied down to a particular city or region.
Which scenario describes you the best?
If you know what town you want to park in, call the town hall and ask. It’s that simple! If that town says no or is unsure, try a neighboring town. You will likely need to be your own advocate. Be persistent and have your tiny house knowledge honed in.
If you are not wedded to a particular location, get online and start doing research. Are you looking for privacy or a community to join? Here are a few awesome resources to check first:
I recommend looking to see where tiny houses already are and then letting that refine your search - after all, if a town has already allowed one tiny house, perhaps they will be open to yours! Also, try posting on Craigslist or asking around to local farms to find parking.
Permitting needs will be specific to each town and - in some cases - each neighborhood. This question is an obvious follow-up question to ask when you talk to the town officials. Make sure you ask about temporary dwellings (as your house is on wheels) or accessory dwellings (if your tiny house will be parked next to an existing house.
Here are a few more questions that will affect how your house is received in your area.
Will you be living in your house full time?
Is your house technically an RV?
Will you have an existing structure to support you or will you be the only structure on your land?
What kinds of utilities will your house be hooked up to?
Keep in mind that every potential parking area will have different utility access. It may make sense to figure out where you will be parking your house then finalizing your design rather than building your tiny house and being limited by your utility design.
Bonus question: Where are all the tiny house communities?!
Ah, the elusive tiny house community! While they do exist in the wild, I’ll admit they are hard to find and seem to be in distant locations. I do not know of any tiny house communities that exist in New England just yet, but I have heard of a number being planned. I’ll let you all know as soon as I know!
And how much does it cost to rent a piece of land for a tiny house? Depending on your arrangement, I have heard anywhere from just covering utilities to $500 per month.
What kind of truck do I need to pull a tiny house?
To pull your tiny house, you will likely need a ¾-ton or 1-ton truck, such as a Ford F250 or F350. This will depend on the weight of your home, which will differ based on size. A 24’ or 28’ tiny house will likely be 9,000 to 10,000 lbs GVW when filled with your furniture and belongings.
Read more: tiny house towing
How much does a tiny house cost?
As many people learned, the tiny house unit we brought to the festival was not going to be finished by us, but instead sold as a shell. Our client will be finishing the interior himself. While we typically finish the interior ourselves, we can build a tiny house to suit any specifications at any level of finishing, making us a great option for DIYers - whether you want us to start the build for you, or even finish it!
Base 8x18’ shells start at $20k and finished models start at $65k. Custom pricing will be based on utilities, design elements, and desired building materials.
And what if you want to build one yourself? Expect total material costs to be between $17k and $30k.
Are tiny houses able to withstand New England winters?
Yes! We build exclusively for New England winters. In a turn-key ready tiny house, there are non-negotiable elements we include to keep the house sealed, cozy, and dry. This includes an appropriately sized heater, rainscreen, spray foam insulation, point-of-source ventilation, and ERV humidity controls.