Angela Reinhardt / Photo
People lined up to get a peek inside at the Tiny Home Mountain Festival in Ellijay on September 23 and 24. Tiny homes are gaining popularity across the country.
Last weekend a slew of tiny houses descended on Ellijay in the aptly-titled Tiny Home Mountain Festival, the first of its kind in this area.
Over the course of the two-day event, people were invited to get up close and personal with a trend that’s anything but tiny, now the subject of several popular television shows like Tiny House Hunters, Tiny House Nation, and Tiny House, Big Living.
Festival goers, which included tiny house advocates and people there to feed their curiosity, toured tiny homes on wheels and tiny homes that could be built on foundations. Prices ranged from around $15,000 for a 500-square-foot shell, to models that were exquisitely crafted and fully-furnished with a price tag of over $100,000. The homes utilized innovative ways to save space, from folding wall tables, to pocket doors, to a machine that’s a washer and dryer in one.
The idea is, of course, is to downsize. According to TheTinyLife.com, a resource for people interested in the tiny home lifestyle, people join the movement for many reasons, with the most popular being environmental and financial concerns, and “the desire for more time and freedom.
“For most Americans 1/3 to 1/2 of their income is dedicated to the roof over their heads; this translates to 15 years of working over your lifetime just to pay for it,” the site says, “and because of it 76 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.”
While there’s more demand in suburban and urban areas for tiny living, the trend has reached rural areas. Tiny home communities like The Shire at Mountaintown in Ellijay and others are popping up in north Georgia. While Pickens County doesn’t have a tiny house community right now, there’s plenty of tiny home living going on.
Freedom to downsize
Pickens County Planning & Development Director Richard Osborne said his office has fielded numerous requests for tiny homes and alternative living, and that they have permitted several homes between 500 and 1,000 square feet.
He said people who seek permits for tiny homes on foundations are usually a parent who wants to help their son or daughter, someone seeking a second home or cabin, or a “young couple who doesn’t want the burden of a $300,000 mortgage.”
“It’s cool,” he said. “We have had a lot of interesting questions about different types of homes, everything from tree houses to storage containers, buildings like the kind you see in the Home Depot parking lot, and tiny homes.”
A sticking point in many communities is that building codes don’t allow for structures as small as 500 feet so people have issues with permitting tiny homes, but Osborne said Pickens County’s building codes allow for more freedom than suburban and urban areas.
“Pickens is a county that has a strong property rights culture,” he said. “People like having the freedom to use their property for what they want, be it for residences, or things like chickens or having the ability to shoot guns or put up fences like they want. People always want to talk about what Pickens doesn’t have, but here we have those freedoms. The fact that we don’t have a minimum square footage requirement for new homes allows for tiny homes. I think it’s really neat and allows people to use their land for a variety of things.”
Osborne said suburban metro-Atlanta communities have those minimum square footage requirements mainly because of aesthetics and community culture. Those communities want decorative housing and larger size home requirements, and control things like roof pitch and other elements. He gives kudos to Georgia for its tradition of “home rule,” where they let local communities choose building requirements.
“We are fortunate that they are not heavy handed with housing,” he said.
Osborne recently attended a presentation on tiny homes where a speaker from a private company that builds them said the average, most popular tiny home is about 500 square feet.
“Those extreme examples like the ones below 200 feet are mostly just seen on television,” Osborne said. He also said a lot of people who go the tiny home route come from areas like New York City where they are used to living in very small studio apartments.
Keeping it simple
Kathy Cowan is a Pickens County resident who built a 398-square foot home on her sister’s property in the Yellow Creek area. She downsized from her “three-bedroom, two-bath house full of stuff I didn’t use and couldn’t be happier.”
The 57-year-old groomer and her Boston Terriers moved into the home this summer, but she’s had a minimal lifestyle on the radar for years. She started looking at small cabins 10 years ago, but couldn’t pull the trigger at that time. When the tiny home trend picked up she had a renewed interest in simplifying her life. She visited tiny home builders in South Carolina and Alabama and found a model she liked.
“I absolutely love it,” she said. “I lived in a big house with boxes of stuff I never used or opened. With this lifestyle, I have to take time to determine what I need and the best place to put it. And cleaning, when I mopped the floor it didn’t take me three hours to do it.”
She said the downsized lifestyle has improved her mood overall and that she’s generally calmer. She’s even started a Facebook page dedicated to her journey – “Chasing the Tiny House Dream.” She has a post on her feed that says, “Owning less means less cleaning, less burden, and less anxiety and stress each and every day.”
Cowan’s home, which is fully permitted, cost around $57,000, and while she said she loves it she admitted it was challenging getting financing and insurance because tiny homes are considered risky investments. She ultimately paid for her home from equity from her past home, and insured it like a mobile home.
The planning and development director agreed that homes that are so unique could pose a challenge if you want to sell one in the future.
“Anytime you have a custom-built home that is so specific to one person’s desires, you have to think about how you would move and sell it if you want to,” Osborne said.
What do you call it?
In addition to tiny homes on foundations, tiny homes also come on wheels and are attractive alternatives to people who want to be able to move around easily.
But these home fall in a grey area. Are they homes? Are they glorified RVs?
Osborne said while he understands people want to live in these structures full time, his office does not recognize them as homes.
“Campers and tiny homes on wheels are not inspected as permanent residences,” he said. “When it’s a camper or on wheels, it’s hard to make that code compliant because our main goal is safety. We want it to be the safest possible residence.”
He said all permitted homes must be compliant with the International Residential Code, and that people also fall into problems with septic systems, which have to be approved by the state before his office can issue permits.
Outside of the tiny homes, he said very few of the alternative home requests have been implemented because housing products of the International Residential Code, which for 2018 is adding a Tiny Home Appendix section for tiny homes on foundations.
“Whether it’s a tree house or a tiny home, they have to be code compliant with stick built houses,” Osborne said. “The result is that it takes a lot of time and money to make one code compliant, so with these kinds of requests I think it’s great and cool that we get them, even though most the time people don’t follow through.”