Money, so they say/is the root of all evil today.
Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M. get the money, dollar dollar bill y’all….
Yes it’s true, one of the biggest sticking points for many folks who want to start their own tiny house venture or other off-grid endeavour, is a lack of start up cash. According to the Federal Reserve Board, 47% of americans have less than $500 in savings, so this is you, you’re not alone. I was fortunate enough to have supportive parents and a decently paid job, so I saved quite a bit between age 16-19. Still, I ended up spending most of the money I had saved for college on the tiny house project, deciding that having a warm, safe place to sleep no matter where I went was more important than a degree that might end up being useless and loading me with debt in an uncertain world.
In light of this, it’s incredibly important to figure out how to get the most bang for your limited buck. So I’m going to lay out a few strategies I used to complete my project on a limited budget.
A brand-new cargo trailer from Wells Cargo, the top-of-the-line trailer maker, costs approximately $3600 for a basic 6×12. After shopping around, this seemed to be the going rate with other companies, including smaller local trailer sellers. However, I’ve seen listings on Craigslist for used Wells Cargo trailers of the same size for $1400-$2000; mine was $2000. That’s a savings of $1500 right out of the gate. When buying a used trailer, make sure to check for a valid VIN number (stamped into the frame), working brake lights and turn signals; avoid trailers with frame rust of other frame damage. If you have more time, ambition, and carpentry skills, you can buy a flat bed utility trailer like this for around $1100; however, you will have to frame out the structure of the house, and this will require more time and more costly materials-not to mention more skill. But it will give you more options as to insulation and the shape and structure of the house. Weigh your options and priorities and choose accordingly.
Yes, we know your neighbor is a total tool, but you can’t use him to build a house with, as much as you’d like to use his face to pound in nails. You’re going to need a decent set of hand tools, if you don’t have those already, and a couple power tools. Here’s a list of what I ended up using in my pretty basic tiny house build:
Adjustable wrench, 16-oz claw hammer, cordless drill (this is the same one I had-never did me wrong through the whole project), screwdriver set with a couple different sizes of both flat-tipped and Phillip’s head screwdrivers, small and large flat bar, small handheld disc sander, several sizes of paintbrush (from 1″ to 3″), paint roller and tray, 7″ circular saw (also called a Skil saw, although when I use it, we call it an Unskilled Saw), chalk line, 25′ measuring tape, small Japanese hand saw (really helpful for smaller stuff), hacksaw (for cutting bolts), 1/2″ and 1″ chisels, table saw (with the right jigs, clamps, and work surface, you can forgo this and just use a circular saw), adjustable dado cutter (pretty sure it can be used with a circular saw-for several joint types used in furniture making), 1/2″ and 1″ spade bits, assorted drill bits (lots and lots. If you don’t want to blow half your budget on drill bits, make sure you get ones designed to use with metal if you have to drill holes in metal.), small cross cut saw, assorted rasps and files, assorted sand paper (60 to 100 grit, and discs for the sander), utility knife and extra blades, nail set
I’m probably forgetting quite a few, and there’s a couple things I wish I’d had, like a miter box for cutting perfect 45 degree angles. But this gives you a good idea of what you’ll need to start out. Tools can be pretty expensive, but there’s a few ways around this. If you’re buying hand tools, Harbor Freight has a wide selection for low prices. Although they don’t have the best reputation for quality, they do have a tool replacement policy on hand tools-if a tool you bought there breaks, they’ll replace it for free, according to my friend James (and hey, if you can’t trust a guy who keeps a giant snake as a pet, who can you trust?) Also, look into finding a tool library in your area, for anything large, expensive, or difficult to find. Your local Habitat for Humanity store will often carry gently used tools as well as building materials, appliances, and furniture; also, check out yard sales. If you know anyone in a trade who is retiring, ask if they are interested in selling any of their tools. Or if you have an older family member who has lots of tools but doesn’t use them anymore, offer to clean and organize their garage, workshop or attic in return for taking some tools home.
I spent about $1500 on materials. Some of this cost definitely could be reduced by better planning and knowledge; I did end up with a few things I didn’t need, especially parts for the solar shower. Proper planning and measuring are the first line of defense when saving costs on materials. Figure out exactly how much square footage/length/whatever of something (plywood, flooring planks, paint, etc) you will need and purchase accordingly. Accurate measurements are VERY important here! If you have the exact measurements for each piece of a project, you can even figure out in the store how you will be able to cut the pieces from the material with the least amount of waste. Or, figure out the standard sizes for the materials you will use, then plan accordingly, using graph paper to plan out the layout of the cut pieces. For example, a standard piece of plywood is 4’x 8′. For other resources on low-cost building materials, see my post on scrap and reclaimed building materials.
What you use as a tow vehicle will depend on how much, what distance, an over what terrain you plan to tow the tiny house. For starters, get a good idea of the total weight of the trailer so you can choose a vehicle with a proper towing capacity. Some junk yards may have a truck scale that you can drive your trailer onto and have it weighed; this will have the most accurate results, so it doesn’t hurt to ask around. Then, think about where you’ll be towing the trailer. Will you be towing it short distances, over back roads, or very level terrain? If so, you can go fairly close to your vehicle’s max tow capacity. But if you want to tow long distances, on busy highways, or over hilly terrain, you want to make sure your vehicle has enough power to accelerate fast enough to merge and climb hills. In this situation, also consider getting a truck or SUV with a special towing package (this includes features like towing mirrors, electrical connector, tow hitch, and transmission cooler.) Research the tow capacity of various vehicles, and choose one that fits your needs. If you’re towing your trailer a short distance only, don’t go overboard. For example, a four-cylinder Toyota Tacoma has a tow capacity of 3500 lbs, more than enough for a small house trailer. Choosing a smaller vehicle will ultimately save you money both on purchase and fuel costs. Keep in mind, however, that a truck or truck-based SUV can tow more than a car with equivalent engine displacement due to features like a heavier-duty frame. If you have your vehicle choice narrowed down to a few models, you can often find vehicle-specific discussion forums where people share their experiences with towing and answer questions. As for getting a tow hitch installed, shop around and compare quotes; Uhaul locations are nearly everywhere and offer affordable tow hitch installations. Mine ran to a little under $300 for the hitch receiver, hitch, ball mount, pin, and wiring harness. I would not trust a used tow hitch-don’t take a risk on your house and belongings just to save a buck.
Anyway, good luck, thanks for reading, and, uh, happy budgeting.