Tag Archives: trailer

The Money Thing

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.

THE TRAILER:

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.

THE TOOLS

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.

MATERIALS

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.

TOW VEHICLE

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.

 

 

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I Moved!

I haven’t been posting anything because I’ve been busy because…I MOVED! I’m now living on the grounds of a local resort that’s been closed for years. Some of the buildings are beautiful and up to date, but many are dilapidated and decaying, giving it a crazy awesome air of mystery. There’s also miles of hiking trails and lots of gardens, some of which I’m going to be taking care of. I’m basically doing a work exchange in return for staying there. I’m helping with the veggie and flower gardens, doing a little night security, and occasionally testing the pool. The owner is hoping to fully refurbish the resort as a center for workshops on Eastern philosophy, qi gong, yoga, and meditation; my friends who work there convinced her to let me stay on the property in my trailer. She was interested in my goal of a low-impact life. I’m still a little in disbelief this is finally happening, and I’m really grateful to my friends who convinced the property owner. Here’s a day of my routine there:

Wake up, turn on my little stove, fry a couple eggs, and brew up a pot of coffee. Sit in my canvas chair drinking coffee and eating eggs on bread, still half asleep. Fill my water bucket and my solar shower from the outdoor tap on a cabin 10 feet away from my trailer. Stumble down to the tree where I’ve rigged my aerial silks, stretch and do a few tricks-I might have to take it easy, as my hands are pretty sore. Walk to the garden, passing a giant raspberry bush and pausing to eat a few berries…spend about an hour yanking weeds  from between the herbs. It’s slow going, the sun is hot, and I’m getting a blister from weeding; still, it’s satisfying  to see the herbs freed up from their weedy tanglement. As I walk back to the trailer, I cross a field of thyme, its aromatic purple flowers visited by numerous bees. It’s good to be back in the shade under the tree where I’ve parked; I do my dishes from breakfast, only using a little water. I spend a lazy few hours reading, including a book on bike repair. I think I’ve finally figured out the brake problem on my bike. I tinker with the brakes until they’re properly aligned, slapping away bugs the whole time. Before I know it, it’s time to grab a quick avocado sandwich before heading off to work, which turns out to be 6 hours of grinding boredom; not too busy, but not slow either. After work, I’m drained. I’m also jonesing for a pizza and some mindless Netflix, but it’s too late at night for one, and I don’t have electric or internet for the other. On the other hand, I’m getting a fair tradeoff, I think, looking around at the property under the light of the quarter moon that hangs in the sky like a flake of gold. I splash myself off with tepid water from the solar shower, brush my teeth, and head off to the mansion to retrieve the keys from the key safe. My first stop is the back of the mansion, where I lock up an open door and turn off some errant lights in the beautiful wood-paneled library. Then, I slip quietly through the dark to the pool building, and check up there; the pool is beautiful but spooky in my lantern light. I make sure the sauna and lights are off, then lock up. I walk across the property to the presentation hall, AKA the Tally Ho, passing the tree where our resident owl roosts. I check for its eyeglow in my lantern light, but don’t spot it. One door of the Tally Ho is open to the night air (and marauding bugs) so I close it, suppressing a little shiver as I walk under the creepy horse head sculpture mounted above the fireplace. After finishing my rounds, I put the keys back in the key safe. My exhaustion begins to settle in for good now. I walk past one of the most extraordinary view s I’ve ever seen, the mountains to the north framed by trees and lit by the moon and stars. I wish Tim was here, but I have to leave that thought be for now, and I’m just too tired to deal; back in my trailer, I sink into bed and fall asleep ignoring the buzzing of a mosquito in my ear.

The trailer by the numbers: living in the Mothership

I was introduced to “tiny living” when I worked for an Americorps trail crew in Vermont. We lived in tents at a remote campsite where we had to canoe in with all our gear. Personal belongings were limited to what could fit in 2 backpacks, and sleeping space was a 3 person tent shared with a co-worker and her gear. We all cooked and ate communally, and most evenings were spent sitting around a campfire. Definitely a different arrangement than living alone in a trailer, but it introduced me to living on less, in a small space, with the trees as my walls and the stars as my roof. I had to be more conscious about water use, and washing, and not leaving leftovers when I ate-among many other things. In some ways it was harder to live on less, but in other ways it was very freeing: not constantly worrying about paying bills and rent (and having great hiking and swimming less than 50 feet from where I slept) made up for bug bites and occasional wet feet. I’ve decided to take that philosophy a step further and live in my own more permanent dwelling, a 6×12” cargo trailer converted into a living space.

 

WHAT IS THE MOTHERSHIP?

The Mothership is a completely self-contained, off-grid tiny house built in a converted 6×12 cargo trailer. That’s the short answer. The long answer is-it’s been a long, crazy adventure of almost  4 months, an  extensive construction project, and a journey of self-discovery and learning.

 

WHAT MAKES IT SUSTAINABLE?

 

Off-Grid: The Mothership needs no utility hookups. Light is provided by solar-powered LED lanterns and natural daylight, water can be filtered on-site, and heat is provided by a tiny stove that burns scrap wood and small branches. I’m also planning to install solar panels for another source of electricity.

Reused materials: An estimated 25-40% of solid waste generated in the US comes from construction debris; much of this can be re-used. About 80% of the materials in the Mothership are scrap or reclaimed. I’ve sourced materials from barns, attics, secondhand stores, junkyards, dumpsters and abandoned buildings. I also tried to plan the construction based on the materials at hand, rather than making a rigid plan and buying materials to fit that. This construction method minimized the amount of waste/scrap material the project generated.  

Small Size: the house’s tiny dimensions mean it’s less resource-intensive even without trying! It takes less wood to heat, less electricity to light, less water for cleaning and other tasks…

Can be parked anywhere with a decent view (or not!): No need to clear land to build a house; the tiny footprint of the trailer means it can fit in just about any corner of the world, and it’s fully mobile. That also means I can park it somewhere that will minimize my commute to work, friends’ houses, stores, etc.

Less Stuff: The lack of space in the house means I have to be very conscious about owning and acquiring possessions, and not own any more than the minimum of what I need.

 

WHERE CAN IT BE PARKED?

Any flat area with enough room for a 6×12’ trailer, truck, and room to turn the truck around. Preferably somewhere with sunlight, as the solar water heater needs it to make hot water for showers.

 

WHAT ARE ITS NEEDS FOR WATER, TRASH DISPOSAL, ETC?

Water: I don’t anticipate using more than 10 gallons of water on any given day. The solar water heater has a capacity of 7.5 gallons, and daily cooking, cleaning, washing and drinking needs shouldn’t exceed 2.5-3 gallons. The sink has a water storage tank with a 5-gallon capacity and a grey water storage tank with the same capacity, so unless I’m showering a lot, I shouldn’t have to get water a lot, so it’s OK if I’m not immediately next to a water source. My grey water should be safe to dump in a sump hole or even use to water plants, as I plan to use only nontoxic and biodegradable cleaners and not dump anything down my sink like paint, glues, solvents, etc.

Electricity: I don’t need an electric hookup; my lighting is provided by natural daylight and solar-powered LED lights. Eventually I plan to install a rooftop solar array with battery storage for other electricity needs, which will be minimal-maybe a power source for my laptop and a small fan for ventilation. I don’t have refrigeration, and any foods I need to keep cool will be stored in a small cooler with ice. However I’ve found it’s surprisingly easy to live without refrigeration if you are careful about food preparation and consumption. Eating mostly vegetarian food helps. Produce can be stored at room temperature for 5-7 days, eggs and cultured dairy products for 3-4 days, and butter and many condiments for even longer.

Laundry: I plan to use whatever local laundromat is closest, and I’ll try to air-dry my clothes when weather and space allow. 

Toilet and shower facilities: I have a solar water heater on top of the camper with a shower attachment; the black plastic pipe soaks up heat from the sun, warms the water, and gives me a way to enjoy a nice warm low-flow gravity fed shower outdoors (so it would probably be best that I parked a little out of the way…) If the weather gets cold, I can also use the shower at the gym where  I’m a member. As for toilet facilities, I didn’t have room to put a composting toilet in the trailer, so I figured I would just use the bathroom at work or any other nearby facility, and in an emergency, I’d resort to the old strategy of peeing behind an out-of-the-way tree.

Cooking: I have a 2-burner camp stove to do my cooking on, and a small sink with gravity-fed running water from a tank. Grey water storage is below the sink.

Trash, recycle, and compost: I compost food scraps, and would be happy to contribute my compost to any gardening going on wherever I park, especially if it’s something like pumpkins, which love compost. I have 2 bins for recycles (plastic/metal and paper/cardboard) and would not produce more than a few pounds of each type of recycle per week; I also generate very little trash (due to re-using plastic bags and avoiding packaged food or any item with lots of packaging). My total output of trash and recycles would be about 5 lbs/week, probably less. Compost might be a little more due to high water content.

Heating: For heat, I’m installing a small tent stove designed to heat an 80 square foot space with minimal insulation. This stove is made by the Three Dog Stove company and is a clean-burn, airtight stove. It can burn wood from downed trees, brush, or unfinished, untreated scrap wood. I don’t think it would get cold enough in summer to need it, but I would want access to a supply of scrap wood/firewood just in case.

Storage: Everything I own is going in the trailer, no exceptions! (except maybe a lawn chair and a couple potted plants.)

I loved, I lost, I insulated some walls

In March, the love of my life went AWOL, and I insulated some walls.

Don’t talk to me, don’t ever come in my workplace again and sit there staring at me while you drink your coffee, I told you I wanted to be left alone, I told you to respect my boundaries, but you continue to ignore them, I want to remain friends with you but understand that nothing can ever happen between us again. Fine. I can live with that, because I know this has happened before, and with worse fighting, and we’ll just end up in bed together inside of 2 months when he gets lonely. I try to put away my concerns and focus on the trailer.

It’s finally starting to come together; the trailer looks more…real with the floor in place, like it could be a place to live, not a dingy mobile equipment shed. My stepdad comes over with his Sawzall to cut a hole in the side and top of the trailer to install a window and skylight. Since I can’t cut through the metal ribs that form the trailer’s frame, I chose a small window specifically designed for use in a trailer. There’s also trailer skylights available-try looking for an “RV skylight”, it’s just a specially shaped plastic bubble that can be installed on the roof of a trailer. I installed the window and skylight, sealing them against the weather with a healthy bead of caulk.

Then I started in on the insulation.

My father suffers from the after-effects of chronic Lyme disease, which he waged war against on various fronts for many years; one of these fronts, eventually, was IV antibiotics. They came packed in giant cardboard boxes, cushioned by gel refrigerant packs and squares of styrofoam. It was the foam squares I was after; we had a huge sack of this spent ordnance from the Lyme wars lying around the attic. With a little inventive measuring and cutting, the foam squares fit between the ribs of the trailer’s frame perfectly. Basically, I was following the pattern of a traditional frame wall, with a frame inside, insulation in the gaps, covered inside by paneling and outside by the trailer’s aluminum skin-an insulated, weathertight “sandwich”. I chose foam board for insulation over fiberglass or spray foam for several reasons, the most important being that it’s super easy to install and takes up very little space (important in my trailer.) I couldn’t have it sticking out past the metal ribs, because then I couldn’t attach my wall panels, so I went for the thickest piece that would work, which was about 1″. I also bought 3/4″ foam  board insulation to use on the roof, as it would bend to accommodate the slight bow in the roof. All in all, it took 1 bag of foam board squares and 3 large sheets of foam board insulation to insulate the ceiling and 3 walls (I left the back door uninsulated, planning to hang an insulating curtain in front of it so I could still use the door.)  Meanwhile, things seemed to be warming up a little between me and my angry lover. I even thought I might get to see him soon.

Motivated by foolish hope and happiness, I began to put my walls up. Most of the original paneling was in good condition, marred only by a few easily fillable dents, cheap trim, and ugly paint. I pried off the cheap plastic trim with a flat-bar and reinstalled the panels in their original locations, even using the original fasteners and pre-drilled holes (this was convenient, because the panels had to be attached to the metal frame, and drilling pilot holes into the metal was a pain. i went through many drill bits.) To fasten anything to the trailer’s frame, I had to use self-tapping screws, a type of screw that cuts threads into metal or plastic when screwed in. They’re identifiable by the small notch cut into the tip.

For the ceiling, which had previously been bare, I used sheets of 1/4″ plywood. I had to cut it into sections to be able to bend it enough. I cut it into thin strips that just spanned the gap between each set of metal ribs. Then, I covered every other section of the roof with the plywood, attaching it on both sides to the roof-ribs with 3/4″ self-tapping screws. To cover the spaces in between, I cut the 1/4″ plywood wide enough to slightly overlap the plywood I’d already attached. Obviously this didn’t look super finished and professional, but I liked the shingled look it gave my roof. Unfortunately, the wall panels didn’t reach all the way up to the ceiling, so I was left with a gap in the paneling where the top edge of the wall met the ceiling; it was at an odd angle, with nothing really to screw into. This would prove to be quite a pain later.

Then I made the worst mistake of my life: thinking he was about to come back to me. I was convinced that beyond all odds I had managed to be patient enough to merit a final chance at redeeming myself, but this was my downfall. Almost a month after he had first gone missing, he told me he was reunited with a previous girlfriend, who he had been seeing before me. He described her as the love of his life, and told me not to feel replaced because “what I have with her is nothing like what I had with you”. He reminded me that he had lived with her before moving to the area, a privilege I had never enjoyed. Every time I closed my eyes I imagined them together. It was torture, despite my daily reminders to myself that other people were far worse-off and had more difficult things to bear than I. So I tried to concentrate on building the trailer, so I could move on, away from a town where everything reminded me of him. But the construction was delayed for weeks while I flailed around helplessly in a soup of ugly feelings. Finally I managed to pull it together enough to salvage some trim from a trash pile behind a notoriously snooty local dance studio, and paint the walls with 2 coats of linen white left over from my mom’s house. Installing the trim was difficult; the trim nails were hard to drive in because the paneling behind the trim was really thin and absorbed the force of the hammer blows by bending or bouncing back. It was easy to bend a nail or smash a thumb; I did both many times. If you’re doing a trailer conversion like me, remember to nail into something solid, or consider using small screws, or use very thin trim and just attach with construction adhesive.

Anyway, I made it, and the hurt is a little less every day-even less now that I’m busier and know that I’m getting out of here soon.

 

And my walls still stand, and protect me from rain and wind just fine.

Beginning at the Beginning: Buying A Trailer

It was the middle of winter in the middle of nowhere. After being fired from my last job on a trail crew in Vermont (long story here) I was living back at home with my folks, and I had just ended an almost 3-month dry spell with work, finally winding up rolling burritos part-time in the tiny kitchen of my area’s most popular Mexican restaurant. I was basically in the same place in my life I had been a year back, when I had dropped out of college to spin pizzas at another restaurant just down the street. But worse: I wasn’t living on my own, I was driving an even older heap of a car (having wrecked the first one), and I had fallen back into the orbit of an on-again, off-again love affair that seemed to be slowly driving me crazy. And I didn’t yet have the full-time hours at the restaurant to distract myself. Something had to change.

Around the same time, I started working for a contractor who specialized in installing wood floors. I wanted the construction skills I knew I would gain; that’s how I justified the pitiful pay and put up with his overbearing personality. But it was tough; he wasn’t patient enough to teach an inexperienced person like me properly, and he would become angry when I made unintentional mistakes. If he had other workers on the site, he would angrily hush us when we tried to talk while working, even about work-related subjects. I did learn how to install wood floors though (see my future post about my floor…)

Between my two jobs, I would search Craigslist for a used cargo trailer. The cargo trailer, for me, posed several advantages over other tiny home options. Unlike a van, vehicle and living space could be detached, so in the even of a breakdown, I could still have living space while my vehicle was in the shop. Unlike a pop-up trailer, it could be insulated for use in all weather, and I could install a small wood stove. Unlike an RV or camping trailer, it was a fully customizable blank canvas. And unlike constructing a tiny frame house on a flat bed trailer, it was already a structurally sound, enclosed box on wheels-perfect for someone with my low level of construction skills (and when I say low, I basically mean zero.) Eventually I found the perfect trailer, a 6×12 enclosed Wells Cargo. Since my vehicle at the time was a 1990 Honda Civic, a tiny toy of a car that would struggle to pull so much as a skateboard, I had to get the seller to deliver-a favor for which I offered him $200 over his asking price for the trailer. I’m not exactly a fantastic negotiator. The only problem was, the day we agreed on for the trailer delivery, I was stuck working late for Floor Guy. We had to finish sanding and coating the new floor in a very fancy, very modern house miles out in the woods. He swore we would be out by 4:30, but as the hours dragged on, I began to doubt him, and he snapped at me every time I asked to leave. Finally, I called my father for a ride home, and we rushed back to the house, heedless of Floor Guy’s griping. We pulled in the driveway to find the trailer seller sitting in our driveway in his truck, in a surprisingly good mood considering we were almost 15 minutes late. I wrote him a check, filled out a bill of sale, and sat down to dinner giddy with excitement.

 

The next day, I went outside to look at my future house in the day light. It had a small door up front, a fold-down ramp door in the back, but no windows. The floor was rough plywood, painted with peeling black spray paint. The interior walls were covered with scratched, dented paneling painted a hideous industrial grey. There was no ventilation-the small vent on the roof had been blocked off-and no insulation of any kind. The trailer’s frame was made of metal ribs covered in a thin aluminum skin. The mostly-metal composition of the trailer later became my nemesis; it was impossible to attach anything securely to the wall without drilling into the metal frame. I broke many drill bits due to a combination of impatience and inexperience. But that was still a long way off; for now, the trailer was doomed to sit for almost a month, waiting for warmer weather and for me to summon the courage to pick up my (newly inherited) set of tools.

 

TO BE CONTINUED