Photo credit: Atlantic Cities
Tiny homes in Washington, D.C. Photo credit: Atlantic Cities

by James A. Bacon

I am tickled by the “tiny homes” movement, which the urbanist blogs treat with a certain reverence. To be sure, tiny homes (under 500 square feet) address a real problem: the unaffordability of real estate in some of the nation’s most desirable metropolitan areas. Tapping creativity and ingenuity to stretch the boundaries of design is vastly preferable to addressing the problem through coercion and wealth transfers, as the political class is inclined to do. Still, it amuses me that Millennial creative-class types get so much attention while a rural, blue-collar alternative — the mobile home — gets no respect at all.

A recent case in point is a profile, published yesterday in Atlantic Cities, of four tiny homes built on a single lot in the Northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. Housing in the rapidly gentrifying District is unaffordable for many residents. By one estimate, the housing supply for low-income renters falls 30,000 units short.  Writes Nancy Cook:

This is where evangelists for the tiny-house movement come in. Proponents of this small-space living say these houses can help fill the void. They can be built in vacant urban lots, allowing residents to reuse space in dense areas. More important, the tiny houses offer a cheaper alternative to buying a condo or a single-family house. Tenants of the Evarts Street lot in Northeast Washington—a community the owners call Boneyard Studios—built their houses for about $35,000 to $40,000; that is less than the down payment required to buy many D.C. homes.

The author describes the house of 24-year-old Jay Austin as having a “cool minimalist design” along with solar panels and a tank to collect rain water for use in his kitchen sink. Alas, the house “still lacks a shower or toilet.” On the other hand, the houses are built on trailers. “If [the owners] ever decide to leave the city,” writes Cook, “they can simply bring their homes along.

Hold that thought: a 140-square-foot house with wheels — no toilet, no shower — built for $35,000 to $40,000 exerts a hold on the imagination of young urbanists. Now, compare and contrast to housing innovations coming out of places like Rocky Mount, Va., home to Fleetwood Homes, or Martinsville, Va., home of Nationwide Homes.


Factory Expo Mobile Homes, a distributor that ships to seven states in the Mid-Atlantic region, offers an Annual Year End Sale selling a “micro” mobile home for $17,900. The 373-square foot structure contains a bedroom, living/dining room, kitchenette and a bathroom with working shower and toilet. It may not have solar panels, but it does have thermal insulation. It may not have a tank that collects rain water, but it does have a 30-gallon electric hot water heater. It also comes equipped with things like a refrigerator, electric range, light fixtures, plumbing and an electric furnace.

I’ll admit, this sucker is pretty ugly — the unadorned vinyl exterior has as much charm as a pair of old sweat socks. But when you’re paying down an $18,000 loan over 15  years at 3.5% interest rates — about $150 per month — you might have a little money left over to dress it up. And it’s a whole lot roomier than Jay Austin’s tiny home. Price is the big advantage that manufactured housing has over hand-crafted housing. (Finding land and utility hook-ups for either tiny homes or mobile homes is a separate issue.)

kingletIf you’re looking for something more stylish, consider the “Kinglet” eco-cottage manufactured by Nationwide Homes.  This bad boy packs a bedroom, living room, bathroom and kitchen into 475 square feet. It sells for about $54,000.

Mobile home parks have a lousy reputation — but that’s mostly because of the poor and disorderly people who live in them. I’ve seen mobile-home subdivisions on the beach in North Carolina that were nicely kept up. Their owners added decks, porches and manicured gardens. The problem is that many municipalities have zoned mobile-home parks out of existence. It isn’t the housing they object to — it’s the poor people who live in them. But if you’re looking for a solution to the affordable housing crunch, mobile homes and manufactured housing should be part of the mix.

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26 responses to “Tiny Homes, Meet Mobile Homes”

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    This is a vitally important movement. And it is one with a very big future. Cultural shifts, traffic congestion, and sky rocketing costs of traditional housing convenient to work and play (avoids hours of commute daily), will drive this movement that’s sure to downsize home living spaces.

    This trend is well established in office space. Recall the huge recent contraction of office space per employee. Such ratio’s in the office market, including square footage per professional employee, has collapsed.

    When I started working in the 1970 to size of one’s office spoke to the status of the occupant. Today it speaks to corporate waste and obsolescence. These attitudes were adopted to cover up and otherwise provide a rationale for being unwilling or unable to spend skyrocketing costs for work space. Between the 1950s and mid 1970s commercial office space in DC stabilized at $5 a square foot. Around 1976, office rents exploded for grade A space. By the early 1980s such space had busted through the $20’s a sq. ft. mark.

    This same cultural shift is now upon us for the same reasons and perhaps a more as well. This confluence of forces makes the dramatic downsizing of home living spaces all but inevitable (my opinion) for a growing segment of working Americans, even those of affluence. Look now for high style, elegant fixtures, creative space utilization and solutions, the downsizing of home equipment, and high quality prefabrication to lead the charge, replacing the gross wastage of same in traditional homes styles.

    Home building and living will reinvent itself yet again. Yet more proof that “land is not only indestructible, but also endlessly changeable, fungible, and divisible, by use, ownership, and function.”

    For details of quote see:

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Ugh! Bacon, I have a bone to pick with you and it has nothing to do with mini-homes or American Favelas or whatever.

    It’s this ….

    ” … while a rural, blue-collar alternative — the mobile home — gets no respect at all.”

    Rural, my ass.

    Read the following article and view the video. Pay particular attention to this quote, “They live in a large mobile home community off of Route One in the Mt. Vernon district of Fairfax County, …”.

    That was where I grew up – Rt 1. Surrovell went to the same high school I attended. Your belief that only rural areas have trailer parks is bunk. There are plenty of large trailer parks on Rt 1 right in Fairfax County. They’ve been there for at least 40 years. I know this offends your pre-conceived notion of life in Fairfax County but facts are stubborn things.

    1. I never meant to imply that mobile homes were exclusively a rural phenomenon, and I don’t think I did. (I came across the Fairfax County mobile homes in my Internet research.) My point was that mobile/manufactured homes are *fabricated* in rural areas. Innovations in this sector are coming out of places like Rocky Mount and Martinsville, Va., where the factories are located. My aim was to show how hip urban creatives are trying to create something that redneck bubbas have already invented. Indeed, the hipsters are paying a lot more for less because they seem to be ignorant of what the manufactured home industry has to offer.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        OK, Jimbo – I’ll back off. I took your words to mean that those who live in urban mini-homes considered themselves hip while those who live in rural trailers are not considered hip.

        The companies who make trailers ought to jump on this trend with both feet. I’ll even give them a couple of brand ideas for selling around DC:

        Prestige Ridge Mini-Homes
        Great Falls Luxury Mini-Cabins
        Chevy Chase Semi-Chateaus

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Now, if there is so much demand for 500 sq ft “mini homes” then why isn’t there demand for apartment or condo complexes on the exact same spot with 500 sq ft units? Is “building up” so much more expensive that is it cheaper to grow horizontally along the ground?

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      DJ –

      I should have added that my comments are primarily confined to thriving urban areas. I suspect that anywhere land is plentiful and cheap there will be a lot less pressure. Or none at all. Although declining incomes may well be forcing moderation is size in some areas, like in the booming and bust Phoenix that I remember from the late 1990s. Also the prefabricated transportable house erected in segments or otherwise likely has a stronger future back east. A long time East Coast leader in that field is on eastern shore. Be curious to know how they are doing in these down times.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        I thought your comments were great. And I can certainly understand the attraction of a mini-home where land is plentiful and demand is low. Jim’s example of a beach community makes a lot of sense.

        Would it make sense in an urban area? Jim talks about a benefit being decreased commute tikes so I guess they are desirable in urban areas. So, why not build condo or apartment buildings if there is demand for 500 sq ft homes with no yard? Are the mini-homes just for in-fill where there is too little space for a condo building? Are they infill until somebody buys up the mini-homes and builds a condo building where the mini-homes used to be?

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          “More important, the tiny houses offer a cheaper alternative to buying a condo or a single-family house.”.

          Why is it cheaper than buying a condo?

          Here’s a new business idea – mini-house vertical racks. You stack about five mini-houses on top of each other in the vertical rack. Like those vertical car parking contraptions in big cities. The rack has stairs built in along with water and sewer pipes. Now, we have five mini-homes on the same land as one.

          Where’s the number for my patent lawyer…?

          1. there are a ton of condos in the Md/Dc/NoVa area … as well as a ton of block apartments (or whatever you call them).

            You’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to notice this when you drive around NoVa… single or two story single family homes with yards are what eat up the available land. You could take on subdivision of 200 homes and turn it into a thousand or more 500 sq foot apartments.

            I’m just not believing this is a govt-created issue.

    2. exactly.. the other thing that people still forget and still take for granted and that is sanitation. Whether it’s a 500 sq ft shipping container or a condo – it requires a hookup and that hookup in many places can cost 12K or more.. per stand-alone structure .. and I’m not sure how much as a multi-story condo but a lot less I suspect.

      that cost pays for what it takes to make water/sewer “available”, but before you can do that – you need to do the engineering necessary to get the water/sewer pipe from the main lines to the home and when those lines are laid they are sized according to the designated density of the area to be served.

      This aspect is so over-looked by so many, – that we have people move to our rural areas, have their house built and then when someone asks them if they had the water in their well tested – they insist they have “city water”!

      they have no clue where their water comes from as long as it flows from the faucet but water – and sewer are two things that are endemic to density.

    3. There *is* demand for 500-square-foot apartments and condos. But there is such a shortage of developable space in a place like Washington, D.C., builders have the luxury of building larger, more expensive apartments with higher profit margins.

      Have you been following the debate over building heights in D.C.? One of the big arguments in favor of relaxing the height limits is to address the problem of affordable housing.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        I am still lost. There is affordable land to buy or the mini-home crowd wouldn’t have any place to put down their Chevy Chase Semi-Chateaus. So, the land is there. There is a demand for small units or we wouldn’t be seeing the Great Falls Mini-Cabins popping up.

        Why isn’t somebody in the free market putting up buildings that are effectively stacks of Prestige Ridge Mini-Homes?

        What you seem to be saying is that there is a shortage … of developers.

        But we know that the free market abhors a vacuum so I assume a new wave of developers are on the way.

        Unless, the economies of scale don’t apply to turning 20 mini-homes into a building with 20 units of 500 sq ft residences then this is an opportunity waiting to be solved.

        1. There is no free market in housing! The problem is the zoning!!

          Very few (if any) zoning codes will permit the erection of four prefabricated houses in a lot meant for one house. Even if the zoning codes did permit such a use, it certainly makes no sense to put a single $50,000 house on a $100,000 lot, much less a $200,000 lot. And the economies of scale are such that it doesn’t pay a developer to spend tens of thousands of dollars to obtain a special use permit to build a bunch of $50,000 houses on a lot when he can build a $500,000 house instead for a lot less trouble!

          Your idea of stacking houses — apartment style — potentially could make economic sense. People have talked about doing that with surplus cargo containers — convert the containers into dwelling units and stack them sky-high!

          But good luck finding a local government whose zoning allows you to do that. And good luck getting a special permit. I’m guessing that you will get a less-than-warm welcome from your neighbors.

          1. DJRippert Avatar

            But the same demand that drives people to pay $50,000 for a mini-home and $50,000 for enough land to put the mini-home on should drive condo construction. If there’s room for lots of mini-homes then there is room for more condo buildings. Why aren’t more condo buildings being built?

            “And the economies of scale are such that it doesn’t pay a developer to spend tens of thousands of dollars to obtain a special use permit to build a bunch of $50,000 houses on a lot when he can build a $500,000 house instead for a lot less trouble!”.

            That would be true if there were infinite demand for $500,000 homes. But there isn’t. Which is why the mini-home “boom” is happening.

            People want 500 sq ft mini-homes that cost around $100,000. They can get what they want by buying a small plot of land, buying a mini-home, putting the mini-home on a truck and dropping the mini home off on the land.


            Why doesn’t that same demand translate into a condo building on the land where the mini-homes are going with 500 sq ft units that have the same floor plan as the mini-homes selling for $100,000?

            Because there is such an insatiable demand for high end residences that the builder will use the land for 2,000 sq ft condos that cost $400,000?

            That’s the equivalent of saying that nobody will build a hamburger restaurant because anybody who opens a restaurant could sell extremely expensive steaks instead.

            Doesn’t the market for steak houses become saturated?

        2. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          Go to craigslist –

          – type in efficiency apartment NW Washington DC

          – type in $1425 to $1550 a month rent

          Low and behold you discover that a 400 sq. ft. to 450 sq. ft of space in an efficiency costs between $1425 to $1550 a month.

          No way this is a free efficient market. List all the ways why not. Or why conceivably not. Perhaps this offers insight into what might be wrong with out society, its inability to meet the needs of its citizens, most particularly the needs of its younger citizens.

          So problem the problem is not the product – the tiny house, condo, apartment, or whatever, but finding practical ways to get them to market. Problem lies somewhere or everywhere in the system.

          Kinda like maybe the citizen with a net worth of 10 million who can’t get a house mortgage because he has no verifiable monthly income.

          Our systems that use to work are all gummed up. Wheels on all sorts of things hardly turn at all anymore.

        3. DJ Rippert,

          I mean no offense, but you really need to read the article and associated comments thoroughly (and take time to understand them) prior to posting your replies.

          The concepts that Bacon has presented, and those which he has posted in direct response to your comments, are simple and straightforward. There is little to nothing to get lost about.

          Please read and think about it for a moment.


  4. I’m skeptical… myself about the building height deal… we see this same issue in many urban areas that don’t have as restrict building heights.

    It’s an interesting thing because…in theory.. the free market would find a way to meet that demand…. regardless of building height restrictions or if we actually had a proposal for 500 sqft condos… and they could and would build twice as many if they could get an exemption then I might be more inclined to not be as skeptical.

    what I suspect is that if the height restrictions were lifted, high dollar condos would be built and not smaller units.

    I’m challenging these claims that govt is the one that is causing higher housing prices… I think developers go for the biggest bang for the buck and high dollar stuff if their preferred approach but they are not really restricted from more affordable housing units. it’s just not as profitable.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      The height limitations create problems for affordable housing … in Chantilly. Yeah, the big residential buildings downtown will be expensive. But by doubling density you take away some of the demand from further out which lowers the prices in the ‘Burbs. And … extinguishes some demand from the ex-urbs altogether.

      At least that’s what I believe based on my two full semesters of economics in the late 1970s.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      “I think developers go for the biggest bang for the buck and high dollar stuff if their preferred approach but they are not really restricted from more affordable housing units.”

      By that logic McDonald’s or the local burger joint doesn’t exist since there is more margin in Morton’s.

      1. I think the fact that there are McDonalds and other “flat” commercial proves that for a given developer – they sell to the highest bidder and some parcels are more suited to McDonalds than stacked “mini” condos…

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    So, let me ask myself a question – Why have there been large trailer parks on Rt 1 for the last 40 years? Why haven’t they been converted to more efficient condos?

    It has to be because trailers, on a per sq ft basis, are cheaper than condos.

    Condos are not more efficient. Density costs more than it worth to consumers.

  6. some of the issues…

    water/sewer – a 40 year old trailer park with 50 mobile homes could be a 600-unit condo


    you can get the water/sewer to it… for a price

    and if you can afford the traffic mitigation requirement for 10 times the original traffic.

    the availability of sufficient water/sewer capacity for a given parcel of land has a lot more to do with the density potential than people realize.

    it’s like transportation but worse. Once a force main is at capacity – you’re not adding more connections to it until infrastructure is upgraded and usually when that is done – the upgrade is not just for the new development, it’s for the longer term … and 9/10 of the costs to do that are not the developers but the county… who has to borrow money to do it and they cannot do that if their capital fund is already committed to other priorities.

    people should pay a lot more attention to water/sewer capacity to understand some of these issues.

  7. I checked into those tiny houses quite extensively. Was thinking about putting one on my hillbilly hideaway. What I found was a bunch of architects wanting premium pay for a tow away. So I looked at building a place with SIPs. The idea made economic sense, so of course, no one wanted to design one.

    Also down here in Tidewater there ain’t no mobile homes. Well there are, but the cities are doing everything they can to eminent domain them for their pet projects.

  8. Darrell’s story reminds me of the time I got an invite to a friends mountian cabin which he described as quite modest.

    as a couple hour trip, we started up his road and in short order arrived at their modest cabin. It was one of these towables! And… it had no heat, no electricity, no water and no sewer! In other words, it was not only small, it had no support infrastructure. He had looked into it. The power company wanted big money to run power up that hill to his house. His well was going to be very deep and the land was unsuitable for a drainfield.

    I’m still not buy the “zoning is the problem” idea.

    Even in you lived in a mini-house – you’d not want Jiffy Johns storing event porta potties on the lot next to where you lived.

    People already complain about people in conventional subdivisions adding mini-apartments and the like – and they would surely raise holy hell if someone wanted to put a mini-shed home in their backyard to rent.

    In my younger years, at college, renting rooms and garage-top apartments, etc was common and I bet to this day in places like Charlottesville and Blacksburg there is still a lot of room-renting going on.

    There are countless examples like this of places that DO allow it AND it makes a whole lot more economic sense than “stacking” mini condos.

    folks, you cannot “stack” these structures. They were not built to be stacked. when you ‘stack” you get into structural issues as well as safety issues for the occupants. We are not Mogadishu.

  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Mobile homes aren’t just a draw for supposed riff raff. They have some bad issues. First, they depreciate the instant you put one up; are especially vulnerable to tornados and hurricanes; and present and ugly, blocky prefab style.

    I have been in some pretty nice ones that have been used for room expansion and decking. They also seem to be warm in frigid climates.

  10. take a drive into the rural areas out from Richmond – and take note of the
    housing stock and you’ll no doubt see mobile homes and double-wides.. they are common…. they are cheaper and quicker than stick-built, now days they are cheaper to heat and cool and you can (and should) buy tie-down straps.

    take a trip to SW Va, and double wides are the standard housing stock.

    but no one should stay in a wood structure of any kind during a tornado.

    get into a pit or into a concrete wall structure.

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