Virginia Tolles, Wordsmith

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Retiring on a Dime


"Elm," a tiny house built by the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.

Photograph used courtesy of Tumbleweed at

As you've probably read, the trying economic times of the past ten years has left many baby boomers without homes or the income to buy homes. As such, they are faced with finding suitable, affordable housing to see them into their retirement years. It is not an easy situation, for in many cases, it requires the baby boomer to downsize to an unfathomable degree.

Nor are the baby boomers alone in this situation. New graduates in fields other than "the chosen few" find themselves unable to buy into the "Great American Dream." More and more, we see young adults opting to live off the grid; that is, without reliance upon public utilities.

Tiny houses (measuring less than 500 square feet) and small houses (measuring between 500 and 1000 square feet) are gaining in popularity with both the baby boomers and the new graduates. So are travel trailers, which can be hitched to any sizable SUV or truck, and towed by the owner to a new location.

Being members of the baby boomer generation and finding ourselves in a need to become more mobile than we would like, my husband and I have been exploring alternative housing possibilities. The chart below, although incomplete, reflects our findings. It may or may not reflect your findings, although, hopefully, it will help you narrow your options.

First, however, a few clarifications: "Cabin" refers to one we would build for ourselves. We are looking at an unfinished cabin that measures 14'x40' that we could finish out with insulation, wiring, plumbing, and interior walls and finishes. We are also looking at insulated panels that click together to form flooring, exterior walls, and roof. Again, we would need to frame interior walls and wire and plumb it, as well as sheath exterior walls and the roof. Since it is insulated far better than other housing options and can be erected by two people in only two days, it has very definite advantages over stick-built housing -- assuming it is not cost-prohibitive. Two definite disadvantages: It cannot be moved if we are transferred (again!), and it requires a building lot without restrictive  covenants that would disallow it.

Second, some criteria, such as security issues, can be judged only on a case-by-case basis. Some camps for house trailers and travel trailers are well protected, while others pretty much leave security to each resident. This can be a critical issue, since such camps oftentimes are sited in less desirable locations. Similarly, each person must decide for himself whether alternative housing could feel like home to him.

Okay! On to the chart:

(a)   Is it possible to acquire a desirable one for less than $30,000?

(b)   Camps often located in undesirable areas.

(c)    Assumes purchased in good condition or with a warranty.


Motor Homes & Travel Trailers

Many people think motor homes are ideal for retirement living. Whether one's job takes him/her to multiple locations or one is ready to kiss the boss goodbye and live near the Grand Canyon, everything is under one roof, from the motor to the TV set. Those who are happiest with this style of living often have camped throughout their lives. They are accustomed to living in a small space, without those beloved family keepsakes that make a house a home.

If you're a city slicker, who needs wall space to hang your favorite works of art and room for Granny's china cabinet, you won't like motor homes and travel trailers. You will feel deprived, although some people have been known to strip out factory furniture in order to use a few pieces of their own furniture. You might be able to fit in a love seat and desk or a favorite rocking chair and wicker stools but not much more. You won't find enough wall space to hang more than an 11"x14" picture or two. Most people opt for smaller pictures in order to have room for more of them.

Just as often, they develop a new style of decorating that not only suits the size of the motor home/travel trailer, but also reflects the locations they visit in it. Bob Waldmire, the Route 66 artist, affixed postcards and other Route 66 memorabilia to nearly every surface of the converted school bus that he called home. You can see pictures of it in this sad farewell video he made shortly before his death:

Motor homes and travel trailers do come with problems. Not all motor homes and travel trailers are well insulated, although newer ones tend to offer more protection against the elements. As more people come to use motor homes as long-term residences, manufacturers are taking strides toward improving insulation levels.

Motor homes and travel trailers can break down an unexpected times and in out-of-the-way places, where repairs are not easy to come by. Similarly, the camper portion can still be in good condition long after the truck wears out. It is necessary, therefore, to keep a stash of cash at the ready for such times.

Another problem with travel trailers and motor homes lies in finding permanent places to park. RV parks allow tenants to remain no more than three months and often less. Mobile home parks don't always welcome RVs, although more and more are coming to set aside space for RVs. Do your homework carefully and make sure you'll have a place to set up housekeeping at your intended destination.


The Dream of an Airstream

© Waghorne - - Camping In USA Photo

I suppose everyone who likes travel trailers wonders what it would be like to travel in or live in an Airstream. Some new models are affordable, and older models offer wonderful possibilities for making them what you want them to be.

It is becoming increasingly common to see permanent RVers — and even some weekend ones — stripping out the built-ins in order to create a more homey atmosphere. One owner refinished the interior of an old Airstream trailer by sanding down the wood surfaces and giving them a natural finish, replacing the carpeting with wood-grain laminate flooring, and furnishing the living area with a rocking chair and rattan tables. What better way to keep Grandmother's rocker and create wall space for a few small pictures.

My ideal would be to find a worn trailer -- an Airstream, preferably; I love those wonky things. I'd strip it down to the honeycomb, monocoque shell (yes, they're walled in the same manner as aircraft); outfit it to include as much wall space as possible; put in a single sink, a two-burner flattop cooker, a mini-fridge, and microwave; install a bathroom with shower; paint the walls a light color; install a wood-grain laminate floor throughout; and furnish it with a few of my favorite furnishings. I would not have overhead storage compartments or outdoor grills. In short, I would have a tiny house in an Airstream.

But be forewarned! I read an online listing in which the seller of a 1974 Airstream went in depth about his restoration experience. It left me convinced that our fears about hidden problems could prove to be very real. That man had to replace a rusted undercarriage, then found mold in the insulation and had to strip the interior down to the shell. He put in new insulation and walls, then ran out of money. Long story short, he was trying to sell his incomplete project for $18,000, even though he had $27,000 invested!

A blogger wrote about another problem with Airstreams; in fact, it helps to explain the seller’s mold problem: It seems that the riveted aluminum loses its caulking over time and with exposure to the elements, allowing water to seep through the cracks. Ouch! The design of the Airstream — with its rounded walls and corners, overhead compartments, and compact lavatory — is based on aircraft design. The frame and the riveting of an aluminum skin to the frame are the same honeycombed monocoque construction that has been used on aircraft since the DC-3.

Douglas Aircraft Company's DC-3

By Towpilot (Own work) ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

With my curiosity piqued, I decided to look up the history of Airstream trailers. Sure enough, it follows in the path of the earliest efforts in modern aviation. Starting in 1929, Airstream founder Wally Byam bought Ford Model T automobile frames and pitched tents on them. By 1932, he had a factory, and when the DC-3 came out, making its maiden flight on December 17, 1933, the die was cast. Mr. Byam would build his Airstreams the way Donald Douglas was building his Gooney Birds. So, why do today’s Airstreams look so much like the Airstreams of the past? Because Wally Byam decided early on that the only changes he would make to his trailers would be improvements.

Today’s top-of-the-line Airstreams are sleekly furnished with post-modern Art Deco interior design and colors. The impression that came to my mind was Hercule Poirot’s apartment within a DC-3 fuselage. That model will set one back about $150,000, while more modestly furnished Airstreams run between $75,000 and $125,000 new. Nicely restored Airstreams go for about $60,000, while those needing moderate updating with few serious repairs go for about $35,000. A good rule of thumb would be that, if it is selling for less than $25,000 to $30,000, beware! Plan on making some serious repairs.

That takes us to the next two problems with maintaining older Airstream trailers. First, it is very difficult to find replacement parts for them. Second, those replacement parts are very expensive. 

Tiny Houses

By definition, a tiny house is under 500 square feet in its footprint. Most probably range between 150 and 300 square feet, although some have been known to hover around the 100 square foot mark. Although some occupy a fixed site, many are built on trailers, allowing them to be moved.

As a general rule, if a tiny house is to be road worthy, its exterior dimensions can measure no wider than 8-1/2 feet and no taller than 13-1/2 feet. Be sure to check your state to see if these restrictions vary. Also, as a general rule, mobile tiny houses do not require building permits and are not bound by local building codes.  In some jurisdictions, building codes are coming to include tiny houses, so check the laws where you live. Also, if you buy a tiny house, make sure it meets the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association’s (RVIA’s) codes. Obtaining financing and insurance will be infinitely easier if it does.

On the other hand, if the tiny house is to be placed on a fixed site, it can be as large or as small as you wish for it to be, as long as it measures up to any existing restrictive covenants. Note that, if it exceeds 500 square feet, it ceases to be a tiny house and becomes a small house. Fixed site houses do require building permits and are bound by local building codes. It will be imperative that you do your homework. It is important for you to know that it is difficult to obtain financing and permits for the construction of anything under 1200 square feet.

It is also important to know that residential areas with restrictive covenants tend not to approve tiny houses or, for that matter, any kind of manufactured housing. For this reason, your house will need to be sited on privately owned land or, if it is on wheels, in an RV park; in short, it must be sited either in an unregulated area or in a dedicated area.

Because we are talking about road worthy tiny houses, we will limit our discussion to those measuring 8-1/2 feet wide by between 8 and 40 feet long by 13 feet in overall height. My personal observations tell me that the smallest of the tiny houses (8’ x 8’) are suitable for only one person. Even 8 feet x 12 feet can be a pinch for two people.

Many tiny house builders place the living area, kitchen, and bathroom on the main level and the sleeping area in a loft. This is fine if you are nimble enough to climb a ladder, but if you are a baby boomer, you may be hampered from climbing by arthritis or you may wake up to use the bathroom during the night and not want or be able to cope with steps. In this case, a longer house can allow you to live on one level and reserve the loft for visiting grandchildren and/or storage.

One of the strongest points in favor of tiny houses is that they can be built for living either on the grid (with public utilities) or off. Even a house that is capable of being hooked up to the grid can have white-gray-black water tanks and a generator for off-grid living. There are pros and cons to both systems. You need to know that some jurisdictions will not allow a house to be hooked up to the grid unless it was built under permit, was built to code, and has passed building inspections. As a result, many, if not most, tiny houses operate off the grid.

Another consideration is cost. Costs vary widely depending upon whether the owner builds it him/herself or whether he/she buys it factory built, whether it is equipped to be hooked up to public utilities or with its own solar panels, batteries, generators, and sewerage system for living off the grid. Another factor is in finishing materials. Many tiny houses are built for green living with clapboard interior walls and floors. Remember: Lumber is expensive. Remember, too, that lumber is heavy, and that makes your tiny house more difficult to move.

Factory-built tiny houses tend to start at $60,000 for 8' x 12' models. That's expensive, coming to $625 per square foot (Egad!). People who have built their own have brought them in for as little as $10,000. Even that is steep at just over $100 per square foot. In most locations, one can build a traditional house in this neighborhood and a McMansion for the cost of a factory-built tiny house.

So, what is the attraction? Basically, it comes down to three things: the ability to self-build one without having to take on a mortgage, the dollhouse appeal with some even being built to resemble 19th century gypsy caravans, and that down-deep desire to be independent of establishment prices and regulations.



Tiny is a documentary film that traces Christopher Smith’s construction of a tiny house in Colorado. It was a long-time dream that he chose to pursue. He was assisted by his girlfriend, Merete Mueller, who produced the film.

Christopher’s plan was to build a tiny house in which to live off-the-grid in a remote area in Colorado. Between unexpected changes in weather and running out of money, what he imagined would be a three-month project required a year. He worked a second job to earn more money, then left that job to have more time to finish the house. It was not an easy venture. Still, he persevered, and he finished his project.

Today, Christopher lives in the tiny house, but not in remote Colorado. Instead, he lives on property owned by friends near Boulder, Colorado. Merete followed her own dream and moved to New York City.

Tiny is available in the United States and Canada on Netflix and can be purchased on DVD.


One Couple's Experience With Tiny House Living

A couple built a tiny house (167 square feet) and lived in it for six months before they decided enough was enough. While still living in the tiny house, they purchased land and built a small house that was four times as large (668 square feet). Watch the video to see the tiny house. Then, read Jane Dwinell's articles about her tiny house experiences. You will see why she and her husband built a larger home. Sad to say, all my fears and doubts about tiny houses came to pass for this couple.

Dwinell, Jane. Spirit of Life : Life on the Road.

Dwinell, Jane. Spirit of Life : Six Months in the Tiny House : What's Good, What's Not-So-Good.

Dwinell, Jane. Spirit of Life : How to Get Along as a Couple in a Tiny House.

Dwinell, Jane. Tiny House Talk : Couple Upsizes from Tiny House to Little House.

Small Houses

I'll only say a few words about small houses. First, as mentioned, they range in size from 500 to 1000 square feet. As far as lending institutions are concerned, they are as unwelcome as tiny houses. As far as siting them, they are as unfriendly as travel trailers and tiny houses. You'll need to own your own land, away from restricted areas, in order to build a small house. Still, with creative construction methods, you can build them quite often for much less than traditional housing.

I recently found a plan for a small house (990 square feet) that I really like. If I didn't need to retire on a dime, I'd enjoy building it. But at $100+ per square foot plus the cost of a lot, the benefit of building one quickly disappears. I'd probably have to pay in the neighborhood of $130,000 before I could move in, and that is pricey for so few square feet.

I came across an article about a small house that a furniture maker built for his wife and himself. Unlike most, which are rectangular in shape, this one is L-shaped. I think it adds a lot, in terms of both space allocation and attractiveness. See what you think:


So, what's the bottom line? Where does all this lead? In a nutshell, living inexpensively is a goal that is very difficult to achieve — at least in terms of where to live. The bottom line is this: If you're thinking about a motor home or travel trailer, rent one and take it on vacation. Does it work for you? If not, you'll find out before you obligate yourself for the price of one. The same holds true if you're thinking about a tiny house. Spend a vacation in one. Then, stop and consider how much space you and your companion need, how much time you spend at home versus how much time you spend out and about. Also do your research to ensure you can find affordable places to park it for the length of time you plan to remain in one location. 

Again, do your homework.

Read More About RV Living

No one can tell you more about life on the road than those who have been there. See what these RVers have to say:

RV Dreams.

Art of Fulltime RV Living

Frugal Retirement Living.