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Are Tiny Houses the Next Big Thing?

How much does size matter in the Mid-South?

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Tiny living is not a new concept. People in many cultures around the world live in homes of less than 400 square feet. Americans used to, before success equaled a two-car garage and a walk-in closet.

Suburban sprawl has changed the Memphis landscape — farmland was subdivided, two-lane roads grew to six, cow pastures were replaced by strip malls. Growth is important to our city, but there are people who are rejecting the concept of "bigger, better, faster" commercialism. They want to take up less space. They want to economize possessions. They want to live in a tiny house.

A tiny house is a completely inhabitable unit of less than 400 square feet (some say 500), usually built on a trailer. Most have running water and electricity, made fully functional by being hooked up to a water hose and a 120-volt extension cord.

The little structures seem to appeal to three groups: first-home buyers with student loan debt, downsizing empty nesters, and the environmentally conscious.

And then there are those people who watch all the TV shows about tiny houses and really want one but are deterred by the real concerns of a lack of privacy, micro appliances, and the shoebox nature of living in one room.

For the past 15 years, this concept of pared-down living has spread across the Western U.S., as more and more people decided to live more simply. Many tiny house models are designed to go completely off-grid, equipped with solar panels, wood-burning stoves, and composting toilets. Unplug and head for the hills. Others have built them as second homes for vacation getaways, boomerang kid quarters, or mother-in-law suites.

But the tiny house movement, as it is called, isn't just about the house. It is about changing the focus of life. Having less and doing more. Lower cost of living allows for more available cash, but less space to store possessions. Tiny homes aren't just for the "crunchy" sector anymore. In the wake of the housing market crash, with student loan debt at all-time highs, more people are choosing not to spend a third of their income on mortgage. They say they have money to get out and do things. Many downsize as a means to pursue more fulfilling careers for less pay.

Also appealing to some is the opportunity to stick it to The Man, so to speak. Property taxes are not assessed on tiny homes on wheels. If built on a foundation, taxes are based on the square footage of living space.

From the new Renaissance Group development of 450-square-foot "micro-units" near South Main, to the county outskirts, where a young couple from Tacoma, Washington, parks their tiny house on a friend's land, the tiny living movement has made its way to the Mid-South.

A repurposed barn and horse arena serve as home base to Tennessee Tiny Homes - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • A repurposed barn and horse arena serve as home base to Tennessee Tiny Homes

Tennessee Tiny Homes
Tucked away off a country road in Eads, less than an hour east of the city, Tennessee Tiny Homes has five builds going at once, and seven more are already sold and awaiting construction. Rain taps on the metal roof of an old open-air horse arena. The humid summer breeze mixes smells of overgrown pasture with fresh paint and wood crackling in the burn pile. Sawdust crunches underfoot.

All around, tiny houses in various states of construction start to show the personalities of their owners — barn dormers, a pitched roof, cedar shingles, pink siding. A saw-horse maze is the center point, and all around, carpenters are running saws and drills. Every board is screwed in place — not nailed — for maximum durability on the road. Today, all the exterior craftsmen are focused on one house — the shell headed for Georgia to be featured on an upcoming episode of FYI's Tiny House Nation.

You might say tiny houses are the next big thing, and 32-year-old Joe Everson is riding the wave. Everson grew up in the construction business. He stands 6 feet 5 inches and is all muscle. He was the biggest cop on his shift at the North Memphis precinct and was always called to break up domestics. With his head of thick dark hair and charming smile, Everson says he has been asked more than once if he was really a stripper.

After wearing the badge for 10 years, Everson returned to construction and became his own boss. He got the tiny house idea from a "princess playhouse" his brother had built in the backyard. He researched tiny plans and took a workshop with Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, the founder of the movement. He draws inspiration from Henry David Thoreau's Walden. "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life ... to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms."

In 2012, Everson built his first tiny house in his backyard. With no local buyers, he hitched up the trailer, loaded his Great Dane, Sampson, and embarked on a nine-city tour, stopping at Home Depots and town squares. People pulled over to see inside the tiny house and thought it was cute, but there were no takers. After hundreds of pitches, Everson pulled his tiny house home, where he faced a foreclosure notice. "Then," he says, "I took the last of my money and built another tiny house."

It sold almost immediately. Then he sold the original one. Calls began to trickle in from people he'd met on the road. Posts trended on social media. People wanted tiny houses, but they wanted custom builds. And Tennessee Tiny Homes was born.

These days, Joe wanders through the stables, talking to buyers on the phone, sending photos of progress, and expediting final builds before they hit the road.

When asked why someone couldn't just buy an RV, Joe ducks his head into a little red house. "It's all about longevity," he says. "Say you pay all that money for an RV, and in about five years, things start breaking. When have you ever known something on an RV not to break? But if you build a tiny house, you can live in it for a while. When your kids go to college, they can live in it. And their kids can live in it. It's a house. This thing will last."

The average unit built by Tennessee Tiny Homes runs $30,000 to $35,000, with top sellers being the smallest model (7'x12') and the largest (8'x24'). The company creates each house specific to buyers' needs and offers high-end touches such as granite countertops, tiled steam showers, and reclaimed wood flooring.

Many buyers opt for just the exterior shell (complete with electrical, plumbing, and insulation) to save labor costs. The Eversons have transported tiny houses all over the continental U.S., from California to Georgia, Canada to Texas.

Everson's tiny dream has grown into a family business. His wife, Kristen, runs the office from home. They share their Collierville house and nine acres with seven dogs.

"We can't live in a tiny house," Kristen Everson says. "We rescue Great Danes." But she has good reason to be thankful for those who want to live tiny. In 2011, on a trip to the Spring River, she got a tick bite and contracted Lyme disease. Two years later, her symptoms still weren't responding to treatments. "The stars aligned when the tiny house business took off, so we could afford a month-long clinic in Reno," she says. Since 2014, she has been symptom-free — and doing all sorts of tiny business.

Joe's younger brother John is the head builder. He tackles each floorplan like a puzzle. "You've got to have everything that's in a regular house, but in a tight space. So you can't have a plumber and electrician in at the same time. It all has to happen in stages."

Their mother, Rhonda, handles final clean-up, and their father, Big Joe, heads up logistics. He has maneuvered dozens of tiny houses cross-country, down steep hills and under low-hanging power lines. "I just drive the truck," he says.

When not on the road, they live in a tiny house in Joe's back yard.

Tennessee Tiny Homes owner, Joe Everson, demonstrates that you can fit a full-sized tub in a tiny home - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Tennessee Tiny Homes owner, Joe Everson, demonstrates that you can fit a full-sized tub in a tiny home

Where to Stick It
For some, tiny living is an act of civil disobedience. One person declined an interview for fear of being discovered. In the city of Memphis, it's illegal to park a tiny house in the backyard and live in it. Or rent it out.

Allen Medlock, administrator of Shelby County Construction Code Enforcement, has been answering a lot of questions about small dwellings lately. Section 48-211 of Memphis city codes states that it is unlawful to use recreational vehicles to live, sleep in, or for housekeeping purposes. On property zoned residential, it must be stored the backyard on a concrete or asphalt slab.

"Most subdivisions have their own rules about where to park these things," Medlock says.

A tiny house on wheels is considered an RV when uninhabited. But when it's parked and lived-in, the city of Memphis considers it a house trailer, which is also illegal inside city limits, unless parked on an approved private lot. But who wants to put their fancy tiny house in a local trailer park?

Plots of four acres or more are exempt from subdivision rules, so the safest long-term place for a tiny house in the Mid-South is on rural land. Typically, tiny house owners lease a flat spot with a pretty view and northern exposure and live off-grid. But legally, permanent Tennessee residences require a sanitary septic system. So if there is a water hose, extension cord, and sewer hookup, it's all legal.

A carpenter cuts trim for exterior window casings - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • A carpenter cuts trim for exterior window casings

Gray's Tiny Home for Five
Lieutenant Commander Del Gray, a Navy officer with over 10 years of construction experience, recently built a tiny house in his driveway in High Point Terrace. Gray had just completed renovations on his main house with an upstairs addition and garage when he got notice of a two-year transfer to Meridian, Mississippi. He had been deployed to the Middle East before and did not want to leave his family if only stationed three hours away. Del and his wife, Korei, a former Shelby County Schools teacher, considered options to accommodate their boys, ages 6, 8, and 9. Payments and utilities on two large homes was not an option. They didn't want to sell or rent the High Point house, so going tiny made sense. They wanted to buy a tiny house from the Eversons, but the wait was too long. So Del researched plans online and drew up a plan to fit his family.

"When he parked the trailer in the front yard, I knew there was no turning back," Korei remembers. "He worked on it all spring. He could have finished sooner, but people stopped him all the time wanting to talk about it."

Del worked almost four months, on nights and weekends and in all kinds of weather. By May's end, around 100 people had come to see the rustic, wooden tiny house before the family pulled it to Meridian, where they spent the summer in an RV park near the Naval reserve center.

All in all, the Grays' tiny house cost $20,000. Four slide-outs, two sleeping bunks, and two closets maximize the central living space. The galley kitchen boasts a two-burner cooktop, convection oven, apartment-sized fridge, sink, and a small washer/dryer. The bathroom houses two separate accordion-door shower stalls with built-in sinks and one flushing toilet.

A cushioned bench area provides space for lounging and more storage. Sleeping lofts cap each end, the boys' accessible by ladder while steps doubling as storage lead to the parents' "bedroom." Outside, the front porch folds down for traveling.

Korei says life runs along like in a regular home — rush to eat breakfast and get dressed, spend all day at work/school, do homework, eat supper, practice sports, watch a little Apple TV or play video games, and go to bed. The family drives back to Memphis each weekend to switch out the week's clothes and visit with their oldest son, who lives in the High Point house while on leave from the Coast Guard.

"It has brought us closer as family," Del says. "Instead of collecting items, we're collecting memories."

Tiny Open House
The next Tennessee Tiny Homes open house is Sunday, October 25th, 2-6 p.m. See up to five tiny houses in various stages of completion. Admission is $5. No children under 12, as it is an active construction site. Thick-soled, closed-toe shoes are recommended. All proceeds benefit Tiny Homes of Hope, a nonprofit effort to build a tiny house shelter for victims of domestic violence. For open house address and ticket information, RSVP to tthopenhouse@gmail.com.

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