Retirement: Are Tiny Homes One Big Fix for Senior Housing?

Tiny homes are trending, but will seniors choose to downsize and live small? We’ll look at the charms and challenges of the tiny lifestyle for retirees.
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Editor’s note: In this two-part senior housing series, we drill down on homes targeted to solve retirement and multigenerational living challenges, including tiny homes, planned communities, and sprawling multi-generational homes built to house both boomerang kids and elderly parents. 

Many retirement plans center on a dream home or ideal lifestyle. Maybe it’s escaping to a lake cabin, living in a city condo near the orchestra, or finding a one-level townhome near grandchildren. While every plan is unique, some retirees are approaching retirement living at the micro-level and scaling back—way back—on their retirement home plans. Let’s look into the charms and challenges of enjoying the golden years in a tiny house.

Living Large in a Small Floor Plan

In books, blogs, and TV shows, more and more home buyers are designing and buying tiny homes to create affordable housing, live a simpler lifestyle, and promote sustainability. Devotees of tiny homes tout the ability to live debt-free, or at least less expensively by cutting back on utilities, property taxes, and home maintenance costs. Tiny homes also provide opportunities to let the do-it-yourselfers engineer clever solutions to maximize small spaces—think wall-mounted dining/desk combos, storage tucked in under the stairs, and more.

While still a niche market, interest is growing in space-efficient homes ranging from around 100 to 400 square feet. Just look at the efforts of Spur, Texas to attract a new breed of homeowners to their community of 1,000 residents. Spur brands itself as the first tiny house-friendly town. In August of 2015, a crowd of 40,000 tiny home enthusiasts attended the first Tiny House JamboreeTM in Colorado Springs. 

Ross Beck, operations manager for Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, says that of their 300,000 followers, those looking to retire in a little house fall into two main camps. “In the over-60 demographic, we’re contacted by people with on-track retirement plans who are looking for a fun adventure or to build a tiny home as a summer home on a lake,” said Beck. “But we also see a second group of those who got off track in the recession and aren’t able to enjoy the retirement they imagined. The smaller price tag of a tiny home, which can be around $85,000, allows them to retire on schedule.”

A Little Independence, Please

The tiny house movement is also intersecting with senior housing as a way to help people live independently in retirement, even when experiencing health challenges. Sometimes called granny flats, elder cottages, or ECHO housing, these options cost between $35,000 to $70,000, or can be rented for someone who needs a temporary living option. Several companies offer small living spaces that incorporate universal design features, like entries without steps and easy-to-use rocker light switches. Also on the market are little homes built to accommodate wheel chairs, walkers, and other medical equipment. If the structures can be classified as short-term medical housing units, they can conform to local ordinances.

John Louiselle and Jesse Lammi, co-founders of NextDoor Housing, received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services to pilot small, ADA-compliant, temporary dwellings for seniors that sit on an existing lot in close proximity to caregivers. “We’re just getting started, but we’re passionate about giving families more options to care for loved ones,” said Louiselle. “These homes help seniors bridge the gap from independent living to nursing home facilities, and they’re significantly less expensive.”  

Challenges and Innovation

While pockets of the U.S. encourage tiny homes—such as towns in California, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington, and Texas—not every municipality welcomes the tiny house movement. Itty bitty homes typically don’t comply with existing housing codes or zoning regulations. Those looking to build a tiny house may run into snags with planning and zoning commissions when they look for lots, so creative thinkers are working to solve the regulatory challenges with things like … wheels.

Tiny house manufacturers frequently build the homes on wheels, because when the structure fits the recreational vehicle (RV) specifications, it often complies with cities’ existing mobile home standards. Adding wheels can open up even more opportunities. Beck shared an account of a recently retired couple who stashed their belongings in storage and traveled the country for a year in their tiny home. Some mobile home and RV parks allow and even embrace tiny homes on both a temporary and longer-term arrangement. In Florida, Orlando Lakefront at College Park rolls out the welcome mat for tiny homes. And with Peak View Park, entrepreneurs in Colorado gave new life to an old RV park by transitioning the lots to meet tiny home needs.

No Small Decision

Truly tiny living isn’t for everyone, but for those interested in a pocket-sized retirement home, the market has more small home choices than ever before. While tiny home communities are popping up across the country, tiny home retirement communities aren’t as far along. But the potential exists. Louiselle has heard of several proposals for tiny home communities for seniors. “There are plans in the works, but it’s an audacious goal that requires cash, land, and zoning approval.”

Hands-On Retirement Planning

Retirement planning isn’t a set it-and-forget it proposition. Your plans take thoughtful care, and the help of professionals.


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