Tiny Home Adventures

I’m coming out of the closet. Recently I watched a TED Talk by Ash Beckham called Coming Out of Your Closet. It inspired me to come clean – to confess to my friends and family. Ash is an openly lesbian woman and in her TED talk she shares the story of when she finally came out to her own family and friends. She invites everyone in the audience to come out of their own personal closets: to shed light upon whatever secret that they are just too scared to reveal to others. As I sat there and watched Ash’s speech I thought to myself, “I don’t think this applies to me. I’m not holding on to any secrets. I have always been an open book.” But, over the course of the next few weeks I realized that I was indeed hiding something – that I do have a secret that I am reluctant to share with others.

So here it is… I live in a trailer park. That’s right. It kinda pains me to admit it. Mindy Poor, the girl who got a full-ride to college, etc., etc. (I won’t launch into all of the markers of success that I accumulated during my heyday,) is living in a trailer park. I am not “successful“–at least not according to society’s idea of success.

As is usually the case, an inspirational conversation with my husband Jon got my mind buzzing and inspired me to write this post so that I might fess up. The conversation was about the vast inequality that has taken hold in our society and how in the world we might work to correct the injustice of it all. Jon said something sage about how we need to get away from the “orgy of success” that we all seek to portray about our lives and start communicating honestly with one another about our real problems; then, as a community, we might seek to lift one another up. It reminded me of recent research which shows that Facebook contributes to depression in its users. The apparent cause of the depression is that people tend to post the highlights of their lives and none of the low points. If you compare your life to the idealized lives of your Facebook friends, you and your life are practically bound to fall short of expectation. This contributes to a distorted perception of reality.

So… here is the truth about me… I live in a teeny tiny home on wheels. Together with my husband Jon and our two kids I live in a 1955 Spartan Royal Manor travel trailer (Firefly the ’55). Our mobile home is 8 feet wide and 35 feet long for a total of about 280 square feet of living space. Do you think that we’re crazy??

If so, you may be right. Living in such a small space can be difficult. We don’t plan on living in the Spartan forever, but the term ‘trailer trash’ currently applies to us, and I can feel and see the repercussions it has as it pops into the heads of our friends and family during conversations. Trailer trash–what a heinous phrase–as if those who are poor, or who have chosen to live well within their means to improve their station in life, or who simply wish to live modestly are trash. Gross. Having lived in a few different trailer parks now and having gotten to know the kind, modest, neighborly people who live in them I know how very off-the-mark this term truly is. Undoubtedly, being seen as trailer trash has been an interesting experience. Materialism holds such sway in our society that Jon and I are made to feel uncomfortable about our hard-made decisions as a family. But, this is where we are right now in our lives and it is helping us get closer to our long-term goals so we try to ignore these judgements from others as well as the materialistic weaknesses in ourselves.

I am grateful for all of the things that living in a travel trailer in a trailer park has taught me. It has been an inspiring and humbling experience. In case you are wondering how we ended up where we are now… I will tell you! First of all, I might never have lived in a home as tiny as a travel trailer if it weren’t for Jon; he is always challenging me to ignore the status quo so that we can carve out our own path in life which is a big part of why I love him. I am proud to have a partner who inspires me to look at life a little differently. We live in a travel trailer for many reasons: partly because it is the most financially viable option right now but also because we believe in walking lightly on the Earth and living modestly, and because we plan to do something big with these vintage gems one day. Jon and I push one another to walk the walk and not just talk the talk and for us that means living in a tiny home rather than just espousing the merits of the tiny home movement. We make a good problem-solving team, which definitely helps considering that we have chosen to take a path that is much less traveled. So… if it weren’t for Jon I might never have lived in a travel trailer and a life-long passion for the tiny home movement and small-space design may have never been ignited in me. Thank you Jon!

Jon and my adventures in small-space living began in 2009, a year when a lot of people were forced to make some major life adjustments. Jon had just finished grad school with a Master’s in Sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. As most of you probably remember, the job market was bad… really bad. I was studying for the GRE (planning to apply to grad school) and Jon was trying in vain to get a job in his field. Due to some unpleasant circumstances we agreed that we had to leave Bloomington, job or no job. We decided to try our luck in Austin, Texas which purportedly had a great job market. There was one issue: Austin was a high rent city. We had some savings and we opted to invest in a 1986 32-S Avion travel trailer as our new home.

I remember well the moment that we decided to buy the trailer (sight unseen) for $8500 on eBay. We both kept looking at each other with CRAZY EYES that said “What the did we just do? Holy *@#%!” We went to the bank and took out $8,500 in cash. Neither of us had ever held so much cash in our hands in our lives. It felt weird. And scary. We bought the trailer from an older couple who had used it for vacations. They obviously took pity on us when they learned that we planned to live out of it and graciously offered to transport the trailer to the space we had chosen to move it to in Austin. What a great trailer it turned out to be!

There were a number of trailer parks on the outskirts of Austin and the rent was cheap–only $325 a month. We moved around a bit before we found the right place to park our Avion. The great thing was that it only took about an hour to prepare for each move! We met a lot of characters that year and got to know a lot of Austin due to our park hopping. Ultimately we made the right decision by living in the trailer rather than getting locked into an expensive year-long lease, because we did not have luck finding decent jobs in Austin. After less than a year in Austin–OPA!–we found out that we were expecting. We did not think that raising a baby in a travel trailer was a good idea. In fact, we didn’t even consider it! We chose to leave Austin to move closer to Jon’s family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

We had many fun plans and ideas for the Avion, but we were so broke at that time that we never really had the opportunity to implement them. We talked then about a different kind of trailer park, a tiny home/trailer neighborhood where the owners owned not only their homes, but the land that they lived on. As the zoning laws stand now tiny home owners and trailer owners have little choice but to live under a usually substandard park’s rental agreement with the possibility that one day they will be told that they need to pack up and find another home elsewhere. This is a major problem for the owners of older manufactured homes because the cost of moving the older homes often outweighs the value of the home itself. Although these homes may have little monetary value, many of the people who live in them have done so for decades. If you call a place home then it can’t be worthless. I think that it would be great if the minimum size requirement for homes that most municipalities have would just disappear. People should be free to live as modestly as they choose.

We ended up selling our Avion in the end for $9,000 to a married couple in their 50s from Las Vegas who were previously employed in the restaurant business. They had lost pretty much everything after the economic downturn, including their house to foreclosure, and were using what was left of their life savings to buy the trailer and try their luck in Austin. They had family in the area and were planning to live on their family’s land. I can’t imagine how that must have been; hopefully everything worked out for them.

It took 3 years and two crappy, overpriced rental experiences to prompt us to reconsider the tiny home lifestyle. This time around we had a toddler and were expecting another child! We were moving to San Francisco and after searching for housing online, it appeared that inevitably our housing expenses were soon to increase three-fold. Things were going alright for us at this time; Jon was on a stable career path and our finances were stabilizing as well. I would not say though that we were yet in the clear from the downward spiral that was 2008-2009. The thought of paying $1500-$2000 a month in rent was frightening and threatened to overturn the stability that we had worked so hard for. Since leaving Austin we had never stopped dreaming about vintage trailers and the possibility of creating a vintage trailer/tiny home oasis one day, so we were always on the look-out for that first trailer that would launch our fleet. Jon is a real Craigslist addict. He rarely ever buys anything, but he is always looking. He convinced me to buy a 32′ 1973 Airstream Sovereign Land Yacht under the expectation that we would live in it for a couple of months while we looked for housing.

I don’t know if Jon ever planned to move out of the Airstream while in San Francisco, but after we were there for about a month he started gently easing me into the idea of staying in the Airstream for a while. I was not very receptive to the idea at first. But, we had lucked out by being given a spot with a decent, private, albeit small back yard space, we were within walking distance of the BART, and Jon’s commute was only 25 minutes–not bad for the Bay Area. I eventually agreed that there wasn’t a much better alternative and resolved to use our time in San Francisco as an experiment in small-space living and design. The Airstream was in rough shape when we bought it and during the almost full year that we lived in it we made a number of improvements.

Airstream Tiny Home

I don’t intend to glorify life in the Airstream. For a couple with one kid it is certainly doable. For a single person or a couple committed to small-space living it could be ideal. But, after our son Oliver was born it quickly became clear that the Airstream was a bit too small for us. We had torn everything but the toilet out of the bathroom so that we could remodel it which was pretty interesting. Luckily the park had bathroom and shower facilities which were cleaned daily. If you have ever lived in a space that is being worked on try now to imagine living in a trailer that is being worked on. Not especially easy for a mama with a newborn and a toddler to take care of!

But… at the same time I loved that tiny home on wheels with its vista view skylights! On the evening that a meteorite blazed across the night sky and landed in the Pacific Ocean, Jon was actually able to watch it happen while sitting in his chair inside the Airstream and gazing through the vista view windows. I gave birth to my son inside that Airstream–of course I have some sentimental feelings for it. You can read my birth story here. My designer’s mind was always churning with the small-space possibilities that I might implement in that teeny but magical space.

Airstream interior

Airstream bathroom remodel       Airstream bathroom remodel2

However, we both agreed that the Airstream was too small. But, San Francisco rent was still not a feasible option for us. So… we bought Firefly the ’55! Then Jon got offered a job with the UofO in Eugene, Oregon. The cost and logistics of moving both trailers was too much for us and we prepared the Airstream to be sold.

When it came time to sell the Airstream it was  a much different trailer than the one we had purchased a year earlier. We were sad to see it go, and Jon told the guy who purchased it about how our son had been born inside. A month after Spencer drove it away to begin its new journey as a tiny home on-the-go he contacted us to ask our son’s name; he wanted to name the Airstream after him. I hope that Oliver is out there somewhere being loved and appreciated.

That brings us to present day and our journey in small-space living continues. We are settling into our new home-town of Eugene, Oregon, we are living in our vintage trailer (Firefly the ’55 – a seriously awesome trailer built by Spartan Aircraft Company after the war), and we are working towards our dreams which center around tiny homes as a vocation, as a lifestyle, and as an advocacy cause–I will share more about our vision with you all in my next post, so stay tuned! We currently pay a third of what we would normally be paying in rent and our electric bill per month averages out to only about $20! Despite all of our struggles, at the end of the day the truth is that I love tiny homes! I think that more people should live in them. These are interesting times in our lives as a family. We struggle, but we have passion, a wee bit of vision, and most of the time it feels worth it. 🙂