On the hit FYI reality television show, "Tiny House Nation," Zack Giffin and John Weisbarth take viewers across the United States looking at unique tiny homes and the families who live in them.
Giffin, a professional skier and contractor, is also the proud owner of a 112-square-foot ski chalet on wheels.
The Tiny House Movement has seen a rise in the number of Americans choosing to live simply in smaller, more efficient homes. These tiny abodes, ranging in size from 100 to 800 square feet, are much smaller than the average American home of roughly 2,600 square feet. And some tiny homes, including Giffin’s, are constructed on wheels, allowing homeowners to move from place to place.
While small homes hold appeal for those who want to downsize, reduce their debt or have less of an impact on the environment, they also come with their own unique challenges.
Finding a tiny-home site and tiny house insurance: Two obstacles
One of the biggest obstacles faced by tiny homeowners is finding a location. Building codes in most cities set a minimum size for dwellings, and many tiny homes on wheels qualify as recreational vehicles and are banned from areas outside of an RV park. Finding insurance can also prove to be a challenge for many tiny homeowners.
“There have been issues insuring tiny homes, however there are efforts within the country to open up more options, and a few nationwide insurance companies are looking at offering tiny house-specific policies,” Giffin says. “The best way for homebuilders to make it easy on insurance companies is to apply for a building certification through an organization such as NOAH, the National Organization of Alternative Housing, that ensures proper building processes.”
In January, Fresno, California, became the first city in the nation to write authorization for tiny homes into its development code. Fresno’s zoning code now allows homeowners to park their tiny homes on wheels as permanent structures on land adjoining a residence. The homes can be used by homeowners or as rental units.
Tracking insurance plans just for tiny homes
Darrell Grenz of the Grenz Insurance Co. in Portland, Oregon, (insuremytinyhouse.com) is one of a handful of agents who specialize in insurance designed for tiny homes.
“I help homeowners obtain insurance coverage for all types of alternative housing units, including self-built units, off-the-grid cabins, micro homes, storage container homes, RVs and more,” Grenz says.
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To obtain a policy, tiny homeowners must provide the name of a licensed electrician who did the work on their home. If the homeowner rather than a licensed electrician performed the work, they must pay for an electrical inspection before being approved for a policy.
Grenz also offers insurance coverage for tiny homes that are in the process of being built.
“This Course of Construction/Builder Risk insurance policy protects homeowners against fire or theft while they are building their tiny home,” Grenz says.
Considerations before buying or building
Tiny house experts recommend conducting due diligence before buying or building a tiny home.
“The most common mistake consumers make is expecting the construction on a tiny home to be significantly cheaper than standard construction methods,” Giffin says. “This leads many people to have budgets that are inadequate for their project, which results in cutting corners.”
Giffin adds that construction techniques for tiny houses on trailers also need to be adjusted for highway travel.
“This is another reason we need to push for common tiny house building code expectations,” he says.
Dave Fleming of RV America Insurance in Simi Valley, California, says the tiny homes on wheels he insures need to be built by a Recreational Vehicle Industry Association certified builder.
Not only will RVIA certification allow for homeowners to obtain insurance on their tiny home on wheels, it will also allow tiny homes on wheels access to more RV parks. Some RV parks and campgrounds will not allow tiny houses on wheels to access their property if they aren’t RVIA-certified.
Fleming also recommends checking flood zones in an area before building a tiny home.
“There is no reason tiny homes should not be built in terms of safety with the same expectations as any other home,” Giffin says. “In terms of fire and flood, to a certain degree tiny homes on a trailer have an advantage because they can be moved when in grave danger -- something that should be considered by insurance companies.”
Theft a big problem for tiny houses on wheels
Theft is also a problem that tiny homeowners need to consider. For tiny homes on wheels, Giffin recommends deflating the tires and putting a lock on the hitch, if you plan to have your home stay in one spot for some time.
“The one area that has not been addressed, with the explosion of the tiny home movement, is homes that are stationary are put into a dwelling policy or a mobile home policy, and there is no coverage for theft,” Fleming says.
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, a tiny home owner, and author of the book, "Living Large in Our Little House: Thriving in 480-Square Feet with Six Dogs, a Husband and One Remote -- Plus More Stories of How You Can, Too," recommends that prospective tiny homeowners consult with a builder before attempting to build a home themselves.
“Although you may spend more money going with an established tiny-homes builder, rather than doing it DIY, at least you know you will be able to obtain insurance,” she says. “If you’re going to build your own tiny home, you should contact potential insurers before you begin construction.”