I had my go at a political post in my last blog, so this week I am going to consider a less contentious topic. Which is a better lifestyle choice – A Tiny House or a Boat.
OK, perhaps this topic might raise passions in some, but hey, I could be talking about the relative merits of whole berry versus jellied cranberries at Thanksgiving. Actually I wouldn’t touch that one with a 10 foot pole.
So on to Tiny Houses versus Boats. Let me start by addressing the fundamental question – WHY? Living small an be attractive to some people for a variety of reasons including:
Cost – Living in a small space like a tiny house or boat can be inexpensive both in capital outlay to buy the house/boat and ongoing maintenance and utility costs. Note that I said “can be inexpensive” since both boats and tiny houses can certainly be very expensive to purchase.
Living Green – Living in a small space can be green in that you are heating/cooling and lighting a much smaller volume than is the case with a traditional house, or even an apartment. The smaller space takes less materials to build and you can set either a tiny house or a boat up for off-grid living. In addition the idea of not having more than you need can be attractive.
Do it yourself – Many people are attracted to the idea of building their own home. Consequently, the idea of building a tiny house or a boat can be attractive.
Style – A tiny house can be built in pretty much any style. The same is true to a lesser extent with a boat. For those with an artistic bent this can be a large driver for living small.
Freedom – Freedom may mean getting out from under the mantle of government/corporate control, or it may mean not being tied to a specific place and the resulting costs. Freedom may also be more philosophical and may reflect the freedom to live a lifestyle that is not centered around a house.
There are, of course, many more reasons for living small. In addition the reasons above are strongly interrelated. Nevertheless I am going to limit my considerations to the above in the interest of keeping this missive manageable. So here goes.
What is Living Small?
Living small can mean different things to different people so a definition is necessarily a bit vague. In addition there a number of elements to living small that go beyond the size of the physical “home”. However, I think that one unifying principle in the concept of living small is to live so that you use only those resources needed to provide the needed/desired amenities of a home. The definition becomes varied since different people need/want different levels of amenities. Of course there are certain minimums that most people will agree on. Those include places to sleep, prepare food/eat, relax/work and a bathroom. Those functions an be combined in a single space or can have their own dedicated spaces. When you search the internet for the idea of living small you find a wide variety of solutions ranging from people who live in tents, cars, vans, travel trailers, motor homes and boats to those that consider a 3,000 square foot house small. For the purposes of this discussion I am going to limit “living small” to the choice of either a tiny house or a “small” boat. That of course requires me to define a tiny house and a “small” boat.
So what is a tiny house? According to Realtor.com a tiny house is a small house built on a foundation or wheels that is less than 500 square feet in size and is typically between 100 and 400 square feet ( http://www.realtor.com/advice/buy/what-is-a-tiny-house/). If you search the internet it seems that a large part of the current Tiny House movement is centered around houses built on trailers. These mobile tiny houses tend to be between about 135 and 250 gross square feet (calculated using outside dimensions). Mobile tiny houses are generally built to dimensions that allow them to be towed without permits. Those dimension limits are 8.5 feet total width and lengths from 28 to 40 feet (maximum length varies depending on where you are towing the home) and a maximum height less than 13.5 feet. How does a mobile tiny house differ from a travel trailer? As far as I can tell the main difference is in the construction methods and appearance. Travel trailers are normally built from aluminum and fiberglass with minimizing overall weight being a major construction goal. Tiny house web sites argue that travel trailers are not built (or suitable) for full time living. I question that assertion since my parents lived in travel trailers full time for nearly 15 years after they retired. Just visit any trailer or mobile home park and you will see lots of trailers being used as full time homes. Basically I think statements like that reflect some tiny house chauvinism. In contrast to a travel trailer, a mobile tiny house is usually built using the same construction methods and materials used in standard house construction. Tiny house designs generally include pitched or shed roofs and are higher than travel trailers. A mobile tiny house looks like a small house on wheels while a travel trailer looks like, well, a travel trailer. There is another type of mobile home that is closer to a mobile tiny house, that is the park model RV. Park models differ from travel trailers in that despite being built in the same way as travel trailers, they are often too wide (12′) to be moved without a permit. Many park models look a lot like mobile tiny houses, but the difference is in the construction methods. Like travel trailers, park model RVs are lighter for a given size than most tiny houses. Here are some of pictures I borrowed from the internet to illustrate that point.
A typical mobile tiny house
A typical travel trailer
The differences are pretty obvious. A less obvious difference is that the travel trailer probably weighs no more than half as much as the same size mobile tiny house. That shows up in details like insulation and “sturdyness”.
A park model RV. At first glance this looks a lot like a tiny house, but it is built using quite different materials and standards. Note the wheels in this picture are covered by skirts.
Now lets take a tour of a typical mobile tiny house. Since mobile tiny houses have to be sized to tow without permits, they generally are no wider than eight and a half feet outside and are limited to thirteen and a half feet total height. That means that the “rooms” are normally no more than seven and a half feet wide and sleeping lofts have 4′ or less maximum headroom. The smallest tiny houses are like small studio apartments. That is, they have two rooms. A bathroom with shower and a living/sleeping/cooking space. Small tiny houses are generally in the 7’x12-14′ size. All but the smallest tiny houses have separate sleeping areas, although the sleeping area in tiny houses less than 30 feet long is almost always a loft.
Interior of a smaller mobile tiny house showing the main living “room”, kitchen and sleeping loft. The bathroom is on the left behind the ladder to the loft.
Tiny house interiors are very individual since they are totally up to the owner/builder. Their style ranges from quite simple and rustic to elegant and modern. In addition there are no fixed interior layouts. Smaller mobile tiny houses often have lots of built in furniture, but as the houses get larger (say bigger than about 24′ lng) they may have normal apartment/condo sized furniture. Space allocation also varies all over the place. Some people want a large bathroom while others prefer a bigger kitchen, living room or sleeping space. One pretty common feature in most mobile tiny houses less than 28-30 feet long is the sleeping loft. Lofts are accessed either by ladders as in the picture above, or by a variety of different types of “stairs” often doubling as storage space (picture below).
Shelves and desk that double as loft stairs in a mobile tiny house.
There are as many different mobile tiny house interiors as there are people who have them. However, despite their diversity of design, one thing most mobile tiny houses have in common is lots of windows. The windows are often normal house windows, but some people build their own more artistic windows to help define the style of the house. Lots of light makes the tiny house feel larger.
What exactly is a live aboard boat?
At first glance this question seems pretty easy to answer. A live aboard boat is any boat that has enclosed accommodations that include space for sleeping, cooking and a bathroom. Live aboard boats range from as small as about 20 feet to as big as you could want and much bigger. Live aboard boats come in two primary flavors – sail and power. Power boats under about 25 feet tend not to have standing headroom which makes living aboard less comfortable, but that hasn’t stopped lots of people from living aboard those boats. Sailboats tend to be a bit larger before they have standing headroom, but pretty much all 28-30 foot sailboats have standing headroom. I will discuss sail and power boats separately. I am also going to limit my descriptions to boats big enough to have standing headroom.
Sailboats – A sailboat that an be lived aboard will normally have a minimum of two cabins and a head (the boaty word for bathroom). At the smaller end of the size range there will only be those two cabins. As the boats get bigger there will generally be at least one more sleeping cabin, although it may not have standing head room. There may also be a second small bathroom. The two basic cabins will be the main salon which will contain seating, which normally can be used for additional sleeping space, and a table. The table in smaller boats will normally be a fold down table. Part of the salon will be devoted to the galley (boat for kitchen). The galley will have a stove (with or without an oven). Stoves are normally either propane or alcohol fired although you can get a diesel fired stove that also acts as a space heater. There will be a sink with running water although hot water will require that the boat’s engine have been run for 30-40 minutes, or the boat be connected to shore power. The final part of the galley will be cold storage for food. Note I did not say refrigerator since almost all smaller sailboats lack an actual refrigerator. Instead sailboats have a top loading ice box. The ice box may or may not include electrically powered refrigeration. When refrigeration is absent, cooling is accomplished by putting blocks of ice in the “ice box”. There may also be an additional sleeping space are called a “quarter berth” which is a sort of sleeping nook under the aft deck of the boat. Head room in a quarter berth is never more than 3 feet. The second cabin is the sleeping cabin. It is always at the front of the boat and contains a V-shaped bed called a v-berth. Headroom always decreases as you go forward in the v-berth. There will also be some storage in the form of drawers or lockers under the v-berth and possibly a small “hanging” locker (closet). The head (bathroom) is generally quite small. At the smaller end of the sailboat spectrum the head will have a sink and a toilet (normally manually flushed into a holding tank via a hand pump). There may also be a shower head attached to the sink, but there won’t be a separate shower – i.e., the bathroom itself is the shower. You will start to find separate shower stalls in sailboats larger than about 35 feet and pretty much all boats larger than 40′ will have a separate shower stall.
Here are some pictures showing the living space on a 36′ sailboat. This happens to be my boat.
The main cabin or salon looking toward the front of the boat. This boat has a fixed table on the left with U-shaped seating and a simple seat on the right. You can see that the windows (ports) are small and high. Note that all of the furniture is built in and that there isn’t a lot of open floor space.
This is the sleeping cabin at the front of the boat where the v-berth is located. The triangular blue cushion at the front of the v-berth fits into the triangular opening at the back of the v-berth to make it into a large v-shaped bed (it also makes the v-berth harder to get in and out of and decreases available floor space). Note the location of the small windows (ports).
This is the galley (kitchen). This boat has a three burner propane stove with a small oven. The sink is self explanatory as are the cabinets above the stove and counter. The ice box is accessed by the rectangular panel in the counter to the right of the stove. A common characteristic in sailboat galleys is a small amount of counter space.
In this boat the bathroom is small (2’x3′) and contains only the toilet and a shower fixture. The head itself is the shower stall. The bathroom sink is outside the bathroom proper.
These pictures should give you a pretty good idea of the living space in a mid sized sailboat. A few noteworthy features are the built in furniture, lack of floor space and small high windows. The boat in the pictures above has white walls (called bulkheads) which brightens the interior up, but many boats have all dark wood interiors which can make them feel a bit like a cave.
Powerboats – As I said above powerboats start having standing headroom at about 25′ in boat length. Powerboats also tend to be wider for a given length than sailboats, although that isn’t the case for all powerboats under 30′ since many smaller powerboats are built to be trailerable without permits which limits their total width to eight and a half feet. Larger powerboats are almost always wider than equal length sailboats. Powerboats that you can live on come in two distinct styles. One is called a europa or salon style and the other is the aft cabin style.
A typical europa/salon style powerboat. This particular boat is a Grand Banks 32 and is 32′ long.
A europa/salon style powerboat has a back porch (called a cockpit by boaters). From the porch you walk directly into the main cabin which contains seating, a table and the kitchen (galley). In contrast to sailboat kitchens, powerboat kitchens almost always have an actual refrigerator. On smaller boats it is an under the counter (dorm) size, but larger boats can have full sized home style refrigerators. Toward the front of the boat, generally down a couple of steps, is the bathroom (head) and a sleeping cabin. On boats smaller than about 38-40 feet the sleeping cabin will generally be a v-berth like on a sailboat. On boats under about 36′ the bathroom will be small and not have a separate shower stall. Boats from about 36 feet up will generally have two sleeping cabins toward the front of the boat, One cabin will be the v-berth and the second will normally have bunk beads or a small built in double bed. Naturally the sleeping cabins get larger as the boats get bigger.
Powerboats from about 34′ on up may have aft cabins. The picture below shows a typical aft cabin powerboat.
This is a typical aft cabin powerboat. For comparison purposes I chose a Grand Banks 36.
Aft cabin powerboats tend to lack the back porch (cockpit). Entrance into the living space is done by doors from the side decks on both sides. Those doors enter the main, upper, cabin. The upper cabin contains the seating area, normally with two sofa style seats and a table, and the kitchen. On smaller boats the seating furniture will normally be built in, but larger boat sometimes have normal home style sofas, chairs and tables. At the front of the boat, down a few steps, there is normally a small bathroom without a separate shower, and a sleeping cabin with v-berth. Boats larger than 40′ may have two sleeping cabins at the front. At the back of the boat, also down a few steps, there is a second larger sleeping cabin and a larger bathroom, normally with a separate shower and sometimes a small bath tub. The sleeping cabin normally has at least a double or queen sized bed with storage drawers around the outside of the cabin. There may also be a desk/vanity table. As power boats get bigger the number of cabins generally doesn’t change (at least up to about 50′), but the cabins get larger.
A difference between powerboats and sailboats is “windows” the sleeping cabins in powerboats generally have no more windows than those on sailboats, but the main “salon” cabins on power boats almost always have large windows on all sides. These larger and more abundant windows make powerboat salons much brighter than sailboat salons and also make it easier to view the surroundings from inside.
A significant difference between boats and tiny homes is that boats are built to be able to move under their own power. Consequently, considerable space is devoted to engines, fuel tanks, control stations and associated “stuff”. In addition boats always contain water tanks (sometimes quite large) and tanks for sewage since it is illegal to dump it and also impossible to make a permanent connection to a shore sewage system. Boats also always have batteries to start the engines and run electrical stuff in the cabins. Larger boats (36′ and larger) also normally have built in electrical generators in addition to batteries and connections for shore based electrical power. These factors result in a boat of a given length having less living space than the same length mobile tiny house.
Living aboard a boat and living in a tiny house can seem cheap, particularly when compared to costs to buy a more traditionally sized house in most places. However there are some differences.
Perhaps the biggest difference comes at the initial purchase of the “home”. Mobile tiny houses have only been around for a few years so there is not much of a used market. The result is that most people that are looking to buy a tiny house will be buying a new structure. Looking on-line I have found mobile tiny house prices from as little as about $35,000 for a basic unit on the small side. Prices go up to over $100,000 for for a 30 foot unit with a lot of customization. Prices I have found on the used market are close to new prices with a floor in the low $30,000 range. Older used mobile tiny houses tend to be home built and are consequently of variable quality. Note that these are the prices for the tiny house itself. If you want to be able to move it you are going to have to buy a 3/4 or one ton truck or hire a someone for the move. A decent used 3/4 ton truck will cost from $15,000 to $30,000 depending on the usual things (age, condition, etc.). So if you want to get into a mobile tiny house that you can move yourself the cost for the house and tow vehicle will be at least $50,000.
Live aboard boats are quite different. There are suitable boats being built, but new boats are EXPENSIVE. You can figure at least $150,000 for a new small live aboard capable boat and if I limit the boat size to 50 feet, the costs of new boats can be over one million dollars. A typical forty footer will cost $650K to $1 million new. So for the cost conscious, new boats are completely out of consideration. Fortunately there is a large and vibrant used boat market. There is a huge price range in the used boat market with prices decreasing dramatically as the boats get older. Anything built before about 1980 can actually be quite inexpensive and fiberglass boats as old as 50 years can still be in good condition. Some of the factors that affect used boat prices are power or sail. Sailboats are much cheaper than the same age and length powerboats. For example you can easily find a decent 30 foot sailboat for as little as $10,000. Powerboats sell for a bit more. The big price determinant in powerboats seems to be whether they have gas or diesel engines. Gas powered boats are MUCH cheaper than diesel boats. If you look around you can find a gas powerboat in the thirty foot range for under $15,000. Note, that a 30 foot powerboat will have considerably larger accommodations spaces than a 30 foot sailboat. Similarly you can find a 35 footer in power or sail for $25,000 to $35,000. If you are willing to spend $50,000 you can get a nice 35-40 foot live aboard boat with two sleeping cabins. One advantage of a boat is that it is self propelled so you don’t need a tow vehicle.
So as far as purchase price goes, boats are ahead since you can get a pretty nice live aboard boat for quite a bit less than a tiny home, particularly if you factor in a tow vehicle for the tiny home. Alternatively you can spend the same money and have a very nice live aboard boat.
Costs are not limited to the purchase price. One of the major reasons I have read for living small is to reduce monthly costs. Perhaps the biggest monthly cost to live in a mobile tiny house or a boat is the cost of a place to put your home. One of the difficulties of mobile tiny houses is that many (most?) cities do not permit full time living in a mobile tiny house. That means you are probably going to have to live outside the city limits, or if you want to be in the city you will have to live in a mobile home park. Living in a mobile home park will require that your mobile tiny home is registered as an RV (either a travel trailer or park model). To register as an RV your mobile tiny house will have to be certified to meet RV construction standards. Most likely that will limit you to buying a new home from a builder that makes that certification and will facilitate registering your tiny house as an RV. After you do that you can figure on anywhere from $400 a month up for space rental. Fortunately space rental in an RV park generally includes hookups to power and sewer. The alternative is to find a place outside the city to either rent space or buy a piece of land. In either case you will need utility hookups (at least power and water assuming you have a composting toilet). Buying a piece of land can seem cheap, but getting power and water on the land can be quite expensive. Drilling a well and running power in from the road can easily cost $20,000 or considerably more. You can, of course, set up your home for off-grid living (solar panels and bringing water in or collecting it from your roof). On top of that buying a piece of land ties you down which may defeat one of your reasons for living tiny.
For a boar space is a different problem. Pretty much any city with waterfront will also have marinas where you can rent space for your boat. Marina costs generally run about $7-$12 per foot of the length of your boat per month. Electrical power is normally extra and can range from about $20 a month in the pacific northwest to as much as $150-$200 a month in New England. The biggest limitation is that marinas that allow live aboards often limit their number in the marina so you may have to be on a waiting list for a while to get a spot. But you can get a spot in the city. Of course, there is the limitation that there has to be water where you want to live to make a boat an option. Also, while it is possible to live aboard a boat in a place with cold winters, it is a lot easier to do where the winters do not involve much below freezing weather. That can be done on the east coast by moving south in the winter and back north in the summer. A problem with that is finding employment unless you have an independent income (are retired or a trust fund kid). Unless you happen to be in the health professions you will likely be limited to low wage jobs if you move a lot. The weather won’t be an issue on the west coast or the south coast (except for hurricanes in the south). Overall it looks like the location costs for a mobile tiny house and a boat are about the same.
Another significant cost is insurance. If you have a mobile tiny house and want to tow it anywhere you will have to get at least liability insurance. That will be difficult unless the home is registered as an RV. What little I can find suggests that insurance will likely cost about 1-2% of the value of your home per year so say around $500-$700. Strangely it normally costs more as a percentage of purchase price to insure a lower cost RV. Insurance for a boat will be in the same range. Right now I am paying 1.5% of valuation for my powerboat and 2% for my sailboat. An average cost might be about $50 per month for a boat or a tiny house for full liability and comprehensive coverage. Note – my boat insurance is what is called agreed value insurance. That insurance pays the policy value in case of a total loss. I could buy cheaper insurance that only paid a depreciated value. Alternatively you can buy liability only if you can afford to lose the money the boat/house represents.
The only other specific costs with either a boat or mobile tiny house are personal property tax (varies a lot by location), registration (required for both a boat and a tiny house that moves over the road), electricity (depends on where you are and if you are on-grid) and maintenance. Maintenance is probably higher with a boat because you will have to haul out every year or two for bottom painting. Maintaining the engine on the boat will cost about the same as maintaining the engine on your tow vehicle for the tiny house (if you have one). Overall I would expect a boat to cost $30-$40 a month more than a mobile tiny house for these things.
Overall, except for the initial purchase cost where the tiny house will be a bit more expensive), the costs of ownership for both types of homes are pretty similar if you rent space. If you buy land, a tiny house will cost a lot more than a boat neglecting potential resale value of the land at some future date. That brings up one other cost consideration – depreciation. An older boat will tend to hold its value if you maintain it since it will be essentially fully depreciated when you buy it. With a tiny house it is hard to say since they haven’t been around long enough for depreciation to make itself felt. However, I would expect a mobile tiny house to depreciate a lot like an RV in the long run. If that happens, a tiny house could lose 70-80% of it new cost to depreciation. That will certainly happen if the tiny house trend fades out over time.
Living green, that is with minimal environmental impact, can be accomplished in either a mobile tiny house on on a boat. In this section I will address a few of the details of green living for both housing options.
Construction – A mobile tiny house is built on a steel trailer. The house itself is generally framed with wood and may have wooden, metal (steel or aluminum) or other exterior siding (cement board, fiberglass, vinyl, etc.). Roofing will normally be metal (steel or aluminum) or asphalt shingles. The interior can range from all wood to some pretty high tech synthetic materials depending on the style preferred by the owner. It is possible to build a tiny house from mostly renewable materials (i.e., wood), but there will always be energy dense materials like steel, plastics and glass in the house.
Boat construction falls into two categories – wood and fiberglass. Older boats (from before the 60s) will normally be wood. Traditional wooden boats were still being built into the 70s. Fiberglass became the dominant construction material starting in the early 60s. Now, all but a few specialty boats are built from fiberglass. Fiberglass is a composite material made from textiles woven from glass fibers and some sort of plastic resin. The most common resin is polyester. All resins used in fiberglass construction are petroleum products. Even fiberglass boats use a lot of wood in their interiors. The more expensive the boat was originally the more wood is used in the hand built interior. Cheaper boats tend to have molded fiberglass interiors. Wooden boats, in contrast are all wood, although the wood species used often include woods that are somewhat environmentally sensitive (teak, various mahoganies, Port Orford cedar, etc.). While a wooden boat is more environmentally conscious than a fiberglass boat, there is considerably less maintenance with a fiberglass boat.
Tiny houses tend to be better insulated than boats which will make the tiny house easier to heat/cool. However, since tiny houses generally use normal household appliances, their energy use for everything other than heating may be a bit higher than on a boat. However, that depends largely on lifestyle choices.
Overall I would say that a tiny house is a more environmentally friendly than a fiberglass boat and about the same as an older wooden boat.
Going off the Grid – It is possible to take a tiny house mostly off the grid, but there will still be waste (sewage) and used water disposal issues even with a composting toilet. Off grid living is strongly dependent on the choices of appliances, heating and lighting installed in the tiny house. To go off grid it will be necessary to pick appliances that use alternate fuels for heating and cooking. The most environmentally friendly in terms of carbon footprint is to heat and cook with wood. Other options include propane fired heating, cooking and hot water generation. Propane is, of course, a petroleum product, but it does burn more cleanly than wood (no particulates) and you can turn it on and off quickly. As far as things like lighting, electronics, refrigeration and pressure water are concerned it will be necessary to install solar panels AND storage batteries of some sort. With careful choice of electrical appliances it is possible to generate all the electricity need from solar most of the time. However, in the winter and during longer cloudy periods it may be necessary to supplement solar power with electricity from the grid or from a generator.
In contrast to mobile tiny houses, boats are built to operate off the grid. Virtually all boats have the bulk of their electrical systems set up to operate from 12 volts DC. There may be a parallel 120 VAC system, but it is always secondary. While it is possible to set up a solar array on a sailboat, it is easier to set up an unobstructed array on a powerboat, where it is also generally possible to install more capacity. Cooking on boats is almost always done using propane, compressed natural gas or alcohol. Some larger boats have electric stoves that rely on either grid connection (shore power) or on board generators. Refrigeration is almost always powered by 12 volt DC. Boats always have storage batteries on board that are normally sufficient to run all systems for at least 24-48 hours. In addition, since boats are self-propelled, they have engines (diesel or gas) that have alternators which charge the batteries when the engine is running. Larger boats also often have diesel powered generators installed. As far as water and sewage are concerned, most boats are set up to pump toilet waste into on board holding tanks. Those tanks can be pumped out at shore sewage facilities or on salt water where it is possible to go 3 or more miles from land, pumped overboard. There are also on board sewage treatment systems that kill bacteria, but do nothing about nutrients, but you can’t use them everywhere. A few boats have composting toilets, but they have to dispose of wastes in the same way as all other boats and composted solid waste can be tricky to get rid of. On a boat water is normally housed in tanks that are refilled at shore facilities or can be refilled by desalinization of salt water using an on-board water maker. Basically if you are careful about your electrical use, it is possible to run most boats exclusively from solar power, with occasional top ups from the alternator on the main propulsion engine(s). Heating on boats is normally propane, diesel of wood fired, although some larger boats have reverse cycle heating/cooling systems that require either shore power or running a generator to operate them.
In summary, both a mobile tiny house and a boat can be set up for off grid living. It is easier to accomplish on a boat since the boat is intrinsically off-grid from the start.
Do it yourself
For some a significant attraction of a mobile tiny house is that you can build it yourself. The same is true for a boat, but the skill level required is somewhat higher. In this section I will look at some aspects of the do it yourself (DIY) approach that I think are important.
Why build your own mobile tiny house or boat? There are a couple of big reasons for that. Probably the biggest driver behind the DIY movement is to save money. If you build your home yourself you have no labor costs. That generates a huge saving since labor can make up 80% or more of the cost of a professionally built structure. The other reason is personal satisfaction. You can take pride in your accomplishment and your self-sufficiency. Both of these factors are powerful motivators for a DIY project.
So what is involved in building your own home, be it a mobile tiny house or a boat. I will look at a mobile tiny house first. The starting point for any mobile tiny house is the design. Other than length, width and height limitations for towing the house on the highways, there are few limitations on the design. That means that you can design your own tiny house. The design does have to account for wind loads when towing the house (60 mph winds on the highway) and the builder will need to know any requirements for meeting mobile home certifications, but it can be done. The next thing is the trailer on which the house will be built. Most DIY tiny house builders will choose to buy a trailer rather than build one. I think the reason for that is simple. Few people have the welding skills required to build a trailer from scratch. In contrast, there are few highly specialized skills required for the actual construction of the tiny house once the trailer is in hand. What skills the potential builder doesn’t have can be bolstered by attending workshops at home Depot/Lowes or watching YouTube videos. After a little study pretty much anyone can frame up a tiny house from lumber bought at the local lumber yard. After all, a tiny house is just a box with right angle corners built on the trailer. Now I am not saying that everyone can do a really good job or do the job quickly, but if you can measure and cut a 2×4 and then nail those boards together you can frame up your tiny home. Similarly, sheathing the exterior walls isn’t all that hard. Building the roof will be a bit tougher, particularly if the roof is pitched. The same goes for installing windows and doors. So overall it is relatively easy to build the outer shell of a tiny house. The interior will require greater skill since it involves plumbing, electrical wiring, joinery skills, painting and other skills like laying tile and hanging drywall. Making the tiny house look “good” is by far the hardest and most time consuming part. One thing the novice builder likely won’t anticipate is the importance of planning the entire project before starting. It is very important to get things like wiring and plumbing right so that the pipes won’t leak and the wiring won’t set the structure on fire. There are also other considerations like ventilation, heating systems and insulation. What it comes down to is that while building a DIY tiny house is possible, it is probably a bigger job than most neophyte builders expect. On the plus side, a tiny house can be built outside, particularly since framing, closing the structure up and making it weather tight generally goes quite quickly (2-3 weeks even for a part time builder). When weather threatens a tarp can be thrown over the partly finished structure. Furthermore, the tools required to build a tiny house are relatively few and are also inexpensive. A builder can buy all the needed tools for $500 or less, although a $1,000 tool budget would allow a few welcome additions.
The biggest limitations come when regulatory compliance is required. Building standards become important when installing wiring, plumbing and in structural planning. The reasons are that building code compliance may be required to get a certificate of occupancy in some municipalities. That means that the builder will have to know code requirements and may have to get the work inspected. Furthermore, if the mobile tiny house is to be registered as a mobile home, it will need to meet industry standards or the local DMV will be unlikely to issue registration. A mobile tiny home can’t be moved on its own wheels without registration. Also many mobile home parks won’t accept a tiny house that isn’t registered as a mobile home. Finally there is insurance. Insurance can be very hard to come by without inspections/certifications. Insurance is mandatory to take a tiny home on the road.
Notwithstanding the above, it is possible, after some research of building, RV, fire protection, and other codes as well as construction standards, to build your own tiny home and save a lot of money over buying a professionally built home. The interior and exterior finish may not be as polished as in a professionally built home, unless the builder is a skilled carpenter, but it can be done by most people.
What about building your own boat? Lots of people have built their own boats, so it definitely can be done. It will also save the builder a LOT of money over buying a new boat, although it may cost more than buying a used boat. There are some considerable difference between building a tiny house and building a boat. The first consideration is that the boat has to float and carry the weight of the cabin and interior. Not only does the boat have to float, it has to float level from front to back and side to side. It also have to be sufficiently stable not to capsize when it is moved or people on board move to one side. These constraints require a design. Designing a boat is pretty involved and required a fair amount of training in the methods of naval architecture as well as a knowledge of the strengths and other characteristics of materials. Because of that, although there is no requirement for a professional design, a potential DIY builder without the appropriate training/background should buy a professional design. That represents a substantial cost if the builder doesn’t want an off the shelf design. Even simply buying an existing design can cost well over $1,000. What happens if you don’t have an adequate design. Watch this Youtube video to see the effect of a few calculation errors in a professional design.
OK, so you have bought a design. The first thing you are going to have to do is find a place to build your boat. That place really should be inside a heated building (more money). In addition it will take a lot longer to build a boat than a mobile tiny home, so you will have to pay for the space for months or potentially more than a year. Once you have place to work you will quickly find that the skill level required to build a boat is a lot more varied and at a higher level than that needed to build a tiny house. Why? Well in contrast to a tiny house which is basically a box on a trailer with straight lines and right angle corners, boats don’t have many straight lines and the corners are almost never at 90 degrees. Pretty much everything is curved. Now, I am not saying it isn’t possible for the amateur to develop the required skills, but it will take a while, which will make the process take even longer. Amateur construction of a larger boat is generally a several year long process.
In addition the cost saving of building versus buying a boat isn’t going to be even close to that for building a tiny house. Why not? Because you have to buy the plans, the materials are more expensive and finally you have to buy an engine. A marine diesel engine for a live aboard boat will cost at least $10,000 just for the engine. You will also need fuel tanks, engine controls, propeller shaft and propeller, rudder and steering controls, exhaust and cooling system components, among other things. Plus, if the boat is a sail boay you ave to buy the mast(s), rigging, sails and other needed components, none of which are cheap. The complete propulsion system for the boat will likely cost at least $15,000 just for materials. In fact materials alone for a functional live aboard boat around 28-30 feet long will cost a minimum of $30,000. Since you can buy a used boat for less than that, there really is no financial incentive to build the boat yourself. So the only incentive for a DIY boat is because you want to do it.
What this comes down to is that a DIY tiny home is certainly possible for many people with modest carpentry skills and will generate a substantial cost savings. The same isn’t true at all for a boat. Building a boat will take longer than a tiny house and will almost certainly cost more than a comparable used boat.
It seems to me that style is a big factor in the decision to live in a mobile tiny house. Fortunately, except for the maximum dimensions (length, with and overall height), pretty much everything about a tiny house can be customized. Exterior appearance, interior layout and finish and systems can be whatever is desired. The only construction constraints are that the tiny house must meet mobile home specifications if it is going to registered as a mobile home and the structure must be strong enough to stand up to trailering at highway speeds. Other than that the sky is the limit. So in the area of style, the tiny house is an blank book in which the owner can write whatever is desired.
Boats on the other hand are constrained by the need to float, be stable and sea worthy. Unless the owner is building a new boat from a custom design, the overall style of the boat will be pre-determined, particularly with a used boat. Of course, the interior of a boat, particularly a power boat, can be customized especially if the owner has some carpentry skills. That said, the interior layout of a boat is pretty much fixed and customization will normally be limited to decor (fabrics, finishes, colors, etc.).
So in the area of style, a tiny house gives the owner virtually unlimited freedom while a boat is much more limited.
The idea of living tiny is often inspired in part by the freedom a moveable home implies. It is also tied into freedom from “the Man”, which refers to freedom from mortgages and other costs paid to corporate interests. Both a mobile tiny home and a live aboard boat offer these types of freedom, but in different ways and to different extents.
A mobile tiny house gives the freedom of the open road, particularly if the owner also has a tow vehicle. The house can be towed anywhere there are suitable roads and there are thousands of places to park for a night, a week, a month or a year. However, as the duration of the stay increases, the number and desirability of available stopping places decreases. Free places to stay generally depend on the off grid capacity of the tiny home. If the home requires electrical and sewer hookups then it won’t be staying in primitive camping areas. Also, long term parking which is required to hold down a job may be difficult because of city rules prohibiting living in a mobile tiny home. Consequently, as I mentioned above staying somewhere long term will generally mean buying and improving land (i.e., spending money and accruing obligations like property tax) or moving into a mobile home park that allows long term leases. In that case the sense of freedom may be more a state of mind than physical/fiscal reality.
What about a boat? Living on a boat also gives the freedom to move around. However, a decision to move to places like Kansas, Utah, Arizona or a similar “dry” places won’t be possible unless the boat is small enough to haul on a trailer. However, if the boat is on salt water, it can go lots of places quite easily. On the east coast of North America any live aboard boat can be moved seasonally from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Going further south requires the boat to be sufficiently seaworthy to cross longer stretches of potentially rough water. That sort of crossing is generally limited to sailboats and larger passage maker (i.e., expensive) style power boats. Furthermore, long distance voyaging on a powerboat gets expensive because of fuel costs (figure 5-6 miles per gallon at the best and 1 mpg is more typical if the boat is over 35 feet). On the west coast of North America going between ports south of Puget Sound in Washington state requires making open ocean passages. That requires either a more capable boat or waiting potentially for a long time for good weather. From Puget Sound north to Alaska it is possible to take pretty much any live aboard boat anywhere on the coast, although weather is always a consideration. Longer passages are possible with most sailboats larger than about 30 feet. Many live aboards travel seasonally to Baja California in Mexico and some cross the Pacific or Atlantic oceans to cruise the world. Cruising like that does require financial self sufficiency, but it is an option that a mobile tiny home doesn’t have, just like a boat can’t visit the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. A boat can almost always anchor out for free. I say almost always because there are areas when anchoring is restricted and often while the boat can be anchored there is no easy way to get ashore. So while it is possible to spend a lot of time living essentially free (except for the costs of fuel and food), staying in one place for a while almost always means renting space at a marina. Marina life can be done for no other costs other than marina rent if the boat is electrically self sufficient, but most boats will connect to shore power and other utilities (internet, cable TV, etc.) for extra cost. A marina is the boating equivalent of the mobile home park.
So, as far as freedom both a boat and a mobile tiny house provide a less expensive alternative to renting an apartment/house or buying a house/condo. However, neither provides total freedom from corporate culture, although international travel on a sailboat comes close, if the financial resources are available. In both cases the lifestyle introduces one to a different community than the apartment/house dweller experiences. Unless a tiny house is sited in a pocket neighborhood designed for tiny homes, that community is likely to be the RV community. Similarly, unless a boater stays on the move the community will be the marina community. Both settings have real senses of community although there are differences.
Location, Location, Location
I want to briefly address one other aspect of mobile living before I summarize. That is location. By that I am referring to where the moveable home will be located during long term stays, perhaps for work. As I mentioned above, if the tiny home owner is fortunate enough to be in a comparatively enlightened city, it may be possible to move into a pocket neighborhood with other tiny house dwellers an neighbors. However, in many even comparatively liberal cities the tiny house dweller will be constrained to live in a mobile home park or trailer park. Such “parks” tend to have the homes tightly packed and are generally on the outskirts of municipal areas, often in less desirable areas. This can be a potential downside to tiny home life. Boats will be in marinas. By their nature marinas are on the waterfront often in very beautiful areas. However, not all marinas are in pretty or interesting places. Some are in industrial areas. Nevertheless, since water front is generally a desirable part of most cities, marinas tend to be located close to downtown and often in upscale areas. In those areas living aboard is incredibly cheap compared to living ashore. Living at the edge of a city core also generally means good access to transit and city services, which may not be the case for an RV park. Overall, the choice depends on what each individual prefers. If you like the city center and the water, marina life will be a better choice. If you don’t like being at the center of city hustle and bustle then living at the edge of the city in an RV park may be more for you. Of course, there are RV parks in beautiful, serene locations and there are marinas that are pretty far from the city. So location becomes a personal choice.
Well I have written quite a lot about the two lifestyles. I hope I have discussed both the similarities and differences of tiny house and boat living.
As far as cost goes, boat living can be cheaper than tiny house living, particularly if the boat is an older used boat. At a given price point in the middle of the purchase price spectrum a tiny house will probably be newer and will likely have a bit more space. Other costs are about the same for the two options. So if you want a new home, a tiny house is the way to go.
Living green comes a bit more easily in a boat since boats are intrinsically of-grid. It is possible to make a mobile tiny house off grid capable, but for long term living a boat is easier to set up. That said, a boat, by virtue of the materials used to build it is less green than a tiny house, unless you buy a wooden boat. I think that boat living comes out a bit ahead in this area, but it is close.
As far as do it yourself is concerned there is no contest. A tiny house is MUCH easier than a boat to build. Unless you posses significant carpentry and other skills, building a boat simply isn’t an option. Furthermore, building a boat will be much more expensive and time consuming than building a tiny house. Building a boat only makes sense if a large part of your dream is building a boat.
Style is also an area where the tiny house comes out ahead because you can do pretty much what you want with a tiny house. Even if you build your own boat, it still has to be seaworthy, which places significant constraints on style. The only way style wins for a boat is if your dream is to live on a particular type of boat, like an old tug boat, or if the beauty of a boat is your thing.
Both tiny homes and boats provide freedom. You are free to move around with both choices, but the places you can go are different. With tiny home you can visit land locked places, but you are constrained by roads. You can’t go out into the real wilderness where there are no roads. With a boat, there has to be water, but once on the water you can go anywhere your boat is capable of going. There are no roads on the water. In a tiny home you can go over the horizon, as long as there is a road going that way. With a boat, you can go over the horizon – literally. I give this one to the boat, although it comes down to where you want to be able to go.
Location is another toss up. It depends on the lifestyle that is preferable. Both location options have pluses and minuses. A boat is a it easier to move unless you have your own tow vehicle for your tiny house. If you have the right boat your location options are only limited by your sense of adventure. You can’t go to Tahiti or Spitzbergen in a mobile tiny house, but you can’t visit Banff or the Great Smokie Mountains on a boat. So again it comes down to personal preference.
I hope this blog has provided an interesting perspective on these two “living small” options. My purpose was not to sell one option, despite the fact that my personal preference would be a boat. I hope I have been reasonably objective.
I look forward to comments and will answer all that I can.