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The tiny (but mighty) potential of tiny homes

BY Steph Koyfman

When 84 Lumber introduced its “Tiny Living” collection of portable tiny homes in March, it went down in home improvement history as the first retailer to overtly legitimize the burgeoning compact living revolution.

Since before the recession changed the housing market forever, a small number of Americans have been shunning their possessions in favor of tiny homes, financial freedom, a more pristine carbon footprint, and the emotional satisfaction of living with less. The housing crisis certainly played a role in accelerating the movement, but even now, with the worst of that era behind us, millennials are gravitating toward this new vision of homeownership that’s attainable under a mountain of student debt, and some adventurous baby boomers are choosing to retire in a state of affordable (and mobile) minimalism.

The applications of tiny homes go well beyond lifestyle design. Some homeowners are installing tiny houses on their (regular-sized) properties as guest accommodations, or even toting them around as vacation homes.

But in spite of the trendy appeal of the tiny home movement, few HBSDealer readers believe that it could point to a new market opportunity. A recent online survey at HBSDealer.com found that only 10% of 272 voters thought the tiny home movement would be huge for the industry, as opposed to 52% who said that it’s “Great for Pinterest, not for business.”

That still leaves 38% who think that “there’s potential there for a successful niche, in some markets, maybe.”

And from an insider’s perspective, that appears to be the accurate take. Elaine Walker, who runs the popular website Tiny House Community, says it was inevitable that a company like 84 Lumber would start mass-producing tiny homes. The momentum is there, in her opinion, provided zoning changes occur that will allow more people to settle down.

Consider the stats: According to The Tiny Life, the typical small home is between 100 and 400 square feet (that’s compared to 2,600 square feet for the average American home). In order to maintain this inefficient standard of living, most Americans have to dedicate one-third to one-half of their income to shelter.

Meanwhile, 78% of tiny home pioneers own their homes, compared with 65% of traditional homeowners. And the final sticker shock? Tiny homes built by owner cost an average of $23,000.

84 Lumber is attempting to cater to the gamut of tiny home builders, providing a spectrum of possibilities ranging from move-in ready to build-it-yourself. They also include a variety of aesthetics, such as cottage style and a high-end modern design.

“With our national footprint and commitment to the dedicated do-it-yourselfer, we are uniquely positioned to become a part of this new path to homeownership,” said Maggie Hardy Magerko, president and owner of 84 Lumber.

The thing to keep in mind is that tiny home builders are already shopping at home improvement stores for their materials. According to Walker, there are ways retailers can cater to their needs, even if they don’t come up with a special product line.

“Be knowledgeable and keep in stock appliances and fixtures that fit into tiny homes,” she offered. “Also, be receptive to women builders.”

Workshops on tiny house design and construction are also a very helpful proposition, as are discounts and coupons for builders.

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