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As houses get bigger, some opt to downsize into 'wee' homes

At first glance, the pint-sized cypress-wood cabin Emily Faulconer is building looks like a hand-hewn, portable home for hobbits.

An interior view of the two-bedroom home is featured at Tavares Key, Fla. (Tom Benitez/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)
An interior view of the two-bedroom home is featured at Tavares Key, Fla. (Tom Benitez/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)Read more

At first glance, the pint-sized cypress-wood cabin Emily Faulconer is building looks like a hand-hewn, portable home for hobbits.

Just 200 square feet, Faulconer's future wee home in Osteen, Fla., is set atop a special trailer that she plans to eventually make her permanent home. It will include bare-bones amenities such as a mini-kitchen and tiny bathroom and living area, constructed in a cheaper and more environmentally friendly space than a sprawling suburban home.

"I like living simply," said Faulconer, a 31-year-old assistant professor of chemistry who chose the tiny lifestyle after escaping a sprawling 2,300-square-foot home she no longer could afford.

While home sizes have gotten larger in the past few decades, a small-house movement is afoot, advocating downsizing to save money and put less strain on the environment. Champions of the cause don't have a hard-and-fast way to define a "small" home, which can be as small as Faulconer's or the bigger – but still itty-bitty – rental cottages built by builder Jack E. Smith in Tavares., Fla.

His tropical-themed cottages top out at 576 square feet for two bedrooms and go as small as 424 square feet. Smith hopes his houses, which feature vaulted ceilings and granite kitchen countertops, will give residents a sense of home without the frills.

"It's kind of like the hotel-room concept," Smith said. "We go there to shower and sleep. It's a sense of home without all the extras."

Leading the "tiny home" charge are builders such as Dan Louche, who tours the country teaching people how to build miniature homes like Faulconer's. Louche, owner of Tiny Home Builders of DeLand, Fla., said many aspiring homeowners watched their dreams slip away as the housing market crumbled. Those building smaller houses, on the other hand, can often finance one without taking out a mortgage.

"They can save up to live in a house for free after just two years," Louche said.

The shift in attitude flies in the face of new-home construction trends. The post-recession building trend has been to go bigger, not smaller, said Stephen Melman, director of economic services director for the National Association of Home Builders. Melman attributes this to tighter lending rules that have kept many first-time buyers from the market.

"By and large, builders are building to the market," Melman said. "What buyers are out there tend to be higher-income right now, so they're purchasing larger homes."

Historically, home sizes have grown 50.9 percent during the past 39 years, based on census data. In 1973, the average new home reached 1,660 square feet and had ballooned to 2,505 square feet by 2012.

Though Americans are known for sprawling homes with the latest appliances and spare bedrooms, those who live small say having less stuff means having less stress and staying organized.

"Basically, there's a lot of stuff that can just be done away with," said Gregory Johnson, president of the Iowa-based Small House Society. "A lot of it is not an architectural challenge. It's an internal challenge."

Faulconer, who teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., spent two years living in a recreational vehicle to prepare to live in her cabin on wheels. She ditched dozens of pairs of shoes, blue jeans and some artwork so she could fit in the smaller space.

"One thing that I really like about the small space is you really have to keep things organized," she said. "Because one or two things out of place is very visible and makes it cluttered."

But those choosing to construct smaller homes can face obstacles including local building codes. Smith, for instance, had to get a special city ordinance to build his tiny homes so close together on one lot.

Louche said it's typical for many living in "tiny" cabins to "fly under the radar" for fear of being shut down by government code enforcers.

"Most people just kind of do what they're going to do and see how it turns out," Louche said, adding that some people chose to build to local RV or mobile-home codes.

Faulconer, meanwhile, expects to finish her petite cabin by the end of January, complete with hardwood floors, a kid-sized dishwasher and a lofted bed for less than $20,000.

"It feels great because I've got zero debt on it right now," she said. "Everything I have on it's paid for."


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