A tiny home might just be the perfect solution for some would-be first-time buyers, but they seem rarer in the UK than the US despite their advantages.
We’re taught bigger is better as children. It seems ironic that in the land of giant everything for the sake of it, more and more Americans are rejecting mortgages and debt by building or buying tiny homes. Tiny homes haven’t gained the same momentum on our small island. However, at under 400 square feet as a general rule, you’d think it would be easier to find somewhere for such small digs on our fair shores.
New builds are getting smaller, but first-time buyers are paying a premium for less space just because these houses are new. If the trend continues, by the time some of us get on the property ladder we’ll be living in tiny homes anyway, but there’ll be marketed as normal-sized.
I jest, but what if tiny homes were more available? What would it be like to live in one? If most of us have to save five figure sums for a deposit, can you imagine saving that money up and then having no mortgage? What would you do with that freedom?
Here’s what I’ve covered below:
- The Pros Of Tiny Homes
- The Cons Of Tiny Homes
- The Pros Of Buying Small
- Space-saving Ideas For Tiny Homes And Every Home
The latter includes:
- Rules that can apply in every room
- Inventing space with colours
- Supersizing kitchens
- Upscaling bathrooms
- Utilising entryways and under the stairs
- Enlarging lounges
- Doubling bedrooms
- Lighting FX
- The great outdoors
I’ve recapped before the various tiny homes of How to Live Mortgage Free with Sarah Beeny. My Grand Designs: The Street recap features self-builders at the other end of the scale. I ended up somewhere in between the two extremes.
After reevaluating the amount of space I thought I wanted I bought a compact fixer upper for cut price. I have a mortgage, but I also had a wedge of my intended deposit left over for the refurb and other things like paying the bills while I switched working gears to something a lot less stressful.
My home is far more than 400 square feet, but it’s miniature compared to what childhood me thought my future house would look like.
To this end, I thought I’d compile all the information I gathered when saving my deposit about converting small spaces. I gained this knowledge partly because of my curiosity about how to live in a tiny house, but also because many tiny home solutions can turn a one or two bedroom house into a cavernous multi-purpose space.
I hope listing these below helps at least one person think differently about small spaces. If this is the difference between feeling like you’ll forever be at a dead end renting and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, I’d rather show you the light.
Small is relative. But if it feels like your first home is years off because you’re convinced you must have at least two or three bedrooms even though you’re buying alone, then you could do with pointers on organising and decorating in a small house.
The Pros of Tiny Homes
- Once a tiny home is paid for, there’s usually no mortgage making you debt-free
- It’s a route to minimalism if that’s a goal for you
- They can be environmentally friendly
- You might have the potential to go mobile when you feel like it
- There’s hardly anything to clean
Notice I said it’s a route to minimalism (life is all about the journey, right?) I’m not really a minimalist, so never fear. Don’t put everything on a bonfire just yet.
I made use of all the space-saving tricks and interior design tips I could find on tiny homes. As a result I’ve never felt cramped in my “little” two floor house despite owning enough belongings for several people (I have 30+ pairs of footwear alone. I don’t know how this happened. Actually I do, I just try and black out the explanations and excuses).
In order to fit into my itty bitty palace, I had to do three things.
- Have a good clearout of things I didn’t need anymore
- Go on a shopping ban of anything that wasn’t a replacement for something I already owned
- Educate myself about how to make small spaces seem bigger through effective storage and interior design tricks
Choose better design
It’s constantly in the news that we have a housing shortage, but I don’t think traditional new builds are the solution. The media will try to tell you that we are doomed. People told me I was doomed. That I would never own my home on a low salary, especially in the Southeast.
I became ultra frugal to save what I needed to go the traditional route. After researching all the options, I bought a discounted shabby house in a promising location and added value to the property. I’ve written more about that in this post:
This might be the solution for you if alternative living is too out there. But I also think it should be easier for would-be first-time buyers to self-build, or park a tiny home. The first step is wrapping your head around another way of living.
I know more than one singleton who rents two or even three bedrooms because they insist they need the extra space. Or perhaps like I did, you’ve squeezed over twenty years of accumulated belongings into one bedroom in London and fantasise about having multiple bookcases, or a second wardrobe.
Unless we want to rent forever though, there comes a point where if we abandoned the idea that we need more space, rather than better designed space, we could buy sooner than we think. But it requires getting creative with storage. It requires no more impulse buying. It requires assessing our possessions and maybe selling or trading some of the goods that seem to own us, rather than the other way around.
Embracing the pros of tiny homes requires a mindset change for some of us.
The Cons Of Tiny Homes
- The cost of land or finding somewhere to park might be more than the tiny home costs itself
- Mess and smells don’t have very far to travel!
- They experience heavy wear and tear as you are using the same small selection of materials daily
- There’s nowhere to escape when sharing
- The minimalism is forced e.g. you have to make buying decisions based on weight rather than other factors
- Going from stationary to mobile might not be straightforward
- The bathrooms are moisture havens because they are so small
- Finding ventilation in hot weather is tough
- Tiny means tiny so they’re tricky for claustrophobia, foodies who love to cook, men built like Jared Padalecki (a.k.a Sasquatch), pet lovers…
You get the idea. I’ve watched a lot of tiny home renovations on TV though and there are chefs and pet owners and very tall and burly men giving it a go.
The cons list is longer than the pros, but then the pros are pretty big. “Debt free” definitely looks appealing.
But what about living in a tiny home that isn’t a tiny home by definition, but simply smaller than your dream home?
The Pros Of Buying Small
First, let’s talk about expectations.
When I was at school I had a thing about drawing mansion layouts. Over and over again I would scribble floorplans, deciding where to put the ballroom(!), the bar, the second kitchen and the third reception room just for starters.
I can’t help it, I love beautiful things, even if I love saving money too. Some mansions are monstrosities. Others are architects creating art on a grand scale. The kind of stairways that make you go “Wow!” Chandeliers that make you go “Ooh!”
They were also the kind of fancy designs with mortgage payments that make you go “Ouch!” Maintenance costs that make you think “Nah, it’s okay, I don’t wanna be rich after all if most of it’s bank loans to pay the staff to clean more square footage than I could ever use…”
I don’t even know where the impulse came from. I wasn’t raised in a mansion. I think in our society we still learn fairly on though that there are people out there living in little palaces. Some kids google funny cat videos. I used to google architectural features, until I realised the value of money.
Managing expectations for success
So we get older and we reduce our expectations. We daydream about a three bedroom house. Maybe four. We’re perpetually single, but our friends will need somewhere to sleep when they come to stay. Especially because we’ve moved around so much for work since school, all our friends live in different towns, or even different countries.
Then we discover that every time we read about how we only need to save 5 or 10% of the list price as a deposit, that there’s a big “but” left out. I’ve covered that in this post:
If I ate every article I’ve ever seen that promoted Help to Buy or some other purchase to me as if all I needed to do was find £10000 or £20000, then I’d have ink for blood by now. I wasn’t eligible for Help to Buy and on my salary, I needed more like a 40% deposit just to buy at the bottom of the market.
So we get older and we manage our expectations again. The two bedroom with front and back gardens and parking and room to extend and all the other “essential” bells and whistles becomes a one bedroom house.
One advantage of buying existing houses is that the square footage is very generous compared to what they build today. I still laugh whenever someone visits for the first time though. “Where’s the bathroom?” they ask, as if there’s a grand choice of where to go. Dude, you can’t get lost upstairs in my house!
I ended up living in a “tiny” home in a sense that it’s a lot smaller than teenaged me dreamed up. Teenage me didn’t have her priorities straight. (What would I have done with a ballroom? Seriously?)
The pros of owning a small house
- There’s very little to clean
- I know where everything is and don’t have rooms of forgotten belongings
- I’m wary of what I accumulate so I don’t strangle the space
- This keeps my spending mindful
- There’s little to maintain (and spend on therefore)
- It’s not a money pit to heat
- My council tax is low-ish
- I’ll likely be mortgage free long before anyone else I know
They’re much the same pros as tiny homes.
Would I ever want to live in a true “tiny” home on wheels or blocks? I had a shopping addiction previously, so I’d have to get rid of mountains of clothes to do that. I work from home too, so I don’t know if I’d want to work and live in a smaller space than I do now. I’d definitely think about a tiny home for a holiday home though. Ironically, buying a small house puts me in a financial position where I could consider a holiday home…so long as it’s under 400 square feet.
Space-saving Ideas For Tiny Homes And Every Home
How do we actually squeeze in without feeling squeezed?
Here are some “rules” that can apply in every room. Then I’ll take you room to room before optimising the lighting and any outdoor space.
Think small or transforming furniture, sliding doors, lots of mirrors and reflective surfaces.
Lots of thin shelving is better than bookcases and cabinets in small rooms. If you do have a large item of furniture, choose something tall and skinny/shallow or long and low.
Create different levels with furniture for depth.
You can also conceal furniture by keeping it flush to the wall, the same colour and possible to open without visible handles. Make friends with a carpenter to build you storage that uses every inch.
Pushing all your furniture right against the walls to make more space can have the opposite impression when there’s no camouflage. So sometimes leaving space between furniture and the walls makes the space seem bigger. Experiment!
Irregular shaped tables, desks and worktops rather than rectangles save space on their corners. So do desks that fold down.
Aim for expanding tables or table with bases and drawers. Furniture with legs or Lucite furniture creates an illusion of space, but aim for storage if you own a lot already.
Avoid small patterns and ornaments. A lot of knickknacks in one space looks crowded.
To avoid cluttered walls, if you want hooks and shelves then place the hooks directly under the shelves. If you use something regularly see if you can’t hang it from a pegboard instead of crushing it in a cupboard or drawer.
Wooden ladders can serve a purpose in any room. Suspend them from the ceiling to hang pots and pans, or scarves, or lights. A fold out ladder can be a nighttable substitute as shelves for all the things you want by your bed, or a vertical garden for herb trays on every step if you lack space outside. A single ladder can also be movable bathroom shelving if you lean it against the wall, or a shoe rack.
If the neighbours haven’t done it, then be the first. Build shelves above doors that have a narrow strip of wall that won’t fit any other furniture. Turn a door into a bookcase with a hinge if books are your lifeblood.
With low ceilings, place shelving and light fixtures lower to draw the eye down.
Inventing Space With Colours
Light colours and a simple or uniform palette of materials all make narrow spaces seem bigger. This might mean having furniture in a different shade of the same colour as the walls. Generally less colours means less competition for our attention, so you might want to opt for three colours max. If you don’t have strong feelings about what palette to go for, research the bestselling colour that year as a starting point.
A dark colour at the end of a narrow room or hallway makes the space appear squarer however.
Purples, plums, and reds all absorb light, so reflect light around the room with mirrors/glass items to avoid inhabiting a cave.
Bold colours in corners lift dark colour schemes and Oriental schemes have lots of potential for accent colours like reds, turquoise, imperial yellow, lime green, or purple to offset black and dark woods.
Alternatively reserve dark colours for cushions and trims. Paint skirting boards and other architectural features the lightest shade of your palette, or do without these trimmings altogether.
Painting or wallpapering ceilings draws the eye upwards and makes rooms seem bigger (providing you put up something light in colour or a simple pattern, otherwise a low ceiling will look oppressive). If covering the whole ceiling seems too radical, paint a highlighting line around the edge instead.
Transforming a kitchen or bathroom is most likely to add value to a purchase, so show off what a small space can do.
Cupboards always provide more space than drawers because they don’t need runners, but we tend to use cupboards ineffectively. I created extra shelves inside my cupboards using IKEA shelf inserts.
On How to Live Mortgage Free with Sarah Beeny, one build had cupboards under an island in a tiny home that were only 300mm deep. Cupboards are normally 600m deep which makes it hard to use space efficiently. If this sounds like a build job, then one cheat is to place shallow wall cupboards under the worktop instead (but you’ll likely want a shallow worktop also).
If you are an appliance junkie, consider a wall cupboard that touches the worktop and is deep enough to keep your toaster/steriliser/mixer/juicer/etc inside with plugs in the back. Opening a door and switching something on in situ is a lot tidier than trying to pull it all out to use. Otherwise you need counter space when it’s on, and cupboard space to store it the rest of the time when you could combine the two. Retractable doors would be good for this solution also.
Use up corner spaces with cupboards with folding doors. Generally if something exists, then there is probably a corner-shaped version on the market, or get crafty.
Turn kickboards into drawers, or skip them altogether. No kickboards makes the cabinetry seem as though it’s suspended off the floor and gives the illusion of more space, but can be awkward to clean under. If cleaning brings you out in hives, go for kickboards the same finish as the cabinets to make them all appear as one (and taller therefore).
“Flush” handles (push buttons) or recessed handles remove visual clutter.
Transparent storage or tubs with a window make everything easy to assess so no ingredient gets forgotten and wasted.
It’s possible to source any kitchen utensil/cookware in nesting form. Scour charity shops or free sites if the prices make you sweat.
Also use the space underneath cupboards on the walls. Hang mugs, or spice racks, or a pull down rack. Any dead space can have a shelf.
Vertical plate cradles utilise space better than storing them flat and make it easier to avoid damage versus removing things from piles in cupboards.
Expanding dish racks or hanging dish racks use up dead space at windows (even if you have a window with a view…for most of the year we wash up after we’ve closed the blinds for dark, you know?) If you’re worried about cutting out light during the day, get narrow racks that attach to the bottom window sill instead.
A shallow sink is not a hardship either if like me you have short arms…If anything, I sometimes wish everything in life was built on a smaller scale (top shelf in the supermarket, anyone?)
Under sinks are also ideal places to turn dummy drawers into tip-out drawers because it’s not possible to have a full drawer that pulls out.
Worktops and islands
A microwave rack above a freestanding microwave means you can store things directly above a microwave and free up the counter (nothing heat sensitive obviously).
I mentioned above irregular furniture saves space on the corners. Curved edges on worktops too are easier to navigate.
Laminate is generally the cheapest worktop material, but can look cheap. Consider salvaging more expensive materials.
Designer Aidan Keane (R.I.P.) used to recommend only putting an island in a kitchen that is at least 4m wide. One alternative is a kitchen cube: the kitchen IS the island rather than having fixtures against the wall. You’d still normally want a metre to pass around it though. Or if a room is rectangular then try to keep all the kitchen units on one side and have a rectangular
island as well.
Cooking and cooling
If you use certain items together then store them together. Logical kitchen design creates a triangle between the fridge, sink and oven, if there is room on two sides.
If cooking’s not your thing, consider a half hob. It’s possible to buy an additional ring or two if you do need a full hob on occasion, or want to show a potential buyer that a half hob isn’t the end of the world. These pack away the rest of the year. (Do you use more than half your hob at any other time besides Christmas? How??? One-pot cooking for the win).
Fridge/freezer drawers are an alternative if we struggle to fill a full size fridge or freezer. We lose everything in a power cut if you overfill a freezer anyway…
Sometimes some small changes make a big difference:
If a zero waste lifestyle appeals, get a teeny tiny bin. You’ll soon learn to stop buying anything with lots of packaging once you get sick of emptying the bin every other day…
Not many of us can afford to decorate the entire kitchen in a metallic mirror effect to bounce light around. A reflective splashback is a budget-friendly compromise.
Perhaps you have found a fixer upper like me, or you have a bathroom in reasonable condition…that’s barely big enough for a sneeze. Either way, here are ideas for redesigning that will make a bathroom seem Tardis-like.
If you love dark colours and black styling, this would normally be a no-no, but rules are made to be broken. Offset dark colours on the walls with brightly coloured towels and accessories. Towels don’t have to match!
Block colour tiles can make bathrooms look dark and flat, so add depth to a dark colour scheme with geometric patterns or metallic effects.
Tiles are a great opportunity to hang stuff with suction cups instead of trying to squeeze in cupboards!
Walkin showers remove clutter, but future buyers might expect a bath. Consider a corner bath; corner toilets and corner sinks can also make everything as compact as possible. (As with the kitchen, learn to love corners basically!) Balance the cost of moving the plumbing if needed with the benefit of the space gained.
Wall hung toilets create the illusion of space otherwise.
A shallow sink makes it easier to use a mirror above, and over the sink shelves make use of the dead space behind taps.
Roll up towels and bedding in airing cupboards etc. Generally rolling fabrics rather than folding takes up less space (so extend this tip to the bedroom also).
Utilising Hallways, Porches & Under The Stairs
Hallways are another value adder if we can find a house that has one already, or add one to the layout.
If the entryway is cramped, hanging shoe pockets on the back of a door (for scarves and other accessories too!) will stop the floor becoming a sea of footwear.
A wide stairway can fit a study bed under for rare guests and regular work sessions.
Banisters are horribly underutilised; there’s lots of opportunity here for book-lovers to add shelving that fits the shape of a solid banister. There’s also a tendency to put a flat wall underneath the steps themselves, when a backwards stair underneath could give shelving.
If your stairs are in the hallway anyway, it’s possible to build a toilet (literally a WC!) under the stairs. This is not sociable if the lounge is open plan.
It’s possible to get toilets with sinks on top of the cistern for the smallest of water closets, and if there’s nowhere else to put on shoes and coats, a fold down shelf lets you ‘sit’ above the toilet to put your shoes on.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but one huge statement piece is better than several chunky seats in small rooms i.e. a large corner sofabed that seats five rather than trying to squeeze in two sofas & an armchair.
If you don’t want a sofa with legs because you need storage, then create space in other ways through open shelving or a glass coffee table. Seeing through a piece of furniture creates the illusion of space.
Just as you can use the side of the fridge and cupboards in the kitchen, use the side of furniture elsewhere. Hang trays on the side of a bookcase, for example. Or use blackboard paint to create a noticeboard from an existing side surface.
If you can’t put a dining table in the centre of an area and walk around it when it’s not in use, then you don’t have enough space for a permanent table in the centre. (The same principles apply as kitchen islands therefore if you missed that bit above). Position a table to one side instead and have a booth or bench against the wall. This requires less elbow room than pulling out chairs.
Aidan of the television show Big House Little House used to say a dark table on a light floor makes small rooms look even smaller. Go for light woods/materials, or upcycle an existing table.
Remember a clear path feels like freedom. If possible, position things so that you can walk in a direct line from one room to another.
Stripes elongate walls, but they aren’t very relaxing. Use long clean lines elsewhere in the bedroom instead e.g. furniture with a long profile, or uninterrupted walls.
Floor to ceiling wardrobes are often underutilised: have two rails inside so that no space is wasted when hanging tops/folded over trousers/short dresses/skirts (you too, boys, if that’s what you like).
Make artwork of jewellery or accessories by hanging them inside an open frame or on a jewellery tree on the wall. This frees surface space and drawers.
Graham Hill’s 5:1 apartment is a supreme example of how a lounge can become a bedroom at night. The key with this is that the fold down bed is for either guests, or someone who doesn’t need the privacy of a bedroom during the day. (Note the nesting kitchenware, shallow cupboards and half hobs as mentioned above also).
Graham has movable walls to convert one space into several when needed. Soundproof curtains pull across each space when the wall is in the middle and there is a desk on the back of the wall. The movable wall could also be a bookcase or wardrobe. Don’t know anyone with a house like this? Call me Maverick, and I’ll call you Goose: if not many people are doing something, then that’s a red flag to a bull to me. Be the first!
Spotlights dotted around in narrow spaces make a place look bigger than having one central light because it illuminates all the nooks and crannies.
Several light sources from uplighters and side lamps will also draw the eye up and around the room.
If the ceilings are low and you’ll never be able to create more height, put lighting and other fixtures lower down on the walls to trick the eye into thinking there is height above the lighting.
Use lighting to mark out zones in a multipurpose space (alongside rugs, or changes in flooring and wall colours).
To cheat the effect of more light, reflect natural light with mirrors and light paint colours or glossy materials. If you can’t afford a massive mirror opposite a window then a collection of smaller ones works too.
Yellow windows and doorframes make a room sunny even on a grey day. If that’s too expensive or not your style, then paint bright yellow around the frame inside any recess.
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The Great Outdoors
What do you mean outside? If you’ve a tiny home in the US then “outside” usually means you’ve pulled up in a national park, and in the UK it usually means you’ve parked on a farm.
It’s tough to find one or two bedroom houses that have generous gardens or any gardens at all, but there are a few things to be done with no or little outside space.
- Hang pots off any garden furniture instead of trying to find ground space for both
- Use square foot gardening to grow as many vegetables or plants as possible in a few square feet of soil
- It’s possible to garden vertically on a wall
- Crack out that trusty ladder again to stack greenery on the steps
- Use a compact waterproof storage bin instead of a shed
What if I really do want a tiny house?
What if all the above has your cogs turning and you’re thinking “Wahey! I’m ready to never buy another thing and host a party in a bedroom-lounge-kitchen on wheels”? Then here are some things to keep in mind if you brave building or buying a true tiny home under 400 square feet.
- If it’s mobile, axles have a weight limit so think light materials and belongings
- Build ventilation into the design of mini bathrooms
- Scavenge hardwearing corrugated metal to line bathroom walls as it won’t rust, and is lighter than tiling
- SIPS (structured insulated panels) are a quick way to create walls and have foam insulation inside
- Research compost toilets, solar power, and rainwater harvesting
- Spray a mirror finish on the outside of bathroom windows for privacy
- Access loft bedrooms via a climbing wall or stairs that fold up against the ceiling
- Popouts on the sides create extra space when the home is stationary
- Try living in a tiny home on Airbnb before telling everyone you know that you are a convert
Expect lots of trial and error if doing any converting yourself. This is a nice way to say you will have to recut and reglue everything.
Look online for help. Whatever you’re trying to do, someone online will have done it before from cladding the inside of old school buses to making rounded doorways square.
The only limit is your imagination or the length of time it takes to save for something if you’re not handy.
I discovered a few tiny home specialists in the UK when saving for my deposit. Try The Wee House Company’s studio, or NestHouse made by Tiny House Scotland. The latter can be supplied as a shell for smaller budgets. Let them know you found them through Save Like A Bear if you speak to them as a result of this post.
What do you think? Could you live in a tiny home if you applied any of the above? Let me know in the comments if you’ve considered tiny living and why.
Could You Live In A Tiny Home?
The cons of buying small outweighed the pros for me. That’s because I spent time beforehand studying how to use colour, lighting, storage and other design elements to make my one bed feel more spacious. Given the choice between owning my own home and haemorrhaging my wages on rent, I’d rather have lower outgoings and a knack for maximising every inch in my compact palace. Home is what you make it after all.
The next time you find yourself viewing a squiddly house in your budget, or browsing mindlessly properties that are way out of range, stop and take real stock of the space.
Has the existing owner strangled a space by obscuring most of the floor?
Is the kitchen claustrophobic because of dark and lifeless interior design?
Is your dream home full of mirrors and lighting tricks to make it seem larger than it really is?
Did you know showrooms often use custom furniture that’s smaller than standard to make you think a new build is bigger than it is?
Have you used everything you own recently, or are you holding onto things just because?
Could any of the tiny house living tips in this post transform the space for the better?
Compare the square footage on listings to see which properties are hiding more space behind bad design.
Could you live in a tiny home forever?
The other thing to keep in mind is that any solution doesn’t have to be permanent. If a tiny house would be a bad idea in the long term, does that mean it can’t be a step one, or a five year fix?
Not all families live in tiny houses forever. While some owners use downsized spaces to be debt-free at a young age, others use them to save so that they can take on a mortgage on a bigger property later.
And if you can’t stop spending, and feel like you’ll always need a lot of space for your interests…What would you rather have: more possessions, or a roof over your head with your name on it? There isn’t much we can buy that can be increased in value in the same way as property. There also isn’t much we can buy on small budgets that the bank will lend you money on in future if needed.
If you need help with spending, jump on the mailing list where I’m sending weekly tips at the moment to help you earn more, cut bills, and stop impulse buying schiz.