Douglas Messmer is an affable, joke-cracking 51-year-old retired Navy chief petty officer who lives in an 8-foot by 24-foot home he built himself. His tiny house, a.k.a. “Better Days,” has French doors, 11 windows and a spectacular circular porthole in the center that opens to sunshine and the fresh air.
“I’m retired and just felt it was that time in my life to buy my first house,” says Messmer. “I came across tiny houses online and just really liked the idea of it, being able to build something of your own — and to be debt-free without mortgage payments.”
With interest in the tiny-house movement continuing to grow nationwide — there are multiple reality shows devoted to the minimalist real estate adventure — and locally in Ventura County with Meetup.com groups like Thousand Oaks Tiny House Enthusiasts and building workshops, one has to wonder if these movable houses, which are often built on wheels and are sized to 500-square-feet or less, could be one option for a mounting housing crisis.
“Anything is possible but it’s going to take some serious creativity,” says local tiny-house workshop leader Daniel Bell, 34, of Thousand Oaks. “In certain places in Ventura County, we have a lot of open spaces. If you currently have areas that are zoned more like RV lots, I think it could be a solution, but it’s definitely not inexpensive; that’s a common misnomer.”
The cost of a movable tiny house depends on whether you build it yourself or buy it new from one of the many manufacturers emerging for this market, explains Los Angeles-based American Tiny House Association state chapter leader Amy Turnbull. Self-built movable tiny homes using reclaimed materials can be made for under $30,000, while manufactured movable tiny homes can run around $100,000, still a fraction of the average Ventura County house, $500,000.
Other issues include needing to be up on local housing codes and finding a place to “park” the home, whether it be a temporary or a more permanent space.
“In the early days, I think people didn’t give this much thought,” Turnbull says. “But as the years have progressed and movable tiny houses have made their presence known through popular media, jurisdictions are more diligent about enforcing building and zoning codes that often exclude tiny homes on wheels as permanent dwellings.”
There are no firm numbers on total tiny houses in Ventura County, as many are likely unknown and parameters are contentious, but Messmer says he’s seen an increase in interested parties in the area. Bell says he could count at least a dozen and guesses there could be a hundred in the county at this point, but also notes that many are under the radar. Until movable tiny houses receive a designation within the recreational vehicle codes (American National Standards Institute), become a recognized part of the IRC (International Residential Code) building code or get a special designation of their own, tracking tiny houses will be a difficult task, says Turnbull.
Once it’s built or bought, then what? Some people purchase land and add their tiny homes there; others are more portable and drag their homes on trucks to friend’s and family’s yards.
While Messmer’s tiny house is currently parked in an RV lot in Oxnard (which he’s allowed to do for up to six months at a time), Messmer and his tiny-house neighbor, Tiffany Israel, 32, are actively looking for more permanent spaces to park these houses and are hoping to find a plot of land in the Ventura County area to rent or buy. Essentially, they could become tenants for the right person willing to rent out some space.
Messmer and Israel met in a tiny-house building workshop run by Bell. The Thousand Oaks High School and Conejo Valley Adult School teacher previously spent two years traveling across the U.S. teaching tiny-house workshops, but hosted that one-off, six-month-long workshop locally to break down every facet of building a tiny house in real time.
While Messmer and Israel went through the workshop together and have the same-size trailers, the end results are completely different, from the front doors right through the housing layout.
Israel, a graphic designer, made a large, color-blocked wall the centerpiece of her home. It opens up to reveal a working desk space, and when it’s returned to the wall a movie screen can be pulled down from the ceiling. Messmer’s house’s focal points are a fireplace and that beautiful wooden circular window.
Despite the possible drawbacks, Messmer is optimistic about his housing situation and sees the advantages — owning a minimalist space that he built — as far outweighing the challenges, such as finding a more permanent space. “To me, it just makes a lot more sense.”
Bell, whose main focus is sustainable building, is also clearly a longtime fan of tiny-house construction, but realistic about their place in the housing crisis.
“Whether it’s a long-term solution, I don’t know. It’s a really cool idea for a starter home and to deal with a portion of that housing issue. But it’s definitely not a fix-all.”