Barnesville family’s tiny house part of bigger trend

hduncan@macon.comMay 20, 2012 

BARNESVILLE -- Andrew Odom and his family raised the first wall of their tiny house Thursday, on a trailer in his dad’s backyard. It took three guys to pick up the whole thing.

We’re talking really tiny.

Including its small loft, the house will be 258 square feet. But the plan includes all the comforts of home, including a stove for gourmet cooking, a baby crib and a Sleep Number bed.

What it won’t have is a lot of extra stuff and a 30-year debt load.

“This is anchored by a desire to rid ourselves of ... the high consumer debt, high mortgages and financial plans that really keep us from achieving our dreams,” said Odom, a social media manager for a career education company that markets Miller-Motte Technical College in Macon and others. Getting a loan to buy a bigger house could mean a 30-year commitment, “and if something happened to my job or my income, we’d be saddled to that house,” he said.

Andrew and his wife, Crystal, who got married in their 30s, say their generation has been led to believe that success requires owning a traditional home, only to see that path lead to ruin during the housing crisis.

Instead, The Odoms want to spend their money on traveling with their daughter, Tilly, now 7 months old.

Their small house is part of a small (but growing) movement to build houses less than 400 square feet, many of them on trailers. Owners choose tiny homes as they seek to simplify their lives, save money or preserve the environment, said Greg Johnson, director of the Small House Society and author of “Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned Living in 140 Square Feet.”

Johnson’s first small house, where he lived six years, had no running water. But he lived in a college town, and the house wasn’t much different from a dorm room. Like many college students, he showered at the gym and ate at cafes.

“I think these homes work better in communities with the support structure that allows you to outsource your life,” he said. He noted that there is already a community support network for similarly sized RVs.

The modern small house movement was founded by a handful of friends in Iowa City around 2002, Johnson said. Now he estimates there are several thousand tiny houses, and millions of people have visited the Society’s website.

The site lists more than 60 designers and builders of small houses, although some of those are in the 800- to 1,200-square foot range. Many small houses are used as vacation homes or guest houses rather than full-time residences, Johnson said. Those who do choose small house living are often young people without kids or older people whose children are grown, he said.

Andrew and Crystal began working on the tiny house before Tilly came along.

“As a married couple, one of our dreams has been to own our own home,” Andrew Odom said. He and Cyrstal considered buying a two-bedroom house in Barnesville, but their eyes popped when they heard what the mortgage would cost.

“We decided right there: ‘No way. We like eating too much,’” Andrew Odom said. “And we love to travel and we didn’t want to sacrifice that because we were house poor.”

The Odoms stumbled on the small house movement while surfing the Internet, and they worked out the design themselves.

“It’s the same concept as an RV, only 365 days a year,” Odom said.

Crystal, who grew up on a tobacco farm and helped build her family’s home when she was a teenager, said she and Andrew spend most of their time outside anyway. She said she plans to eventually create an “outdoor room” next to the house, complete with a grill and stove.

Huts to castles

The Odoms have some experience with living sparse. They met on a mission trip, and between them they have traveled to 19 countries where people live in homes ranging from huts to castles, Andrew said. Both have lived out of suitcases for years.

But the Odoms weren’t always so light on possessions. Andrew used to live in Brooklyn, where he enjoyed showing off his apartment to friends and where he housed his collection of Nikes. He had 76 pairs, some of which he kept wrapped in plastic so they wouldn’t get dusty.

But he says he began to feel that accumulating things was a trap. He gave the shoes to an international relief organization. He gave away furniture and many other possessions, including his 42-inch flat screen TV.

The Odoms’ tiny house effort has been a two-year odyssey, which is chronicled on Andrew’s website, tinyrevolution.us. He and Crystal had a dry run on living in small quarters last year, when they moved into a 280-square-foot converted tool shed while helping relatives in North Carolina.

They still aren’t sure where they will finally park their house, but since February they have been living with Andrew’s parents in Barnesville. The younger couple is building their house in stages, as they can afford it.

Tiny homes fall into a legal gray space: If built on a trailer, they basically function like an RV and aren’t subject to property tax. That means they’re not subject to -- or protected by -- building codes, either. Johnson said more communities need to change that.

Neighbors in cities have occasionally been hostile to tiny houses that are built on a foundation, worrying that they will drag down surrounding property values. Some towns have building codes that don’t allow homes smaller than 800 square feet, Johnson said.

Andrew Odom said his family will choose to set down their foundation in a community that is friendly to their small house.

“We’re not building a transformer,” he said. “We’re building a home. We’re not going to hide it in someone’s backyard.”

Andrew said the house budget is $11,500. Because he is blogging, Tweeting and posting YouTube videos about the tiny house project, Odom has found corporate sponsors willing to donate some of the building materials.

Andrew’s high school friend Kevin Gilkes drove down from Virginia to shoot a documentary about Andrew’s house and about how “what we’re led to believe as children about the housing market, and what effect that has on us as adults.” Gilkes, a father of three, admits, “I got caught up in the whole mortgage thing. I almost went upside down on my house.”

At first, Andrew’s parents were skeptical about the tiny house idea. They built a 4,200-square-foot house on family land eight years ago after Andrew’s father, Goose, retired from his job as a firefighter in Virginia.

“Their kitchen and breakfast room was our trailer,” Andrew said. “But the day we finish the last nail on this, it’s ours.”

Goose has warmed to the small house concept.

“They won’t be burdened with the expense of the house and filling it with stuff like my wife and I did,” he said. “I truly believe it’s the wave of the future, or this generation won’t have anything.”

Goose, who has done contract work for years, is guiding the practical aspects of the build. Andrew laughed Thursday as he rode up to the trailer in the scoop of a farm loader, a straw hat tied under his chin. Tilly watched the action from a stroller nearby, sometimes wailing along with the power tools. Next to the trailer sat the back end of an ancient Studebaker truck, tires disintegrating into the ground, that was being used as a giant planter for strawberries.

While father, son and uncle traded off hammers and nail guns, Crystal talked about the less tangible advantages of the small home. The Odoms believe that being physically closer builds a closer family relationship, too.

Andrew jokes, “Our daughter will never be able to slam a door in my face.”

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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