Two years ago, at the age of 30, I started looking for a house. I was living in a 600-square-foot basement apartment in Nashville at the time, paying just shy of $1,000 a month in rent. The process turned out to be a deflating and depressing experience. I spent all of 2015 perusing listings and going to open houses, only to have the homes that were in my price range snapped up by other buyers the day they came onto the market, or, in many cases, before the homes were even officially for sale. Word would get out that a house was about to go up for sale and it would sell before it could even be listed (usually thanks to an all-cash offer). In other cities, the seller might cover the 3 percent closing costs or offer other incentives, but not here in Music City.
It's a nationwide reality too: Recent shows that an increasing number of Americans believe homes are less affordable than they were 10 years ago. Thirty-four percent of consumers ages 18 to 34 say they don't want to own a home at all. Others in that age range, i.e. would-be first-time homeowners, are increasingly frustrated with the buying process.
As a native of Nashville, a lifelong resident born and bred here, I'm somewhat of a unicorn. Nearly , and most come from other parts of the country where the cost of living is higher. Many come here with lucrative job offers in hand. Needless to say, they're bringing equity with them and can (usually) easily afford housing. For those of us who've been here a while, however, it's not so simple.
There's a saying here that our city bird should be the crane, because there are about 20 of them at various construction sites downtown at any given time. As of August 2017, according to , the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in Nashville is $1,242 a month—a 0.64 percent increase from last year. shows that number hovered around $872 between 2011 and 2015, the reported earlier this year in a series on housing and displacement in Nashville's neighborhoods. That's an increase of 70 percent in six years.
After a year of house shopping, I knew I would have to get creative if I wanted to stop throwing money at an apartment I could barely afford and set myself up for long-term financial success. My fruitless search sparked an idea, though. Maybe I could build an 800-square-foot home; that would be just enough space for myself and the way my life is now. I like the idea of "tiny houses" in theory, but the problem is, I'm not a tiny person. I'm 6'4". Most tiny houses, the ones on wheels at least, are built on 8-foot-wide horse trailers. Crouching to get in and out of bed, not being able to put my legs up on the couch because they would touch the other side of the house—these things would not work for me.
Plus, as I later learned, tiny houses on wheels (THOWs) can turn into giant money pits. Most municipalities won't let you park a tiny house on your land. THOW owners can end up paying $400 to $500 a month to park their home at an RV campground—that's in addition to whatever they paid for the house. There's typically no warranty on a THOW, or if there is, who knows if the company that built it will still be in business three years later? There's no egress in case of a fire. There's also an issue with depreciation: a tiny home is basically a heavy RV, so there's a limited resale market for them. Someone might pay $60-, $80-, or even $100,000 for a tiny house, then get 40 percent of that when they decide to sell. It's a shame because I know tiny houses appeal to people who want to be financially free.
On the flip side, I didn't want too much space. A 2,000-square-foot house is wonderful but you have to pay for the cost of building it, and once completed, to heat and cool it. It's just me and my 18-year-old Chihuahua, Booboo, right now. I don't need that much house at this point in my life.
I decided to build on a foundation because structures built on a foundations are considered "real estate," which, unlike cars and RVs, appreciates in value over time. I used plans for a storage barn as the basis for my home's framework because I wanted something with big, open spaces and tall ceilings that would feel larger. After I gave up on buying a house, I spent six months searching for a plot of land to build on—no easy feat, as the less-developed (and, therefore, more affordable) parts of middle Tennessee are very hilly. You'll see a listing and think, Wow, five acres for $30,000! and then you go look at it and realize you would need to build a chalet on stilts for it to work. I saw a lot of what I call "goat paths": properties that are flat by road but turn into very steep inclines.
I eventually bought land in Ashland City, about 15 miles west of Nashville. The property is on a bluff, so there's a hill to get to it but once you're there, it's flat. I liked that it has a lot of mature trees. It's on the least-developed side of the city, so that means I'm commuting with fewer people. Traffic is a serious concern here: Mayor Megan Barry just proposed a $6 billion mass transit system to help relieve our congested highways.
I had some experience with construction but had never built an entire house before, so I spent a lot of time researching what things would cost and what I could do myself. I'm one of the few people to build a house almost exclusively from watching how-to videos on YouTube. For 10 months, I sacrificed my social life to spend nights and weekends building. I would work from 8 am to 5 p.m. (I manage a private psychiatric practice), then drive 20 minutes to my apartment to let my dog out, then head to the construction site. I would work on the house until 10 or 11 p.m., go home, shower, sleep, then get up and do it all over again. On Saturdays and Sundays, I would spend 18 hours there. Once, in the middle of July while I was going up and down a ladder painting the exterior of my house, I suffered from heat exhaustion and became physically ill. But I just took a break in my air-conditioned car, then got back to work. I had a deadline to meet because my apartment's lease was ending. My home is definitely a labor of love that took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.
I contracted out any task that required two people or more, like the digging and block work for the foundation, the roofing, and the rough plumbing. I did the connection setting for the fixtures and toilet, the HVAC, flooring and tiling, and most of the electric work. I'm really happy with how the railing for my stairs turned out, which I also did. I used some of the money I saved in labor costs, around $30,000, to upgrade the finishes in the bathroom and kitchen. Working with limited space doesn't have to mean sacrificing style.
I intentionally kept one wall free of pipes and wires so I can add onto the house later if I need to—that's how people did things a hundred years ago. This way, I only have as much house as I need and I'm not paying for space I'm not using right now. With the money saved, if or when I decide I need a home addition, I'll be able to pay for it in cash.
My completed house passed all inspections and meets all code—something a tiny house would have trouble doing—and its most recent appraisal came in at $40,000 above what I paid for it. Compared to what I was paying in rent before, I'm saving almost $300 per month, and roughly $20,000 in interest because I went with a 15-year mortgage instead of a 30-year.
As you'd probably expect, being from Nashville, music is a big part of my life, so one of my favorite features of my new home is the front loft, where I keep my guitars. (I play for various church bands.) Because of the openness and the shape of the roof, it's an acoustically pleasant space. I use a telescoping ladder that folds away easily to get up there.
For anyone else who's considering building their own small home, you should know that there's a lot of planning and consideration that goes into the process upfront. If the "micro house" lifestyle is something you want to test drive, there are Airbnb rentals in lots of cities—try it out for a weekend. If you have a significant other, you have to realize there's no other room to get away from them when you're going through a rough patch and living in a small home.
This way of life isn't for everyone. Some of my friends didn't understand why I wanted to build a house with my own hands, but a lot of them have since come on board with the idea of building what you need, and not what you're "supposed to have." Because of my goal to be financially free, and the desire I had to match that goal, I will be cash flow-positive well before many other people my age stop paying interest.
Have a question about building your own micro house? Get in touch with Jason at [email protected]