Why a tiny home isn’t really a trailer or an RV

Kimberley Mok (@kimberleymok) November 13, 2017 

Tiny Heirloom Homes
© Tiny Heirloom Homes

Some ask, “Why not just buy an RV or a trailer instead of a tiny house?” Well, the answer is that it depends — and they really aren’t the same.

The popularity of tiny homes has prompted a lot of discussion about the possible benefits of living more lightly on a smaller footprint. But what began has mostly an ‘underground’ do-it-yourself movement has evolved into a full-blown trend, replete with professional builders, municipalities, universities, dedicated websites, print publications and television shows capitalizing on this surge of interest in mortgage-free lifestyles.

All these factors have converged into tiny homes becoming more of a legally ‘official’ thing in an increasing number of places — and that has also meant heftier price tags too, as more professional tiny house builders offer their services. This has led people to ask, why not just buy a trailer or an RV instead of a tiny house? After all, they seem to serve the same purpose, and when bought used, RVs might actually come out cheaper.

But upon closer examination, there are actually a lot of differences between RVs, trailers and tiny houses — and there are a lot of factors that go into deciding which option is best. So below are a few reasons why tiny houses are not like their recreational ilk.

Kate Russell Photography© Kate Russell Photography

1. Tiny houses are more durable and less toxic.

We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth it to say it again: tiny houses are generally built with better, higher-quality materials. Since they are meant for leisure travel, RVs and trailers are generally built with materials that add to their lightweight-ness, rather than durability, lending some credence to the unspoken secret of RVs being constructed with “sticks and staples.” That said, since RVs are more lightweight, they are easier to tow more frequently, whereas tiny homes are meant to stay in place for longer periods for full-time living.

Tiny houses can be less toxic than their RV-and-trailer counterparts too — that’s because tiny homeowners generally can choose what kind of materials and finishes to have in their homes. This can be a real boon for those with chemical sensitivities. Recycled, eco-friendly materials? Low-VOC paints? No formaldehyde? No problem.

chemical free house exteior© My Chemical Free House

2. Tiny houses feel more like home.

This is a big one: tiny houses can actually feel like a real, permanent home. That’s probably due to the fact that tiny homes can be customized more fully to accommodate users’ needs, whereas RVs and trailers are mass-made and less flexible in their layout and use. But tiny houses offer a range of personalized designs and needs: want an intergenerational mini-home? Want a tiny house with a greenhouse? A wheelchair-accessible tiny? The sky’s the limit.

Handcrafted Movement© Handcrafted Movement
Olive Nest Tiny Homes© Olive Nest Tiny Homes

3. Tiny houses can be better insulated and more energy-efficient.

Another monumental factor for year-round living in a smaller space is good insulation — which RVs and trailers generally don’t have, unless you buy a four-season RV. However, tiny houses can be constructed from the ground up for full-time occupation in extremely cold climates, or built to near-Passivhaus standards, even in hot climates.

For making the interior more comfortable while keeping energy use low, tiny houses can be outfitted with heat-recovery ventilators, radiant-floor heating, solar power systems, woodstoves, heat pumps and so on. While some of these features could be retroactively incorporated into a RV or trailer as well, tiny houses’ penchant for superior insulation makes these components more effective.

Tiny House Scotland© Tiny House Scotland

4. Depreciation.

New RVs are known for depreciating quite steeply, literally as soon they are driven off the lot. It’s not uncommon to hear how owners of large, high-end rigs that might have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, becoming “upside down” on their motorhome loan (that’s when the vehicle’s value drops more quickly than you can pay down the principal owed on the loan).

While buying a used RV might be a way around the issue, the fact is that RVs are vehicles, and will decline in value over time. In contrast, tiny homes likely depreciate less over time, as they are built, marketed and perceived as more permanent structures (though this is debatable, since there isn’t too much data on the phenomenon). Even if one might only get the materials cost back during resale, one could look at it from another angle: a tiny house is a kind of mortgage-free home that helps you avoid owning money to the bank for a mortgage, or at least save on paying monthly rent and maintenance costs.

Minimaliste© Minimaliste

5. The legal stuff.

Another issue is the legality of tiny houses. They aren’t built on trailer bases for mobility; tiny houses were built like this to generally “fly under the radar” of municipalities, whose regulations may require full-time homes to be of a minimum square footage. As Lloyd points out in an earlier post:

Tiny houses were designed under the RV rules to get around the building codes, but zoning bylaws often ban people living in RVs, and even the RV rules never allowed permanent occupancy, even though many people did. Even when you put them in RV parks, about the only place where you can legally live in them, the leases often ban permanent occupancy. Many of them won’t even allow tiny houses, because most are not certified by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).

However, this is slowly changing as a growing number of municipalities are actually legalizing tiny houses or green-lighting tiny house communitiesdevelopments and even rent-to-own schemes. There are also efforts to rewrite the International Residential Building Code to include tiny houses. Even getting insurance for a tiny house is getting less uncertain, as a growing number of RVIA-certified builders are creating tiny homes that can be insured as an RV; more banks are willing to lend money for RVIA-certified tiny houses. So what was once a major disadvantage is now becoming less of an issue.

Marjolein In Het Klein© Walden Studio

All things considered though, the rising cost of getting a tiny home professionally built does seem to be a valid issue. It seems that tiny homes used to be simpler and cheaper, especially when self-built (like these tiny homes under $20,000). Now, with the firming up of regulations and some custom-built, high-end tiny homes now pushing upwards of $100,000 and up, it’s no wonder many are raising the question of “why not just buy an RV or trailer, instead of a tiny house”?

But it’s not such a cut-and-dried choice. After all, there are some in-between options too, like hybrid, RV-like tiny home designs, better-insulated and higher-quality park model RVs and renovated RVs and trailers, and even vans and buses converted into affordable motorhomes. Ultimately, it’s almost like comparing apples and oranges, and the choice really depends on what your needs and goals are, what your budget is, how it will be used — in other words, to each their own.