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updated: 5/31/2016 6:05 PM

Should 'tiny houses' be allowed in the suburbs?

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  • Video: Tiny home builder

  • Bob Clarizio, owner of Titan Home Builders in South Elgin, stands in a 20-foot-long model.

      Bob Clarizio, owner of Titan Home Builders in South Elgin, stands in a 20-foot-long model.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 

Think you could live in a 300-square-foot house?

Even if you wanted to join the trendy "tiny house" movement, you probably couldn't live in one in the suburbs, or even park it in your driveway or backyard, because it would violate zoning laws.

However, you can buy one here. South Elgin-based Titan Home Builders -- which will be featured on "Tiny House Nation" on the FYI network July 9 -- is being bombarded with construction orders for tiny houses.

Most customers want them as high-quality trailer homes, which they can travel with or put on their vacant lakefront property in Wisconsin, rather than as full-time suburban housing.

As the only tiny-house builder within 800 miles, Titan Home Builders owner Bob Clarizio said he's been working in "blitzkrieg mode" ever since he decided in January to stop doing kitchen and bathroom remodels in the Palatine area and instead focus exclusively on building tiny houses.

"It's absolutely incredible how fast this thing has grown," said Clarizio, 30, of Gilberts.

The company receives about 20 inquiries a day and presold more than 15 homes in four months, totaling more than $500,000 in sales, Clarizio said.

People have waited in hourlong lines to view their model homes at green expos and home shows, and Clarizio is looking to expand his business fivefold to accommodate demand.

"Our plan is to change an industry," he said. "We feel we're creating a product for the common person."

It looks small on the outside, but there's more to this tiny house on the inside. Yes, there is a second level accessed with a staircase.
  It looks small on the outside, but there's more to this tiny house on the inside. Yes, there is a second level accessed with a staircase. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Could the suburban zoning and building laws be changed to accommodate these tiny houses? Maybe.

McHenry County Director of Planning and Development Dennis Sandquist said the topic recently came up during the county's comprehensive plan discussions. The county has had a half-dozen inquiries about tiny houses recently, he said.

"It seems every so many years, some type of alternative living comes up. Remember the geodesic dome houses in the early 1970s?" he said. "If someone wanted to come out and propose (a tiny house subdivision) ... it's a possibility."

The next public hearing on the comprehensive plan is June 21.

While tiny houses fall into a gray area for most suburban zoning and building codes, the trend has taken off in other parts of the country. Some states have started using tiny houses for affordable elder care, homeless shelters and Boy Scout campgrounds. Colorado has a new subdivision of tiny homes.

One tiny-house owner in the far Western suburbs, who will be featured on HGTV's "Tiny Houses" this summer and must keep her identity secret as part of a contract with the network, said she, her husband and their toddler are happy in their 144-square-foot house on her parents' property, which is zoned rural residential. Technically, she has to use her in-laws' address, and she admits to keeping some items in a storage shed.

"It is enough space, because we don't spend our whole life inside. We can get out of our house and utilize public spaces like parks and libraries," she said.

How tiny?

Bob Clarizio, owner of Titan Home Builders in South Elgin, gives a tour of a tiny house model.
  Bob Clarizio, owner of Titan Home Builders in South Elgin, gives a tour of a tiny house model. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

The average American home is about 2,400 square feet. A tiny house is between 100 and 400 square feet.

It can sleep up to five people in two loft bedrooms plus a pullout cot. Many have a full kitchen, a small living area, a shower and a bathroom. Some have nice finishes, too, like wood flooring, stainless steel appliances and double-paned windows.

The average price of a tiny home without a lot of custom features is $40,000. That means the monthly loan payment is comparable to one for a new SUV -- around $400 a month.

Most tiny homes, like the ones Titan Home Builders makes, are built on wheels. It's not a wide load on the highway, but you need a strong truck, like a Ford F350, to pull it (although Titan Home Builders offers free delivery).

The kitchen of a tiny house built by Titan Home Builders in South Elgin.
  The kitchen of a tiny house built by Titan Home Builders in South Elgin. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

The tiny-house trend began a few years ago, fueled by a push for more minimalist, eco-friendly and debt-free living. The mortgage crisis, a weak housing market and high taxes added to its appeal. And it got a huge boost from several popular HGTV shows that showcase tiny-house living.

There's a lot of local interest in the houses, based on the active meetup groups, Pinterest boards and presentations on tiny houses around the suburbs.

The difference between a tiny house and a trailer home, RV or camper is in the quality, Clarizio said.

"RVs are a piece of garbage after 20 years. These tiny houses are sustainable," Clarizio said.

The tiny-house customers at Titan Home Builders are either college loan-saddled millennials who can't afford a regular home or people age 55 and up who are looking for downscaled, affordable, low-maintenance living.

Two tiny houses are under construction at Titan Home Builders in South Elgin.
  Two tiny houses are under construction at Titan Home Builders in South Elgin. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

While the suburbs have not yet embraced tiny houses, there might be a slight downsizing trend.

Long Grove Village Planner Jim Hogue said he's seeing much smaller houses being built in the town now than 10 years ago. While the range used to be between 5,000 and 7,000 square feet, they're now more in the 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot range.

That's a long way from 100 square feet.

Still, "what we're hearing from developers is the days of the great big houses are long gone," Hogue said.

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