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posted: 2/10/2017 6:00 AM

Benefits and drawbacks of living in a tiny home

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Those TV shows about tiny houses are fun to watch, but living in one isn't all a big bed of roses.

Q. I love all those "tiny house" shows on the HGTV cable network, and now I would like to build one myself. How do I get started?

A. There's no uniform definition of a "tiny house," though most experts say it's a home that has 400 or fewer square feet of living space. It's estimated that there are only about 10,000 of them across the U.S., many of them owned by either empty-nester retirees or younger millennials who want to keep their housing costs low while they struggle to pay off their student-loan debt.

There certainly are several benefits to living small. You'll not only downsize or eliminate a mortgage, but also save on utility and related costs. You'll also leave behind a smaller "carbon footprint" on Earth. And if your tiny house is built on a trailer, as many are, you can move or travel as often as you wish without going through the hassle of selling or renting your home to do it.

Of course, there are downsides, too. Besides living in relatively cramped quarters, you may find yourself with a new list of regular chores, such as buying fuel for a gas heater, making frequent trips to the laundromat or emptying a composting toilet.

Entertaining more than one or two guests at a time may be difficult or impossible. And, if the home is on a trailer, you may have to move more often than you'd like in order to avoid problems with police or traffic-enforcement officers.

If you're serious about building a tiny house, you'll first need to find out if they're allowed on property under your city or county's zoning ordinances. Many municipalities set minimum square-footage requirements or have tough building codes that make construction of the pint-size homes impossible within their geographic boundaries. Some, though, make exceptions if they'll be placed on a parcel that also has a larger house on it.

Assuming you don't have much construction experience, you may need to hire an architect and professional contractor to build the house. A money-saving option, though, would be to buy one of the small "kit homes" that are readily available from many websites for as little as $5,000. All of the pre-cut wood and other basic parts of the home will be shipped to you in large crates, which can then be assembled in much the same way that children construct a home with plastic Lego bricks or the popular Lincoln Logs wooden toy sets.

Perhaps the most authoritative source for folks who want more information is the Florida-based American Tiny House Association (www.americantinyhouseassociation.org). One of the better books on the issue is the second edition of Dan S. Louche's "Tiny House Design & Construction Guide," which still can be purchased for about $25 at many bookstores or from websites like amazon.com and bookdepository.com.

Real estate trivia: Spur, Texas (pop. 1,400), declared itself "Tiny House Capital of America" in 2014 after local officials voted to end nearly all of its size-related building requirements.

Q. Have you heard about some mansion in Los Angeles that's being marketed for $250 million?

A. Yes. The sparkling mansion in the wealthy Los Angeles enclave of Bel-Air hit the market a few weeks ago at $250 million, instantly becoming the most expensive listing in the nation.

The palatial estate is owned by Bruce Makowsky, a developer who made his initial fortune by selling ladies' handbags. The four-level, 38,000-square-foot home has 12 bedrooms and 21 baths. Amenities include two wine cellars, a four-lane bowling alley, a movie theater and a giant wall of candy bins.

The price includes a fleet of expensive cars, the decommissioned helicopter on the roof and a full-time staff of seven that Makowsky will pay for in the first two years after the buyer moves in.

Q. If my wife and I put the title to our home into the type of simple living trust you recently wrote about, would we have to notify our future heirs? And after we die, would the contents of the trust become available for public inspection?

A. The answer to both of your questions is "no" -- and helps to highlight an often-overlooked benefit that an inexpensive, easy-to-form living trust can provide.

Most homeowners who create a living trust do so because they want to avoid the costly and time-consuming probate process. Nearly all wills must pass through probate, but trusts seldom have to: Instead, the trust's property typically can be distributed quickly to heirs with little or no involvement by a judge or pricey attorneys.

Your letter, though, raises another important issue that separates a will from a trust. A will usually becomes part of the public record the moment it goes to probate court, which means it can be viewed by virtually anyone after you die. But because a living trust is a private document that doesn't have to go through the court system, its assets won't automatically be put on display for the prying eyes of nosy neighbors or sue-happy relatives.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers/Trust, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405. Net proceeds will be sent to the American Red Cross.

© 2017, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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