Tiny homes—those ultra-compact, portable dwellings recently popularized by the Netflix series Tiny House Nation—have attracted the fancy of Boomers and Millennials alike in recent years.
The advent of their emergence as a home-ownership trend can be traced back to the Great Recession of the late 2000s, when the housing market suffered its historic setback, wages took a hit and, coincidentally, a consumer-driven focus on sustainability began to auger against purchases such as larger homes and premium vehicles.
Now, according to iPropertyManagement.com, 63 percent of Millennials would consider purchasing a tiny home. And the appeal is not limited to the younger generations; 40 percent of tiny homes are owned by Boomers, and that percentage is growing.
Big challenges can come in small packages, however, and for owners to maximize the pleasure of going small, they have to navigate several critical challenges: Financing can be difficult, for example, and not many insurers are willing to underwrite tiny homes, which typically are built on wheels and do not have to comport to the strict building regulations safeguarding on-foundation houses. Then there’s the matter of finding land properly zoned and also equipped to provide water and electricity (if the home isn’t totally solar).
Enter Clint Gooch. The 37-year-old founder of Mustard Seed Tiny Homes returned from mission work several years ago in South Africa where events sent him on a journey to improve lives in the U.S. much in the same way he did in that country—one small house at a time.
Proud Green Home: Clint, you’re making a name for yourself in what most folks call the “tiny home movement,” although you’re helping evolve it at the same time. How did your volunteer work in Africa influence you?
Clint Gooch: My wife and I were doing mission work for about eight years before this. We met doing mission work. We moved to South Africa right after we got married. I mean, we got married, and two weeks later, we moved to South Africa with a group of people and lived there for two years. There, I helped run a wood shop, teaching guys how to do carpentry in a local township. When we moved back, I started working with Youth With a Mission. One of the things they do is disciple and train young people to do missions. When we traveled with them back to the nation for a three-month trip, we worked a village that had suffered a great loss of housing due to a fire, and this idea of helping people with tiny homes came to be.
We would partner with those families that had lost a home or needed a home but not just give them a new home, but build a house with them. We would provide the metal and the wood and get donations for other materials and items from people back home. Others would provide things like doors and windows, and we would build it with the family. And in that way we could build a house for whole family. That was just the one ministry I was part of.
PGH: The mustard seed is probably best known from its use in the Bible, where Jesus talks about the power of having the faith even the size of one. Given that you’re a missionary, is it a safe guess to make a connection to that sermon?
CG: Yes. What I was doing for years in missions was trying to hear what God was saying, and then stepping out in faith. You know, whether I was in South Africa or China or New York or anywhere else, I just tried to hear from the Lord and then act on it.
I could talk to you for a few hours about all the things I feel like the Lord has taught me through running a business and stepping out in faith every day. And how every single person that works with me believes the Lord has brought us together in his perfect timing.
PGH: Let’s talk about the business component. Just because the homes are small, I’m guessing, doesn’t mean the challenges are small.
CG: At the beginning, we built everything from the ground up. Then, I encountered a kind of tiny home called the Park model. They are a bit larger and to be honest are just a lot more livable and have more features than tiny homes we’ve built in the past.
But what I found is all of all the people who produce these Park models are these builders of manufactured homes. The homes come out of their warehouse with, for example, nail holes not being filled, made from cheaper materials—just generally low-quality products. So I partnered with this company and said, “Hey, listen, all I really want is your certification, which then in turn gets my clients the financing. You just send me one of your shells of a half-built house with whatever you need to do to get your certification. You do it and then the rest I'll finish. This also helps with insurance.
At first, it worked out great. I mean, I finished the house in 11 days, once we got the shell, so it helped me with productivity. But I realized they're just giving me a really big price. Eventually I saw that I can do this and keep my costs down at the same time.
PGH: Talking about this Park model—which is essentially a smaller modular home concept—aren’t you moving away from the tiny-home concept in meaningful ways? The price is higher, you’re sacrificing some of the mobility …
CG: Yes. That’s true. But the trade-offs in quality and livability and also being able to get them financed and insured make those other things worthwhile, we believe. And sure, they are pricier, but the difference between these homes and traditional homes are still huge. Instead of trying to buy a house on the market today for $250,000 and up, you can buy a house for $100,000, so that frees up your finances. And worrying about finances is one of the biggest strongholds against freedom there is.
Of course, too, there is the ongoing savings on utilities and the opportunity to incorporate more high-efficiency, sustainability-friendly materials and sources of power, such as solar.
Another freedom you can achieve is freedom from our culture of stuff. Our culture has fed us for a long time that we need all this stuff—all these possessions. Now, with Tiny House Nation and Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix, which is about owning only things that really matter to you, people are seeing there is another story. That here is another thing you can do to improve your life a bit. It’s shifting the culture.
PGH: Another thing I think about here is maintenance. I like living in an apartment because I don’t want to worry about, say, my refrigerator going out, or my furnace. I want to be able to just make a call and have it fixed and not have to deal with the unexpected expenses and distractions.
CG: Exactly. One thing that surprised me is the market of the people who are buying these kinds of homes. I thought it would be Millennials who wanted to, you know, kind of rebel against the culture or whatever. But really it’s empty-nesters. People who are realizing they don't need their five-bedroom house. They want to enjoy life. Watch The Travel Channel and Food Network, and in their retirement not have to worry about their siding going down in 10 years and having to pay for that. They don’t want to have to worry about all that upkeep.
PGH: When we were talking earlier, you mentioned another component of your plan with your homes. That is, you’re focused not only on building them, but on where they’re being located. Talk about this support you have for community living.
CG: Thank you, because I think that’s the biggest thing. What we're really trying to cultivate is to put people in community with one another. It puts people into a situation of meeting one another and interacting with another that’s significantly increased from what one might find in a regular, intentional community. It puts you in a place where you're not going home at the end of your day, going into your house, raising your drawbridge, not talking to your neighbors. I really believe that God has called me to this idea to cultivate community. Because when I was doing mission work, where I lived on a base with 500 of my closest friends, I didn't make any money. I was making $400 a month living in Hawaii. And I was doing what I really felt like the Lord was calling me to do and I got to see my friends every day. We saw each other, we were all together. I want to re-create that for others, and I’m trying to figure out how to do it in a way that makes sense for our customers and for the business.
PGH: I recently read “Lost Connections,” by Johann Hari. In it, he talks about how much of our society’s depression epidemic can be traced to living without connections to others, such as one might find in environments where neighbors don’t know each other or help each other. I found it to be very convincing.
CG: We go all over the world. I was living in South Africa. At one of the places we lived, there was a grocery store at the end of the street and a little café. All of our neighbors went to these places. You would see your neighbors all the time. Talk to them. Get to know them. It was terrific. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I’m trying to create.