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Couple sees big picture in tiny house

By Allison Batdorff, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

June 22--KALKASKA -- Two empty plastic tubs -- that's all that remains of Debbie Hanson's "keep it just in case" mindset.

She banished the practice of "bargain shopping" and no longer goes to Target for one item and leaves with six.

John Russell, Hanson's partner, filled a fellow's truck with two decades of accumulated "you might need it" scrap metal. The marine designer then sent his "survival pile" of project wood up in campfire smoke.

The pair pared their lives down, finding that the essentials fit tidily in a 200-square-foot house that they can pull on a boat trailer.

The "Ritz on Wheels" project taught the couple -- both veterans of divorce and 2,000-square-foot living -- a lot about what they "need," Hanson said.

"I used to be a compulsive shopper. I loved sales," Hanson said, who works in sales and marketing. "Tiny living puts things in perspective -- I have to ask, 'do I need this?' And then, 'where am I going to put it?'"

Hanson, 49, and Russell, 50, toasted their one-month anniversary in the Ritz last week. It still has that "new house" smell. The low-cost, low-maintenance home on wheels allows them to travel more yet curiosity keeps everyone coming to their place, Hanson said.

"People and family want to visit us because they are intrigued by this lifestyle," Hanson said.

Living little is getting big, as proponents cite both McMansion fatigue, energy costs and mortgage crisis backlash as propulsion for the tiny house trend. Tiny houses can be constructed of traditional housing materials, eco-friendly designs or fashioned from other things, like shipping containers.

Tumbleweed Tiny Homes, one of the country's biggest retailers, sells plans for $760 and fully constructed homes for $60,000. "Tiny House Nation," an A&E reality show, is set to launch next month, and urban areas are beginning to experiment with tiny houses as possible solutions to homelessness.

Current tiny homeowners tend to be older -- 56 percent are older than 40, female (55 percent to 45 percent) and well educated, as reported by a Tiny Life demographic study.

Russell and Hanson chose tiny living for its economy, flexibility and adventure, they said. Both are from northern Michigan, have kids in college and jobs in seasonal flux. They knew they didn't want a mortgage -- or the debt.

The "Ritz" cost them $15,000 to construct and furnish. Home sweet home is 32 feet long; 8 feet, 6 inches wide, and 13 feet 8 inches tall. Interior: knotty pine. Exterior: vinyl siding. Running water, flush toilets, Wi-Fi; check, check, check.

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The couple wanted to maximize efficiency without sacrificing all of their creature comforts. The Ritz boasts a full-sized shower and oven, plus a flat screen television for streaming movies.

"We got down our footprint to just what we needed. What do we do in the house? We sit on the couch. We eat. We sleep. We go to the bathroom. That's about it," Hanson said.

Russell's marine expertise figures prominently in the design, from flooring (pontoon) to flushing (marine toilet). Russell also has the spatial knack for incorporating dual-, and triple-purposed features like the fold down, cord-hiding table that then folds up to become the dining area/entertaining/card space. The wall hides a floor-to-ceiling closet and office space. Wheeled furniture lets them easily reconfigure their space. Good thing -- 11 family members dropped in for a visit the other day, Hanson said.

But to be tiny is also to be caught in territorial limbo. Building codes and restrictions on dwelling size -- put in place to discourage RVs and mobile home parks -- often mean tiny houses have to move, even if the homeowner owns the property.

Hanson is worried less about freezing than finding a place to park their home for the winter, she said.

"The next adventure is finding a place to park," Hanson said. "We want to find a township that embraces the concept of living sustainably."

Insurance is another question, Hanson said, as there is no Michigan option for tiny houses. Their home is also self-built, adding another layer of complication.

"We are trying to work the different angles but we're not having any luck," Hanson said.

"Right now, if something breaks, we'll fix it," Russell said.

Moving the house from the construction zone to the campsite blew several fuses but it also reinforced the couples' motto that "the journey is the reward," Hanson said.

That their kids are witnessing a different way to live is another, Russell said. He hopes their lifestyle conveys what they've learned -- that wealth has nothing to do with square footage and everything to do with happiness, Russell said.

It's working, he said. His daughter spent the winter in the Ritz, testing out their electric heating system.

"We want to teach the kids that there are other ways of doing things, that we've learned something from our lives," Russell said. "We've both had all the stuff. We both worked the hours. Now we want to enjoy our lives."


(c)2014 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

Visit The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.) at

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



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