Tiny Houses on Wheels (THoWs) are odd creatures. They seldom move, yet are lumped into the recreational vehicle (RV) category. They are, increasingly, all-season residences yet they must connect to permanent houses or to basic campground pedestals for services. And they are often someone’s highly curated, minimalist nest yet they aren’t considered fixed property in the same way that traditional houses are.
Fact is, THoWs are depreciating assets. They are trailers, and like motor vehicles, they typically lose value as soon as they’re rolled off the lot.
That’s not to say that THoWs aren’t valuable though. Most pro builds these days are very high quality. They are manufactured centrally, which reduces significant inefficiencies (more than 40% of landfill is construction waste!) and their smaller footprint makes them especially eco-friendly (20% the average water intake and 11% the average electricity use compared to standard houses). Because space is at a premium, THoW materials, finishings, and furnishings are carefully selected, resulting in owners’ above-average emotional connection to their THoW.
But because they are not permanently attached to a site, THoWs don’t generally offset depreciation with ascending land value. So, the purchase or sale of a THoW should be approached differently than regular real estate. Ironically, however, that requires an even greater emphasis on the most real estate maxim of all: location, location, location.
A great parking spot can preserve resale value, while a mediocre one can significantly decrease the perceived value of a THoW and even turn one off of tiny living altogether.
Let’s look at three different examples of different combinations of set (house) and setting (site). These are all based on real THoWs and actual THoW owner blind spots and costly decisions that we’ve encountered this year in our neck of the woods.
1. Mediocre Set + Mediocre Setting
A couple commissioned a non-pro to build a 30′ THoW that was functional, but featured odd construction quirks like uneven stairs, gapped finishings, and a hot plate directly adjacent to the kitchen sink – a mistake that unfortunately burned their newborn.
DIY builds vary widely in quality. Some are extraordinary displays of craftsmanship while others end up looking like the weekend hobby that they were. Quality control for non-pro builds is a much larger variable and the real kicker when it comes to resale: none of them are certified. CSA and/or RVIA certification may seem superfluous and not worth the added upfront cost, but certification preserves THoWs’ resale value by assuring buyers of the home’s safety and the ability to secure THoW insurance.
They parked the home on a rented afterthought section of a hillside acreage for several hundred dollars a month. Although the site was nestled in a beautiful patch of countryside, it came with no hookups or internet, was very steeply sloped, and, as they discovered later, neighboured a noisy sawmill.
This couple didn’t get into tiny living thinking that they would abandon their investment within a year, but both the set and setting were lacking. Last we heard, the THoW remained unsold and is now parked in storage somewhere.
2. Great Set + Mediocre Setting
Another couple parked their magnificent 423 sq-ft high-end professionally built and certified THoW on an unserviced spot in the middle of a field. The beautiful $240,000+ house includes a slate of thoughtful add-ons – including a remarkable custom-built queen-size Murphy Bed, upgraded bathroom, and 2700W solar system. They clearly put a lot of effort into designing their abode and paying a reputable builder to construct it.
They soon realized that a muddy field was not the right spot to park their luxury THoW, and that they mistakenly threw all of their budget into the build while overlooking its siting. Now they can’t afford to rent a practical, year-round, THoW-friendly spot anywhere.
Many THoW buyers get caught up in the Youtube / Instagram vortex of tiny houses. It’s actually quite fun – so many space-saving innovations, layout personalizations, and interior design flourishes! But many of these folks don’t consider things like filters, pumps, tanks, controls, skirting, exterior storage, etc. And even fewer give much thought to proper siting beyond the general region.
This couple sacrificed setting for set and learned that an expensive, custom-designed THoW is more difficult to resell if it’s not in a good setting. Within months of moving into their dream THOW, they gave up on tiny living, listed their THoW on Marketplace, and have since dropped its price at least twice.
3. Great Set + Great Setting
Our last example is an owner that had the best of both worlds. Like the couple above, she had invested around a quarter-million dollars in a custom pro-built and certified 34′ THoW that included a dream bathroom, personally sized office desk, low-ceiling reading loft, eccentric finishings, a custom closet, and even a hidden room.
She wisely placed her dream house on a proper, fully-serviced pad in a serene and picturesque location surrounded by caring and helpful neighbours. The set and setting were perfect complements. However, after a couple major life changes, she chose to move elsewhere. Despite several buyers’ interest in acquiring the THoW in situ, she decided instead to park it in a scrapyard. Unfortunately, simply moving this beautiful home to an unflattering setting where few potential buyers would want to live probably cost her more than a fifth of her original purchase price. Now it sits empty by a highway, depreciating.
When it comes to resale value: buy certified, resist overdoing highly individualized layouts and non-essential upgrades, and recognize the important interplay between THoW set and setting to ensure that you can preserve your THoW’s value should you ever choose to sell.