Since 2007, Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell and her husband Dale have been living in a 480-square-foot home on a wooded lakefront property in Arkansas. In her new book, Living Large in Our Little House (Reader's Digest Books/Simon & Schuster), which comes out in June, Fivecoat-Campbell s her experience of tiny house living. Part memoir and part family history, the book features practical advice on living tiny, the trials and tribulations of downsizing, housing trends and statistics, and stories of others who have chosen tiny house living.
Think the tiny house lifestyle could be for you? Find out what Fivecoat-Campbell has to say about living full-time in a small space with her husband, six dogs, and one TV remote, in this interview with Country Living.
CL: What's it really like to live in a tiny house full-time?
KF-C: Aside from not having room for some things that I'd really like, I think it's great. I have never been a person who likes to clean. My husband and I, we like to be out on the water and outside doing stuff, and so a tiny house is really, really good for people like that because it takes me less than two hours to clean, top to bottom. And we really don't have a whole lot of maintenance on the house.
CL: How is living in a tiny house different from apartment living?
KF-C: Well, personally, I've only lived in an apartment during the time before I got married, and I really hated it. I think living in a tiny house is different than an apartment in the same way as owning or living in a single-family home: you don't have people on top of you, or right next door to you, or below you. In terms of space, it really isn't that much different unless, of course, it moves because you have a tiny house on wheels.
CL: What was the hardest adjustment?
KF-C: My mother had just passed away in 2007 when we moved here, and so I had inherited all of her antiques, which, of course, I had thought all my life were going to be in my house at some point. I did have to give up some of the antiques, but I kept the ones I really loved, some of which are in my separate office space. The only thing of mine that I really loved that I couldn't keep was my china cabinet — there's just no room for it.
We first built this house as a vacation home, and if we had to do it all over again and I knew this was going to be my full-time house, I would have went at least 600 square feet. Then I could've fit everything that I loved.
CL: In addition to the feelings of regret, did you also feel a bit of relief about getting rid of clutter?
KF-C: Yeah, and it is because we Americans, especially, have so much stuff, and we don't even usually know what we do have. I'm sure you've had the feeling that I've certainly had of cleaning out a closet and thinking, oh, my, I didn't even remember that I had that. Well, if you don't remember that you have it, you probably don't need it.
There's a pain if it's something that's sentimental, but you find other ways to keep those things in your memories and in your heart, because your memories really aren't tied up in the things.
One of the people in my book took pictures of family heirlooms and then wrote stories to put with them so they could always remember. Those stories might even last longer than the piece of furniture, or bowl, or whatever it is that you had to get rid of. So there's other things you can do without hauling all that stuff around.
CL: Despite having to purge your things and limit new purchases, you admit in your book that you and your your husband are not minimalists, and that you do have material possessions that bring you joy.
KF-C: I think it's great for some of the people who have blogged that they won't go over 130 possessions or whatever it is and that's what makes them happy. We're not those type of people. It's also not realistic because we live out in the country. We have to have certain things to run the land.
It's kind of like square footage. Every time somebody in the movement says, oh, well, under 400 square feet is tiny, and 400 to 600 square feet is small — I have never been one to define that, because it's really more about living than it is about counting your possessions or square footage.
CL: How would you suggest people figure out what size is the right "tiny" for them?
KF-C: Rent and stay in as many tiny houses as possible. There are all kinds of tiny house hotels now. Again, if I'd known this was going to be our house that we were probably going to live in until we could no longer live on our own, I would've made it ADA accessible.
CL: You talk a lot in your book about following your passions and how living this tiny house life lets you and your husband follow your passion for the outdoors.
KF-C: Unsurprisingly, most people that live in a tiny house have some type of a passion outside the home. Whatever their passions are, it's usually not in home upkeep.
My husband and I were lucky enough to meet when we were really young, and we knew from the very beginning that we were outdoor people, that we enjoy being on a lake, on the trails, and outdoors among nature.
What we didn't realize is that our passion didn't really didn't mesh with working a 60-hour week and living the "American Dream," which was to have a big house or as big a house as you can afford. We didn't have a great big house — it was 1,100 square feet — but it was a lot more than two people needed, and we had to keep up the yard, of course. So we were spending at least one day of the weekend cleaning the entire thing and then trying to keep up with the yard and everything else.
Though we built this tiny house as a vacation-turned-guest house and moved here full-time with the intention of building a bigger house on the property, plans didn't work out. We knew by the time that first winter was over that we had fallen into a better way of life for us. We weren't spending time cleaning. We weren't spending time maintaining the yard. We were spending time doing what we loved.
CL: You and your husband are outdoors people, and making the most of outdoor space is really important when you're living in a tiny house.
KF-C: Right, especially if you're going to entertain at all, it's very important to make use of your outdoor space so you can have people over and still feel connected with your friends. I've had as many as two couples in our house, and it's kind of cramped, but we can fit another couple in here comfortably for dinner. But if we want to have more over, you really need an outdoor space, Our house has a great big deck on it.
CL: What are the challenges of living tiny with a spouse?
KF-C: When you live with somebody else in a tiny house, you don't have as much room to spread out. As you read in the book, we had a three-bedroom, two-bath house that had a family room and a formal living room and several TVs, and my husband and I spent most of our time in different areas. Not having room to spread out anymore took some getting used to, but now I wouldn't want it any other way. I don't want to go back to us living in separate rooms, and not really communicating or spending time together.
CL: In your book, you talk about how living tiny helped you and your husband learn new things about each other and figured out how to compromise, like on TV watching.
KF-C: Exactly, so now we take turns with choosing shows or finding shows we both like to watch together. We've kind of learned to like the same things while also having our own interests.
CL: Were there any mistakes that you made that you think others could avoid?
KF-C: We spent a lot of money dragging around stuff. I would suggest to people what the organizer in the book suggests, and that's to go through your stuff. Purge one, two, three times if you have to, and let it go. Do not put things in storage. Don't waste that money because you're probably never going to need it again, and if you do, when you go back for it, it's probably going to be damaged.
I also came to realize that, of course, dragging all that stuff around was also keeping me mired in a past that's no longer here, with my mom's memories and things like that.
CL: What have been the benefits of living tiny?
KF-C: Well, there have been many, many benefits to living tiny for us and for a lot of people in the same situation. Of course, our mortgage payments are smaller. We heat with a wood stove in the wintertime, so our utility costs in the winter especially are really low. We buy fewer things because we don't have places to put things. You spend less needlessly, and again, you have more time to concentrate on your life rather than maintaining a big house and a yard.
I've always been a person who has tried to be considerate of the environment, and it makes you even more so when you live in a tiny house because you don't have room for junk mail. We live out in a rural area, so we have to haul our trash, so we're more conscientious of how much trash we're producing.
CL: Is it really the financial freedom that it's touted to be?
KF-C: Yes, because even if you have a mortgage, it's going to be a smaller mortgage. We're going to be debt-free far faster than we would've in a larger house.
CL: What are some of the unexpected costs of a tiny house?
KF-C: Well, there was one couple who has since moved out of their tiny house, and they thought they were going to be able to move it to where a mobile home once sat, but they didn't realize that the codes in that town require that they have a permanent water source. Their toilet was a composting toilet and wasn't plumbed for a permanent water source. So it was going to cost them $30,000 to upgrade their house. Now, I think there's been more awareness with regards to codes. That's really what we call the new frontier of the tiny house movement, is that people are starting to work with their local municipalities to get some of these things that were not allowed in townships, such as composting toilets, and minimum square footage requirements, repealed to allow for tiny houses.
CL: What do you say to tiny-living naysayers?
KF-C: Well, I say it's not for everybody. A lot of people enjoy their big homes. They enjoy entertaining in all seasons, and they enjoy entertaining a lot of people. If redecorating a house is what brings you joy, then it's probably not for you. There's only so many things you can do to change the look of your tiny house.
But it is for a lot of people, and a lot of people have found happiness doing it. Some people just enjoy the pictures of the tiny homes and looking at them. I'm sure all 44,000 people on my page don't live in tiny houses, nor do they ever want to, but they enjoy looking at the pictures and hearing the stories and dreaming that, maybe someday, they'll do that.
Photos by Kevin Peiper, from the upcoming Reader's Digest book Living Large in Our Little House: Thriving in 480 Square Feet with Six Dogs, a Husband and One Remote — and How You Can Too. Used by permission of Trusted Media Brands, Inc.