While tiny houses are a fascinating and emerging lifestyle trend, downsizers would be well-advised to consider a range of issues before splashing out on their new pad.

Janine Strachan, president of the Australian Tiny House Association (ATHA), explains downsizers choose tiny houses for many reasons, including affordability for over 50s wanting to stay in their neighbourhood but unable to afford needed house upgrades.

They are suited to multigenerational living or accommodating an onsite carer.

“The carer might live in the tiny house and the person needing care can stay in their bigger house, or they could have a tiny house designed specifically for their needs,” she says.

“Also, some people like the idea of escaping southern winters and heading up north for six months. Or they might have a six-month contract somewhere like Darwin or Broome where rental properties are extremely scarce and take the house with them.”

The benefits of tiny house living

For Victorian architect Wayne*, in his early 50s, the reason was environmental.

His wife and two teenage daughters were “living pretty comfortably in a suburban coastal town” when they started considering “the space we live in and what we could and couldn't do without,” he explains.

One of the girls came across tiny houses. We started thinking about whether we could downsize from a 250 square metre house to a 25 square metre house and we decided to give it a go.”

Wayne designed one tiny house for him and his wife and one for their daughters. They spent 12 months building them, then contacted various rural and semi-rural properties they liked the look of.

“A bunch of people responded, we selected one, negotiated a rental agreement and parked in a paddock for 12 months,” he says.

Downsizer Wayne's tiny houses are sited on rented land in an area they love. Photo credit Ben Wrigley 

Smaller bills, bigger lifestyle

Wayne, who has since moved the tiny houses to another property, says the benefits include reduced maintenance and living expenses. The homes are fully off-grid, with composting toilets, rainwater tanks, and solar panels with battery storage. Wayne’s wife calculated they save about $4,000 per year on bills.

“Another important positive is that it connects us with the place we're living. We generally set up a small fire pit, so we spent a lot of time with family and friends sitting around the campfire, which we really enjoy.

“And we feel that we're living lightly in the way we deal with the planet. We can leave and have no lasting impact on that land.”

Wayne’s tiny houses cost $120,000 each to build, with them doing a lot of the work themselves. Ms Strachan says the average cost is between $70,000 and $130,000.

Downsizer Wayne designed and built two tiny houses for his family. Photo credit Ben Wrigley 

Potential pitfalls over 50s need to know

The houses may be relatively affordable, but you also need land to put them on, Ms Strachan notes.

Regulations around tiny houses vary in each state and territory. Wayne, for example, says “council probably consider us illegal because we haven't got a permit to be where we are, because they can't tell me what permit I need. We're working with council to try and clarify that.”

Ms Strachan, who operates Tiny House Solutions, explains the ATHA are advocating for planning changes to make tiny houses acceptable as secondary dwellings – an option currently being explored in some places.

In Victoria, for instance, a pilot project is trialling broader occupancy regulations for secondary dwellings, along with fast-tracking planning decisions, she says.

They are also advocating to legalise living permanently in tiny houses on wheels. Ms Strachan explains these currently sit under restrictive caravan regulations almost Australia-wide. In Western Australia, for example, you can live no more than 3 days out of every 28 in a caravan, she says.

“In New South Wales, you can live in a caravan as long as you're a relative of the person in the primary dwelling and you don't pay any rent.”

They are also developing guidelines about how to construct safe, secure tiny houses for occupation and road transport.

She emphasises they are not the best choice for travel or frequent moves. “They're basically semi-trailer size and take a fair bit of confidence to tow. People might not want that element of responsibility.”

You also need to think about how you’ll “downsize sufficiently so you’re not having to store excess stuff,” she adds.

Tiny house trends

Ms Strachan, an Accredited Livable Housing Assessor, explains designers are increasingly making tiny houses more liveable for over 50s who may have mobility issues or want to age in place.

For example, some models have an alternative to a loft sleeping area, so occupants don’t need to climb stairs or ladders.

Some have a motorised elevator bed that comes down from the ceiling with the push of a button, or a Murphy bed that folds down from a wall. Wider doorways allow people to get in and around things more easily.

Recycled shipping containers are also growing in popularity, but it’s vital they are remodelled to suit people rather than cargo, Ms Strachan emphasises. 

For anyone considering tiny house living, she advises starting with a clear idea of why you want to do it. Next, write a list of pros and cons, and a wishlist of must haves versus wants. “That will  bring you down to what you can live without.”

* Wayne is identified only by his first name due to the legalities of his current living arrangement.

Comment from our CEO

Amanda Graham, CEO of Downsizing, says it’s great to see some different options for Australian downsizers. 

“We know over 50s are a diverse group with a huge range of needs and preferences, and the usual retirement living properties don’t necessarily suit everyone,” Ms Graham said. “For some over 50s, the thought of reducing their environmental footprint plus also decluttering via a tiny home would be a very welcome proposition.

“We’re pleased to see more housing types becoming available for people who need a different style of accommodation for affordability, family and lifestyle reasons.

“What’s also important is that government regulation and guidance catches up to the growing tiny house trend, to give some certainty to homeowners.”

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