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Tiny Homes: La Plata County's Next Big Idea?

Miles of trails, pints of craft beer, four seasons and endless excuses to wear costumes are just a few perks of calling Durango home. But real estate is one item you'll notice on no one's Favorite Things in Durango list. Whether you're looking for a condo to rent with your dog or taking a massive step into adulthood by committing to a mortgage, finding "affordable" housing in La Plata County is a headache at the very least, and an untouchable dream for many.

Enter the tiny house movement; a concept that some see as one solution to the affordable housing crisis in our otherwise superb paradise. While a tiny house doesn't have a technically-defined size yet, most agree that it's any residential structure under 400-square-feet (excluding loft space) - that is, a sixth the size of the average single-family home purchased in America, according to the latest US Census.

Reasons vary for downsizing, from financial to environmental and philosophical. Idealist tiny-house dwellers often credit Henry David Thoreau and his seminal work, Walden, with inspiring droves of Americans to get rid of stuff and "live deliberately." Eco-friendly types enjoy the warm fuzzies they get from reducing their carbon footprint, while, for the practical-minded, their bank account says it all.

According to popular tiny-house-centric website, The Tiny Life, the average cost of building a tiny house is $23,000, if built by the owner, which means up to 68-percent of tiny-house people don't have a mortgage and most have zero credit card debt. And once the house is built, owners bear lighter burdens when it comes to taxes, maintenance and monthly utility bills. So why isn't everybody going teeny?

Besides the fact that living nose-to-nose with your spouse or 80-pound lab doesn't appeal to some, there are also a few logistical hoops to jump through before throwing a housewarming party. One of the biggest struggles for tiny-house hopefuls is securing financing and insurance, says Greg Parham of Durango-based Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses.

He points to a lack of accreditation in the tiny-house universe for official's skepticism to approving loans or coverage. As of now, there is no standard that tiny-house owners can present to the bank or insurance company showing that they're bona fide. Some folks opt for the oval-shaped Recreation Vehicle Industry Association sticker proving they've passed more than 500 specifications for plumbing, electrical, heating, fire and life safety.

Parham says that the National Organization of Alternative Housing (NOAH) is a newer inspection and certification service specifically for tiny houses that shares similar requirements as RVIA but doesn't suffer the stigma that the tiny-houser had to sell their souls and call themselves - gasp - part-time, seasonal inhabitants of their houses on wheels.

"You're basically saying it's a camper and not a home," Parham said.

When the International Code Council (the creators of the International Residential Code used nationwide) noticed a spike in the tiny house industry, they responded by creating an appendix to address the tiny house's tininess when it comes to how ceiling heights, egress requirements, staircase standards and more are inspected. Though it only addresses permanent tiny house structures (not on wheels), the appendix approval marks a win for tiny house builders and buyers across the country.

In its search to diversify housing options in La Plata County, the Building Department saw that this appendix - called Appendix V - was passed in December 2016 and has since chosen to adopt it into the updated county building code due out in August. La Plata County currently governs tiny houses as accessory dwelling units, but that doesn't take size into account, so the appendix is one giant leap forward for this tiny movement.

"A tiny home is a home, period," Butch Knowlton, director of the County Building Department, said. "It meets all of the definitions in our land codes about what is a residence, which means it will have to follow the land use code and comply with health and sewer disposal regulations, driveway standards, etcetera. It's not exempt to regulations in La Plata County."

While the building code regulates how to build a structure, zoning regulations determine where you can put that structure, according to online housing site, Curbed. Land for tiny homes is a whole ‘nother can of worms that La Plata County officials are considering. When it comes to growing tiny home settlements, Knowlton says it's not much different than putting in a subdivision, where there are costs associated with development. As of now, tiny homes can be parked onto a permanent foundation on any county land that isn't zoned (good luck finding that little slice of heaven).

When you cross the line into tiny-home territory, you're making as much of a social decision as an architectural one. You're joining a social movement that Parham says knows no specific demographic. He's built houses for college students, young professionals looking to live a simpler lifestyle and older folks on the edge of retirement. While some sign up for a permanent situation and buy land for their house, others keep the wheels handy, just in case.  

"Most of them are kind of winging it," Parham said. "They don't know what the future will bring. They're just getting rid of the crap, overwhelmed by their stuff."

Naturally, Parham walks the talk of living simply. He'll soon trade his 160-square-foot abode for a house that's a little longer and a little wider to accommodate his growing family of three (him, his wife-to-be and a pup, for now). His four-year-old business emphasizes design over size, utilizing dual-purpose, space-saving, multi-functional features, appliances and furniture.

He's also helping organize the inaugural Colorado Tiny House Festival, held July 28-30, in Keenesburg, Colorado. Parham will be joined by thousands of tiny-house people, other builders, vendors, speakers and more for a weekend of all things tiny house. The cost is $10 per day or $18 for the whole weekend.

The event is as good for curious tiny-housers as it is for builders, like Parham, who says his greatest challenges are related to the isolation and cost of living in the region. Where to purchase supplies and labor costs are top stresses. He's also struggling to find a big enough facility to keep up with the demand, but the ole real estate pebble-in-the-shoe circles back around, because he can't find affordable land.

"The cost of living in America has gone through the roof, and people are still making babies, so we still need homes," Knowlton said. "They have a dream of having a roof over their heads. In many respects, people can't afford to do that. [The tiny house] is a great beginner home for a lot of people."

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Sometimes built custom by the people intending to live there, tiny homes try to pack maximum utility into minimal square footage.

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A La Plata County-based tiny home's interior, after completion. This home was customized and built by its occupants.

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Even simple solutions, such as those pictured, are necessary to optimize such a small living space for comfortability and utility.

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Bayfield local, Geoff Pope, recently purchased an ambulance with plans to outfit it as an adventure vehicle. photo courtesy Geoff Pope.

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Van life, or in this case ambulance life, offers some of the perks of tiny home living with added mobility. photo courtesy Geoff Pope.

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