College students turn to tiny houses for affordable living

Christopher Cerk, a web-development major at the University of Michigan, said his desire to save money and invest in his future motivated him to ditch dorm life and instead build a tiny house to reside in.

By: Samantha Drake, The Washington Post

Christopher Cerk, a web-development major at the University of Michigan, said his desire to save money and invest in his future motivated him to ditch dorm life and instead build a tiny house to reside in.

“When you pay rent, you have money flying out the door, and you get no return on it,” Cerk said. “It’s nice to have a space you can clean in 15 minutes.”

After living in a dorm and an apartment, Cerk said he initially set his sights on remodeling a Volkswagen Bus to live in, but his mother talked him out of it. So Cerk built his tiny house over one summer; he estimates construction cost about $15,000. He says he had no experience building anything large and that he read up on how to frame a house and match roof angles. The ­170-square-foot dwelling sits on a trailer and includes propane heating and solar panels but has no air conditioning or Internet.

Finding a place to park his new home was a major concern but Cerk didn’t broach the idea with the university. “I had a feeling it would be a very long process, and I didn’t want to deal with that,” he said. Instead, Cerk rents space to park the tiny home from a local landowner less than 20 minutes from the Ann Arbor, Mich., campus.

Similarly, Joel Weber, a design student at the University of Texas at Austin, didn’t even consider the possibility of parking his tiny home on campus. “I didn’t want to go into debt — I was financially pretty much on my own,” said Weber, 25, who is working on his bachelor’s degree. “My preference is to not have anything that I can’t afford up front.”

Weber designed his 145-square-foot tiny house in a style he terms “organic contemporary.” He kept costs down to about $20,000 by using donated materials, bartering for appliances and pursuing a vendor sponsorship for an air-conditioning unit.

Like Cerk, Weber says location was key. “My main concern was finding cool people who will let me park my home,” he said. Weber found a place less than 20 minutes from campus and provides nanny services and design work in return for parking privileges.

Though they are a real estate trend, evidenced by the shows on HGTV, tiny homes on campus are down the road a ways, says Allan Blattner, board president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International in Columbus, Ohio, and director of the Department of Housing and Residential Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Blattner cites several concerns about permitting tiny houses on campus property, including taking state housing and zoning laws into consideration. For example, in North Carolina, all campus housing must be equipped with sprinkler systems, he said. State and local laws, which may vary depending on whether a tiny house is built on wheels or on a foundation, dictate minimum square footage and placement on private property, according to the American Tiny House Association in Palmetto, Fla.

Further, students who live in tiny houses instead of traditional campus housing will miss out on an important aspect of college and university life, Blattner said. Campus housing is connected to a positive educational experience, particularly for first- and second-year students. Studies show that dorm living promotes a stronger connection to campus life and leads to higher GPAs, he said. Tiny houses under campus auspices, therefore, might be most beneficial for graduate students, staff and faculty, he said.

“We’re not really sure where they fit in,” Blattner said. “But if there becomes a demand for tiny houses, we’ll certainly look into it.”

At Michigan State University, what started as a potential independent study project for recent graduate Tiffany Pupa’s senior year grew into a project that involved more than 100 people. Dubbed Sparty’s Cabin, the ­177-square-foot structure includes wood from the MSU Sustainable Wood Recovery Program, which salvages trees removed on campus. Sparty’s Cabin cost approximately $25,000 to build with funding from MSU and some donated materials, according to Pat Crawford, associate director of the School of Planning, Design and Construction.

Pupa, who majored in design, said she would like to start talks about creating a tiny house community on campus and is already eyeing the site of campus-owned apartments slated to be phased out of use.

Having researched tiny houses for the Sparty’s Cabin project, Pupa said she realizes significant safety and legal issues need to be addressed. But she also hopes such an initiative also could be instructive for students and worked into their studies.

“I think it’s a viable option for some students who can afford the upfront costs,” Pupa said.

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