Living Not So Large

The sprawl of television shows about very small houses

$63,700: St. George Island, Fla., 325-sq.-ft. beachside getaway! Lovely front porch perfect for (small) parties.

Source: FYI Network

Vince and Sam are newlywed twentysomethings who’ve been bunking with family for a year. Finally, they’ve saved up enough to buy a palace to call their own. Well, sort of: They want to shrink their footprint and expenses by living in a custom-built, 204-square-foot standalone house in southern New Jersey. It has to have room for gym equipment—they’re fitness buffs—and a study for Sam, who’s in medical school. Even Vince’s adorably headbanded mom isn’t sure how it will all fit. When Vince and Sam first see their new digs under construction, tall and narrow like a top-heavy garage, Vince admits they’re “freaking out on the inside.”

So goes a standard episode of Tiny House Nation, the first of a half-dozen miniaturized real estate shows that have recently premiered. “We discovered that for millennials, there was an overriding social trend of extreme downsizing, and we wanted to dig deep into that,” says Gena McCarthy, executive producer of the show, which began airing last year after the Biography Channel morphed into the youth-focused FYI network. Last summer’s first season averaged 257,000 viewers per week, according to Nielsen; this season’s average viewership is up 77 percent, to 465,000.

$650,000: San Francisco, 600 sq. ft. Wow! 100 years old. Pretty landscaping is a green thumb’s paradise!

$650,000: San Francisco, 600 sq. ft. Wow! 100 years old. Pretty landscaping is a green thumb’s paradise!

Source: FYI Network

The network also airs the more straightforward Tiny House Hunting—the word “tiny” appears to be a branding convention—which features earnest couples checking out existing homes. The HGTV network created Tiny House Hunters in December, then doubled down with Tiny House, Big Living, in which families work with experts to conceive their Lilliputian dream home for five figures. In February, HGTV aired the pilot to Tiny House Builders, which focuses on a contractor who “creates micro-masterpieces out of salvaged materials.”

There already appear to be enough little homes out there. The real estate tracker Zillow.com shows 2,904 houses, measuring from 100 sq. ft. to 500 sq. ft., currently on the market nationwide. Many are advertised for less than $100,000, though small doesn’t necessarily mean cheap: If you’re looking in Seattle, as one houseboat-seeking teacher was on Tiny House Hunting, you can expect to pay squarely in the six figures. He eventually picked one just shy of that at $99,000. “I would be nervous if I could fit all of my toys in such a small space,” he says, sizing up a one-room boat.

This isn’t the first time small homes have been in demand. Filmmaker Kirsten Dirksen, whose documentaries about tiny homes have been viewed 1 million times on YouTube, traces the concept to the 1970s, when Lloyd Kahn released the book Shelter, a manifesto to scale back. Next, reclaim-the-land types flocked to the work of designer Jay Shafer, who built a sweet minihouse (Gothic window and porch included) in the 1990s. It spawned copycats, and in 2002, he founded the Small House Society. After the economy cratered in 2008, blogs such as Tiny House Talk and Tiny House Family explored the idea of such homes as an antidote to personal poverty and rampant U.S. consumerism.

$45,000: 210-sq.-ft. Nashville gem! Bay window converts to dining table. Lots of light. This house is ready to roll!

$45,000: 210-sq.-ft. Nashville gem! Bay window converts to dining table. Lots of light. This house is ready to roll!

Source: FYI Network

On all the current shows, living tiny is presented in an absurdly positive light. We see would-be homeowners trash the stuff they own to pare down their condo’s worth of junk into a few crates. Talented contractors MacGyver families’ requests into ingeniously engineered spaces no bigger than a moving van. Floors pull up for storage, and beds pull down from walls. Electric fireplaces are made in toaster size. Compost toilets are debated, feared, and sometimes dismissed.

Choosing the best of these programs is sort of beside the point—they’re all more or less the same, with a soul-searching element that makes for good, mindless voyeurism. The real appeal for viewers is figuring out how they, too, might make more efficient use of their own not-as-tiny space. “It points out that we don’t need a lot of stuff to live a fulfilled life,” says Kathleen Finch, the president of HGTV. Her network is developing more tiny-themed shows. Yet, as with the megamansion porn that came before, the bubble must eventually burst. 

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