Smaller than some shipping containers. Larger than most cardboard boxes. The tiny-home trend has taken off, but New Braunfels has proven to be a difficult place to live for tiny-home owners.
An energy-efficient, new-wave idea with the biggest selling point being the cost, tiny homes provide a new market for prospective homebuyers in an area where housing prices have risen into the hundreds of thousands.
Tiny homes, residential dwellings 100-400 square feet in size, have been touted as the next trend in home buying for years, but due to a conflux of city ordinances and codes that restrict accessory housing and relegate housing on wheels to commercial zones, the movement has not found a home in New Braunfels.
“Finding a place to live has been a beating,” said New Braunfels resident Kristi Knebel, who moved to Gruene with her dog Boogie in what she referred to as the Taj Mahal of tiny homes two years ago. “My tiny home is not necessarily a manufactured home. It’s not a mobile home, and it’s not an RV. It’s very difficult to find a place to put it, especially here in Comal County.”
At 399 square feet, Knebel’s residence is the definition of a tiny home, but the structure permanently rests on a chassis and wheels, which the city considers a recreational vehicle, according to officials in the office of planning and community development.
“My only option was an RV park,” she said. “The idea of tiny home living is fantastic, and it’s cool and cute and fun. But, actually doing it here is very difficult, unless you own your own property.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development last reviewed tiny homes—what local retailers refer to as park model RVs and sub-400 square feet manufactured homes—in 2018 and elected “not to revise” the current definition.
Under the National Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Standards Act of 1974, HUD has the authority to set appropriate standards for the construction, design, performance and installation of manufactured or mobile homes but maintains a hands-off approach to RVs, which are forced to meet the American National Standards Institute standard A119.5 and National Fire Protection Association standard 192-15 in order to receive RV Industry Association certification.
Within New Braunfels city limits, officials were clear an additional structure on a property with an already existing single-family home would be considered an accessory dwelling unit limited by size and the prohibited use of a full-size kitchen.
Meanwhile, any structure or tiny home on a chassis and wheels is considered an RV, officials said.
“It’s about how it’s constructed,” said Stacy Snell, New Braunfels Planning and Community Development assistant director.
“You can build a 400-square-foot stick-house, and we’re fine. If it’s on wheels, then we’re going to consider it an RV. If it’s anchored down on a platform, maybe it’s a manufactured home, but it all depends on who built that tiny home and under what code.”
Homes built off-site and brought onto a property, or manufactured homes, must meet HUD certification, added City Administrator TJ Grossi. Those homes are also required to meet city building codes upon the installation and hookup of utilities.
Even tiny homes and trailers built off-site then affixed to a permanent foundation are subject to inspection and certification by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, Grossi said.
As a result, permanently fixed tiny homes are required to meet city building and health codes for utility hookups, which creates another obstacle for supporters of the tiny-home movement.
“We were living in a little river house in downtown New Braunfels in 2012. Rent was $900 per month,” current Comal County tiny-home resident Candace Cutcher said.
By fall 2017, Cutcher’s rent had climbed to $1,400 a month, including yard maintenance, when she and her husband made the decision to sell almost all of their possessions and build a tiny home.
“We researched different builders and learned we could save a lot more if we built it ourselves,” she said. “We were able to completely build the house for under $35K.”
With their current, updated, tiny home appraising at $225 per square foot, Cutcher has been satisfied with the environmentally friendly lifestyle change that may not be for everyone. The couple’s home totals 364 square feet, including a pair of 80-square-foot lofts for sleeping.
The home includes a master bedroom, bathroom and full-size kitchen, and it utilizes water holding tanks for fresh and gray water, along with a composting toilet that must be emptied weekly.
A plug runs from the home to a standard 50-amp hook up, and the water tanks are refilled using a standard garden hose.
Cutcher’s total monthly bill for lot rental and utilities is $375.
“Financially it’s been great,” she said. “So much of our income was going toward housing, bills and maintaining our yard. This was the smartest move for us to live a freer lifestyle and utilize our income for different things.”
Cutcher envisions similar opportunities for other residents of Comal County and New Braunfels.
“It’s going to take some people investing in the movement,” she said. “We need someone to invest in land and be able to have legal tiny homes on it, which would be my dream. I would love to have a stretch of land on the river for tiny homes.”
In recent years tiny homes have become the most sought-after dwelling for local park model RV retailers such as Dan Schantz and Caleb McCardle from Titan Factory Direct off I-35 in New Braunfels.
“The popularity of them is crazy,” McCardle said. “We probably get 20 people a day that come by and look at them, and over the past few years people have asked where they can put them in New Braunfels.”
A trend that has grown in popularity and spawned multiple HGTV reality shows, “Tiny House Hunters” and “Tiny House, Big Living,” the types of clients and their desire for a tiny home can vary in the New Braunfels area, according to McCardle.
Attracted by high energy efficiency and low utility bills, clients range from people downsizing from a larger home to those looking for a guest house, rental property or primary residence.
“Park model RV sales are fueled by the tiny home world, and what Titan sells and what we build is a legal way to live tiny,” Schantz said.
Built following ANSI guidelines, Schantz and McCardle’s type of tiny home, the park RV model, uses similar materials to a traditional home like double-pane windows, residential switches and wiring and half-inch sheet rock.
“This area is absolutely booming,” said Schantz about the popularity of tiny homes.
“It’s really taken off,” added McCardle. “The yearly shipments are way up. We built 1,000 park model homes in the last year.”
Another commonality found among tiny homes is the electrical output, which typically utilizes 50- to 100-amp service for more energy efficiency overall, even when using full-sized appliances, said Tim Coverdell, owner of Tim’s Tiny Homes located off of I-10 West in Seguin.
“People put them in backyards as guest houses, or use them for Airbnb, and many people use them as a summer home,” Coverdell said.
Limited to less than 400 square feet, Coverdell’s tiny homes range in price from $30,000-$50,000 depending on each customer’s specifications.
With unlimited customization options available, Knebel was more than satisfied with the $70,000 she spent on her luxury tiny home and was ecstatic to move back to New Braunfels until the loss of an open lot combined with city ordinances and health and building codes left her with few options.
“I would have loved to find a lot and be able to fence in a yard for my dog or have a pool,” Knebel said. “Or I would have put it in my boyfriend’s yard and skirted it with rock, but the city wouldn’t let us because it has wheels.”
Adamant that her tiny home is not a mobile home, or a double or single-wide home, Knebel does not consider it an RV due to its main function as her primary living residence.
However, Knebel and other tiny home owners’ options remain few and far between, as current city ordinances interpret a tiny home on wheels to be a recreational vehicle, which are prohibited from occupying space in a residentially zoned area.
“This has been a haven and a home and if I was able to make it work I would, but I don’t want to live outside city limits and I don’t want to drive 20 minutes for tacos,” Knebel said. “It’s difficult, and the county and the city have not been friendly.”