Our big life in a tiny house!

A small house was Leah and Stuart's ticket to happiness!

Leah Stephens, 35, Yarra Valley, Vic

Dancing around our newly-built house, it had all the creature comforts. The bedroom, living area and kitchen could be air-conditioned. The bathroom had a toilet and shower, with great water temperature and pressure. There was even a place for guests to stay. But this wasn’t a newly-renovated house in the heart of the city. Instead, it was our six-metre by 2.5-metre tiny home in the bush!

It’s worlds away from where my partner Stuart, now 31, and I were 18 months ago. Back then, we lived in a share house in Melbourne with two others. Although fun, the common areas could feel crowded and I often took myself off to the bedroom for some peace and quiet. Stuart and I were both working full-time in the education industry to afford our rent and bills. And instead of unwinding among nature in our spare time as we wanted, we found ourselves spending money on dinners and drinks.

It was great but it’s not who we truly are.

One day, Stuart made a suggestion. ‘Let’s build our own little place,’ he said. And he wasn’t joking! Stuart told me about the tiny house movement that had taken off in the US, where people were trading in their clutter and over-sized abodes for a compact life. It was also becoming popular here. A small portable home could be built on a trailer and parked on a property anywhere in the country. Having grown up in a rural area, I liked the idea of getting back to basics. It also meant we would have minimal impact on the environment. To some, living in such close quarters might seem daunting. But we’d have everything we needed and there’d be bushland right outside if we felt like some space. ‘Let’s do it,’ I agreed.

First, Stuart bought building plans from an American woman with her own tiny house. It looked fantastic! Through French doors there’d be a lounge area with a bookshelf. That would follow through into a kitchen with bench space on each side and next to that was the bathroom. Above was a loft area for our bedroom.

Once Stuart adjusted the measurements to meet Australian standards, he did a building workshop with a man named Rob Scott, who specialised in the field. We bought a trailer and sourced recycled materials for the construction. In January 2015, we fired up our power tools and got started. For 12 months we spent our weekends and holidays constructing our downsized dwelling. Friends and family helped when they could too. As it came together the 4.2-metre tall house looked bigger than I imagined. But there was a problem – where to put all our stuff?

We were stunned by how much we’d accumulated over the years and there was no way it’d fit in our tiny home. There was only a small storage nook under the stairs! So we started culling, donating clothes and kitchen items to charity. For sentimental items, like artworks, journals and letters, I took photos of them so the memory could be stored digitally instead of in boxes. After de-cluttering, we adopted a ‘something in, something out’ rule so we’d never feel suffocated by stuff.

When our little abode was finished, we installed solar power panels and our stove and hot water would be heated by gas. Eventually we’d plant vegies and get some chooks to cut our grocery bill. ‘I can’t wait to move in!’ I beamed to Stuart. Not everyone can say they built their own home for $40,000!

We’ve parked our small but special place on a property in the Yarra Valley, and we plan to get a little plot of our own one day. Settling in, we were amazed by how spacious it felt. Stuart and I had plenty of room to move around and the windows and skylight made us feel like we were part of the great outdoors. In fact, we had much more space and privacy than we did in our old share house!

Living in close quarters has improved our relationship. There’s nowhere to run if we have any issues so we have to be completely honest and upfront. It’s also given us more financial freedom. With no mortgage and very few outgoing costs, we can work less and focus on our passions, like volunteering for animal welfare groups. I’d encourage everyone to look into building a tiny house. We’ve proved that good things really do come in small packages!

This story first appeared in that’s life! Issue 12, cover date 24th March 2016.

Related stories