Why Cost Per Square Foot Is A Bad Metric For Tiny Houses

Cost per square foot (s.f.) is a metric used by developers to more and to sell bigger, as the size goes up cost per s.f. goes down.  In that way a huge house may actually look like a better deal.  We seem to label that s.f. cost as the most important metric when shopping for a home.  I’d like to break down why it isn’t.

I am going to give hypotheticals here:

Houses have an overall cost per s.f. but if you break it down further each room does too.  I’m going to remove land costs because that can throw the whole thing off andd it’s not usually a factor in a tiny house anyway.  Let’s just start here, kitchens and baths have a lot to them, millwork, fixtures, plumbing, etc. they tend to be more costly than bare walls.  Let’s ‘hypothetically’ say:

  • Kitchen Costs – $250/s.f.
  • Bathroom Costs – $150/s.f.
  • Living Room Costs – $80/s.f.
  • Bedroom Costs – $80/s.f.
  • Hallway – $50/s.f.

In both of these cases I will not include land costs.

Lets say, in a standard three bedroom, two bathroom ‘small’ house you have about 10’x10′ kitchen (100 s.f. = $25,000), two 5’x10′ bathrooms (100 s.f. = $15,000), two ‘living rooms’ @15’x15′ (450 s.f. =$36,000) and three 10’x10′ bedrooms (300 s.f. = $24,000).  Maybe you have a hallway connecting rooms, say about 50′ of hall (50′ = $2,500).  Total cost of your 3 bedroom, two bath simple 1,000 s.f. house is sitting around $102,500.  In this case the standard house comes in right about $102.50/s.f.

Now lets look at a tiny house.  Most tiny houses are pretty close to half kitchen/bath half living/bed (say in the case of a loft style).  So, same square foot costs applied to a 200 s.f. tiny house lets say… 100 s.f. living area (100 s.f. = $8,000), the bedroom actually occupies the same area so you get to save a bit, let’s say its half the cost at $40/s.f. (you still have taller walls and windows to add in but save on the roof/floor/etc.) so (100 s.f. = $4,000). Then you have 60 s.f. for the kitchen, because the kitchens in tiny houses are usually a tad larger than the bathrooms (60 s.f. = $15,000) and 40 s.f. for a bathroom (40 s.f. – $6,000).  In theory the trailer would be included in all that cost just like the foundation would be included in the cost of the standard house.  That brings out tiny house cost to $33,000.  So the tiny house comes out to $165/s.f. using the same metrics.

That is saying apples to apples comparison of costs of rooms.  In reality tiny house folks generally up their finishes a little since it’s such a small amount of material needed, I think it would be more realistic to say tiny house kitchen finishes put that room into a higher range, maybe $300-350/s.f., similar in the bathrooms.  Because you are using space for multi purposes you’re able to decrease the cost overall in some areas.

A couple other points, often appliances in tiny homes are less common and therefore can be more costly than standard fixtures bringing that base cost up even more per s.f.  Additionally, in standard housing, when you add space to the house it is rarely in the form of extra ‘expensive rooms’, it’s more likely in the form of bigger living areas, more bedrooms, etc.  Adding more space in that way will actually decrease the overall square footage while potentially adding significant cost to the home. A graph of what this might look like is this:


This is why it is hard to make tiny houses ‘pencil out’ on a sheet of paper compared apples to apples next to more standard housing.  Many people get into tiny houses because of financial reasons only to find out ‘financially they don’t make sense’.  Only they do.  It’s just a different way to do the math…

In this example a tiny house is still performing the exact same functions at 1/3 the total cost.  $33,000 is easier to come up with and pay back than $100,000.  If time=money than you’ll need three times as many hours of your life to earn enough to pay for a standard small house and thats not including the increase in monthly utilities!

To me, it makes more sense to have everything I need, live tiny and use those hours for things that are more fun than paying for housing!  Because there IS more to life than finances.

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About Macy Miller

Macy Miller is a Rocky Mountain native and the creator of MiniMotives.com. As a LEED accredited architectural designer she is a passionate promoter of good design, healthy living, and the tiny lifestyle. In 2011 she started construction on her 196 s.f. tiny house where she has been living with her partner, James, daughter, Hazel, and dog, Denver since June 2013. She and her home have been featured on Yahoo News, Time Magazine, Dwell Magazine, NPR, HGTV’s Extreme Homes and many others!

3 thoughts on “Why Cost Per Square Foot Is A Bad Metric For Tiny Houses

  1. Zack

    We did a great amount of research on this matter. It’s not only the furnishings but materials in general. You can see our studies here. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1jdkfVREP24-kOf4gdbQkjXY7TlKRpTQL9lc_F0pL9fM/edit?usp=sharing

    We also wrote a bit about how tiny houses actually get smaller price tags. Here is a link to that. http://www.projectwosho.com/#!Financial-Freedom-Does-Not-Come-From-a-Small-Square-Footage/csav/55df94360cf2c1d1fd6287a0

  2. JanneZack

    I’m so glad you have pointed this out! I am a home designer (regular houses from tiny through HUGE Mc Mansions). I keep telling folks that once you go tiny, it has nothing really to do with the square footage, but rather the cubic inches that matter. Every inch needs to be accounted for. Great job! I enjoy your posts!

  3. Scott Sorgent

    I guess, my main question or issue with the kitchen cost would be…What if I can build a 100 sq. ft. kitchen with a $2,000 IKEA cabinet, island and counter package, $300 for the laminate and putty, $300 for the tile and putty on the wall, $200 in paint, $800 for a full refrig/freezer, $1,000 for a gas stove, and the total for this is only $4,600 which is not $25,000 and I’m not counting the wood, trailer, ceiling, truss and roof, so what percentage of the cost would be for the structure in comparison to the costs of the main kitchen parts?

    Also, have I just pointed out that if I do it myself without the extra cost of labor, the true cost is not going to be $102.50 sq. ft. but a lot less?


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