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The Tiny House Lover's Guide to Romance

Living and loving in a super small space requires ... unique compromises. 

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Bil Malbon

Last month, the launch of Tiny House Dating, a website focused on uniting tiny house enthusiasts, got so much attention its servers quickly crashed. Of course we already knew about the growing tiny house movement (in April, the first-ever “Tiny House Conference” held sold-out panels and workshops on how to go about building the minimalist dwellings), but suddenly, there was a new data point: a not insignificant number of people are currently looking for love while living (or at least, hoping to live) in a tiny, tiny home.

Imagine what that might mean when it's time to bring a date back to your place for the first time. Or even worse, moving in together. Will you remain devoted to your extra-small space when you decide to get a dog? Have kids? And so on.

So we set out to talk to a wide range of people for whom tiny house living is either a dream-in-progress or already a reality. Turns out, dating and cohabitating and raising a family in 120 to 400 square-foot spaces can be done. It just comes with a unique set of challenges and best-practices at each milestone.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS 

To start with the obvious, tiny house living is a serious commitment that includes lots of sacrifices—or “positive adjustments,” depending on your point of view. A successful tiny house relationship starts, like any healthy partnership, with being honest.

Tip #1: Bring it up right away.

If your tiny house aspirations exceed carefully curated Pinterest boards or a hobby project, a potential partner needs to be prepared.

The tiny house dwellers interviewed for this article generally agree that people's response to the tiny house lifestyle is an excellent filter—your dates either “get” you or they don’t. That’s why they say it’s important to bring it up in the very first conversation, and to expect mixed reactions.

Nicole S., a single woman from North Carolina, plans to start building her tiny house next year. She says she’s usually too excited about her project to not mention it to her dates right away. Their reactions? She recalls one man being freaked out by the idea and others who just think, “oh, that’s a cute dream.”

A look at Boneyard Studios in Washington, D.C.Austin's house is in the center. (Jenny Xie)  

Jay Austin, who's part of a small tiny house community in Washington, D.C., called Boneyard Studios, says he never takes girls back to his place without warning them that it’s a tiny house.

He finds that there’s understandable skepticism at first, but the fact that tiny houses have been featured in publications like Dwell definitely gives them some extra credibility.

Interior views of Austin's house. (Screenshots via Youtube

“There’s something to be said about [how] building one’s own house, for lack of a better term, [is] a turn-on,” he says. “Many men are not wonderful designers, and I think I’ve done okay in designing [my house] ... so that serves me well, I guess.”

Matthew Campbell, a Wyoming designer who lives in a tiny house garnished with Christmas lights and one-of-a-kind floor clocks, has found similar luck. He estimates that four out of five women he takes home like what they find.

Looking towards the loft in Campbell's tiny house. (Courtesy of Matthew Campbell)  

Still, even though the women usually “dig” it, they end up telling him, “It’s cool, but I don’t think I can live in this,” or, “It’s cool, but I think I need a bigger space.”

To them, he can only say, “Well, you know, different strokes for different folks.”

Tip #2: Consider dating exclusively within the tiny house community.

Of course, to automatically filter out people turned off by the tiny house mentality, there is now Tiny House Dating. Last month, the niche dating website successfully raised $2500 on Indiegogo to rebuild, after media coverage promptly crashed the servers. (As of publication time, the Rostcheck's team is racing to bring the website back online.) 

A screenshot of the Tiny House Dating website before it was taken offline. 

Founder Kai Rostcheck says the site had 600 to 700 members before he took it down for the redesign. An early analysis of the demographics reveal a 40/60 male to female ratio, with most people in the mid-30s range. Members are mostly from the U.S., but there’s also representation from United Arab Emirates, Croatia, Turkey, United Kingdom, Chile, Brazil, and Ireland.

The site was never intended to capture exclusively people who already live in a tiny house, says Rostcheck, but also those who have related interests in sustainability or being outdoorsy. The idea is to allow networking based on values—to meet a cool friend, if not a life partner. Both Nicole S. and Matthew Campbell have made connections on it already.  

GETTING SERIOUS

Making room for another person in a tiny house means really making room, not just scooting over on the bed.

Tip #3: You're going to need to talk about your stuff. 

It starts with going through all of your belongings and simplifying even more, asking, do I really need this, do I need that?

Campbell, who once had a girlfriend move-in with a U-Haul trailer, says you have to both de-clutter when the person settles in and de-clutter regularly afterwards.

According to Lina Menard, a builder plugged into the tiny house community in Portland, Oregon, getting rid of belongings to make room for another person can get thorny fast, especially since storage spaces in a tiny house are often designed to be just right.

That’s even more the case when one person is less of a minimalist. For one couple she’s familiar with, one person got rid of a few things, while the other had to part with a lot.

“There’s tension around who’s getting rid of stuff, who’s getting rid of whose stuff, and how much stuff, and what stuff,” she says.  

Tip #4: You may need to renovate. 

When the existing tiny house really isn’t sufficient to handle a second person, some customization work may be in order. To make room for a previous girlfriend, Campbell had to expand his loft bed so it could fit two people. He also made additional organizing units for her stuff.

Lee Pera, who has a house at Boneyard Studios in D.C., had been dating someone while building her own tiny house. In the process, she made design changes to better fit her 6-foot-4 partner—for example, a slightly longer loft so his feet wouldn't be hanging off, and more head-space so he could fit in the kitchen underneath.

An interior view of Pera's house during construction. (Courtesy of Lee Pera) 

The customization part can get just a tad awkward though when the couple breaks up and features built especially for one person are left behind.

“It’s not quite as bad as getting a tattoo of your boyfriend’s name,” says Pera. Lucky for her, her current partner is also very tall.

Tip #5: Consider thinking through what might happen after a break-up in advance.

Breaking up under any circumstances is hard, but breaking up after sharing a tiny house can be even harder. And breaking up after sharing a tiny house with the person who helped you build the house could be the most excruciating scenario of all.

Pera’s 6-foot-4 ex-partner was a designer and builder who initially helped her plan out and build the tiny house. In the process, he became a critical source of emotional support, reassuring her that feeling overwhelmed or wanting to give up was common during the build process.

So when they broke up before the house was quite done, for a while it was difficult for Pera to work on the house without him.

“I don't think I had fully realized the different level of intimacy that working on the house together had created—something I hadn't experienced before since I'd never worked on such a consuming and creative project with an ex in the past,” she writes in an email.

There was also another problem: how can you create distance but still allow him to stay involved with a project he put so much time and energy into?

Pera wanted her ex to be able to use the tiny house as a professional project, not just something he was doing because they happened to be dating. They eventually worked out a way to have a strictly professional partnership, in which he’d continue contributing to the design of the house as well as tiny house workshops. 

THE LONG HAUL

On a happier note, if everything works out and a wedding is on the horizon, you should know that a tiny house wedding chapel will soon be an option.

Tip #6: For the love of god, play up your tiny house passions at your wedding. 

Bil Malbon, a retired minister from Virginia, has performed plenty of small weddings. More recently, he’s decided to go tiny. Malbon recently completed a tiny house design workshop and just last month started building a mobile tiny house wedding chapel.

He wants to offer a non-denominational yet still sacred space for people already used to downsizing every other part of their life.

The chapel would fit about 20 to 25 people and would include a small bathroom for when the bride "needs a moment." Anyone not part of the core group of close family and the bridal party would be able to stream the nuptials online.

“This is a technological society ... people don’t mind coming to your wedding online,” Malbon says. “It’s much more economical to do it that way, since you’re not renting out a big space for your wedding and then a big space for the reception.” A wedding chapel on wheels also means there’s always the possibility of pulling it to the shore for a beach party.

 Chapel construction in-progress. (Courtesy of Bil Malbon) 

Malbon hopes to finish building by mid-summer so he can do some end-of-season weddings between August and October in the Washington, D.C., metro area. A standard package, with a ceremony lasting between 45 minutes to an hour, will start at $150.

Once you settle with a partner in a tiny house, whether in marriage or a serious long-term relationship, it becomes a constant test for how much you can really stand each other.

Some things are easier in a tiny house—for example, cleaning the whole house takes 15 minutes (less to fight over!) and physical affection becomes more effortless (just try fitting in the kitchen at the same time).

Almost everything else, though, is a delicate dance.

Tip #7: Let go of any previously held notions of privacy.

Not that you’d want to be secretive with any partner, but living together in a tiny house means there's virtually nowhere to hide. 

The Odoms. Courtesy of Andrew Odom) 

Andrew Odom, founder of the blog Tiny Revolution, lives in a 240 square-foot space with his wife and daughter in North Carolina. He explains:

If you get up at 1 in the morning and want a bowl of cereal, your spouse will find out about it. You cannot just run through another room and have a bowl of cereal and get away with it. That’s a very serious thing, because it bleeds off into every other category—you can’t do this without them seeing, you can’t do that without them seeing.

So everything’s in your face. That means the little things that might normally be a minor bother to you could feel like a much bigger deal. A husband who loves cooking curry? A wife who snores like thunder? Dishes in the sink? God forbid, just stuff lying around? It might not take much to feel like a bomb has gone off.

Once these annoyances show up in a tiny house, there’s no room for passive-aggressiveness.

“You can't get away unless you leave the house, so if you cannot communicate your feelings of concern or tell your partner what the problem is, then it’s just going to get worse and worse,” writes Campbell in an email.

For Odom,  this means coming home after a day of work outside and getting told to go take a shower immediately.

Of course, the upside of all this is that you could have a very open and honest relationship, in which huge fights erupting from pent-up resentment might even be more easily avoided. The worst scenario at all times, it seems, is running out the door.

Tip #8: Perhaps you'd prefer two tiny houses.

If you can’t handle being so close all the time to another human being (whom you love very much), all hope for a stable tiny house relationship is not lost.

On the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, Jenn Kliese and her partner Kim are finishing up a set of “Hers & Hers” tiny houses, each measuring 140 square-feet. Before building their matching tiny houses, the couple, who’d been living together in a rental apartment for years, moved into a partially finished, one-room barn for very little rent. The idea was to save up money to build a tiny house, as well as experiment with how many conveniences they could give up and how much closeness they could actually tolerate.

Kliese and her partner's tiny houses, soon to stand side-by-side. (via Instagram)

And as it turns out, as much as they love spending time together, they really need their own spaces and a bit of autonomy.

According to Kliese, she’s a giant introvert, while her partner is an extrovert. “If I were an extrovert, we probably would be fine living in one room together,” she says.

Kliese jokes that once they finish the second tiny house this summer, it’ll be so much easier to send her partner packing when she needs some quiet alone time.

RAISING A FAMILY

Believe it or not, it is possible to raise a family in a tiny house. In 2011, the Odoms designed the 240 square-foot home they would later build without knowing a baby was on the way. Now, their daughter Tilly is two-and-a-half years old, and the Odoms have found that some of their initial worries about raising a tiny house baby aren't as bad as they'd feared.

Tip #9: Decide how important those precious “child-free” moments really are to you.

Before their daughter arrived, the Odoms wondered where they'd be able to escape to get a “child-free” moment. But after Tilly came, they didn’t feel all that great of a desire to be away from the baby.

“To tell you the truth, you don’t want to be away from them as much as you think you would before you have them,” Andrew Odom says. He’s found it to be more of the opposite, where you really want to share everything you’re doing with the child.

“It’s really about the parent who has to change their perspective,” he says. “My perspective has changed to: why did I have a child if all I’m going to do is tell them ‘later’ or push them away?”

Tip #10: Get creative about sex. 

Another initial concern was a very practical one: how can a couple with children find intimacy without their own bedroom?

In this photo, you can see what the Odoms have to work with.

Interior view of the Odoms' home. (via Google+

According to Andrew Odom, for the whole first year and a half, the baby just “ate, slept, pooped” and that was it—so there was time and there was space. “It’s not like she is right on top of us or in the bed with us or something like that,” he tells me.

Inevitably, as the child grows older, parents have to find other ways. Odom, though, hasn’t found it too difficult. “Nothing in the rulebooks says that intimacy has to occur on a double-sized mattress in a bed, with box springs and a frame,” he says. “Pretty much wherever two human beings are gathered, it is completely possible.”

But don’t go too crazy, because...

Tip #11: Don't forget your kids will get bigger. 

Raising a kid in a tiny house means there are no spare bedrooms to fill—only tough decisions to make.  

The Odoms’ house has proven sufficient so far, but as Tilly gets bigger, they’ve begun putting more thought into what comes next for the house. Should they expand it? Build a different, slightly larger tiny house fit for a family of three? Is “three” even the maximum?

Last year, the Odoms hatched plans to add another 240 square-foot tiny house trailer to their existing tiny house. But they recently scrapped the idea for financial and structural reasons, and also the fact that the “annex” would completely compromise their mobility. More space to move or the ability to move your home? That’s a #tinyhouseproblem.

The Odoms' house in-transit (via Youtube
Tip #12: There will need to be some indoctrination involved. 

In order to have peace in a tiny house family, the kids will have to walk the (tiny) talk, too. 

When Tilly whines about wanting something, just like any child her age might, the Odoms take the opportunity to reinforce why they value living a simple life.

“We simply tell her, ‘Mommy and Daddy don’t have the money for that, we can’t purchase that, we don’t need that, we don’t have space for that,” Odom says. It also helps that they don’t own a TV, so she’s not inundated with all the things that could be filling up her house.

As for play time, the Odoms are lucky to to be parked on family land—they’re right next-door to siblings and in-laws. That means Tilly can hang out with tons of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. Family friends also occasionally bring children over to play, with much of it happening outdoors.

But as a far as sending kids down to the basement on a rainy-day play-date, there will be none of that. 

All told, tiny house romance resembles a 24/7, all-consuming relationship bootcamp. Yet the rewards are clear. As Bil Malbon, the tiny chapel minister, puts it, “You learn to live with somebody, not around somebody.” And If you’ve managed to find the right person, that should sound pretty fantastic.

 

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