This was our first time hiring a contractor for a build. We have done this kind of thing exactly once. We are not experts from this experience and there are tons that we don’t know. Also, I’m sure this kind of thing varies case-by-case, and contract laws are different from state-to-state.

We took a big risk in hiring a new company that had only completed one unfinished “model” tiny home. We had hoped that they would take this opportunity to shine, especially since future prospective clients would be interested to hear about our experience. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t describe the experience as shining. The builder probably learned a great deal from our house build as well since experience is gained with every home a company constructs.

What could we have done differently?

Firstly, after seeing a number of tiny homes we’ve noticed a big difference between homes built by people who have actually lived in tiny homes and those that haven’t. Designing a small space can be very tricky. Every inch counts. We also had an idea in our minds of how we wanted our tiny home to look and feel: smooth, sleek, finished. The end product turned out to be closer to “modern-rustic”. There can be a disconnect when trying to get an image of what you want through to a contract company. It would have been helpful to see more finished work, and to have conversations with previous clients to get a sense of how they work through the entire process. We would have preferred more communication through the build process and about the finalized decisions that were made.

Here’s an example of how our experience felt:

Tiny House Cartoon

Those building their own tiny homes would have better knowledge of their own particular preferences. Since it’s more difficult to hire someone to create a vision, it would be greatly beneficial to be present as much as possible during construction. The earlier the better to catch differences, or be able to negotiate things that might not be working. We also learned from someone knowledgeable in construction processes about something called “walk-away money”. They suggested negotiating a smaller up-front initial payment to begin construction, and if it’s not going well you can cut ties without losing too much.

I sought legal council after our build to try to understand what we could have done differently that may have resulted in a more positive outcome. This was when I got a better understanding on how important the contract is. Following a contract is very important because this is the document that will be referred to time and time again, and afterwards if things aren’t satisfactory. This is one of the most important documents of the build process.

The attorney I spoke with told me that typical build contracts are typically 10-15 pages long. Our contract was one page. Granted, for a tiny home they could be shorter, but in our case it would have been helpful for more contingency plans to have been included. More “what-ifs” covered. What happens if the “anticipated delivery date” goes on longer than 6-weeks? It would have been helpful to have something documented to protect both our and the builder’s interests. It may be impossible to predict and prevent every possible outcome, but the more specifics that are in the contract the better. Cabinets in the contract? Okay, so what condition? Hand-built? Pre-built? Varnished? …it is because of these details that if I could go back and do things differently I would have hired a professional who deals with real estate and contracts to oversee the paperwork. Having an experienced third-party review the contract would have been invaluable.

I also hadn’t realized how fluid contracts are. I thought since we had a couple of things added that we were doing good. But they’re much more open than that. Both parties should be in agreement to the contract and things shouldn’t continue if the contract is breached. In Oregon contracts can be re-negotiated again and again as long as both parties agree. Once the contract is breached and deviations are accepted, it would be harder to go back and specify what exactly went wrong. Once things start straying from the contract you have a situation which is much harder to defend.

One really great thing we did was once the house was finally delivered (unfinished), we wrote up a list of the things that were unfinished. We then signed it and added a reasonable date for completion of those items. It took a while, but by the middle of December we gave notice to our contractors that they’d completed the contractual obligations.

We love living in a tiny home and learning about the tiny home movement. In a lot of ways I wish we could go back and change things, but we are grateful for the opportunity to maybe help someone else from our experience. Like most things in life, we view this journey as an adventure. And on a global scale we’re extremely lucky to have what we have. Keeping things in perspective has been a big part of this process for me.

We got through some tough times first and foremost by having the support of our friends. Back in October, we were essentially “homeless” and couch surfing for a full month. Also, when our build experience started going south, this was when friends, family, and co-workers shared their horror stories. We commiserated by watching the slapstick 1986 comedy called “The Money Pit”, and an episode of Seinfeld called “The Nap”.

So to summarize the things we would have done differently:

  • Thoroughly researched the builder – talked to previous clients, seen finished work
  • Been more present at the build site – communication, communication, communication
  • Considered a “walk-away” option
  • Specified more on the contract, contingencies, and no deviations/breaches
  • Specified more about the finished details during the design phase
  • Had an experienced third-party oversee contract