Friday, July 21, 2017

Budget-friendly, Eco-friendly Living Advice for Millennials

I was just reading an exchange about tiny homes.

The logic behind a tiny home has to do with:  the desire to own a home by young people who may not be able to afford a conventional home; the desire to live with less stuff; the idea that a tiny home equates to a "greener" lifestyle (which I don't, necessarily, agree with).

I won't disagree that having less stuff is a better option, but sometimes the "stuff" serves an incredibly valuable purpose and allows an individual to be a bit more self-sufficient.  For instance, my canning supplies take up a lot of room, as do my canned foods.  In a tiny home, there wouldn't be anywhere to store all of that canning apparatus.  Indeed, there wouldn't be anywhere to store all of the food, even I, with my tiny yard, grow and preserve for winter.

So, living in a tiny house does not, necessarily, mean one is greener, as there's not a lot that's much greener than growing one's own food (except maybe foraging one's food).

This isn't a criticism of tiny homes.  Personally, I love them for their aesthetic and for their efficient use of space.  I really love all of the incredibly creative storage options (except for those tiny-house dwellers who just stuff their belongings in a separate storage shed, which seems to negate the whole tiny-house ideology of living with less), and I think, in homes that are more traditional sized, if we had better storage options, we wouldn't need garages (which most people use for storing stuff other than their cars), storage sheds, basements and attics.

Here at Chez Brown, we don't have storage (no basement, no garage, no accessible attic storage space, and no out buildings), and we only have two closets.  So, we use a lot of creative storage ideas, like shelves above the windows and bureaus for kitchen storage.  I was just gifted a buffet for my dining room. It's the perfect addition to the space, and even though we added a piece of furniture, it makes the space feel bigger.  The added bonus is that I was able to almost completely empty one of the cabinets in my kitchen by putting some things in the buffet, AND I was able to fit all of our extra dishes* in the buffet, which gave me some room for extra sheets and blankets that were in a clutter-pile in the office.

*A note about the "extra dishes":  in talking about green living, one point is to make our lives as non-disposable as possible, which means no paper products.  Here at Chez Brown we never buy paper towels or napkins.  I have cloth for both.  We also don't purchase paper plates - even for parties.  In fact, when my oldest child and only boy (henceforth known as Mocob) decided to get married in Maine and entrusted me with the details of the wedding and reception, I purposely purchased plates at the thrift store rather than getting paper.  Extra dishes isn't something someone in a tiny house could even consider, but reusable dishes are much greener than disposable ones.

The thing is, building something new, even if much of what is used to build it are reclaimed or recycled materials, is never as eco-friendly as the home that's already standing - unless that home is in irreparable condition, that is.   In which case, carefully deconstructing the structure so as to save as much of it as possible, and then, reusing those materials and new, energy efficient materials to build a new structure on the same footprint as the old structure might be more eco-friendly.

That's not what this is about though.  This commentary is about exploring options for young people who are looking into home ownership, but wish to be thrifty and eco-friendly, and I submit that the best way to accomplish both is not to build a new, tiny home, but rather to co-habitate - preferably in an older suburban neighborhood that is somewhat walkable, or at least has easy access to employment and other amenities.  My current neighborhood, while not really walkable for several months each year (because of snow, and the fact that there aren't sidewalks and the traffic on the road moves pretty fast), it is accessible.  I'm six miles from the grocery store, two miles from the train station that can take us as far north as Brunswick and as far south as Boston, and a half mile from a biking/walking path that can take us from Kittery to Portland.

The suburb where I lived when I was in junior high is similarly situated, within an easy commute of many amenities, including a military base (about a half hour drive) and a community college.  

The house is over 1700 sq. ft, and the lay-out (an L-shaped configuration), could easily be split into three, small housing units.

The small end of the L could be tiny apartment #1, which would be in the former den (with an attached laundry room) and the huge, eat-in kitchen.  The den (with a fire place) would be the main living space and have a pullout couch, daybed, or futon.  The laundry room would be converted into a bathroom.  It would take minimum work to make it into a livable space for one or two people.    

Apartment # 2 would consist of the former living room and the dining room.  The dining room would be converted into a small bathroom and kitchenette.  The living room would have a daybed or pull-out couch ... or for the very handy, there's a great wall space against which one could construct a Murphy bed.  

Apartment #3 would be in the section of the house where the three bedrooms make up the large part of the L.  It would be the largest of the three apartments, and could even be a one-bedroom.  The walls between the two smaller bedrooms and the hall bath would be removed to allow for a large open-concept living room kitchen area.  The master bedroom could remain intact as is, with the bath off the bedroom and the huge closet spaces.

So, how is this better, you ask, than just building tiny houses?  Well, three friends could form a company to purchase this house.  The Zillow value is $136,229, and the estimated mortgage is $504/month.  Imagine that?  Split three ways, the mortgage is less than $200 per person, which is significantly less expensive than rent, not matter where one is renting.

And the living space, even chopped up the way I described, would be twice what one would have in a tiny home, even for the smallest of the spaces.

Further, the house is on a quarter acre lot, which would allow for gardening or some animal husbandry (my family had pet rabbits that lived outside when I lived there).

There's also a carport, which could be converted into living space or storage, or it could be an awesome outdoor living space for all three units to share.  There is also a storage unit onsite at the back end of the carport.  This storage space could be encompassed into Apartment #1's bathroom ... or it could house a washer/dryer that all three units could share.  One washer and dryer shared by all three units is pretty eco-friendly.

For people who don't want big houses and want to be more eco-friendly, purchasing an existing structure with a group of friends and turning it into a co-housing situation with individual living spaces is a much better option than trying to build something brand new.

It's also a lot cheaper, depending on the cost of housing where one lives.

And with the quarter acre, there are a lot of awesome opportunities for the frugal/green-minded to thrive.

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As an aside, I ended up in a conversation yesterday, with a woman who wanted to argue semantics rather than points.  We were saying the same things (ish), but she wanted to nitpick my word choices rather than my point.  Whatever.  I'm sure I've done the same to other people.  Karma's a bitch.

But ...

The conversation starter was a budget that was developed by a company in an attempt to justify their low-wage jobs.  One of the items on the list was a rent payment of $600.  The people who were railing against this budget stated that there's no where that one can find a rent payment that low.

I submit that they are wrong - well, maybe not about the rent payment, but I did find a house one could purchase with a mortgage that was less than the budgeted amount.  It's a nice house, too - three bedrooms, two FULL baths, a den, a formal dining room and living room, an eat-in, recently remodeled kitchen, hardwood floors, and a deck into a fenced yard.

While I really bristle at the motivation behind the budget plan and the notion that an employer has either the right or responsibility to tell employees how to spend their money, I do believe that the budget is not entirely inaccurate.  With careful and conscientious choices, one can live on a lot less money than we are told we need to be both comfortable and happy.

In Alabama, one can find a suburban 1700 square foot, three bedroom, two bath house for less than $600/month, and if one has roommates, or one is willing to split the house into separate housing units, one could live quite comfortably on a minimum wage income, which is fortunate, because from looking at the Google map views, it appears that the area has been built up considerably since I lived there, and many service-industry jobs appear to be within the radius of my ramblings as a child - i.e. within walking or biking distance.

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