Big dreams: If tiny houses are the next big thing, why are there none in Charlottesville?

This 400-square-foot tiny house, behind the home of local contractor (and Alloy Workshop co-owner) Zach Snider and his wife, Aly, serves as guest quarters and an Airbnb rental. “People love it,” Aly says. “I think the most common comment is, ‘It is small but it doesn’t feel small.’” Photo: Zach Snider This 400-square-foot tiny house, behind the home of local contractor (and Alloy Workshop co-owner) Zach Snider and his wife, Aly, serves as guest quarters and an Airbnb rental. “People love it,” Aly says. “I think the most common comment is, ‘It is small but it doesn’t feel small.’” Photo: Zach Snider

Sometimes it takes actually setting foot in a tiny house to know just how tiny tiny houses are. Perhaps that’s why several local housing experts are skeptical of the movement that has a subset of home buyers seeking to cut their living space tenfold.

“This idea that I’m going to downsize my life is one of the coolest parts of it,” says renovation firm 6th and Dice director Oliver Platts-Mills, who recently attended the Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado. “It’s extreme and a great way to save money, but I don’t know if there are tons of people taking it to that level.”

Check out a few of the tiny house blogs, suggests Platts-Mills. Homeowners start with laudable dreams—moving from 3,000 square feet to 300 or less—but most of them end with a qualified sign off: “Our dream of living in a tiny house is on hold due to X or Y or Z.”

If Internet forums are any indication, Charlottesville has its share of such dreamers. And although there are some stumbling blocks to making the dream a reality, local zoning official Read Broadhead says moving into a bona fide miniature mansion even in this population-dense area is possible.

“We treat tiny houses exactly the same as we treat single family homes,” he says. “What some people have issues with is land is expensive, and they would need to have the same size building parcel as a single family house.”

But different zoning districts have different lot sizes, he notes, and the city allows exterior accessory apartments, so tiny house-lovers could plant their adorable abodes behind an existing home. The only stricture is that the structures, typically built on wheels, would have to be secured to a foundation and have water, sewer and electric hookups.

Could multiple parties wanting to build tiny homes just go in on a parcel together? Not in R1 or R2 zoning districts, where the footprint of an accessory residence can be no more than 40 percent of the size of the primary residence, Broadhead says. Planned unit developments (PUDs) might also be a possibility, though finding the requisite two acres in the city is tough. Infill areas allow PUDs of fewer than two acres, and R3 zoning districts might be a possibility, with up to 21 dwelling units per acre allowed. But that sort of condo-style living doesn’t seem to be what most tiny home dreamers are looking for.

One of those dreamers is James Schnitzhofer, an engineer who operates Schnitzhofer & Associates out of offices in Charlottesville and Staunton. Schnitzhofer is cagey about his own plans for a diminutive dwelling, but he’s active in the local tiny house community and says he thinks the units could be a great solution for young professionals who are financially savvy and socially aware.

“In the current climate of our country, buying a $300,000 house is doable, but your quality of life drops,” he says. “People are catching on to that, and they prefer to have their own house that has all the comforts of home and not be paying a mortgage for 20 or 30 years.”

Schnitzhofer says the city has to figure out how to accommodate those socially aware individuals, because they won’t want to be 30 minutes to an hour outside of the town where they work and socialize. And he believes the groundswell of support for tiny homes will eventually overcome the obstacles.

“It is a massive way-of-life change,” he says. “It is a drastic acceleration in the way the U.S. has been moving for a decade.”

Steve Canterbury, who has experience working on small and alternative dwellings through his firm, Canterbury Home Builders, is like Platts-Mills in that he’s skeptical of the HGTV tiny house ideal. But they’re not the only kind of tiny house that’s available. “There are a lot of categories—microcottages, mini cottages, tiny houses—and there are real fuzzy lines as far as size,” he says.

As far as the custom built pads you’re likely to see on television, Canterbury doesn’t “take that very seriously.”

“You don’t get a return for the investment,” he says. “If you are willing to live in 300 square feet and it has wheels, why would you spend $80,000 when you can go buy an RV?”

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