Instagram Makes Living In A Tiny House Look Easy. It’s Anything But.

"My husband and I have much less space. But we’ve adapted remarkably well to a lifestyle that isn’t for everyone."
Living part time at a marina means almost every day feels like a vacation.
Living part time at a marina means almost every day feels like a vacation.
Photo Courtesy of TJ Butler

My husband and I divide our time between a sailboat and a 200-square-foot tiny house. Mostly we hear comments like “livin’ the dream” and “I always wanted to do that” when the topic of our living arrangement comes up. While I’m inclined to agree most of the time, if it were easy, everyone would do it.

A year ago, I booked a long weekend in a 305-square-foot house in a community built by one of the big names in tiny house design. I loved the idea of a tiny writing retreat, and I wanted to write an article comparing the experience of small-scale perfection with that of my smaller living arrangements.

Also, the sheer vastness of over Three! Hundred! Square! Feet! promised to be a luxurious vacation in which I could really spread out. For days before the trip, I ogled the adorable photos. They were the pinnacle of tiny living, decorated in a way that makes everyone believe that they, too, can shed their worldly possessions, quit their jobs and somehow be free of the trappings of modern life.

As I clicked through the photos and compared 305 square feet to my own 200, I envisioned myself with my arms spread wide, twirling on a mountaintop in infinite space, belting out “The hills are alive…” I knew I’d be creative in that picture-perfect little house. I’d get tons of writing done. I’d have a glass (read: bottle) of wine in the evening and text late into the night with one of my closest e-friends, an editor from Tiny House Magazine.

I wasn’t always a tiny space person, but I’ve embraced it. Living with precisely what I need and not much more is far nicer than the tradeoff from my previous life: paying rent on an apartment filled with stuff I didn’t use but was terrified to part with.

My stuff was my identity. I had an entire living room wall of bookshelves. Had I read every book? Hardly, but I was definitely the kind of person defined by owning a fuck-ton of them. I coordinated the linens in every room with the seasons and bought single-use kitchen appliances; if there was space on the shelves, why not fill them with stuff?

I used to hear that downsizing was freeing. Before I did it, I just assumed those people didn’t have good stuff like mine. However, when the prospect of moving aboard a sailboat appeared in 2017, the universe flipped a switch. I downsized with the enthusiasm I’d had for shopping.

It's easy to make 200 square feet look Instagram-worthy, but day-to-day life can be messy.
It's easy to make 200 square feet look Instagram-worthy, but day-to-day life can be messy.
Photo Courtesy of TJ Butler

Soon my life fit onto a 36-foot sailboat. Gone was the expensive Kitchenaid stand mixer I’d used only three times but liked having in my kitchen. Gone were the 11 pairs of black flats, even though I still insist they were all different. Granted, I miss my bookshelves, especially these days, when every reader in Zoom literary readings is posed in front of their Bookshelf of Validation. Getting rid of enough stuff to live comfortably was no small feat, but living with less is part of my lifestyle now.

The landscaping outside of the tiny house I chose for my writing retreat was exquisitely manicured, in small scale. The bushes were trimmed into diminutive versions of themselves, lest they dwarf the miniature home I’d pulled up to. Even the stones in the gravel driveway were crushed smaller than other driveways.

The interior was beautifully staged in the hip way that makes tiny house Instagrammers appear to own nothing more than kitchen utensils hung just so on the wall, some throw pillows and a picture frame made from boutique winery corks.

It was everything I dreamed of, having been lured into an internet fantasy of what tiny living should be, if only you’re best friends with a designer.

Things started to unravel as I unloaded my car. I use the word unload lightly because I only had a laptop, an overnight bag and groceries. I piled my belongings on the couch and considered where to put my laptop. The only surface was a hightop cocktail table set for two with a guestbook, a plastic plant, a twee framed photo of the house’s exterior and two unusually formal dining settings.

I moved everything on the table to the kitchen counter. I arranged my laptop on the table and found that there was no place for my groceries in the kitchen. I scooted a stylish floor vase out of the way and moved everything back to the couch to deal with later. I could just move my stuff to the floor when it was wine o’clock.

I brought my toiletries into the bathroom, but there was less space in there. It was picture perfect with a tiny sink, corrugated tin walls and a sculpture made out of a tree branch over the mirror.

Should I put my toiletries directly on the toilet? On the kitchen counter? Just hold them and walk around analyzing the space again, which I actually did, by the way. I eventually settled on toiletries in the kitchen and looked toward my messy pile on the couch.

I surveyed the living room. Actually, I studied the whole place. Where was the spacious extra 100 square feet that my own home didn’t have? Why did this place feel so much smaller?

I left everything in a pile and eyed my laptop. Could I work at a table that small? There was room for a mug of coffee, but only if I put it directly behind my laptop. Forget a plate of snacks. The article crossed my mind, but the only thing I could think of was making sure not to mention the name of the builder when I wrote that there was more storage inside the refrigerator than on the kitchen counter. Things get around, and it’s a tiny world out there.

Dear Builder, Dear Instagrammer, where do you store your books and papers in your tiny homes on YouTube? Where do you put your deodorant? Do you keep your three pairs of socks in a vintage egg crate that doubles as a shelf for your reclaimed Mason jar that delicately holds one dried flower?

It was getting close to cocktail hour, so I poured a glass of wine. I picked up the guest book and read a sad entry from the couple who checked out that morning. “We’ve wanted a tiny house since 2018. This is our second experience. After staying here for two nights we’ve realized it isn’t for us.” My heart broke for them.

My husband and I have much less space. But we’ve adapted remarkably well to a lifestyle that isn’t for everyone.

So much of living tiny is about customizing the space. No matter how trendy or reclaimed chic the house is, it has to have storage. In my own tiny house, I have a wall of woven seagrass baskets that hold everything from clothing to linens, and three Ikea shelves I’ve hacked and DIY’d to within an inch of their lives.

In fact, every stick of furniture in my place does double duty as storage. Even my coffee table has folding legs, so when it’s not in use, I can store it under the couch. I mean, the loveseat. Who has room for an actual couch in a 10-by-20-foot space?

I was sad for the guestbook couple all over again. Did they also walk around with their toothbrushes in their hands and wonder if #vanlife was any better? How would they know they’d have to spend the equivalent of a car payment on matching baskets or bins?

I considered another potential pitfall to tiny living that the Instagrammers don’t mention and wondered about the guestbook couple: the new proximity to your partner. Couples sell everything, cram themselves into small spaces and begin to bicker. There’s the lack of privacy and the inability to decide whose hobby takes precedence ― his craft beer home brewery or her vintage spinning wheel.

Inevitably, one of them clips their toenails in a creepy manner or farts far more than the other realized. There’s nowhere private to get dressed if your partner is in the bathroom. The toilet is always in close proximity to the kitchen. I thought of the guestbook couple again, wondering which one was too loud in the bathroom and which one just wanted some privacy, goddammit.

When we travel, we try to spend as much time outside as we can.
When we travel, we try to spend as much time outside as we can.
Photo courtesy of TJ Butler

Proximity did the opposite for my husband and me. In a small space, you’re hyper-aware of how you both occupy the area. We became more courteous to each other.

My husband likes to burn the midnight oil, and I often have early morning hours opening our business. We’ve learned how to creep around silently and efficiently so the other can sleep. Before the sailboat and the tiny house, there was little need for these extreme courtesies. Now it’s just part of peacefully coexisting with your partner in a small space.

However, it’s not always fun and games; during arguments, there are no doors to slam. You can’t storm into the other room. Instead, we can only get about 10 feet apart. One of us can climb into the loft and lie in bed. The other can brood on the loveseat beneath the loft or go into the bathroom and close the door. However, we’ve adapted.

Tiny living is a relationship magnifier. If a couple has a strong relationship, they’ll find their relationship deepening and becoming closer. If things are on the verge of going wrong, it’s going to happen spectacularly.

I occasionally think of the sad guestbook couple and their tiny life that never was. I can’t be the only guest in the builder’s flagship community who stored my toiletries on the stovetop and left the rest of my things in a pile. Had the tiny house been a little more practical, would that sad guestbook couple have gone ahead with their plans?

I wasn’t disappointed when it was time to check out and return home to my smaller but more functional spaces. After my things were unpacked and tucked away in all their proper places, I considered going shopping. I could probably use a few more storage baskets.

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