How I built my tiny house for under $1,500 with nearly 100% repurposed materials and near zero waste
How I built my tiny house for under $1,500 using nearly 100% repurposed materials while creating only 30 pounds of trash.
The tiny house movement has caught on like a wildfire over the last decade, and there’s a lot of positivity coming out if it. I’m very excited about tiny houses and see them as a very useful tool in working towards a more sustainable and just world. I lived in a 50 sq. ft. tiny house in San Diego in 2015-2016. I’ve produced videos about tiny houses to spread the movement through my social media. I’ve visited tiny houses around the United States and in a few countries, and I have even been to a tiny house festival. I’ve made friends with the creators of some of the biggest tiny house pages. Now, I’ve built my first tiny house. Needless to say, I really love tiny houses and am very excited about them. And I’ve become fairly knowledgeable on them.
Through all of this, I’m confident that tiny houses are not the solution to all of problems, nor is the movement without its imperfections.
I often find tiny houses to be very inaccessible. At the festival I went to in Oregon there were plenty of houses in the $40,000-$80,000 range and even some as costly as $150,000. Don’t get me wrong, they were amazing tiny houses, but I know many people just find that idea to be totally absurd. There’s no way I could afford a tiny house that expensive, even if I wanted one, which I don’t. I love simple living, and living far more simply than most tiny house dwellers even.
There is a whole spectrum of tiny houses, and my goal is to show the opposite end of the spectrum from the super expensive, high tech, tiny houses that are inaccessible to so many people.
I built my tiny house with the aim to be an example of what can be done with very little money, causing minimal environmental destruction, and keeping it super simple. That also means being able to build in a very short period of time and with minimal skills. With that being said, this tiny house is exceptionally small and exceptionally simple, even for a tiny house. This won’t be a match for nearly everyone, but that’s exactly the point. I’m here to be of service to those who have similar goals as I do when it comes to living accommodations, to live simply, sustainably, and with very minimal money.
The primary purpose of this article is to cover the process of building my tiny house, including the sustainability aspect of building it. Future writings will go into more depth on living in it.
Building the Tiny House- The Pre-Build
I mentioned that I lived in a tiny house in San Diego in 2015 and 2016, but that house I bought on craigslist for $950. I didn’t build it and did only minor, mostly aesthetic, work on it. This is my first time building a tiny house. I have very minimal building experience. I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself a building dummy, as I can build very basic things, but nothing even close to a tiny house. I have a hard time cutting straight lines and correct angles. It’s just a place where I tend to lack, and in building a tiny house like mine, you generally need to have that stuff down. (Note: in natural building there are plenty of ways to build without straight lines.)
When I set out on the mission to build my tiny house in late 2017, I just had a good general idea of what I wanted to do, but no experience to back it up. Of all the stages of building the tiny house, this may have been the most time consuming. Wrapping my head around it and trying to figure out what to do was a bit daunting. What materials I’d need, what tools, skills, etc. all were unknowns at the time. Having minimal clue what I was doing and access to hundreds of thousands of articles and videos was also pretty frustrating at times. I would often find myself overwhelmed with too much information.
But I continued learning and the more I learned the closer I got to being able to build it. But equally or more importantly, my plan was never to do it on my own. My plan was always to do it with community, with the help of skilled people.
Once I decided that I was going to build it (which wasn’t until July of 2018 after a lot of postponing) I reached out to the community. One of my main goals in life is to live in the service of others. I do this because I find a very deep purpose in giving to others. It brings me great happiness. I may appear altruistic to many, but in reality, I am not truly altruistic. One great benefit of living in the service of others is that they want to return the service to you. This is the foundation of a sharing economy or a gift economy. We don’t need money to meet each other’s needs. Humans can do that with our skills, our resources, our time, and our love and caring for one another. That is the world I want to live, so that is the world I have been creating around me. When I put it out there that I was going to build my tiny house, I was delighted with the response. I organized volunteer days and people showed up.
People showing up wasn’t necessarily altruistic either. Most of the people showed up for the purpose to help, but also because they were very interested in tiny houses, simple living, and sustainable living. They came to learn. They also came to be with a community of likeminded people. My goal wasn’t just to have these volunteers build my tiny house with me, but to give them a worthwhile experience where they’d learn skills and meet new friends that could add value to their life. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened on our volunteer days. New friends were made, knowledge was gained, and inspiration was spread.
Designing the house
I decided on this design based on many factors with the main factors being environmental impact, cost, climate, location, ease of building, and simplicity. Each of those factors played into each other to result in this design.
Environmental impact, climate, and location- The environmental impact of the tiny house was my number one consideration. I thought about natural building methods such as adobe, but there were multiple reasons why that didn’t line up. In order to blend into the neighborhood, I decided to build a tiny house that looks very similar to the sheds that many people have in their backyard. Tiny houses are not technically legal here as far as I can tell, so that’s why blending in is a good call. That leaves out most natural building methods such as adobe, earth ships, and straw bale homes. They are unique and really stick out, whereas mine is mistakable as a shed. Location is also key, as those design methods are not lined up with this climate. So, the next best thing for me was to build it out of nearly 100% repurposed materials, that way nothing new was being created in order for me to build the house. I consider that form of building to have a pretty minimal environmental impact. A tiny house has a drastically smaller environmental footprint to build than a large house, because it is that much less materials, transport, electricity used, and trash created. That’s one of the main reasons I chose to have a tiny house in general vs. a larger house.
Cost- I live extremely simply, with a net worth of just a few thousand dollars, and with a maximum income of around $10,000. So, building something expensive is just not an option. I have no debt, no credit cards, no loans, and don’t even have a personal bank account. I have no intentions of going into debt, including taking out a mortgage. That means I build within my means. This tiny house is within my means.
Ease of build- I chose this style of house because it is about as simple to build as can be. It’s the most basic of construction skills for someone who knows what they are doing. It takes no special tools. It is not complicated.
Simplicity- I like to keep things pretty simple. This design has what I need and does not have all the things I don’t. It’s the living situation that I want.
I put windows/a door on all sides of the house to create a strong cross breeze and keep the house as cool as possible. So far that’s been working great.
Note: I do consider this tiny house to be “environmentally friendly” however that is just compared to most forms of building. The reality is that most of the building materials are at least somewhat toxic. Almost all, or all, plywood has toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and toxic glues in them. It will biodegrade, but it will release these chemicals into our soil at the same time. The plywood is treated with chemicals. The stain, even if low VOC, is toxic. It is NOT environmentally friendly. It is just far less destructive than most modern houses.
If you are not aware of off gassing I would highly recommend looking into it. Our houses can be very toxic environments, from our carpets and insulation, to our pillows and blankets, to our paints and stains.
To deal with that I built the house with excellent natural ventilation and have left all of the windows and doors open for the last few months. There is a constant breeze of fresh air going through the house, so I highly doubt that I have breathed in much off gassing.
I managed to build the house out of nearly 100% repurposed materials. The only things that weren’t repurposed were the stain and some of the nails and screws. They were not brand new though so it’s a bit of a grey area (explained below). However, it is totally safe to say the house is 99% repurposed materials by weight and 99% repurposed materials by cost. Not perfect, but plenty good for me!
One word to the wise, building with repurposed materials drastically increased the amount of time it took to build the tiny house. If I were to have built with all new materials I could have carefully planned out my list and done just one or two trips to the store with a truck. Instead I spent many days searching the internet. This was very time consuming. I had someone, Kendal Wilde, who’d been following me online volunteer to do a semi-internship with me and help me find materials. She spent about 25 hours on this. A lot of that time was consumed by researching materials though, as we didn’t really know what we needed and were constantly re-figuring things out that we thought we had already figured out. Neither of us knew construction terminology, such as the many types of plywood, etc. Just finding the materials was very time consuming. On top of that there was picking up different items in all different directions of town and organizing drop-offs.
Using repurposed materials at least doubled the length of time of the entire process, but it could have increased the time by over five times.
I wouldn’t have felt right buying used materials though. It was the right thing for me to do.
I’m going to list out the materials as well as where I got them for you here. DISCLAIMER- I’m not doing this to give you a blueprint or plan to build off of. As I’ve explained, I am not a builder and I can’t build a tiny house on my own. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense for me to go into the details of how to build a house. Instead, I am here to provide the basic information to help you, as well as some inspiration through my example. I won’t go into the details of how to build a house, but I am going to share almost all of the materials that I used. I am doing this to give you a really solid idea of how to get repurposed materials.
Websites to find used materials locally: Craigslist, Offerup, letgo, NextDoor Freecycle, Freegle, Buy Nothing groups on Facebook, Facebook Marketplace, and local yard sale groups on Facebook. There are a lot more websites and apps out there so make sure you check your local area. These are just some of the sites that I know of. Besides searching the posts on here, I would recommend making a post of your own explaining what you are doing and the materials you are looking for. There are a lot of people who search those sites looking to sell things or get rid of things.
Websites to find used materials online: Ebay is a site that I’ve used a lot and I’m sure there are other ones out there. This is a great resource for buying light weight and easy to ship items.
Habitat for Humanity Restore. There is a network of these all across the country and many of them stock an incredible amount of used materials for building.
Asking friends. People have a lot of stuff sitting around. Check with your friends who have garages full of stuff and see if they have things sitting around that they don’t want.
Go out on garbage nights. Keep your eye open in your neighborhood and you’ll likely see great materials being thrown out every week. Go out the night before garbage day and collect materials that are destined for the dump.
Dumpster diving. Find places where good quality materials are being thrown away.
Discount outlet stores that stock bulk leftover construction materials. Big Deal Discount Outlet is a store that I used in Orlando.
Home improvement/building stores waste. I’ve been told that stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s put out their wood scraps for people to take for free. I’ve never looked into it myself, but multiple people have told me that they have success with it.
Construction sites. You could get into construction dumpsters (at your own risk, this can be considered trespassing) and find an incredible amount of perfectly good, but tossed out materials. You could also ask some of the construction workers to set stuff aside rather than throw it in the dumpster.
Construction companies. Call up construction companies and tell them what you are doing. Perhaps they will like your story and be happy to set aside the materials that they would have otherwise thrown out. Or perhaps they are sick and tired of making so much waste and will be excited to have a better outlet.
These are just the resources that I know of, and I’ve only built one house, so I’m sure there must be more resources out there. The best resource is a brain that can implement problem-solving skills. With a resourceful mindset and dedication, you can most likely find the materials that you need.
If you are trying to build with mostly repurposed materials, my recommendation would not necessarily to go for 100%. 80% or 90% may be fairly easy to achieve, but it’s going for that last 20% or 10% that can be extremely difficult. I would suggest trying to get all the large items repurposed and to take it easy on yourself for the small stuff. That way you do a really great job and don’t over exert yourself with that last little bit. I’ve found it’s better to do a really good job with most things than a perfect job with some things and not leave time for other areas of life that could use improvement. But if you want to go for 100% definitely don’t let my opinion hold you back!
Where My Materials Came From
2×4’s and 2×3’s, 1×4’s, 1×6’s- leftover from a build site that I found on an online website. They were unused and would have been thrown away if one of the contractors hadn’t rescued them.
Plywood- Same as the 2×4’s
Doors- Habitat for Humanity
Metal roofing- Leftover from someone’s roofing project. Found them through doing a shout out on social media.
Flooring- Someone’s house flooded so they were getting rid of their flooring. It was in nearly perfect shape. I found it on an online website.
Exterior siding- We pulled apart fences and used the panels. I found the panels by posting on online websites. Most of them were fence panels sitting in people’s backyards, leftover from building a fence.
Pallets- Many pallets are used once and thrown away. This means there are a lot of pallets out there. The key is to find heat treated ones. They will have “HT” imprinted onto them. These are not chemically treated. We found these behind stores. We always asked if the store was getting rid of them if it wasn’t totally obvious.
Foundation cinder blocks- Craigslist, leftover from a build site.
Foundation pallets- These pallets were sitting outside of an apartment complex for many months and my friend Evi told me about them. I called the company to ask if I could have them, and they said yes. They are heat treated and heavy duty. They were used for shipping granite countertop from overseas.
Housewrap- leftover at a massive construction site. Found them on craigslist.
Drip edge- My friend Joe brought some that he had sitting in his garage for fifteen years.
Stain- I had a very hard time finding used cans of stain. I’m sure they were out there, but in the short time I had I didn’t find any. Repurposed Paint is very easy to find because paint shops sell all the discolored paints at super discounted prices. What isn’t sold I’m assuming is thrown away or “recycled”. But stain doesn’t have color mixing so it’s harder to find. What I did find is a paint shop that had a color that wasn’t selling. They were $60-$100 cans and they sold them to me for $3. So, these weren’t technically waste or repurposed, but pretty close.
Hurricane straps- Leftover at a construction site found on craigslist.
Wood that I used as trim- Same as hurricane straps above.
Roof underlayment- I got this from a discount outlet that stocks bulk leftover construction materials.
Silicone sealant- Habitat for Humanity
Radiant barrier- ebay
Roofing screws- ebay
Nails, staples, and screws- Some of these I got at Habitat for Humanity, but most of them were brought by my friend Matt. He said he had tons of extra and was happy to use them. I’m not sure if afterwards he had to go out and buy a bunch to replace what he used with me. If he did that then I would not consider this repurposed. This is the other grey area of whether it’s 100% repurposed.
Those are all the materials that I can think of, but there are probably a few small things left out of this list.
What the Tiny House is Built out of From Bottom to Top:
Foundation- Cinder blocks for the foundation with four 10’ long x 32” pallets set side by side on top of them. They are heat treated and heavy duty.
Floor- Tongue and groove plywood for the subfloor, nailed on top of the pallets. Engineered hardwood flooring on the interior. I was going to use hardwood floors but was advised against it in the heat of Florida, without climate control.
Walls- 2×4’s and OSB plywood as the structure.
“Insulation”- Radiant barrier. This reflects the sun, keeping the house cooler.
Exterior siding- Fence panels.
Interior siding- Planning to use pallets.
Roof- 2×4’s and OSB plywood as the structure, roofing underlayment laid on top of that, and metal roofing on top of that.
I hope that gives you a very solid idea of how I sourced used materials and how you can too. But definitely don’t stop there. Every locality is different. And there are many, many different ways to build a tiny house. This is just my example, and it is one of many examples out there.
This is a list of the majority of the tools that we used. I’m sure that there are a few tools that we used that I don’t remember, especially if Matt used something from his tool bag that I didn’t really see.
Power tools: circular saw, power drills, nail gun and air compressor, staple gun, and sawzall
Manual tools: hammers, screwdrivers, crowbars, pallet tool, speed squares, line level, staple gun, ladders, tin snips/metal shears, saw horses, tape measures, post hole digger, caulk gun, and paint brushes and rollers.
There is a statistic out there that the average power drill gets used for only half an hour in its lifetime. That may be an exaggeration, but the point is clear. For 99% of the life of most tools, they are sitting and not being used. I have no desire to contribute to this misuse of resources. Instead it makes sense to share tools with people who already have them. All the tools that we used were borrowed from friends in the neighborhood and brought by people who helped. If that had not worked then I would have looked into renting tools as that allows for the shared usage of resources. Another option would have been to buy tools used and then sell them afterwards. This takes more time but is a way to use tools without any new items needing to be made for you.
Building the Tiny House- The Build
Each person brought their own skills. Some people were highly skilled with construction and were able to take on the skilled building. Many of the people had little to no construction skills, so they took on the simpler tasks such as pulling apart pallets to salvage the wood, putting up siding, staining, etc. I am so grateful that my friend Matt Jones came out and dedicated his whole weekend to working on the tiny house. He is carpenter who builds both as a profession and a passion. At first, I was hesitant to ask him to help for the whole weekend, knowing that he works on houses 9-5 Monday-Friday. I thought he might be tired out and bored of building. And after all, it was his wife, and my friend, Sierra Jones who got him involved in the first place. But when I texted him and asked how late he’d want to build to, he responded something to the effect of, “As late as you can go.” It turns out that he just loves to build, and Sierra said he does it seven days/week. This was another example of mutual benefit. This was a new experience for him and he really enjoyed working on it and working with a group of people.
I set the first volunteer weekend as a 3-day weekend, Saturday-Monday. Each day about 10 people came out. My plan was to finish almost the whole house that weekend. We did not do that. It was much more work than I expected. If I’d kept the house even more extremely simple and built it with all new materials from the store I think we’d have managed. But building with repurposed materials is a whole different ball game. More on that later though… The second weekend was a 2-day weekend and at the end of the weekend we had built the majority of the house. I was able to move in within two weeks of starting the build!
In total about 40 volunteers helped out and the total hours that have gone into the house so far is 225. About 75 of that was me, and 150 of that was volunteers.
End of day one with the volunteers:
Day one of the tiny house build and I am overjoyed and relieved at how well it is coming together!I am so incredibly…
End of day two with the volunteers:
Day 2 of the tiny house build is complete!Again, I am so grateful to all my friends who came out to help make this…
At this point the total cost of materials was $903. The house is not complete, but most of the materials I need to complete the project are left over from the materials I’ve already purchased. The cost of materials shouldn’t rise by more than a few hundred dollars. I also paid a friend with a truck to help me pick up materials one day. That was $165 including gas. Lastly, I also bought food for volunteers and that totaled $80.
That brings the grand total of the tiny house build up to $1,138. My plan is to keep the total cost under $1,500.
I only started collecting materials for the build about two weeks before I was scheduled to start building. Because of this I was in somewhat of a rush to find materials. If I were to have collected materials a little at a time for months or even up to a year, it is likely I could have dropped the cost down drastically. A lot of what I purchased was not necessarily the best deal, but I had to take what I could get because I wasn’t going to take months to build it.
If you are trying to build a tiny house for a very tiny amount of money or even for free, then one of your best friends is time. The more flexible you are, the easier of a time you will have finding free materials and really good deals.
The Sustainability of Building Tiny
How I managed to create just 30 pounds of trash in building my tiny house.
I strive to create very little garbage in my life. The average American creates 4.5 pounds of trash per day, or about 165 pounds per month. It’s pretty normal for me to create just a few pounds in a month, or about 80 times less than the average American. It’s fairly easy in my day to day life to create near zero waste, because I’ve been doing it for a while and I have the practices down. Building a tiny house was a whole new challenge though. I absolutely did not want to fill up a dumpster in the process of building my tiny house, so this was a central part of everything I did.
The main way that I knew I could prevent creating garbage was by using materials that I salvaged from waste in the first place. That way any excess materials, shavings, or cuttings would not be garbage that I created, since it already was garbage in the first place. For example, if I saved thirty pieces of 2×4’s from the garbage, and then put two of them back, then that would not be trash I created. I think about it like this, if I take 100 pounds of wood out of a dumpster, use 90 of it and put 10 pounds back, I did not create 10 pounds of trash. I actually prevented 90 from going to the landfill. That’s trash negative. Even with that being the case, my goal was to not put any of those materials back into the garbage, but I wouldn’t be too stressed if I did.
During the build I became extremely overwhelmed. I was working with all these repurposed materials, which resulted in me collecting way more than I needed to make sure I’d have enough. When working with repurposed materials it can be challenging to know exactly how much you’ll need. With pallets for example you can estimate how many you’ll need, but often pallets will have a lot of broken pieces, making it very difficult to make an accurate estimate.
Back to my near breakdown moment though… The yard was littered with materials in the process of being taken down, and after the volunteer weekends I was left with huge amounts of materials to deal with. I’m naturally a minimalist and have a real hard time with clutter, so this was extremely stressful for me. Being in the peak of the rainy season it was also a worry to leave everything out in the case of a heavy downpour. Because it was my house, I was having a hard time stepping away from it. I just couldn’t get my mind off of the clutter and the mess and overabundance of materials I had in front of me. Of course, what I really needed to do was to step away, relax, eat healthy food, immerse in nature, and take care of my body. But the busy-body type person that I am wasn’t letting myself do that. So, the only thing I could manage was to deal with the mess I made.
End of day 3 of building my tiny house and I just feel so overwhelmed and beat down.It’s turning out to be a lot more…
I had to remind myself that most of these materials were either trash or headed to the dumpster when I got them. I wasn’t responsible for utilizing every single piece. I’d already done a great job by using so much repurposed materials. That did help me relax some. Ultimately what helped me the most though was getting rid of all the excess. It wasn’t until it was gone and the area was clean and clear that I was really able to relax. So how did I get rid of the materials without making trash? Here was my formula:
I went on Craigslist and made a posting with pictures of the used materials that I had. I was blown away at how quickly responses started coming in and how many there were. Within hours, a pretty large portion of the materials were picked up.
What I did with a lot of it was put it on the curb and wrote a title of “Curb Alert: Building Materials” I sat back and watched people take the stuff for their own projects. One important note is that I didn’t put the stuff out when the garbage truck would be coming. Whatever was left on garbage day, I brought it in before the truck came, and then put it back out after I was clear from the garbage trucks.
I also had my friend Katie Soo come and pick up a bunch of the small scraps to bring to her art school. They will paint on the wood pieces and use some of it for sculptures, among other things.
Awesome news!All that worry I had about creating a ton of trash from building my tiny house was for nothing!So far, I'…
After everything I managed to create a mere 30 pounds (14 kg) of trash. I read a statistic that to build an average house in the USA, 8,000 pounds of trash is created. That is many dumpsters full. That is over 250 times more trash than I created in building this house.
The tiny house is in the completion stages and what you see in my hands is all the trash I have created so far. A mere…
Some of my happiest moments of the whole build were talking to the people who came to get my excess materials. I met so many people that I wouldn’t have otherwise met, from different neighborhoods and backgrounds, and the meetings were truly meaningful for all of us.
Meet Kim!My heart is buzzing after meeting her!I listed some excess plywood as a giveaway on Craigslist and she…
Here’s my tips for how to not trash the planet while building a tiny house:
- Use repurposed materials and salvage materials from the garbage
- Plan ahead so that you only get the materials that you need.
- Be careful and take your time while building to prevent mistakes and waste.
- Use your excess materials from one part of your build for another part of the build. Excess 2×4’s from my walls will be used to build my bed, compost toilet, and outdoor kitchen for example.
- Donate your leftover, but usable, materials to Habitat for Humanity and similar repurpose locations.
- List your excess materials on craigslist and other sites.
- Find people doing similar projects who can use the materials.
- Check with any local artists or art schools if they can use your materials for sculptures, painting on wood, etc.
- Put your materials outside with a free sign (but don’t have them where the garbage trucks will take it away)
- Use wood as firewood. Make sure that it’s not chemically treated wood.
- Recycle anything that is recyclable, especially paper, cardboard, metal, and glass.
Building my tiny house was both exciting and overwhelming. I had some of my happiest moments in recent time and some major crashes. It was emotional and mentally trying. Building a tiny house is a commitment and a real challenge. If you are looking to build a tiny house I would encourage you to not take it lightly, especially if you are using repurposed materials. But at the same time, have fun! It is an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable process with the right mindset.
I hope that this guide to building my tiny house has been helpful to those of you reading this who are interested in building your own tiny house. I want to stress again that every situation is different and based on many factors. This is just the scenario that worked for me. I hope you’ll use the tips from here that would work well for you and just remember to create what is right for you, in the place you are in, in the time you are in and in your own shoes (or no shoes if you are barefoot). If you have any questions that I did not address, please ask them in the FAQ. For questions and answers please visit my tiny house FAQ.
A special thanks to everyone who’s helped make this tiny house a reality:
Lisa Ray, Sarah Robinson, Matt Jones, Sierra Ford Jones, Kendal Wilde, Gabby St.Croix, Ted Gournelos, Daniel Werner, Jim Hanusek, Caitlin Fogarty, Cheryl Davies, Evi Schulz, Momo, Shelby Pickar-Dennis, Tamie Davern, Camila Holanda Greco, Paul Greco, Jen Goodman, Jeff Trapani, Daniel Koenigkann, Yuan Chang, Larry Opoliner, Bambi Laird-Opoliner, Tim Green, Joe Loring, Ashley Raquel Ruiz, Katie Soo, Gabe, Jai Michael Barry, Nathan Brown, Michelle Finley, Yessica Henao, Tati Henao, Luisa Fernanda, Annie Depauw, Louis, Andrea Balaut, Luis, Will Halpern, Krystine Kimes, Luke Bramlett, Curtis Dickerson, Clarissa Trujillo, Michael Lergier, Stephanie Cruz, Hayden, John Swift, Sweetu Shah and Song Seto
Cover photo by Sierra Ford Photography
UPDATE: Take a tour of my tiny house homestead: