Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? by Richard J. Maybury . . . The first in a series of easy-going, valuable primers for all ages. This one has fun with money, inflation, the boom and bust cycles, and other fascinating topics.
How the Sharing Economy Can Help You Go Minimalist, Michael Munger, FEE . . . Solving the problems of too much stuff, not enough access. “For the first time in human history, entrepreneurs can make money just by selling reductions in transaction costs.”
Sometime in the night, as if by magic, a little bubbling spring seeped up through the earth and emerged beneath the tiny house.
With the recent rains flooding the Poudre Canyon, the underground river is suddenly coming to the surface in pools dotting the grass, making our new parking spot a muddy marsh. In exasperation, Big lays a makeshift boardwalk in the mud so we can make our way, stepping gingerly, to the truck.
Three days later, the marsh is spreading. “Our home smells like the Jungle River Cruise at Disneyland!” I cry in dismay, swatting away flies. “All we need are the hippos!”
It is sultry summer, and the butter melts on the counter. Big labors to install window screens so we can let in the fresh breeze without inviting wasps, flies, and honeybees. A ceiling fan is on order, as the one we picked out was crushed by a falling crate at the store.
For now, we relish shade, wet hair after showers, and the gorgeously cool evenings with pink and lavender clouds swirling into the summer night.
Colorado has famously good weather and boasts 300 sunny days each year. But somehow over the last seven years of living in the state, I did not fully experience the other 65 until now.
Two weeks ago, it was Thunder Snow! Booming grey clouds brought a blizzard of heavy wet snow, swirling all around the tiny house and blanketing every green thing the Spring had brought thus far.
During these times, we watch the rain or snow shower down all around us and content ourselves with hot chocolate and watercolors, library books and pillow forts.
After one of these rains, we discovered that the moisture from the soaked ground had evaporated up under our tarps of tools and possessions still in the yard, soaking everything. Hours of sun drying toys, washing quilts, and line drying papers and photos ensued.
This afternoon, we were under a tornado warning, and Big hunkered down in his truck across town until the golf ball sized hail let up. Then, all of a sudden, deep blue skies broke through the silver clouds.
And the skies above are not the only thing we’re now closer to in a tiny house.
Large, unwavering eyes following Big one night led us to be extra wary of the mountain lions that stealthily prowl the foothills. We keep the kids indoors after dusk and go together when we need to run out for something at night. And a rifle has been added to our belongings, courtesy Papaw.
Silently precocious raccoons and skunks have visited the grounds around our trailer at night, pawing for worms and other treats.
We awoke with a start one dark night as a fox pair screamed their banshee wails to one another across the windy pasture.
In the icy months of late autumn and winter, the wide swaths of grass welcomed flocks of Canadian geese. A sleek coyote would circle around, setting his hungry eyes ambitiously on the giant birds.
Occasional honey bees from the nearby hives flit here and there around our house. But on the afternoon we were set to hitch up and move thirty paces closer to the main house, something got into those bees!
Suddenly billowing to a 70,000-strong swarm blocking our path, the local beekeeper arrived, and we learned that the hive was splitting. Lasting less than an hour, we were soon able to go about our business unplugging, hitching up, and moving the house.
After growing up in southern Arizona, coming to Colorado marked the advent of experiencing real seasons for us. Furthermore, living only a few steps away from the outdoors at any given time means that we see, hear, smell, and feel nature more immediately, with little separation from these things.
It’s interesting to see the kids playing and acting out the things around them, rather than characters from shows. Chickens and coyotes, foxes and geese, they imitate the squawks and growls and make dens and nests on the couch and under the table. And wide-eyed Baby Hazelnut is big sister Firebell’s “precious baby calf.”
Being this close to nature isn’t always comfortable and often makes us scramble. But our hope is that the kids are thriving during this tiny house season with nature as their living room.
Our plan, as long as we’ve been married, was always to have Big Country finish school, get a fulfilling, decent-paying job that left plenty of time for family, live frugally, avoid debt, buy land, and build our own cabin or yurt.
That is, until we thought we were going for the gold in pursuing a medical career and instead ran ourselves into the ground emotionally and financially.
Playing big and putting all your chips on the table means that sometimes you lose big. But, what can you do? Perhaps a bit of vagabonding and stumbling through the building of a homemade tiny house for your family of five? That sounds reasonable.
But really, this unique vantage point has opened our eyes to the myriad of people also under the gun to find sustaining jobs and housing. And perhaps nowhere else is there a more challenging place to be hustling for housing right now than in Northern Colorado.
What’s going on in Northern Colorado?
Recently The Denver Post discussed the phenomenon of this area’s unprecedented housing prices in terms of affordability. Although there is evidence that we’re over the crest of the boom and growth is slowing, it’s still a very hot seller’s market with homes being snapped up mere hours after listing or sooner.
But are these homes affordable? To whom? Out of the dozen most unaffordable counties in America in relation to wages, seven are in Northern Colorado.
Let’s take a look at the area’s biggest city.
The average home price in Fort Collins, CO is $350,200, which comes out to a high $203 per square foot.
Mortgage: For the above house, say you’re able to come up with 10% down, plus closing costs, etc. A 30-year mortgage of $315,200 at today’s 3.92% interest rate would mean a mortgage payment of $1490/month.
Add in . . .
Utilities: electricity, gas, water, trash, recycling, internet… $200/month is a ballpark estimate, as factors such as local rates, a home’s insulation, and personal preferences make all the difference.
Maintenance: common rule of thumb is 1% of the purchase price per year, so $3502/yr or $292/month.
Property tax: a percentage based on a percentage. First, the assessed fair market value of a property is generally 80-90% of the sale price. Then the county or state collects tax on this figure. Larimer County collects .64%. Let’s say 85% of $350,200, which is $297,670. Then, .64% of this is $1905/yr or $159/month.
Private mortgage insurance (PMI): required for down payments of under 20% to protect the lender (the bank) from the borrower (you) defaulting on the loan. This can be .3%-1.5% depending on credit score and down payment amount. Let’s say 1%, so $3502/yr and $292/month.
HOA fees, lawn care, tree service, and/or anything else applicable to home ownership. Homeowner Associations (HOAs) are all over the board in what they charge and what services they provide, and there really is no meaningful average. Fort Collins is green and full of trees. Let’s throw out $100/month.
. . . and you could be looking at shelling out $1043 + the mortgage of $1490 = $2533/month for housing related costs.
Most lenders consider 28% as the standard “housing ratio,” which is the maximum responsible allocation of pre-tax income toward housing (consisting of principal, interest, taxes, and insurance).
So if we were to take out utilities, maintenance, HOA, and other services, the house above would come out to $1901/month.
$1901 is 28% of $6789. And so, to afford this average Fort Collins home, the average home buyer would need to make $6789/month, or $81,471/year.
These numbers are representative of the Front Range region in general. Some neighboring towns as well as outlying areas, foreclosures, short sales, and the daunting “handyman specials” run somewhat more affordable.
“Hot” areas like Timnath and Berthoud can run even more expensive, into the half-a-million-dollar range for, at the end of the day, yet another single family dwelling. And of course this is not to mention the separate unaffordable universes of Boulder, Vail, and Telluride.
For comparison, the average monthly rent for a 2 bedroom apartment in Fort Collins runs $1400, although this can only accommodate a family of four under the city’s “two person max per bedroom” rule. Families with even one baby more than this (like us) have to go bigger.
These numbers are all fine for a working professional who makes a high steady income and wants to put down roots in a vibrant, desirable area of the country. For the rest of us, we have to get more creative.
Families who Hustle
We know a family who both lives for free and draws an income from their work on a grass-fed cattle ranch. The gentleman farmer-owner, a doctor in the city, needed a manager for the estate and someone to renovate the farmhouse. The husband of the young family hired for the job has experience with both cattle and carpentry, so it was a perfect fit.
We have friends who pay a small mortgage on rural land, live in a 400 or so square foot converted Tuff Shed, and slowly build their home as earnings come in. They have debated whether to go the route of a construction loan to move things along, but banks don’t typically understand their unconventional plans for a homestead.
A sweet former student of mine and her husband and two boys just moved to a 600 square foot loft in downtown Loveland. The rent’s a bit pricey, but it’s a perfect location to be close to family, work, and community.
We have friends who rent a farmhouse they worked hard to renovate and beautify for their first year’s rent. They’re happy here and have no foreseeable plans to move or buy. Still, they have struggled with the nebulously communicative owners who at times have seemed suddenly eager to sell it out from under them.
We have friends who went in with their older parents to buy a rural farm and have moved all three generations together to enthusiastically establish a life for themselves, complete with gardens, bees, chickens, and ducks.
We have acquaintances who lived in little more than a room when their son was born and placed him in a dresser drawer beside their mattress. “Just take him into bed with you!” encouraged the wise midwife.
Other friends stay temporarily in basements of friends, with something always cooking in the kitchen and little kids’ screams and laughter ringing through all the rooms.
An enterprising single woman we’re privileged to know lived for two years at a family member’s empty condo. Then, with that family member’s assistance, she bought and completely renovated a home in a desirable neighborhood. She now lives in a beautiful home of her own and rents out two of the rooms for $600/month apiece to other single ladies.
Another couple we know VRBOs two rooms in their home, making $18,000 last year alone.
Several friends bought homes they don’t love at much lower prices a few years ago, but they probably won’t sell high because they can’t afford anywhere else. They instead are cautiously renovating and preparing their homes in case an opportunity presents itself to make an advantageous lateral move.
Others have left the state for opportunities to build a life elsewhere, usually staying with family for a season while getting established.
And many others struggle on, paying 50% or more of their earnings on housing, as we did before the tiny house adventure.
So what is the answer to an increasingly unaffordable, even skyrocketing housing market when you’re a hardworking, blue collar family?
Big Country and I continue to learn many things that help formulate an answer to this apparent quandary of shelter.
Pursuing a house for your family in a hot marketis about getting smart, working hard, earning more, and spending less. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be an impossible quest or a pie-in-the-sky dream to be financially fit, have a comfortable home, and build a legacy for your family.
Recognize what currency you possess. It may be youth, flexibility, education, health, physical strength, good communication, a particular skill, a language including native English, a willingness to be frugal for your goals, or simply a joyful heart. In an abundant society, there are opportunities to leverage even small assets for big dreams.
Talk to friends about their housing journey. You’ll be surprised what you learn.
Familiarize yourself with different attitudes towards housing, risk, and debt. Most people pay their minimum monthly mortgage payment and spend almost everything else, or more. Some people seek to aggressively pay down their mortgage as soon as possible and live mortgage-free. Others prefer to leverage extra money into additional rental properties or other investments and believe the risk and stress to be worth the payoff. Consider your personality and family goals in light of different options.
Study historical trends of both the housing and business cycles.
Learn and know the housing market of your area. Download the Zillow app, get updates on houses that go up for sale, take realtor friends to coffee, attend realty seminars. Make it a goal to get good at estimating prices based on many factors. It’s fun!
Consider what level of fixer-upper you are game for. The more you can do yourself, over time, paid with cash, the richer you will be, but hardcore insourcing must be balanced with the reality of your skill set and family life.
Learn what you really want and need in a home. For us, an east-west orientation with south-facing windows is way more important than square footage.
Be fluid; be patient.Your picture of the right home may change over time. And there is no joy in making the pursuit of a house into an idol.
Opportunities come in very unexpected ways.We would have never foreseen the blessings of the past year and a half: housesitting for two different families, totalling six months; having incredible, skilled help on the tiny house from our wonderful host family of 12; being able to work hard and live for free on a beautiful farm. What’s next? I can’t wait to find out.
Truth be told, sometimes day to day life with three young kids can feel like a slog. The constant chores, diapers, laundry, cooking, dishes, potty-training, sweeping, vacuuming, compost dumping, egg gathering, making sure little feet don’t have chicken poo on them, coming up with the exact length and weight that a T-Rex Whale would be if it existed . . . my days are full.
But of course there are the times they’re asleep, or playing nicely together in what they call “the dirt box,” or hugging each other instead of fighting, and somehow it convinces me not to throw in the towel just yet!
And besides, I’d be remiss to overlook all the little joys that add up to make a family’s life. My blessings of this past month include:
Fishing with Mamaw and Papaw . . . watching Rig throw a perfect cast and enjoying the kids’ enthusiasm when making a catch!
Sitting on a balcony in Estes Park listening to the constant rush of the river below. If only I could move to that balcony . . .
Roasting marshmallows and hot dogs with Mamaw and Papaw and our host family on the farm.
Later in the month, a hot dog roast with good friends on a sunny hot Memorial Sunday, right before the cooling rains hit.
Firebell’s braided buns
The soothing sound of rain on our roof and the fresh smell of rain out our windows.
Taking family pictures of the five of us, on Easter at church and in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Rescuing our photos from a drenched box left out in the rain and smiling at our discoveries . . .
Walking briskly hand in hand with Big out through the big pasture at night under the full moon to check on the wagon chickens.
Discovering a newborn baby calf one morning! We even found the remainder of the bag of waters, so we knew just right where it had been born. So far, the ruddy brown calf with a white spot is being called Brown Sugar by the kids.
Rhubarb pie and fellowship with a friend who has such patience with our kids!
Big Country dancing with Firebell to festive krummhorn music one morning as we made breakfast.
Thunder Snow! Snuggling warm and cozy under our quilts at night, with hot chocolate and skillet potatoes in the morning. But I am glad we soon returned to a lush green Spring.
Rig and Firebell prancing and hiding in the tall grass and purple wildflowers, pretending to be tigers.
Climbing hand in hand with Rig to the top of a grassy hill overlooking the foothills and the town of Bellvue.
The three kids, including baby Hazelnut, sitting together in the sandbox, absorbed in play.
A last minute business trip of sorts, in a light-filled, well-appointed cabin in Estes Park next to another cabin with Big’s boss and family. The men washed windows at a new hotel by day, and we all enjoyed two fun dinners together in the evening.
A sunny pool day with friends. Dangling my feet in the water and dunking baby’s chubby legs.
What are your reasons for joy this month? I would love to hear from you!
A wide-cast net of recent reads to ponder on love, liberty, and shelter . . .
An Atlas of Tolkien, David Day . . . Beautifully illustrated with genealogies, maps, and histories of battles fought and loves lost, this $8 leather-bound bargain is perfect for leafing through slowly.
When God Doesn’t Fix It, Laura Story . . . Drawing lessons from her journey as her new husband’s caretaker after the discovery of a brain tumor, this singer-songwriter shares truths from the Bible on suffering and life.
Spring is in full swing, here in the tiny house on the farm!
Lush tall grass has filled the surrounding pastures and hills. Billowing clouds roll off the mountains, bringing invigorating, Englishy rains. And two little wobbling calves have been born this past week.
We seem to be getting into the rhythm of life here. Roasting hot dogs with family and friends around the fire pit on gorgeous, cool evenings. Big Country contentedly pruning rose bushes and lilacs, Rig and Firebell eager to scuttle off with enormous branches to the burn pile.
Lobbing wagonloads of last fall’s apples to eager chickens. Baby Hazelnut turning her head at every new sight, smell, or sound, fatter and squealier than ever.
Our expectations have, for the most part, come into focus with life as it is. Not a complacency but a humored acceptance of where we are, with a slow-burning ambition underneath and a keen eye to the future.
We’re ever learning to become more fluid, more content with incremental, patient gratification of dreams. It may not seem like things are happening, but under the surface, there is tremendous growth. Things are changing, building, progressing.
Specific tiny house milestones this late winter and spring:
King-size sleeping loft with strapping and cable supports since the corners extend slightly over windows.
The night Big and I hoisted the enormous futon into the loft, we suddenly had a sitting area downstairs and a bedroom upstairs!
For five years now, Big Country and I have co-slept with our kids. First one, then two, now three! Sleeping all together has been one of our most rewarding parenting decisions, bringing peace, calm, and connection for all of us. So thankful we can continue this tradition even in a tiny house.
Ladder to the loft, with ladder bar. After experiencing futility with a flimsy RV ladder we took the trouble to modify and paint, we found that a storable telescoping ladder was our best solution for now. In the future if we shorten the loft to a Queen for renting out, there will be room to have a convenient, rolling library ladder.
Windows washed in and out.
String lights under the loft for evening. Now our life is a party!
Clothes storage: shelves and fabric cubes, closet bar, hooks, and a laundry basket to keep work clothes and farm boots. Still a bit messy for me, but at least everything has a place.
Blinds and a trimmed kitchen window.
Dish rack over the sink to both drain and store dishes, along with a trimmed sink and tiled space under the Berkey. So homey to see our dishes. And it streamlines cleaning up when you don’t have to put away dishes after they’re dry!
Sleeper couch, a gift from a friend. A place to read stories, make a pillow fort, collapse after work, eat midnight chocolate, and everything else during waking hours. We’re thinking of making a slipcover and putting the couch on risers for extra storage.
Washerdryer. The kids have christened it Blast Off, for good reason. But we love it! I typically do one load every morning, cloth diapers every third day and clothes the other two days. Perfect for us.
Book shelves, hooks, and some (but not all) outlet covers. With every purchase carefully budgeted, we’re still holding out for a few fancier decorative outlet covers. Yes, it’s a bit ridiculous, but another token of slow-burning gratification nonetheless.
Cleaned up build site, roughly taking 25 man hours’ worth. Trash chucked. Lumber, personal possessions, and tools organized. Amazingly, there are still several items to give away or sell. And the rest of my sewing fabric went to Mamaw, a great relief.
Hand held vacuum makes it easier to clean up all the sawdust, wood stove ash, and dirt tracked in!
New compost pile in the back pasture to dump our Loveable Loo and kitchen scraps. Made with metal posts and chicken wire found on the farm, this means no more expensive and unsightly blue barrels, and the three we have we can now hose out and sell.
Bathroom wall framed, sided, sanded, and tung oiled. Next up with this project, shelves for kitchen storage between the studs and a sliding barn door. And yes, that is a beach towel clamped in the doorway.
And finally, we moved the house! A friend came by with his work truck to haul the house (with the kids and I in it!) just thirty paces away, closer to the main house and out of a pasture needed for chickens.
We miss the wide open view of mountains and pasture to the north but are looking forward to seeing the blooming of a giant rose bush out our big window in the new location. And who knows what kind of views we’ll see out our tiny house windows in the future!
How Forced Schooling Harms Children, Peter Gray, Alternatives to School . . . Taking a hard look at the creativity, initiative, independence, and positive social, academic, and emotional growth often obliterated by compulsory education.
The King Raven Trilogy, Stephen Lawhead, Amazon . . . Our first books featured on Hammock Reads (finally)! Historical fiction adventures of Robin Hood recast in Wales. The three books of the series, Hood, Scarlet, and Tuck, feature the poignant struggle of the invading French against native Welsh with their longbows and knowledge of the formidable, lush woodlands.