I Choose Joy July 2017

Yowza!! This past month has been a hot, simmering, summer slice of change and movement. Many days when I’m sweating it out under the fan after coming in from farm chores, I remember and reflect just how basic our thankfulness should be.

We all like to joke about our “first world problems,” but if you ever take a spin through third world life for even a short season, it gives you a little perspective on what not to complain about, as well as simple things to smile about.

So first, things we’ve survived without (albeit temporarily) that I’d like to acknowledge and appreciate:

  • opening up the faucet and feeling hot, clean water
  • flicking on a switch and enjoying warm, stained glass light
  • sitting in front of a whirling electric fan on a sweltering day
  • feeling a fresh breeze through screened windows, leaving most of the bugs outside
  • opening up the fridge and being able to throw something together for dinner . . . even if it’s just things like rice, chicken, beans, tortillas, cheese, milk, eggs – what a feast!

Farm fresh eggs

Life is abundant. Life is also scarce and grasping many times. But we can acknowledge life’s myriad facets and strive to trust God during both feast and famine, and all the better.

More July joys for the Big Country/Liberty clan:

  • Celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. Our beautiful former host family of 12 watched the kids, and we enjoyed a restful break with sushi, Beren and Luthien, a time to reflect and dream, and a kayak adventure across the gorgeous evening lake.
  • Big Country beating out 100 other candidates for a spot in this fall’s Fire Academy. So proud! We are moving onward and upward.
  • Mamaw’s visit. Yummy food, visiting friends, meeting her fun AirBnB host, and taking the kids to the splash pool and lazy river for Firebell’s third birthday.
  • Big’s co-workers stopping by and taking time to build a little tiny house made out of Legos for the kids.

Lego Tiny House

  • Baby Hazelnut beginning to crawl! And I am suddenly aware of how non-babyproof this tiny house still is. Well, at least the loft railing is up!
  • Spending some one-on-one time with Rig, reading several books to him at his request, as the little girls napped.
  • Playing in mud puddles after summer rains.
  • Mamaw’s homemade pillows and curtains. What would a tiny home be without those sweet touches?

Homemade pillows in the tiny house

  • Big massaging a chicken with a bent neck, comically trying to restore its mobility as he has with his human clients.
  • Being invited, so many times now, to the family gatherings here on the farm. Hope they’re not asking us to join in just because our house is blocking the picnic table and the fire pit!
  • Rig beside himself with anticipation about chicken processing day! Participating and learning so much about this age-old community event.

Old-fashioned chicken processing

  • The kids doing each other’s hair, putting clips in baby Hazelnut’s wispy topknot.
  • Seeing the kids’ faces light up with joy as they wade into a swimming pool.
  • Picking chokecherries in the rain, out of the bed of the pickup truck.

Picking chokecherries

  • Late at night, making delicious, rich chokecherry juice.

Fresh chokecherry juice

  • Library and park time. Enjoying the three kids playing together quietly and busily in the train room.
  • Cloudy, drizzling cool afternoons, often accompanied by full rainbows. So refreshing to sit out in lawn chairs and watch the majestic thunderheads rolling in.
  • Cherry pie at a local hole-in-the-wall and a drive to the dairy with a good friend.
  • The gentlemanly, yet ornery raw milk dairy manager.
  • A mysterious card from an anonymous friend wishing us “Home Sweet Home” and including two generous gift cards. Whoever you are, thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

Home Sweet Home

I Choose Joy June 2017

“Summertime .  .  .

.  .  .  and the livin’ is easy .  .  .”

Boy, I wish we were lounging on a shady porch sipping sweet tea and lemonade all summer long!

In reality, this is the season of dawn to dusk labor, as much as the long light will allow. Be it up on ladders and roofs at his regular job, hauling buckets of feed on the farm, giving massage therapy treatments, training for the fire department, or hammering on the tiny house, Big Country is always on the move.

The hours are long, sweaty, and hard, but it’s investment time, and gathering in the fruits will come later.

Time to be thankful! This month:

  • The first pink rose out our big window.

Pink rose at the tiny house farm

  • A long, hot, luxurious shower at a friend’s house while she watched the kids
  • Rig’s fifth birthday, a delightful family day in town. Rig wanted to spend his big day at the library, a local coffee house with a kid’s play area, and eating Cajun food (ok, his parents influenced that one a bit). What a sweetie!

Rig's fifth birthday in the tiny house

  • Cooling rains extinguishing the afternoon heat.
  • Picking rhubarb by the armload and making sweet strawberry rhubarb sauce for pancakes.

Strawberry rhubarb pancakes

  • Big Country carrying our speaker to the chicken coop and playing a recording of a fox screaming, just for his own amusement.
  • Catching up with friends at church, enjoying the fellowship of genuine, funny, encouraging people.
  • A beautiful morning, shaded by the trees, at our old neighborhood park overlooking the lake.

Rig and Firebell climbing rock wall at the park

  • Fun, unexpectedly bilingual library storytime.
  • Baby Hazelnut hefting herself into standing!
  • A lingering Sunday afternoon visit at a friend’s homestead. Eating hot beef and turnip greens soup, cold gazpacho, hibiscus tea, and quinoa bars. Pushing the kids in the swings, looking out over the endless grassy prairie to the faraway mountains, the same view horseback travellers saw hundreds of years ago.
  • A sunny, light-filled home.

Iris on the tiny house farm

  • Rig sweetly following around and holding hands with an older teenage girl working on the farm. “I love to work! I’ll help you shovel!” he said, staggering back under the long heavy tool. “Well, maybe you could help me instead!”
  • Digging out our camping bin, packs, and sleeping bags for a young friend to borrow. Wonderful memories!
  • A fresh breeze on a hot day rushing through our newly screened kitchen window.
  • Homemade chocolate mousse and blackberry shakes.
  • Sitting in front of the fan and putting on a once-in-awhile nature video for the kids on a hot afternoon.
  • Fun at a friend’s 37th birthday party (hey, why not?) Pinatas, samurai swords, water balloons, Mama Jo’s homemade enchiladas, margaritas, and lots of little kids having a blast.
  • Firebell massaging Hazelnut. “Roly, roly, roly . . .”

Firebell massaging Hazelnut

  • Friends being genuine, yet not complainy. “Yeah, the first half of the year, our car was stolen and trashed, I changed jobs, we paid the ER two visits, and our marriage was under quite a bit of stress . . . but I’ve been reflecting on it, and this next half year’s going to be great!”
  • Tiny yolkless pullet eggs the kids get to keep.
  • Shady sandbox play.

Tiny house kids in the sand box

  • Kids eagerly helping the farmer and his wife move the meat birds out to pasture. And Mr. R thanking them with ice cream sandwiches.
  • Celebrating our wedding anniversary! 10 years as husband and wife, 15 as best friends, and 20 as fellow classmates, trouble-makers and dreamers. Here’s to many more!

Big Country and Liberty wedding

Big Country and Liberty when we were young

Life Ain’t Easy Livin’ for Free

This blog could have be called many things. First World Housing Problems, Life Ain’t Easy Livin’ for Free, or my current favorite, Tiny House Whole Lotta Work.

Sun up to Sun Down

Because we’ve chosen to live where we do and build a simpler, cheaper tiny house that is not yet completed, the price of our housing lifestyle is paid not only in money but in work, time, and unending surprises.

When we first installed “Blast Off” the washerdryer, it shook so violently that we’d run around catching​ books and trinkets jiggling off top shelves during the spin cycle.

Every second or third day, we lift the Loveable Loo bucket, our sawdust toilet, into a wagon along with a bucket of water and pull it up the hill to the compost pile in the north pasture.

Farm work two Amish men in wagon

Once or twice a day we hook up the hose from the hydrant to our house’s inlet and fill the tank, watching carefully that it doesn’t shoot a geyser of water into our kitchen.

And as anyone who has camped or glamped with their family knows, things just get dirty! Vacuuming the floor, the couch, the bed, the counter top, and around the sawdust potty . . .

In winter there is wood chopping, tending the wood stove, and shovelling off our un-garaged truck.

We run extra errands for sawdust from the mill, propane tanks from the grocery store, and our mail from the post office.

And this is all the normal, everyday maintenance of living, aside from our main job here on the farm, the 587 or so free-range chickens and assorted odd jobs. Wading through the waist-high grasses to feed, water, and gather eggs, we all have farmer’s tans, including the baby!

We now have farm clothes and town clothes, and muddy boots fill the landing. The kids’ dress cowboy boots are safely tucked away for when we venture into public.

Cooking over a fire pit

We were having lunch with friends from church a couple months ago, and I think she hit the nail on the head.

“Your family feels it all. You don’t just run the water from the tap, flush the toilet, turn up the heat unthinkingly and pay the bill later. You fill the tank, dump the compost, and chop the wood. It must be tiring at times, but at least you’re feeling how much life costs and are done paying for it at the end of each day.”

So if we’re done paying for our housing expenses at the end of each day, what is that worth?

Playing around with creative housing hustles a few posts back, we found that the average home price in our city, Fort Collins, Colorado, currently stands at $350,200.

After 10% down, this comes out to around $1490 for the monthly mortgage payment, plus a ballpark $1043 for utilities, PMI, property tax, maintenance, HOA, etc., totalling $2533/month.

But let’s face it, this number is largely meaningless to those of us who don’t always earn this much per month and would never buy a house this expensive anyway.

And we can’t compare these numbers, apples to apples, to the living expenses of a tiny house because the entire housing experience is so fundamentally different.

Big house vs. tiny house

Oh well, let’s do it anyway!

Right now, our entire housing expenses average out to 2.7% of the average Fort Collins house, or $70/monthly.

Another way of looking at it, this amount pays for three quarters of a day (19 hours) per month in the average Fort Collins house.

The breakdown:

  • Rent $0; paid in farm chores
  • Wood $0; given by friend
  • Electricity $25
  • Propane $15
  • Water and trash $12
  • Sawdust $10
  • P.O. box $8

Why so low?!

First, the location. Our friends’ parents welcomed some help on their farm in exchange for a parking spot on their property. Our target goal is working around 10 hours a week, although it can vary widely. Truly, surprises arise almost daily, and the work on a farm never ends.

What’s the location worth financially? If we had to pay for a camping spot in one of the nearby parks, this would be $500-750 each month that we’d be further from our goals. Very significant.

Apart from these benefits, living on the farm here is both rugged and picturesque. We contend – I mean commune – daily with all the nature around us. Taken as a whole, the tiny house’s current location is a blessing.

Second, utilities. In a small home, we use less. Fewer rooms, fewer lights, fans, and appliances.

Despite enjoying an efficient propane hot water heater, we try to conserve by wearing clothes twice before laundering and taking short showers.

Heat is achieved through kindling and logs too small for our friend to use or sell himself, fed into the wood stove.

Cooling right now is through fans and opening windows. To improve our often-balmy home this summer, we would choose to orient our house on the east-west axis with the door to the south. Shade trees and an awning would help immensely as well, but we’re getting through. At least the evenings and mornings are delightful!

Internet is through our phone’s mobile data as well as through the farmer’s house, as he graciously let us plug in an extender and use his signal. So far, it works sporadically.

Farm mailbox

Third, the house itself. We paid for the construction of the tiny house with blood, sweat, and tears (ours and others’) as well as savings accrued while living for cheap or free for 11 months.

On top of that, we put a hefty amount of construction costs on credit cards. Yikes!

However, with full knowledge of how wasteful interest payments are, it has been our number one priority to pay them off aggressively. As of this writing, we carry a $2904 remaining balance (down from an all-time high of $15,500 six months ago), with hundreds coming off every paycheck. Nearly there, and then on to the big wild student loan payoff!

I cannot exactly recommend this course of action to someone else. Having a credit card balance is ridiculously foolish, right?

On the other hand, this was no ordinary consumer debt. In completing our house sooner and having an almost-free place to live, we have chosen to spend hundreds in interest to save thousands in housing. A calculated risk.

Scenic road from A to B

The Motorcycle Analogy

Somehow, this reminds me of riding a motorcycle all through college. I bought my beautiful Honda Rebel for $1000 and sold it seven years later for the same. It went a whopping 70 miles to the gallon, and I parked right off campus for free in a space with a light pole that could not otherwise be used for cars. As an older bike, it required an average of $50/month in maintenance and with liability only, insurance topped out at $11/month.

Savings compared to a car in depreciation, gas, parking, maintenance, and insurance? Almost incalculable, definitely into the $1000s. And plus, I had the time of my life, and it’s probably what convinced Big Country to marry me. Now how could you put a price on that?

But could I safely recommend riding a motorcycle day in, day out in a traffic-choked metropolis to an absent-minded 20-year-old girl protected by only a helmet, denim jacket and youthful optimism?

A resounding NO! 

But would I do it again?

Liberty on motorcycle

Absolutely!

This is essentially the attitude I have taken toward the tiny house. It is not a “regular” house and does not try to be, just as a motorcycle is not a car and does not pretend to be one, either.

But at the end of the day, the tiny house is a safe, warm place for our family to live, just as a regular house is. A motorcycle was my way, in one season of life, to get from A to B. The tiny house is our way, in this season of life, to get from A to B.

Is it worth it?

So has all the head scratching, stuff chucking, uprooting, designing, building, problem-solving, chicken chasing and compost dumping all been experiences I would recommend to others?

Has this crazy adventure that has tested, taught, broken, and strengthened us wildly beyond our expectations been worth it?

I guess this entire blog is my attempt at figuring this question out.

There’s really no such thing as living for free, just as there’s no such thing as a free car, horse, or anything else.

But we’re doing the closest thing to it that we can, and perhaps we’ll be able to evaluate the depth and breadth of our time here from future eyes.

Motorcycle by the sea

Nature is Our Living Room

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.

Tiny house on a muddy farm
Little House in the Marsh

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.

Thunder Snow tiny house farm

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.

Nature and blue skies at the tiny house

And the skies above are not the only thing we’re now closer to in a tiny house.

Mountain lion in the pasture

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.

Raccoon at the tiny house

Silently​ precocious raccoons and skunks have visited the grounds around our trailer at night, pawing for worms and other treats.

Colorado fox

We awoke with a start one dark night as a fox pair screamed their banshee wails to one another across the windy pasture.

Canadian geese on the tiny house farm

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.

Honey bees at the tiny house

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.

Colorado fall tree tiny 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.”

Firebell and Calf at the dairy

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.

Creative Housing Hustles in a Hot Market

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.

Big Country and Liberty in our living room . . . the Rockies
Big Country and Liberty in our living room . . . the Rockies

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.

Northern Colorado cabin

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.

Creative Housing boho loft

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.

Creative Housing for families

Shelter Thoughts

  • Pursuing a house for your family in a hot market is 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.

I Choose Joy May 2017

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!

Papaw and Firebell fishing in Estes Park

Daddy and Rig fishing in Estes Park

  • 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

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 . . .
Rescued photo of Big Country
Who’s that handsome kid?
  • 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.

Cow and calf tiny house farm

  • 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.
krummhorn Iowa State University
Yes, this is a krummhorn. Courtesy Iowa State University.
  • 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.

Tiny house playing in the grass

  • 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.

Tiny house kids in the sandbox

  • 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!

I choose joy spring flowers

Spring Blooms in the Tiny House

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.

Cow and calf tiny house farm

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.

Brown hen tiny house farm

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.

Studs and strapping tiny house loft

Tiny house loft cables

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.

Ladder bar tiny house loft
Big installing a pipe to serve as a bar to attach ladder

Windows washed in and out.

String lights under the loft for evening. Now our life is a party!

String lights under loft tiny house

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.

Clothes storage tiny house

Blinds and a trimmed kitchen window.

Kitchen blinds tiny house

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!

Tiny house over sink dish rack

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.

Tiny house living room and sleeper couch

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.

Loading the washerdryer combo

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.

Book shelves tiny house

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.

Humanure compost pile Loveable Loo

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.

Tiny house bathroom wall

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.

Moving the tiny house

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!

I Choose Joy April 2017

This month in the tiny house on the farm was one of ups and downs, sickness and blooming flowers, setbacks and promise of joy to come. Here are some highlights and simple joys of April . . .

  • Spotting a raccoon hurrying along the fence in the moonlight.
  • Mud puddle play in our farm boots.

Playing in mud puddles

  • Hearing neighbors’ peacocks and horses bray in the distance.
  • Pancake breakfast at the local firehouse.
  • Kids riding bikes, jumping on the trampoline, and picking dandelions together.

Picking dandelions outside the tiny house

  • Quiet afternoons reading with a napping baby in my lap.
  • Wildly chasing chickens into their greenhouse in the evening.
  • Running into friends with three little kids our kids’ ages. Life for both of us is unrecognizable from five years ago!
  • Easter egg hunt here at the farm with good friends and their toddler joining ours.
  • Rig’s imaginative stories about T-Rex whales, everwhite apple trees, tsunamis, avalanches, and riding on the backs of sharks.

May you live all the days of your life

  • Giving a massage to a long-time client and friend. It feels good to do something so valuable for someone else!
  • Picnic with Big Country at the coffee house with the kids playing together nearby.
  • Discovery museum with friends . . . stuffed bison, megaladon teeth, unique musical instruments, and of course rubber ducks and trains for the toddlers:)
  • Hot spicy stew and delicious homemade kombucha with friends on a rainy day.

  • Mamaw and Papaw coming into town!
  • A beautiful, colorful, joyful quilt of little houses, made with love by Mamaw.

I Choose Joy March 2017

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,

Sun, moon and stars in their courses above

Join with all nature in manifold witness

To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.

Spring is in full swing! Here are my moments of thankfulness this past month. Think back . . . what are yours?

Plum blossoms on the farm

  • White plum blossoms emerging on the farm.
  • String lights hung under our loft, a festive glow for the evening to eat, relax, visit with friends, and read.
  • Clean windows! For the first time post-construction, we found time to thoroughly clean the windows, and it makes such a difference.
  • Firebell enjoying a daddy-daughter date and squealing as a calf at the dairy licked her!

Calf at the dairy

  • Teaching Rig about the north slope of mountains by showing him the snowy side of the wood chip piles.
  • Rig to Firebell, pointing to hydrangeas: “those flowers look just like you!”
  • Kids finding blue jay feathers and decorating our table with them.

Blue jay feathers and lemons

  • Cuddling up in the loft at night, our faces pressed together. “You’re my special Firebell.” “And you’re my special Mommy.”
  • Rig explaining that his icecle seed will grow into an icecle the size of a tall pine tree.
  • Baby’s first tractor ride! And the two kids riding in the trailer behind us over the bumpy pasture.
  • The kids so thrilled when we unpacked their books! And us, too. So glad to see the favorites we’ve saved all this time, including the little free library find of the century, a leather bound, author-illustrated The Hobbit!

Firebell reading books in tiny house library

  • Horses we can now see running and frolicking in the neighbor’s pasture.
  • Hearing the kids practice saying the chicken breeds here at the farm: Black Austrolorps, Buff Orpingtons, Araukanas, and Rhode Island Reds.
  • And one hen we’ve named Henny Penny, wandering into our house!
  • Rig telling me about inventing an airplane that plants wildflowers.
  • Dinner visit from our friends who live out in the country in a converted, solar Tuff Shed. A beautiful evening, and good to share it with others who understand the life of a hand-built homestead, an interim home with quirks and challenges.

Tiny house family

  • Our friends, the Italy host family couple, pulling up in their car one rainy night during dinner to come see us and the house … “Hope you don’t mind, we brought three homeless people with us!” All ten of us, seven adults and three kids, standing in the middle of the house talking and pointing around the house at the progress we’ve made, or lack thereof! “This is really nice,” the elderly man in the group softly said.

Tiny house quilt

Tiny Home Sweet Home: What We Got Right

We’ve made a whole lot of mistakes this past half year in building our tiny house, chiefly in design, but we got some things right, too, chiefly in materials.

The design and layout are challenging in the short-term chiefly because we’re a family with little kids. I’ve wished recently that we had a mud room, an entrance through the kitchen, and king bunk beds at the back of the house. Instead, our door opens to the main room with a large 8′ window front and center, kitchen and bathroom to the right, and sitting area to the left beneath the loft.

But the upside is, I believe that for the long-term, the house’s layout is actually more beneficial, professional, and inviting when considering it may be used as a guest house, massage studio, office, rental, or residence for one of our grown children in the future. After all, who would want to Narnia their way through someone’s coat closet only to arrive at a massive bedroom?

So in talking with Big Country about our successes and failures on the tiny house build, I’ve begun to make peace with the design and to count it as a win overall.

Luckily, other choices are much easier to love! Some other things we got right on the tiny house so far:

Trailer

Tiny house trailer Dan Louche

A high quality heavy duty trailer fabricated specifically for tiny houses makes a stress-free foundation. No way were we up to welding and fortifying a used trailer for our purposes.

Hiring out the Framing

Tiny house framing

For us, hiring out the framing jump-started the tiny house build. In two days, a small local crew built what would have taken Big Country by himself several weeks or even months of labor and possibly injury and defeat.

Cedar Siding

Cedar siding with tung oil

Purchased from a friendly young wholesaler on the interstate, the rustic 1″ x 6″ tongue and groove cedar siding has defined the style of our home, and we love it. Aromatic, resistant to moisture and pests, and stained with natural tung oil, it’s gorgeous!

Alpaca Wool Insulation

sheathing over alpaca wool insulation

Yes, this was such a ridiculous ordeal, but you can’t argue with the house’s incredible coziness even when the wood stove is not burning and there’s a blizzard outside. The true test will be how insulative it is in the summer heat. Will it feel shady and cool, or will it feel like we’re wearing a giant alpaca wool sweater indoors? Stay tuned . . .

Oil-Rubbed Bronze

Oil rubbed bronze door knob and key

Just as the tiny house build has had a life of its own, the house decor has evolved item by item seemingly on its own. One common theme that has emerged is oil-rubbed bronze in the fixtures and details.

Oil rubbed bronze door knob and alder knot

It all started with the alder door’s light wood accented by dark knots and has informed our design choices throughout the house. From the door knob and key to faucets to shelf brackets and even spray-painted exposed strapping, we’ve tried to keep everything oil-rubbed bronze.

Tiny house oil rubbed bronze door hinge

Tiny house oil rubbed bronze loft strapping

As a contrast, many tiny housers use discount, mismatched fixtures, and one couple we knew even used a tin bucket as a bathroom sink! Nothing’s wrong with any of that if it works, but I am glad we are pursuing aesthetic cohesiveness with our decor. The developing rustic elegance is calming.

Wood Stove

Tiny house Grizzly wood stove

There are many pros and cons of heating your tiny home with a wood stove. It takes more daily time, labor, and finesse than other means. Chilly mornings demand that you depart your cozy bed and make a fire before making a hot drink, showering, or starting breakfast.

But the ambiance, beauty, reliability, and free heat from free wood is terrific. Our Cubic Mini Grizzly wood stove is cheery and interests and inspires our senses.

And I would add, even the simple, methodical work it requires to build and maintain a fire can be a positive, disciplined experience. Not everything in life needs to be rushed through.

Windows

Tiny house window on snowy day

Large windows letting in that wholesome, mood-lifting Colorado sunshine. What could be better for a small space?

Door

Tiny house alder door

Our alder door was a unique piece of beauty found at a fraction of the cost at a local used building supply company specializing in doors. So glad we didn’t attempt to build a door, which in all likelihood was a nightmare averted.

Metal Roof

Tiny house metal roof with shed house wrapped

Sturdy, lightweight, and a cheery “ivy green,” the metal roof will almost certainly protect this tiny house for several decades.

Kitchen Sink

Tiny house kitchen sink wood stove

A large, single basin stainless steel kitchen sink has been so nice to use for washing dishes and especially babies and toddlers. The three foot wide dish rack we plan to order will fit nicely right over it, serving as a place to hold just about everything!

Loveable Loo

Loveable Loo compost toilet

The Loveable Loo sawdust toilet – simply a 5 gallon bucket housed in a wooden cabinet with toilet seat affixed on top – was a generous gift from homesteading friends and has been surprisingly easy. It’s hard to believe we’ve been using this for half a year with few issues. Simple, free, waterless, and a way to truly compliment the beauty of the phrase, “in nature, there is no waste.”

Washerdryer

Our new washer/dryer in one! I smile every time I put a load in and press start, and the kids sing, “the washer’s done!” in unison when it plays its happy tune at the end of a cycle. Truly magic. I will never take a washing machine for granted again, now that I’ve lived without one!

Mini Fridge

Tiny house mini fridge

How does a family of five who cooks nearly every meal from scratch live with only a mini fridge?!

Hands down, this has been the easiest, most seamless transition we’ve made since going tiny. The success of the mini fridge in our lives is due to eating a simple, whole foods diet (with some treats of course!) and eating up everything in a timely way.

Our 4.4 cubic capacity fridge, which was $150 on sale from Costco, truly holds everything we need for a week. Typically, this includes raw milk, homemade broth, cheese, eggs, butter, cod liver oil, peanut butter, maple syrup, veggies, tortillas, meat thawing for the next day, and various homemade condiments.

Plumbing

Tiny house plumbing PEX pipe and tank

Thanks to our wonderful host dad we were living with this past fall, our tiny house plumbing is simple, exposed, and able to be modified if needed in the future. Including PEX pipe, a 40 gallon freshwater tank, heat tape around the greywater outspout, an RV inlet, and outside spigots, it has served our needs well.

Tiny house RV water inlet and spigots

As an added bonus, the bath tub faucet is at a great location for little ones to wash hands by themselves.

Sleeper Couch

Tiny house living room and sleeper couch

A place to rest, play, and read, the small sleeper couch given to us by another close friend has become a must for our family. And who can resist the retro golden flower fabric?

Building the tiny house at all!

When I think back to just this past summer, when Big Country with broken toe and smashed thumb was laboring in the heat to attach the subfloor to the bare trailer, I shudder. I would never want to go back!

The good thing is, we don’t have to. Life keeps moving forward, and we can thrive amidst constant change and even hardship knowing that we have weathered storms in the past. We’re still here!