This couple built their own tiny home for $10,000

Photo: Jess Belhumeur
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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

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McMansions may be making a comeback in the U.S., but it's nice to see the tiny-house movement is still going strong.

Tiny-home singles even have their own dating site, Tinyhousedating.com. The site launched two weeks ago and already has more than 400 members, according to founder Kai Rostcheck.

"It's hard to meet other people who are making that same [lifestyle] choice," Rostcheck told Yahoo Finance.

But is it really possible to thrive as a couple in such a, well, tiny space? What do you do when the inevitable argument heats up and you've only got 100 square feet of breathing room? How do you pare down not only your life but your partner's life to fit in a home no bigger than a tool shed?

We caught up with Rhode Island couple Jess Belhumeur, 28, and Dan Sullivan, 26, who chronicle their tiny-home lifestyle on their blog, Living In A Tiny House. In January they completed their 128-square-foot abode, which they built and furnished for a mere $10,000.

"I had already owned a home before this and I realized that I only used two rooms the kitchen and the living room," Jess says. "I felt ridiculous. I was in a stressful financial situation and I wasn't even making use of the house I had."

With $45,000 worth of student loan debt to contend with, Jess knew buying a pre-constructed home was out of the question (even tiny homes can cost up to $40,000). She works full-time in marketing, while Dan attends college full-time and supplements their income with part-time jobs. Buying a tiny home off the market was simply out of the question.

"For people like me and Dan, having our own space was not as important as having freedom from debt and feeling like we could breathe," Jess says. If they could build a tiny home for less than $15,000 or so, they could live rent-free for as long as it took to pay down their debt and save up for something larger down the road.

Here's how they built their pint-sized dream home:

Hiring a professional to design their layout would have cost them $3,000 alone. So they took the DIY approach, designing their home themselves with free software from Sketchup.com.

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

Any home needs a good foundation. They started with a $1,500 trailer bed, which they found on Craigslist for $4,500 less than it would have cost new.

Building on a trailer bed allowed them to sidestep building codes that would have made the process  difficult and costly. Basically, tiny homes on wheels are treated with the same flexibility as mobile homes.

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

The rest of their materials were either purchased secondhand from Craigslist or donated by family members. Sometimes they lucked out and were able to scavenge building materials from abandoned lots, like these cement blocks they picked up outside a train yard.

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

Rather than purchasing a plot of land, the couple decided to build their home in Jess' parents' backyard. Not only was the land free but all they had to do was hook up to her parents' electricity. Their $120/month electric bill is all they pay in rent. 

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

You'd be surprised how much you can find on Craigslist. All their wood and insulation came secondhand.

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

"We decided not to have any traditional plumbing," Jess says. "We wanted to make [our design] as simple impossible so we wouldn't have to get professionals involved."

To prepare themselves, they practiced using only seven containers of water a week at their apartment.

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

Planning their bathroom strategy was trickier. Jess turned to the "Humanure Handbook" for ideas. They installed what looks like a normal toilet but is actually just a bucket with a toilet seat covering it. No water needed — chemistry does all the work.

In a nutshell, they cover their waste with wood shavings (the kind you'd find in a hamster cage), which actually creates a reaction that eliminates any odor and turns the waste into "black gold," Jess says. "Once the bucket is full we bring it out to an outdoor composting bin and after a year it becomes one of the richest soil additives you can use."

The best part: thanks to naturally occuring bacteria in human waste, one-ply toilet paper disintegrates naturally as well.

"I like to refer to it as a litter box for humans," Jess says. "But you're obviously not stepping in it."

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

"I’m a very environmentally conscious person," she says. "I was driven to live in a way that reduces my impact on the planet."

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

They maximized their space by building a lofted bed, accessible by tiny ladder. The wood used for the ceiling was reclaimed from a New Hampshire barn built in 1776.

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

One of their biggest challenges was figuring out how to endure Rhode Island's brutally cold winters in such a small structure.

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

They use a small 400-watt electric heater for above-freezing temperatures and switch to a mini propane heater when it's lower than 25 degrees out.

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

For cooking, they use a gas stove-top (no oven), which they purchased at an RV supply store.

"We eat a lot of stir-fry," Jess says.

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

Organization is a constant struggle, but they've gotten pretty good at squeezing their belongings into every nook and cranny. 

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

Apart from their camping gear, which they stash in Dan's parents' basement, they pared down all their belongings to match their lighter lifestyle.

"For a few months, every two weeks I'd go through most of my belongings to pick out different items to donate," Jess says. " I had this weird sense of feeling like I needed them. After two to three rounds, it became a lot less painful to let go."

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

By October 2013, the interior was complete, less than a year after they began construction. Now that winter is over, Jess says their last step is to finish installing siding on the exterior. They've been collecting siding to finish the exterior for free all winter, thanks to a contact they made at a shipping yard.

Their total construction costs: $10,139. In all, they saved more than $7,000 on supplies by sourcing them from Craigslist and building them by hand.

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

Now that the home is 99% finished, their long-term goal is to pay off Jess' student loans and start saving money to buy their own plot of land.

"We want to continue living in a tiny house and slowly start creating a home that is actually on the ground," she says. "Tiny houses can work for families but I can't imagine trying to handle little babies in that amount of space."

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

In the meantime, they're happy with their decision to downsize.

"We did talk about the possibility of getting into fights while we were building, but it's been a really good bonding experience for us," she says. "Our relationship is 10 times stronger than it was when we started." 

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Photo: Jess Belhumeur

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