Kind of a big deal

Tiny houses are catching on in Reno—once again

Brian Hutchinson Birch’s 680-square-foot home in Reno feels larger than that on the inside.

Brian Hutchinson Birch’s 680-square-foot home in Reno feels larger than that on the inside.


• by Georgia Fisher •

How do you turn an eyesore of a parking lot into a community all its own?

Ask Kelly Rae and Pamela Haberman.

Known around town for their urban-infill projects—ones that make existing, small and in some cases condemned dwellings into modern living spaces—Haberae, as the duo is called professionally, is launching a brand-new development at the corner of Ryland and Locust streets.

It’s dubbed the Tiny Ten, and every yet-to-materialize house on the little lot is already claimed, with none larger than around 680 square feet. The two-bedroom homes will be a short walk to midtown, downtown, Renown and the Truckee River. They’ll boast upscale finishes, solar panels and lush landscaping in a spot that was once just black asphalt. Buyers range from Millennials to octogenarians, and prices start at around $220,000 for a 650-square-foot model.

Seeing as this means well over $300 per square foot, though, the properties don’t sound like a steal, at least not at first blush. Haberman and Rae beg to differ, of course, and may have a point.

“These homes are extremely reasonably priced,” said Rae, whose appraisers seem to agree. “An energy-efficient, brand-new home in the urban core of Reno is [otherwise] unheard of for less than $225,000.”

The best part, perhaps, is a utility bill that’ll run no more than $30 a month.

High ceilings and good light make all the difference in design, she added, and private, outdoor space is crucial. “Without that, it’s just an apartment and a cage. You have to have an urban oasis to make a house a home.”

It’s the little things

A word about tininess: The term is controversial in a wonky sort of way. Some people won’t use it to describe a structure larger than 400 square feet, for example, or 120 if you’re a real purist.

“Tiny home advocates … I’ve seen them fight amongst themselves about what should be called ’tiny,’ and it can get pretty amusing,” said Don Jeppson, an architect and Washoe County building official who recently lectured about the trend before the State Board of Architecture. And, yes, he’s a fan.

As for Haberman and Rae, who began renovating local dwellings smaller than 300 square feet more than a decade ago, the term is a buzzword du jour. They didn’t even advertise the comparatively large Tiny Ten, for that matter. Would-be residents caught on and came forward.

When the economic downturn began around 2007, “people wanted a more simple, economical way to live their lives,” Rae said. “It’s actually very smart. You’re a genius for doing this simply, for living a real life and not just making a fabricated one out of your big McMansion. All this stuff came back. Now it’s OK to live in a small house. It’s OK to have chickens in your backyard. … It’s OK not to have three-quarters of your salary go to your housing expenses. ”

All told, the Reno-Sparks area has nearly 200 standalone houses that are 400 square feet or less, though most are decades old and some are downright antiques. In nearly every case, they’re second homes on existing parcels. (Fun facts: At just 154 square feet, the smallest single-family house is on 18th Street in Sparks, next to a relative manse of around 750 square feet. The largest is a more than 24,000-square-foot behemoth in Reno.)

Readers are no doubt familiar with the area’s historic divorce cottages—the many bungalows around town that helped newcomers establish residency in bygone days for quick, divorces.

“Our infrastructure is very unique, in that in a lot of our older neighborhoods we already have a whole lot of tiny homes,” said real estate agent Barrie Lynn, a small-house owner herself who’s sold many such dwellings and also represents the Tiny Ten.

Downsizing “is a liberating experience when you get rid of your entertainment center and your giant dining table, and you have the basic necessities,” she said. “It’s for a much broader demographic than many people think.”

The best of plans

Take Brian Hutchinson Birch, a single 40-something and former Washington, D.C. apartment dweller who bought his Holcomb Avenue home from Haberae in 2014. It’s around 680 square feet and feels far larger, thanks in part to clean design and a soaring, front-room ceiling. You wouldn’t know it, but the rock-solid building is more than a century old and once served as the shepherd’s house on early Nevadan Sheldon O. Wells’ sheep ranch.

It’s now hip, green and seconds from midtown commerce. “It’s all I need,” said Birch, who purchased an extra parcel to make a full-sized yard for his Pomeranian, Jack. Among other things, his place boasts a covered hot tub, sprawling deck space and extensive landscaping—his own additions—as well as a basement that’ll soon become a wine cellar. He’s not exactly roughing it, and doesn’t mind telling you his mortgage is around $700 a month.

The city once condemned the building, however, before Haberman and Rae stepped in and brought it up to date.

“That’s a whole other issue we can get into—the lack of awareness of historical structures and otherwise perfectly salvageable buildings that seem to get torn down in our city,” said Haberman.

Now Birch’s house is part of the Wells Avenue Neighborhood Conservation District.

When it comes to newly built tiny houses—including the kit, do-it-yourself ones on wheels that programs like HGTV helped popularize—building departments often clash with one another and with the rubber stampers in Planning and Zoning, said Jeppson.

He said some jurisdictions call a sleeping loft a bedroom, for one, and therefore require a certain ceiling height. (Jeppson thinks a tiny-house sleeping loft is just furniture on par with a bunk bed, and by many accounts it is.) In other cases, a home must permanently affix to the ground, say, or meet RV standards when neither parameter makes much sense.

“I don’t want to throw planning too hard under the bus,” he said chipperly. “But I will.”

Even international building codes may be on the cusp of change in favor of tiny homes, said Jeppson, but what constitutes livable, permit-worthy space remains up for debate here and elsewhere. After all, he’s seen the owners of a 160-square-foot house in Washoe Valley get the mandate to build a 180-square foot garage, too. That one chaps him in particular.

Meanwhile, Haberman and Rae are grappling with sewer connection fees, which are as costly for each Tiny Ten house—around $6,400—as for one 10 times as large with a slew of bathrooms. And there’s a “regional road impact fee” of roughly $4,300 apiece. The list goes on.

“If you’re a city that says, ’We want to have affordable homes,’ you cannot achieve that with this amount of fees,” said Haberman, adding that her company will donate the difference to Libby C. Booth Elementary School, should the City of Reno reduce certain costs. She and Rae are moving forward nonetheless, and have already broken ground.

Come summer, you’ll probably see the Tiny Ten in full swing. HGTV even plans to run a special on the project, but incoming residents are camera-shy so far.

So do modest people go for modest houses, then?

“I have no idea,” said Lynn, the realtor, with a laugh. “But I’m not going on HGTV by myself.”