August 5, 2013

Maine home builder sees huge possibilities for tiny homes

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling / Kennebec Journal

(Continued from page 1)

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Sam Tieman landscapes the front of the newly built micro-home at 20 Cool St. in Waterville. The energy-efficient dwelling has one bedroom a full bathroom.

Michael G. Seamans / Kennebec Journal

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Andy Vear demonstrates how the Murphy bed pulls out to accommodate guests in the combined kitchen, dining and living area at the 20 Cool St. micro-home in Waterville. The main bedroom is through the door to the right and next to that is a full bathroom.

Michael G. Seamans / Kennebec Journal

OPEN HOUSE

Those who would like to see the micro-home are invited to an open house on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

MURPHY BED

The Murphy bed, also called a wall bed, was first invented around 1900 by William Lawrence Murphy, a resident of San Francisco who reportedly invented it to circumvent local taboos against inviting a woman into a man's bedroom.

By folding the bed into the wall, his room became a parlor, allowing him to entertain his girlfriend without raising eyebrows.

Murphy received a patent in 1912 for his "Disappearing Bed," and it has been used as a space-saver in tight living quarters ever since.

"We've gotta go back to the way it was in the '60s," Vear said. "You'd normally go small ranches and places with an unfinished upstairs. That's how everybody started. You live in small homes."

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that, while there may be an emerging niche market for micro-homes, little has been done to dampen the American fervor for bigger places to live.

Newly built little houses like the one on Cool Street are becoming more difficult to find in the Northeast, where the number of houses with less than 1,400 square feet has gone down, from 8,000 built in 1999 to just 1,000 in 2012.

The micro-home is even more of an anomaly in Maine, where homes are about 10 percent larger than the country as a whole, and the home-building industry has grown more quickly than the rest of the country.

During the past 20 years, Maine has added about 135,000 housing units, a growth of about 23 percent, which has substantially outpaced the growth rate of about 14 percent of the entire Northeast.

Despite all the statistics pointing to the purchase of larger homes, Vear said his experience has led him to see an opportunity where others see none.

He says it's a question of economics.

"Does your dollar go as far as it used to? People have less and less money for housing," he said. "Two ways that you can solve that. Smaller houses. More energy efficient houses. End of story."

Micro-homes are a new phenomenon in Maine, and are more likely to emerge in more densely populated areas of the state, according to Bart Stevens, president of the Maine Association of Realtors and owner of Century 21 Realty in Winslow.

"We just don't have a lot of experience with them yet," he said.

He said the sticker price of about $90,000 will put the micro-home into competition with older, larger houses, but the reduced lifetime costs increase its appeal.

"Smaller homes means it takes less to do everything," he said.

Stevens said he has noticed a market for less expensive, ranch-style homes that cost less to heat, but he doesn't think micro-homes are going to become the new normal.

"The novelty will attract potential buyers now," he said. "We'll have to see the practicality from there."

Micro-lot, micro-price

Vear said that, of the 30 or so homes he's built in his career, some of which have ranged up to a half-million dollars in value, only one has been a micro-home. That one, on Spruce Street, sold in three days, he said.

"If I had my way, this is all I'd do," he said. "These are fun to build. People absolutely love them. They come in and they smile."

While he was building the home, he said, it wasn't unusual for someone to stop by and ask about it. One person who stopped in has already asked him to build another, under contract.

The lot on Cool Street, which extends down to Messalonskee Stream, is only 56 feet wide, which Vear said caused others in the industry to skip it as unbuildable.

"I see things differently," he said.

But there are factors that make it difficult to specialize in micro-homes, Vear said. It's not a lack of interest from buyers. It's the fact that they come with a lower profit margin.

"In order to make a living at these, I'd have to build five or six a year," he said.

And the opportunities to build them are limited, he said, in part because municipalities usually have minimum residential lot sizes of 100-by-100 feet, larger than what is ideal for a micro-home.

"To make these houses affordable, you have to have an affordable lot," Vear said.

Vear, who also sits on the planning board in Winslow, said the town is considering a change to its rules that would allow for what he says is a huge demand for small houses.

As he concluded the tour of the micro-home on Cool Street, Vear's final thoughts on its most important advantage were likely to be shared by many.

"Price is everything," he said. "It's the number one thing people look for."

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at mhhetling@centralmaine.com

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