It’s official. I’m moving in with my boyfriend of five years. But, of course, I can never do anything normally. Instead of renting an apartment, we’ve chosen to renovate an Airstream trailer and travel the country.
This journey began last January when I discovered the tiny house movement on my Pinterest while apartment searching. The social movement aims to downsize and minimize our capitalistic lives. I immediately fell in love. In case you haven’t heard about the craze or seen the television shows, tiny houses are homes under 500 square feet. They can be apartments, traditional homes, shipping containers, bus conversions, RVs, travel trailers, cabins on skids, or even stick-built houses on trailers (THOWs). The possibilities are endless! I was particularly fascinated by the latter. If we had a THOW, we could bring our house with us while working in National Parks.
Despite my initial fascination with THOWs, Spencer and I decided that renovating an Airstream would be the best choice for us. Why? Well, I’ll tell you.
WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, HERE ARE OUR TOP FOUR REASONS WHY WE’LL BE RENOVATING AN AIRSTREAM INSTEAD OF BUILDING A TINY HOUSE.
Our biggest reason for going tiny is mobility. Our current intention is to travel the country working at parks as either seasonal rangers or camp hosts. We’ll likely be moving around every six months and so we need to be mobile. When looking at apartments back in January, this was my main concern with renting a space. As a couple traveling together, there is no way we could move the entire contents of our apartment every six months like some seasonal rangers do. A THOW would allow us to take both our possessions and our home with us wherever we wander.
But my dad pointed out the challenges of moving frequently with a THOW. Since most THOWs are stick-built like a traditional house, they are significantly heavier than other travel trailers. Tiny houses on wheels can easily exceed 10,000 lbs, which requires a one ton truck to tow. THOWs also employ traditional roofs, which are less aerodynamic, ultimately leading to lower gas mileage. While THOWs are great for skirting housing regulations, they aren’t as practical for frequent travel as travel trailers.
I initially resisted the idea of a traditional travel trailer though, partly because (while more practical for frequent travel) they aren’t built for long term usage. However, this is primarily an issue with newer trailers; older trailers like the original aluminum type were built to be more durable. Due to these factors, I would prefer to tow an older, light-weight and aerodynamic aluminum trailer any day.
So, our criteria for mobility definitely ruled out apartments, traditional homes, shipping containers, cabins on skids, and other more permanent housing options. Mobility can be an issue with THOWs, but it didn’t completely rule them out as an option.
I know. I know. It’s always about money, it’s it? Well, money was a significant factor in our decision to go tiny and the most important factor to Spencer.
After researching local apartments, Spencer and I quickly realized that rent costs could become a significant portion of our income. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m looking to avoid the rat race. I refuse to be enticed into buying things I can’t afford just so I can work off that debt for the rest of my life. I also refuse to throw away money on something I will never own. And a THOW seemed the perfect affordable investment…until I did more research.
I’ll be frank with you. While Spencer and I aren’t starving college students, we are just starting out and we don’t have the financial resources to purchase a tiny house shell, a RV, or even a new travel trailer. Of course, it’s entirely possible to build an inexpensive THOW, but that requires more time and skill than Spencer and I possess. We wanted to buy a professionally built tiny house shell because it would allow us to finish and customize our space rather than worrying about constructing stable walls. Unfortunately, the low estimates we received were $30,000 or more: without electrical, without plumbing, without furnishings. We don’t have that kind of money. Period.
Plus, there’s the issue of resalability. Spencer and I view this purchase as an investment, so resalability is important to us. The current market for pre-owned THOWs and bus conversions is rather small, but from what I’ve seen it’s not looking so good. THOWs and buses are incredibly customizable, which makes it more difficult to find potential buyers. Pre-owned RVs and travel trailers have a larger market base, although they do depreciate over time. Airstreams are special. The name brand and iconic look of Airstreams not only make them incredibly resalable, but a good restoration can fetch a huge chunk of change. Don’t believe me? Check out Airstream Classifieds.
So, the issue of money ruled out three possible tiny house types. Professionally built THOWs and RVs cost way too much for us. But, on the other hand, DIY THOWs or bus conversions are too much of a project. We needed something in the middle.
Travel trailers (and Airstreams specifically) fit the bill. Airstreams serve as great shells, which we can gut and customize to our heart’s desire. Although slightly expensive because of their high resalability, project Airstreams are well within our budget and fit all our criteria.
Aesthetics was what ultimately decided the issue for me. Now, I admit that I’m a little vain. After all, the aesthetic of a traditional house was what drew me to THOWs in the first place. There are some really pretty tiny houses out there. Initially, I resisted my father’s suggestion to buy a traditional trailer largely because of aesthetics. I hate the cheap, plastic-looking exterior of most trailers. I could not imagine myself living in one. Not to mention, I desperately wanted to escape the white-trash stereotype associated with living in a trailer.
Then he mentioned Airstreams and I immediately did a 360.
I adore vintage Airstreams! They have a classic profile, beauty, and Americana charm. Admittedly though, I come from a household that owns…oh…eight+ restored, unique vintage cars, so I may be a little biased. It was easy to imagine myself living in an Airstream not only because of their beauty, but also because I come from a vintage-obsessed family. After doing more research, I fell in love with 70s Airstreams in particular. For some unknown reason, I just hadn’t thought of Airstreams as travel trailer before. So, aesthetics was an important factor in my decision to renovate a silver bullet.
#4: CONCERN FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Finally, my desire to go tiny is also motivated by a concern for the environment. Not only does living small reduce your physical footprint, it also reduces your carbon footprint. For example, it’s easy to run a tiny house entirely off of solar power. The lifestyle forces awareness of your impact; you have a greater awareness of the amount of trash you produce and the electricity you use.
Since studying historic preservation in college, I’ve learned some interesting things about the environment. Preservationists attest that, “The greenest building is the one that’s already there.” Why? Because the energy to build it has already been expended. The timber has been cut, the mortar mixed, the labor exerted. Demolishing old buildings to build something new, even if it’s LEED Certified, is not energy efficient.
So, the best thing about renovating an Airstream versus building a new THOW is, you guessed it, reusing materials! There are a lot of really cool THOWs out there using reclaimed materials (many of which I have pinned), but the framework of a THOW is always new lumber or metal for structural purposes. This makes complete sense from an engineering standpoint and I’m not bashing this choice. It’s just important to me to reuse as many materials as possible during construction to reduce my carbon footprint. Starting with an old Airstream shell fulfills this intention.