How one Nova Scotia woman made her tiny home dream a reality
Sarah Johnson, 23, started following the tiny home movement when she was 13
This video is part of Unlocked: Housing stories by young Canadians, a national storytelling series by the CBC Creator Network. These personal stories, produced primarily by gen-Zers and millennials, reveal the challenges young Canadians face finding affordable housing, their creative solutions and their hopes for the future. You can read more stories here.
The tiny house movement caught Sarah Johnson's attention a decade ago. She was around 13 years old when she first saw a tiny home video.
"I was just really curious about how people were able to build their own structure and really have like a creative outlook on what they build," she said.
Now, Johnson is part of the community.
She built a 150-square foot tiny home on a trailer in Halifax during the pandemic, and lives on her grandfather's property in Truro, N.S.
Video produced for the CBC Creator Network by field producer Tieren Hawkins, associate producer Keigan Fisher, camera operator Joshua Saunders, sound recordist Joey Chapman and editor David Mullins.
It took about a year and a half to build the tiny home, including a few months off after an injury. Johnson did the work mostly on her own. Her dad helped her with a few projects, and her neighbours helped put the roof on.
She learned a lot from watching videos of others who've done the same. Other than building a treehouse with her dad in high school, she didn't have prior building experience.
"I think in the midst of it it feels like a long drawn out process, but it has been really rewarding," said Johnson.
The path home
Johnson was travelling when COVID-19 hit, and came back to Halifax. Her plans for the future were up in the air. She was looking into school and thought it would make sense to invest her money into a tiny house instead of rent.
She worked hard and saved up money for university, but then got a scholarship. She went to school for a year, before switching paths. Growing up with older siblings, and watching them pay for rent, she was mindful of the costs. She wanted to take a different route.
In July 2020, she bought a used trailer for $5,000 and sandblasted and painted it for $2,500. She started building her tiny home on the trailer that September.
In total, the project cost $30,000 for materials, including the trailer. The shell of the house is made from new materials. The interior is a mix of thrifted and refurbished, second-hand wood and materials from Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace.
She kept things minimal. For example, there's no wiring inside for electricity. She has a battery system that she'll hook up to solar panels eventually, but charges once a month now. She uses the washroom at her grandfather's place, or a bucket system. She fills up on water there, too.
She plans to get items like the solar panels and a compostable toilet eventually, and also plans to move the tiny home to her own property.
"The process to actually deciding to live in a tiny house, I would say that really came down to having flexibility in my life. Having financial stability," she said.
She's said she's able to work part-time at a bakery in Truro and is able to pursue her passion of photography and videography.
Tiny home regulations
Tiny homes on wheels are treated like camper trailers and don't have the same regulations as homes on foundations, Johnson said. She needed to have a physical home address, which is why she's on her grandfather's property. Her understanding is that you can't live in an RV full-time. Johnson plans to travel, and this will be a home base.
Carolyn Anne Hocquard, who started and runs the Facebook group Nova Scotia Tiny Home People, said many people come to the group asking what's allowed and where.
"It does seem pretty complicated because it depends on where they are and whether their tiny house is on a trailer or not," she said. "And I think a lot of people don't even think to specify that."
Rules around tiny homes on foundations have evolved, but it depends on where you are, she said. She's heard of some counties not allowing tiny homes on trailers.
"I think that regulations need to change to allow a lot more flexibility in terms of size of dwelling, but also community spaces," Hocquard said.
"Change can't happen fast enough because there are so many people who are in need of housing."
If you're planning to built a tiny home, Hocquard said to check the rules in your county. Some bylaws might say "tiny home" in the regulations, but people should look up the definition and ask if it means on a trailer or foundation and what size.
Johnson said living in a tiny home is not all glamour and it's not for everyone.
"Maybe also it's just a lifestyle for a season and that's OK," she said.
Johnson really appreciates the homesteading lifestyle, and what a tiny home can bring to your life. But there are challenges.
"There have been tears shed over the process of building and even just living in it and it being hard. I don't want to make light of that, but at the same time it is rewarding," she said.