How to Build a Tiny House (or trailer) on a Shoestring Budget

If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s finding good stuff for cheap.

I built a business on this particular skill (buying and reselling high-end vintage clothing online) and have translated what I know about buying quality vintage clothing into buying/acquiring/finding really quality building materials for cheap (or free). 

I’m also REALLY frugal, in all aspects of my life. I kind of hate spending money. It’ just part of my lifestyle - save as much as possible, don’t spend unless absolutely necessary.

I mean, the original reason I started thinking about living in a renovated, off-grid trailer wasn’t for the noble environmental stuff, but because I REALLY didn’t want to pay rent or utilities. Basically, I didn’t want to have a real people job (I don’t do well with “authority”) and all the expenses that go along with that lifestyle. 

But when I started planning and building my tiny home, the COMET Camper, 5 years ago, I noticed one way that I didn’t really fit in.

Most people that I talked to about building and living in tiny houses were older, they were living in 3,000 sq. ft., 4-bedroom houses, they had 2 SUVs and a boat. Their plans were to use the money from the sale of their old, consumerist lifestyle to fund their tiny home. Well, this was GREAT for them, and good for YOU if you’re in the same situation, but it didn’t apply to me at all. 

I was broke (like, I had a $100 of my own money) and a college student, I was living in a room in a shared house. I didn’t have “assets” and I didn’t have any “savings” at all. 

What I did have was motivation, a need, desire, persistence, and a little bit of luck. Oh, and I had a plan. You’ve got to have a plan. 

Because “no” is not in my vocabulary, and I knew that renovating and living in a vintage trailer was my new plan, I got to work thinking of as many ways as I could for making something out of nothing.

I had no money, no trailer, no assets or any way of funding my tiny trailer build project. But with a lot of hard work and a lot of time, I made it happen.

This guide is for everyone who was in my place: not a lot of money, a lot of drive and ambition, and the desire to design and build your own tiny house with no budget. It’s for the young people just out of high school and college, with no house or car to sell to fund their home, with little money but few commitments and the time to spend. 

I’ll tell you exactly how I created an independent, comfortable home on wheels despite a $0 budget and no clue what the hell I was doing :)


Want to learn how to design and build your tiny house (and prepare to live tiny) on a budget? Dan Louche (Tiny Home Builders, author of The Tiny House Design and Construction Guide), are teaching the only Virtual Tiny House Workshop!

Two days. Two Experts. 8 Lessons and Trainings. Live Q & A and discussion!

Join us!



Salvage:

If you're trying to build a tiny home or trailer on a shoestring budget, you’re going to end up using a lot of second-hand and leftover building materials. This is actually more ecologically responsible too, so it’s a win/win. The one thing it does require: time. I like to find cheap salvage materials at the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store. 

I’ve haggled with them before and always get a GREAT deal. It’s a good idea to build relationships with the store closest to you, let them know the project you’re working on and ask if you can come in and pick through stuff before it hits the floor. Volunteer and get first picks of stuff as it gets donated. 

You can also salvage from the side of the road and in dumpsters at construction sites. I ALWAYS stop at the free stuff on the side of the road, just to check it out. A piece of plywood and some lumber doesn’t seem like much, but spend some time collecting your scores and it adds up. 

Check the FREE section on Craigslist - a lot of times people just need things gone ASAP and I have gotten so much perfectly usable stuff from people that were giving it away. I got a perfect 1950’s Formica-covered mahogany table that I re-used in a bunch of ways in the camper, lots of odds and ends, random pieces of antique wood - again, it all adds up.

BEFORE: Matt and I ripped out (removed) this antique wide-pine flooring with antique nails. We then spent a few days de-nailing the boards and trimming them up. Great example of finding salvage out of other people's renovations.

BEFORE: Matt and I ripped out (removed) this antique wide-pine flooring with antique nails. We then spent a few days de-nailing the boards and trimming them up. Great example of finding salvage out of other people's renovations.

AFTER: We organized the boards by size and length before storing them, all nails have been removed but we saved them for future projects.

AFTER: We organized the boards by size and length before storing them, all nails have been removed but we saved them for future projects.

Being really thrifty with your build requires you to step outside of your comfort zone.

Don’t be afraid to approach a home that is being renovated or constructed, talk to the builders and see if you can take their leftovers off of their hands. More often than not, they are happy to give you whatever you will take so that they don’t have to deal with it. The more people you talk to about your tiny house project, the more likely things will come to you from the universe for it.

This sounds woo woo but it’s totally true. Just put it out there that you’re looking for building materials, and see what comes back to you. 



Grants:

Let me be REALLY clear about this, because people have the wrong idea about what it means to receive a grant (and honestly it’s pretty insulting and rude when people say it to my face):
Receiving a grant IS NOT "free money". 

Applying for grants requires a tremendous about of time and effort, and there is never a guarantee that you will even receive a penny even after pouring your heart and effort into a proposal. It’s a numbers game, and you have to apply to way more grants than you need because most of them will not work out. 

If you have the drive and writing skills, applying for grants can be a good way to help you fund your project if you have $0. 

To be honest:
I do not recommend doing this unless you absolutely must and have no other options for receiving funding. The reasons being, doing a project with grant money is incredibly frustrating and much more work than just doing a project (which is already frustrating, time consuming, and craziness). 

For example, I had to report all of my spending and provide receipts and documentation for everything I did. 

I also had to maintain the blog as part of the grant terms, which is really fun and awesome NOW, but began as something I was required to do and it was VERY difficult for me to work 14 hour days on the actual physical building of the trailer AND then write about it at the same time. 

You are not 100% independent - and whoever gave you the grant has expectations and requirements that you must fulfill. A lot of times this means meeting very strict deadlines. When you’re new to building and doing a project like renovating a trailer or building a tiny house, which both have tons of unanticipated hiccups and speed bumps, this can be very stressful. It sucks to have to call the people that were so generous to you and explain why you’re behind on your schedule, why you can’t meet their deadlines, and why you’ve let them down. That part is really not fun. 

Also, you’re house has to be much more than just your house. In order to qualify for any type of grant, you really have to be serving a purpose larger than yourself. You can’t get a grant just because you want a house to live in. You have to benefit the larger community. So yes, you might get a few hundred or thousand dollars to do your project, but you are required to jump through a lot of hoops and your home and life becomes very public. 

In my position, I had no other choice. And having never applied for or gone through the “grant process”, I really didn’t realize how much you are beholden to the givers of grants for the lifetime of your project. In hindsight, I would have thought long and hard about the pros and cons of funding your own home this way. It was both exciting, humbling, and stressful.  



Partnerships:

Another way to save money on your tiny house build is to form partnerships with companies, brands, people and products that you will use in your project. Like grants, this is NOT “free stuff”. In fact, it is the opposite of free. It takes a lot of time, a lot of rejection, and a lot of work to build relationships with brands and create partnerships that benefit both you and the other party. 

I have a lot of partnerships with various companies, big and small, as you can see in the sidebar of my blog. I call them “sponsors”. Some of them provided me with materials at cost, some gave me a small discount, and some generously donated entire items to the COMET project. 

I did a LOT of cold calling in the first few months of the COMET Camper project. So many people said no, laughed at me, discouraged me, and told me to get lost (one person I reached out to even went on a 20 minute rant about how I couldn’t make a difference in the world because I was too young).

But for every ten people that turned me down and made me feel shitty, one awesome person told me they would love to support what I was doing. Every time I was about to give up, I would get a reply to my many emails and someone would say “yes”. That kept me going. 

Creating and building those relationships is only half the work though. You then need to make sure you make it worth your partners’ time and donation, by spreading the word about them and continuing working with them throughout the process. Like I said, it isn’t just “free stuff” , it’s a contract between you and the company that benefits everyone involved. It is a lot of extra work, but if you have the time (and not so much the money) then it can be one way to make your project happen on a tight budget. 



Sell what you DO have to fund the project:

Reality check! You need to get rid of a LOT of stuff before you move into your tiny house or little trailer. Lucky for you, you can kill two birds with one stone by doing this. 

When I decided that I was going to renovate what was once just another old 1969 Avalon and create, design, and live in what would become the COMET Camper, I knew I had to downsize big time. My biggest weakness and downfall? Vintage clothes.

Holy shit, I had a crazy amount of vintage clothing. Shoes, accessories, housewares, fabric - if it was old, retro, cute, sparkly or unique I bought it. During that time, I was actually spending a lot of time on Etsy day dreaming about how cool it would be to start my own little business. But I didn’t know what to sell. Finally it hit me (on the head, when it literally fell out of my closet shelf and landed on my face), that I had all the inventory I needed. I was living in a vintage clothing boutique, I just hadn’t put two and two together yet. 

So I set out to let go of 99% of what I owned and make money to fund my tiny home project in the process. I set up an Etsy shop, listed all my clothes, shoes etc, and watched as the money rolled in and my former life got packed up into USPS boxes and shipped out.

This process felt SO GOOD.

I mean, donating stuff to goodwill is fun too, but making money selling your stuff is REALLY motivating. And it happened faster than I thought it would. I suddenly had a bit of cash to buy materials, water tanks, fixtures, and hardware. 

You don’t have to set up an Etsy shop or start a small business to make money off of your old stuff (that you need to get rid of anyway). You can sell your stuff on Craigslist, eBay, local classifieds, and even through your Instagram or social media accounts. 



Ask for help:

Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Send out an email to your family and friends explaining that you are building a tiny home (or trailer) on a budget, and that any materials, tools, and other stuff will help you get there. 

When I needed plywood, I sent out an email to my local list-serve that I subscribe to. I explained what I was doing and what types of materials I needed. I was overwhelmed with the response I got.

People invited me to raid their homes and garages and sheds. I drove around town picking up piles of lumber, plywood, fabric, old tools, and more. Someone even gave me all the power tools they no longer used (SO generous and amazing). 

This all happened because I asked. I wasn’t afraid of coming off as cheap or poor, I was as classy and grateful as could be and people were glad to make some space in their garages by donating their scraps to me. 

So make a list of everyone you can think of, contact people on Social Media, and put you and your project out there. Like I said earlier, building a tiny home on a tiny budget is possible, but you have to do things outside of your comfort zone. You have interact with others, ask for assistance, and negotiate like a boss. 

Oh, and remember to write everyone a nice, personal thank you card :)

This is Sicily's house, from La Petite Maison. Her home is a great example of asking the community for help - when we interviewed Sicily she told us all about how many people in her town had come to help her with the build!

This is Sicily's house, from La Petite Maison. Her home is a great example of asking the community for help - when we interviewed Sicily she told us all about how many people in her town had come to help her with the build!



ReStore: 

If you don’t find them on the side of the road or free on craigslist, get your windows and doors at the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store. They’ve got so many windows, doors, cabinet sets, insulation and more for really good prices.

This antique door was found salvaged and cut down to size. Many people need to cut down the door for their home, so buying a used, salvaged, cheap door is a good idea since you're going to be modifying it anyway.

This antique door was found salvaged and cut down to size. Many people need to cut down the door for their home, so buying a used, salvaged, cheap door is a good idea since you're going to be modifying it anyway.

Windows and doors bought new are OUTRAGEOUSLY expensive (when you’re spending 30% of your entire house budget on a window you know something is out of whack). It’s true, what’s available second hand might not be the most technologically advanced and insulated option, but in 150 sq. ft., you don’t need to be so concerned with that. 



Buy a trailer for parts:

Those tiny appliances that you see in tiny houses are usually from an RV catalog, and when purchased new they can be really expensive (because they are so specialty, and RVing is a luxury past-time, etc).

If you can find a cheap, older trailer to harvest parts from, you can save a ton of money on appliances, fixtures and more.

If you can find a cheap, older trailer to harvest parts from, you can save a ton of money on appliances, fixtures and more.

One really good way to get a LOT of materials and appliances for cheap is to buy a used camper trailer and strip it for parts (and materials). 

You can find a decent trailer (doesn’t have to be perfect if you’re stripping it) for less than a few hundred bucks. From the trailer I would strip all the appliances, all the metal (aluminum), fixtures and RV specific things you’ll want in your house, and wood if it’s in decent shape.

Depending on the year of the trailer, different things will be in better shape than others. 

For example, if you want nice new appliances, buy a newer used trailer to part-out, but know that the wall and building materials will be shit (plastic and particle board).

But if you find yourself an older trailer, the appliances might be dated but the other materials will be higher quality and more restorable. 

If you’re thinking about using a used trailer for your tiny home’s wheeled base, please have someone who knows what they’re doing look at it with you. That really needs to be assessed on a case by case basis, and oftentimes buying a used trailer that requires special welding and repairs is actually more expensive than just buying a new trailer to your tiny house specs.  

PRO-TIP: Don’t try to re-use an ancient refrigerator in your tiny house, they were super inefficient in the 50’s and 60’s (even though they looked cool). 



Dumpster Diving:

The dumpster giveth! I’ve been dumpster diving since high school (don’t judge me, they throw away tons of perfectly good stuff every day) and if you know how to do it, it’s a great resource. 

Obviously you need to be respectful of where you’re dumpster diving. Don’t go during the day when customers and managers are around, they don’t want to deal with you. If the cops come just be nice to them and explain what you’re doing, if they tell you to leave just leave. 

Almost every store in every strip mall has a dumpster where they through away pallets, materials, supplies, etc. If you are dumpstering, talk to the person in charge and see if you can strike a deal. This really depends on every individual place and their attitude, but it’s worth a shot. 



Blogging:

What happens when you put your story out there and ask for help? The universe responds!

And by "the Universe", I mean awesome internet friends that you haven’t met yet. 

Having the CometCamper blog has been all sorts of amazing. One of the many benefits of blogging is that you have a place to ask for materials, donations, and help (in a not-annoying but super friendly way!). 

Obviously, having a blog is a ton of work and is a big "give and take" - you need to put REALLY good stuff out there before you ask for something in return. But every once in a while I would put out a call for a certain part, material, or resource, and someone amazing would offer to help me out, because they had something they no longer needed that I did. 

mariahandmattcometcamper.jpg

A lot of times when I’m looking at tiny houses online, I am shocked by the prices quoted for even a DIY build. I look at the spec sheet and mentally I immediately cut down about 50% of the cost using these methods that I've described above.

If you're willing to put in a bit of work and time, you can save so much money. For those of us without big budgets trying to make a home, these resources are invaluable!

Remember to be kind, remain open to opportunity, ask for help, and say thank you. Those little tips go a LONG way.
 


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