The other day I got an email from a curious reader of this blog. Karen wanted to know:
"I was wondering your opinion on is a tiny house better or a camper? I could buy a camper now, but if I want to build a tiny house I will need to save up for a few years since I want to build it debt free. Thank you for your blog and support I always enjoy seeing something from you in my email."
Oooh, I thought, I get this question a lot. Both from clients, people I work with, and readers. So I’m addressing it head-on today.
To start, I don’t necessarily think a tiny house or a little camper is “better” than the other - but they’re definitely different and are suited to different people with different needs and lifestyles. Today I'll give you a framework for thinking about this question yourself.
Obviously I went with a camper over a tiny house on wheels.
I chose this option for a few reasons:
1. Budget - I had $0 to make a little home and the cheapest option was getting an old camper and slowly renovating it with used and salvage materials. You can read about how to build a tiny house or trailer on a tiny shoestring budget right here. >>
2. Mobility - I knew I wanted to travel. Campers are designed to move fairly easily. Just because a tiny house is on wheels doesn’t mean it’s easy to tow. I’ve learned since that I don’t like towing the vintage camper very much either (it’s kind of nerve wracking for me - it’s like a giant toaster swaying behind my on the highway!). For me, flexibility and mobility were very important. I was moving almost every 3 months at the time I got the camper and so easy to pick and go was a priority.
3. Sustainability - I am committed to re-using, re-purposing, and recycling things that most people would throw away. We live in a throw away culture. My camper was slated to be towed away to the dump if I didn’t take it (YES - CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS? IT WAS GOING TO BE CRUSHED AND BURIED LIKE GARBAGE. This makes me ill). I would much rather keep something out of the waste stream and re-purpose an older trailer than build a “new” tiny house even if it was with recycled or salvaged materials. I just couldn’t imagine NOT using something that was in pretty good shape.
4. Aesthetics - What can I say, I love vintage stuff. I love these goddamn campers. They make my heart beat faster. I love them.
So what’s better FOR YOU? A camper, an RV or a tiny house?
I think it depends on your goals and what you want your home to do and have. I have the people I work with ask themselves these kinds of questions:
Where will you live?
Climate can be a factor - campers are not as warm as tiny homes. My camper is super cold in the winter, not only because it’s not insulated too well (even though we re-insulated everything when we took the walls off), but also because the windows don’t close very tightly. I wrote about how we stay warm in the winter right here >>
So if you want to live in a Northern climate, consider a cozy tiny home. If you’re living in the desert, the South, any moderate climate - you should be happy in a camper.
As a follow up, do you plan on being mobile, and if so, full-time or occasionally?
Tiny homes are on wheels but are NOT easy to move, if you want mobility go with a camper. Also think about your frequency of mobility. Will you want to move once a week? Once a year? The more often you want to move, the smaller your camper should be (in my opinion!). If you only plan to move once every few years, you might decide a tiny home is worth it even though it’s difficult to tow and park.
Is sustainability a major priority for you and your design?
Re-purposing an older camper is obviously more environmentally responsible than building a tiny home from scratch. A camper might be anywhere from 70% - 95% already finished, and in your case might be move-in ready!
When I got the COMET is was already being lived in full-time by the previous owner, so it was “technically” ready to move in to. But of course I wanted to freshen it up with (no-VOC) paint, new (organic, non-toxic) cushions, and all the other renovations I did from structural stuff to cosmetic stuff. Of course you can build a tiny home out of salvaged materials, and that’s great! But you can’t beat re-purposing something that already exists.
If travel is a big part of your plan, how often will you travel?
Do you want to take your home with you, or travel in different modes while leaving your home parked? Sometimes Matt and I leave the COMET Camper to travel in the Element for a few months. If you’re not planning on “being home” for half of the year, you might want to consider that as part of your decision making process.
What's your budget for building your tiny home or mobile dwelling (ball park)?
Campers are cheaper than tiny homes, for the most part. Tiny homes are relatively expensive because of the trailer, the finishes, and the new lumber you have to purchase. If you go for a used camper, the “frame” or the “shell” is already built! All you need to do is renovate as little or as much as you want to suit your needs and style. My COMET Camper renovations cost about $7,000 total. To build a tiny home on wheels with similar specs would have cost more like $20,000. Maybe more (or less - depending on how resourceful you are).
How to Save Money on Solar Power (PV) For Your Tiny Home, Camper, or RV
I personally went with the camper option because of budget and mobility. I didn't want to wait to save up for a tiny home. I wanted a solution that I could afford right when I needed it. Plus, living in the camper is cheaper than renting an apartment or room while you “save up” for a tiny home. So it could be a good “first phase” (Like Kathleen and Greg over here).
You can always start with a camper, see how you like it (try out tiny life for not too much $), figure out what you don't like about it (this will surprise you!), save money while living in the camper and save up for a tiny home down the line.
Whether you choose to hit the road in a vintage camper or RV, or settle down in a tiny home on wheels is entirely your choice. I hope that asking yourself these questions has made it easier for you to decide, if you’re on the fence.
I don't think one is better than the other it just depends on your needs and what you want, where you will live, your preferred lifestyle, mobility, etc.
I hope this helps! Share your opinions, experiences, or stories in the comments!
RELATED: I wrote an article last year for Tiny Lake House about which tiny home foundation is right for you. You can read that here!