Here's What They're Not Telling You About Those Amazon Tiny Houses

DIY tiny house seen in backyard
credit: Amazon
The Allwood Eagle Vista.

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It's not a stretch to say that tiny houses are having a moment. Especially when you can, in theory, order one straight from Amazon. After all, the Sears Catalog homes from the early 1900s also had their time in the spotlight. According to the National Association of Home Builders, 63% of millennials would consider buying a tiny home; 53% of Gen X buyers and 45% of baby boomers would, too. There was even a startup that recently offered to pay homeowners to build a tiny house in their backyard.

So when aspiring homeowners began seeing Cabin Kits starting at only $8,450, the deal seemed too sweet to pass up. Some of the most popular models are manufactured by Allwood Outlet, a family-owned online retailer of "eco-friendly Millwork and Engineered Wood Products manufactured and imported primarily from Scandinavia and the Baltic States," according to the company's site.

Robin Pekkala, General Counsel for the company, explains that the cabin kits are manufactured in either Estonia or Finland and then shipped to the U.S. Once you place your order, the kits are delivered via local carrier.

But the experts have a word to the wise: It's not as simple as adding to your cart and then moving into your shiny new structure.

You Need to Research Codes

Before you even begin construction, you need decide the actual definition of your new space. Is it a sauna? A tiny home? An RV? These things make a difference. According to Realtor.com, a tiny house is one that measures 400 square feet or less. If it has wheels, then it might qualify as an RV. These definitions are important because each comes with its own set of building codes — and those codes change from place to place.

The National Fire Protection Association 2017 report sheds some light on these codes. Anything that fits the definition of a dwelling (aka not for temporary housing or people passing through) is "generally subjected to the same building code regulations as any other home unless specifically exempted." These include automatic fire sprinklers, smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, and sanitation facilities (toilet, sink, and a tub or shower). Once you factor in requirements like this, the cost of that tiny house starts to add up.

"Accessory structures" are "structures accessory and incidental to a building on the same lot" — something that would probably apply to the spas and sheds also sold on Amazon. These are separate from tiny homes, so they don't fall under the same restrictions. It all starts to get complicated from there, especially depending on where you live. You need permits, you need to take into consideration climate changes ... the list goes on.

There Are Permits Involved, Too

Let's say you just want to build the Amazon tiny house in your parents' backyard, since they have one and you don't — that comes with restrictions, too.

In Los Angeles, for example, the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning allows accessory dwelling units (ADUs) with a site plan review if, among other requirements, it is "located more than 200 feet from publicly dedicated open space in any Fire Hazard Severity Zone." The Department defines an ADU as "a dwelling unit with a full kitchen and bathroom, which is an accessory use to a primary or main single family residence."

Your ADU application must include floor plans and building permits from the LA County Building and Safety Office. In addition, the maximum height "for new ADU or expanded portion of existing structure" is 25 feet. And you have to think about where it will permanently sit — the Santa Cruz County ADU Basics, for example, states that "factory built housing is legal to use as an ADU so long as it is attached to all required utilities and permanently mounted to an appropriate foundation on the site." According to Realtor.com, some experts say the foundation (depending on the type of unit) can cost thousands of dollars to set up properly. Some sources also suggest that a structure on a permanent foundation is more beneficial in terms of resale value.

If you decide, instead, to build the structure in seemingly the middle of nowhere (not in an existing backyard), that construction process still includes some important steps.

"You just have to understand what the permit process is and then there are inspections that need to happen when you get those permits," Mina M. Chow, AIA, NCARB and adjunct professor at the USC School of Architecture, tells Hunker. "You can't sell those on Amazon because every place is different."

Chow explains that normally, general contractors schedule inspections during different steps in the construction process. If a homeowner wants to act as their own contractor, they would need to set up these inspections themselves with the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. Normally, architects discuss the details with the city during a pre-design phase, Chow explains. Architects, contractors, or engineers deal with permits — which change depending on the city or jurisdiction. There are even some services that want to make the process easier.

"The best thing would be to go with a licensed contractor who knows the codes in the buyer's local area," Teresa Baker, President of LATCH Collective, a group that focuses on building and advocacy around alternative housing solutions, tells Hunker. "Location matters, and what is standard in rainy Washington may be essential for a home there, but not necessary in the Joshua Tree desert."

So, basically, you need to "do a ton of research before hitting that add to cart button." Or, Baker emphasizes, you could take the DIY route like LATCH collective does.

And if that all seems like a lot of extra hoops to jump through, that's because they are in place for safety reasons.

"What the codes try to ensure — if not guarantee — is that if there's some sort of major disaster, there's enough time for the occupants of the structure to leave without being hurt," Chow says.

While you might be tempted to take on all of it on your own, Chow points out that even the product descriptions of these kits recommend "assembly by a professional crew."

It Doesn't Come with Everything

DIY tiny house seen in backyard with dark roof
credit: Amazon

The Allwood Eagle Point Cabin comes with "durable, dense grain and slow grown Nordic Spruce wall planks, roof, and floor boards," among other pieces like "all nails, screws, fixings, handles, and door locks." But there's a section on items that are not included as well: "roofing materials" and "foundation materials under timbers such as cinder blocks."

Not to mention, a couple of other important factors are not included: electrical and plumbing. Hiring professional help to make sure you have everything you need in that respect will only add to the cost of building the structure.

"The reason why you're seeing such a huge response is because there's a huge problem that we have not been building affordable housing," Chow says. "So this is one of the responses in a society where you can reward people for being entrepreneurial."

Yet if you take a closer look at models like the Claudia, Allwood clearly says (in response to a customer question) that the structure is "a real cabin intended for recreational use but not a full time residence." You can also find saunas and other recreational structures on the site. So the responsibility is on the shopper to tell residential structures apart from other types.

Currently, the Claudia, Solvalla, and Arlanda models are the most popular kits. And the increased popularity doesn't seem to have changed the way these are made, at least in a substantial way.

"We've been using the same process for the past seven years of selling these kits," Pekkala says.

But what keeps the internet so interested in these structures, especially at this time?

What If Something Happens?

a screenshot of questions on a product page on Amazon
credit: Amazon

In many ways, the Amazon tiny house DIY kit frenzy is still nascent. There are plenty of detractors voicing their concerns, and many who are just plain wary.

"Overall, our collective feels that purchasing a tiny home on Amazon is not the smartest use of resources and is a risk to the consumer," Baker says. "Amazon is a conglomerate marketplace that will not protect us from poor purchasing decisions, and we can't always trust that what we see online. It may [be a] better use of resources to find a local, experienced builder and use the opportunity to build a custom home for yourself."

Chow urges potential buyers to also look into the warranty of these items. Unlike a smaller purchase you would normally make on Amazon, a DIY tiny house wouldn't be as easy of an item to return. And if you're injured by the tiny house, Chow asks, who is at fault? A product and a structure, after all, are totally different things.

When you click on warranty info for the Allwood Claudia, it leads you to a page that reads: "Please contact the seller directly for warranty information for this product. You may also be able to find warranty information on the manufacturer's website."

Pekkala says that the warranty does not cover injuries (but that so far none have happened) and that the parts are covered for five years.

Just the Beginning?

With the right amount of pressure on lawmakers, maybe the tiny house movement can continue gaining traction. Chow also wonders about an alternative target audience: professionals like herself who can fill in the gaps of knowledge (i.e. codes, electrical expertise) and just build the thing themselves.

On a more humorous note, the models have become inspiration for some intricately spun tales about how you might put the tiny house to use. One user commented on the Eagle Vista: "Good buy, I really enjoyed how there was free shipping included with my purchase. It was a quality home and I recommend it. All the rooms are a perfect size for me, my six cats and my two mini horses. 100% would buy again."

Someone has even asked if the kit can be set up in a basement, to which Allwood responded, "Yes it can." The possibilities are endless — as long as you follow all the right laws.


Eva Recinos

Eva Recinos

Eva Recinos is an associate editor at Hunker. You can reach her at eva@hunker.com.