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October 22, 2016

Our Hunt for Affordable Housing

A huge part of our early retirement plan involved selling our expensive home in the Los Angeles area, which has appreciated significantly since we purchased it four years ago, and finding something significantly less expensive. This has proved much more challenging than I anticipated.

Weather’s Worth
As I’ve said before, I accepted we would probably need to relocate out of southern California in order to find housing in the price range we were looking for. My primary requirement was for our new home to have decent weather (good public schools were also a necessity). Unfortunately, nowhere in the country has weather anywhere near asnice as southern California. That probably has a lot to do with why real estate prices are so high here, but it doesn’t help me buy a cheap home to retire in.

I looked hard for affordable houses between San Francisco and San Diego and couldn’t really find anything that met our needs. I concluded if I was going to find something acceptable I would have to get creative.

A traditional yurt.
Yearning for a Yurt
My first thought for cheap housing was to find an unwanted plot of land near LA and put a tiny house on it. After studying tiny houses and thinking about what was needed in a home, I concluded they were just too small to be practical. Then I remembered an episodeof HGTV’s “Tiny House Hunters,” in which a woman buys land in the Los Angeles area and constructs a yurt on it, all for something like $60,000. This seemed like a perfect plan.

Most yurt producers offer a 30-foot diameter model, and there’s at least one company offering a 33-foot diameter yurt. That translates to more than 850 square feet of living space, plus room for a loft, which seems far more reasonable for a family than the 200-300 square feet in most tiny homes.
I started looking into yurts very seriously, finding potential lots to buy and spending lots of time coming up with potential floor plans for the yurt. You can see my favorite floor plan I came up with below.
My hypothetical 33-foot diameter, 4-bedroom, 2-bath yurt.
Unfortunately, my yurt dreams turned into a nightmare as soon as I started researching the legality of living in one. I know some people do it, but I cannot find a single yurt approved for legal habitation in the state of California. As much as I like to think of myself as a rebel, I’m not inclined to risk my family being thrown out on the street by government officials when they discover we’re living in a structure that doesn’t meet insulation requirements or the fire code. I resisted it for a while, but I eventually accepted a yurt probably wasn’t meant to be, so I turned my attention to another unconventional option.

Casa de Containers?
As I mentioned before, the supposed issues preventing yurts from being legal for habitation revolved around insulation and the fire code. These seemed like problems that would be easy to overcome with a house built from shipping containers.

The basics seemed reasonable. A standard 8' x 40' shipping container is 320 square feet, so three connected together would create a reasonable amount of living space. Containers in decent condition can easily be found for around $4,000, so the price was right.
Since I learned nothing from the yurt debacle, I immediately spent a lot of time experimenting with potential arrangements and floorplans.
My best three-container floorplan.
Once again my hopes were dashed when further research revealed California (shockingly) isn’t a fan of people living in shipping containers either. There are some “shipping container homes” out there, but they all tend to be conventional construction with shippingcontainers crammed into them. Even those were apparently a nightmare to get approved.

Rational Regulation Rant
I’m going to take a minute to discuss just how absurd it is that California won’t let its citizens live in unconventional structures. I understand the need for basic standards, especially in towns, but we should be able to live in any structure we want if we are out in the country with few neighbors to offend. Let’s break down the alleged problems with a yurt.

Lack of Insulation
As far as I can tell, the only reason to require minimum levels of insulation are to reduce energy use. I get that, but it doesn’t always make sense, especially in a moderate climate like southern California. When the outside temperature is almost always comfortable, there’s no need for a lot of insulation.
In the winter, we would probably only need to use any form of heater a few weeks per year, and even then we would only run it a few hours a day. It’s not like we would be burning heating oil 24/7 all winter long.

In the summer we would rely on the natural ventilation properties of the yurt to stay cool. I didn’t even plan on having an air conditioner.
Image by Yurts of America
So, how much energy would a thick layer of insulation actually save? Very little.

Fire Code
This requirement makes more sense to me than the insulation rules, but it still seems silly. If I understand the risks associated with the type of structure I choose to live in, I should be allowed to live in that structure. End of story.

As for a shipping container, I cannot fathom why anyone would take issue with living in one. It is a giant steel box, making it virtually indestructible. It would be the most structurally sound home imaginable. I think this just comes down to inspectors and regulators being scared by the unconventional.

To be Continued…
We did eventually secure our retirement housing, which I will detail in my next post, so stay tuned.

If you have any experience with unconventional housing in California, I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Affiliate Recommendation:
Who needs hotels?
If you would like to stay in a yurt (likely only approved for temporary habitation) or a bunch of other great places, try Airbnb. You can usually find unique lodging cheaper than a hotel. We used it throughout Europe and highly recommend it.

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