This family gave up on climbing rents in Canberra for a tiny house, but say clearer rules could have made it easier

Laura and Jack Harris were renting in Canberra with their four-year-old daughter when they realised it would be years before they could buy their own home.

Key points:

  • The Harris family moved to a property outside Canberra where they installed their tiny house
  • Like many younger people, they were concerned about being able to save for a house deposit 
  • Tiny houses are an attractive alternative housing option, but some say more needs to be done by governments to support the small homes

The Harris family was competing in a rental market higher than any other capital city while facing rising property prices. Keen to save and have some hope of one day owning their own residence, they made a radical decision.

"The prices in Canberra are so high that we couldn't save for a deposit," Laura Harris said.

"We saw living in a tiny house as a way out."

They invested in their small home on wheels, a choice that enabled them to start paying less for a roof over their head.

But the change also meant leaving Canberra for a property over the border in Murrumbateman, sharing land with Laura's parents.

Like many other Canberra workers, Mr Harris now commutes for 40 minutes one-way to the city, where he works as a chef.

But it is a lifestyle the couple has embraced, in the hope they can one day buy a home they previously thought was out of reach.

The joys of living small The tiny house includes space for two bedrooms above the living areas.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

For Jack Harris, tiny house living isn't always easy.

For one thing, he is over six feet tall.

"Being a tiny house, everyone just pictures smaller people living in them," he said.

But there are positives too.

"It has given us more time to spend together as a family," he said.

"[You are] really appreciating the smaller things in life."

They were also attracted to tiny house-living as a more sustainable and minimalist approach to life.

"It's a great way to connect with your family and not having too many things, and clouding up your life with things that aren't that important," Mr Harris said.

The Harrises say the tiny house has enabled them to spend more time together.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

The biggest obstacle, however, was working out where they were allowed to put their tiny home and the planning regulations that applied.

They quickly discovered there were huge variables depending on the jurisdiction and, within a given state, the rules of the council where it would be located.

The restrictions caused them a lot of anxiety as they prepared to shift their life and that of their daughter to the tiny home.

"Even just the clarification of what a tiny house is would make it easier to decipher the planning laws," Mr Harris said.

"If those rules were streamlined a little bit it would clarify it a lot."

The challenge of finding a place to park The Harris family installed their tiny house on a block of land owned by family.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Fred Schultz, who runs Fred's Tiny Houses, has worked with people for years to make their tiny house dream come true.

He said many people struggled to get clear advice on whether their house was allowed or they simply built it without obtaining government approval.

"People have been living tiny for a long time and not wanting to be discovered because they're living in essentially illegal dwellings," Mr Schultz said.

But Mr Schultz said there was a growing appetite for tiny houses as people faced large mortgages and the environmental concerns associated with running a larger home.

"I think we're in a very, very crucial time for tiny houses," he said.

"We have the freedom to build a caravan ourselves — you can pick up the hammer, and you can do it legally.

"Some of it is affordability, a lot of it has to do with people appreciating their footprint on the planet, and trying to live with their values in line with a smaller footprint of the use of resources on the planet."

'A broken housing system' The Ginninderry development includes a tiny house, called Mini G, which is on display to demonstrate alternatives to traditional houses.(Airbnb)

Nicole Gurran, an expert in sustainable urban planning at the University of Sydney, said the fact that tiny houses were becoming a necessity for some, even temporarily, was a concern.

"We do hear of people trying all kinds of techniques to address their housing needs, and it clearly is an example of the broken housing system," Professor Gurran said.

Some developments are starting to incorporate tiny house living into their designs.

Ginninderry, a development under construction in the ACT, is encouraging buyers to consider a tiny house, as long as it is built as a secondary residence.

Those behind the development, which is being rolled out in partnership with the ACT government, have included provision for tiny houses as long as the block is at least 500 square metres in size, and if the tiny house itself meets adaptability requirements.

It is part of Ginninderry's overall aim to provide a diverse range of housing styles, but it comes with the price tag of a much larger primary residence.

Professor Gurran said while this went some way to help, by providing an alternative, governments needed to shift their focus to other solutions as well.

"The traditional aspiration for many Australians has been the large family home on its detached block, and that will probably continue, but we need to think a lot more carefully about the sustainability of that traditional suburban housing model," she said.

"And we also need to embrace the apparent appetite for smaller and more diverse housing typologies."

For the Harrises, the choice to move to tiny living has proved fruitful, and the family encouraged others to do the same, if they could find somewhere to put their small homes.

"It's a great option for anyone looking to get out of the rental market," Mr Harris said.


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