Real Estate

Buy the Way: A family of three shares a tiny home they can bike to

the Penner's tiny home on the gulf islands in BC Photo courtesy Justine Penner

The search: For Justine and Olivier Penner*, the search for a weekend getaway started with a desire for a little more elbow room. The couple had been renting a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver since 2011, and in 2018, when their daughter was four years old, they started looking for land that they could enjoy and that would be an investment they could pass along to their daughter.

Most importantly, they didn’t want to spend more than $100,000. “That’s a modest amount, unless you wanted to take on a mortgage,” says Justine. “And both of us are very debt-averse.” Olivier was keen to travel without a car, and so they narrowed their search to the Gulf Islands, which is accessible by ferry after a short bike or bus ride from the city (though they have a car and a cargo e-bike for transport when necessary).

They found a spot that looked ideal: a 1/2-acre plot of land in the woods where they could tent camp, that was a 20-minute walk to local beaches and close to the ferry. And it was potentially within their budget—if they could just get the list price down from $140,000.

The compromise: They researched the history of the land and discovered it had sold for $68,000 the year previous, so they had some hope of bringing the cost down—but unfortunately, their initial offer of $100,000 was quickly declined. But a few months later, Olivier noticed that the land still hadn’t sold. They asked their realtor to re-engage with the seller, and—after rallying a little more money—negotiated a price both sides could live with: $113,000. “I joked with Olivier that we just bought a really expensive camping spot,” says Justine.

The silver lining: Tent camping was the plan for the near future—until they learned their friend, Angela, had built a tiny house on another, more challenging-to-access island. She was hoping to find a place to move it to that was less remote. Local bylaws stated that so long as they kept the wheels on the 16-by-9-foot cabin, the tiny home could legally be “parked” and inhabited for up to 90 days a year as a recreational vehicle—meaning no camping for Justine and Olivier and a closer getaway for Angela and her partner, Daniel. The four of them hammered out a five-year time-share agreement in writing—and they divvied up the $5,000 expense to move the tiny home onto the property (thanks to highway permits and making the cabin road-worthy), along with ongoing maintenance costs. The getaway has been just what the family of three was looking for. “There’s enough room for us to sleep in the loft. We put up little lights, and it’s just naturally cozy,” says Justine.

*All names have been changed

Owner advice: Lessons learned from sharing a tiny home

Cover all the details
The couples spent hours creating what they describe as their “MOU”—Memorandum of Understanding—that lasts for five years. It covers how expenses and time at the place are shared and, perhaps more importantly, what happens if someone pulls out of the agreement early and how they would handle it. At the end of five years, they’ll discuss the arrangement for the tiny home again.

Put it in writing
The group uses Google Docs to track everything. There’s nothing formal that says who gets which weekend—“and I wouldn’t expect anyone to block out the whole summer,” says Justine—but so long as either party doesn’t exceed their allotted 45 days, it’s flexible.

Be prepared for some conflict
“You can never anticipate all possible misunderstandings,” says Justine. Lucky for the group, she’s a skilled mediator, so they’ve quickly dealt with anything that comes up. A group WhatsApp channel keeps communication lines open—and they make sure they get together for dinner at least once a quarter to discuss any issues that arise. “We have a pretty high commitment to each other and the friendship,” she says.

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