America has fallen in love with tiny homes, but love can be blind. As the tiny home movement sweeps the nation, charming people with its imaginative design and eco-friendly possibilities, it's easy to forget that living small can be a big challenge.
"A lot of people romanticize it but the truth is, you have to recognize the challenges, difficulties and hard choices that go along with this lifestyle," said Leah Atwood, 33, of El Sobrante, California. "In my experience, some people can handle it and some people can't."
For the past six months, Atwood has been living in a 90-square foot home. The founder of a start-up agricultural initiative, Wild & Radish, she is currently working to create an eco-village of tiny homes. Though "living tiny" suits her personality, she does not minimize the sacrifices and challenges that go with the lifestyle.
"What I miss most about living in a big house is being able to invite people over," she said. "I'm not able to entertain more than two people at a time now."
Living in a small space also means owning very few possessions. That takes some getting used to, as well.
"It forces you to be conscientious about the possessions you get attached to," she acknowledged. "And you can't interchange objects because you only have one of everything."
"I don't believe a true tiny life is a sustainable lifestyle for most people," observed Kristen Moeller, 48, the owner of a house she calls her "tiny mansion" in Conifer, Colorado. "It's like writing a book. Ninety percent of people say they want to do it, but only about 5 percent actually will."
Moeller and husband David Cottrell are among that 5 percent. They recently built a 500-square foot mountain retreat, which they currently share with two dogs (95-pound Rhodesian Ridgebacks) and a cat. She admits it's a daily challenge to live comfortably and harmoniously in such close quarters.
"To cook in the kitchen, we have to do ballet, negotiating around each other," she laughed. "Tiny house purists will say they can fold their clothes into tiny little corners and own one pair of shoes and like, a fork. Come on. Yes, your bed folds up, but how do you entertain people? On a wooden bench? How do you store big bags of dog food? Where do you put your rolling suitcases?"
Moeller and Cottrell lived most of their married life in a large and spacious "dream house," until it was destroyed by wildfire in 2012. Their decision to downsize drastically when they rebuilt was a carefully considered one, based on their personal philosophies: simplification, ecological responsibility, living harmoniously with the earth. Their journey was chronicled in the reality TV show "Tiny House Nation."
Each day, said Moeller, the joys and difficulties of living a tiny life are played out. Keeping their possessions at a minimum is an ongoing battle they must fight daily, with a zero-tolerance policy for clutter in the house. Anything large, or impossible to part with for sentimental reasons, must be stored in a cargo container on their property. They also own a yurt, where Moeller goes to conduct writing retreats, or when her tiny home closes in on her.
"The other day was my biggest struggle with being frustrated. I could hear David so loudly through the wall. He was talking on the phone and I was trying to write and create," said Moeller, whose book, "What Are You Waiting For?" was published during the planning of the house. "And it's going to be tougher this winter. At least right now we can go outside if we need to get away from each other."
If living tiny is a challenge, living in one with a roommate is doubly so, says urban design architect John Cetra, principal at CetraRuddy Architectural Design in New York City. In fact, the tiny home movement was originally a single-occupancy concept. But the economic recession and the public's desire for sustainable, eco-friendly housing quickly turned the idea into a flexible solution for a wide variety of people, including retirees, the homeless and young professionals seeking unique and affordable private homes. Nowadays, it is not unusual for two or more people to inhabit a tiny home.
And Cetra knows how challenging that can be, from firsthand experience.
"We had lights hanging from hooks, bikes hanging from the ceiling," recalled Cetra, who lived in a 250-square foot Manhattan studio with his wife, who was also an architect, for about five years.
"Our books were stored in kitchen cabinets. Because we needed a large drafting table, we sacrificed by getting a small bed. It was so small that every so often my wife would roll out of bed and wind up underneath the drafting table."
The couple eventually moved to into a roomier, 1,500-square-foot home outside the city. "It felt," he admitted, "like we'd gone to heaven."
"We suddenly had two giant bedrooms, an eat-in kitchen, a garden. We could have dinner parties, have relatives stay over. It was fantastic."
Many people who have tried living with limited space and possessions say it is a fun challenge in the beginning but almost impossible to sustain permanently. In addition, people assume tiny homes come with substantial cost savings, but that is not always the case. Enhancements to tiny home design, such as solar panels and retro-fitted interiors can hike up the price significantly.
"Our house is not anywhere near as cheap as we thought it would be," Moeller said. "We paid $220,000 to build this tiny mansion. Our solar panels were almost $20,000. A lot of the construction costs—excavating the building site, framing the house, the roof and the cost of labor—all that was extra."
A kit to build a house like Moeller's and Cottrell's costs about $75,000 (theirs was purchased from the Miami-based company, cabinfever.com). She said a good rule of thumb for anyone considering building tiny is to double the cost of the kit, which factors in the cost of materials, specialized construction and customized furniture.
"We know another family who lived in a tiny home. They say, 'Those were the best years of our lives.' However, they didn't stay there," Moeller noted. "But for us, this is truly our forever home. It's been a grand adventure, simplifying our lives and getting back to what matters."
—By Linda Federico-O'Murchu, special to CNBC.com.