In 2014, Idaho native Ivan Ellis Nanney did something unusual: He took a marketing job traveling the country with a giant concrete and plaster potato.
On The Famous Idaho Potato Tour, tourists can stop and take a photo with the giant potato, which is carted around the U.S. behind a red semi-truck. While on the tour, Nanney met a fellow Boisean named Kristie Wolfe, who turned the original six-ton potato into an Airbnb property.
As their friendship progressed, Nanney helped her set up more listings. The friendship inspired Nanney, who dedicates six months of the year for travel, to set up his own Airbnb property. He bought a parcel of land outside downtown Boise for $17,000, and spent another $17,000 to build a tiny home on that land, he says.
He listed it on Airbnb in June 2019, with a plan to live there himself for six months per year. But by mid-2020, it was so popular that Nanney decided to list it year-round and find other living accommodations in Boise.
This year, the tiny home has brought in $49,600 in revenue and counting, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.
"It became very popular," Nanney, 34, says. "It just didn't make sense for me to stay there at all. [The income] has become almost completely passive."
The revenue funds most of Nanney's travels, including annual trips to Sri Lanka, where he also earns money organizing tuk-tuk tournaments. It's lucrative enough that he's working on building two more rental properties, he says.
Here's how the tiny home came together.
After Nanney graduated from Boise State University, he spent nearly three years vlogging his travel abroad, then returned to U.S. to work with the Famous Idaho Potato Tour. The job allowed him to save a significant amount of money, and in late 2015, he spent $17,000 — a combination of "potato money" and earnings from freelance gigs — to buy his plot of land.
He spent an additional $17,000 over the next three-and-a-half years deconstructing an abandoned building on the lot and building a tiny home entirely from "second-hand materials," installing the electricity and a water line himself, he says.
The money came from a variety of freelance video jobs, including a six-month stint as an experience content creator for Cancun.com in 2018, Nanney adds.
Living in the tiny house full-time was pointless, given how much he wanted to travel. He figured it could house either family members while he was away — one had just gone through a house foreclosure at the time, he says — or paying renters.
"Looking at tiny houses and the costs, it just made sense to have a home base," Nanney says. "It was providing a back-up plan for family, then also providing that passive income to free me up so that I could pursue my passions and work on other projects and not be beholden to a mortgage."
Technically, the income isn't fully passive: Nanney still blocks off a couple of days each year to stay in the tiny home, so he can repair or improve the property.
He also works about two hours per week to organize stays, and pays a cleaner about $150 per week to manage the house while he's gone, depending on the number of bookings.
The tiny home's revenue comprises most of Nanney's yearly income, he says — and more importantly, it's shown him how to make money in a way that accommodates his globetrotting lifestyle.
Since 2019, Nanney has spent at least two months per year in Sri Lanka running Amazing Race-style competitions in three-wheeled open vehicles called tuk-tuks. The gig pays either $5,000 or 35% of the profits from the largest tournament each year, whichever is higher.
He also makes money helping other nearby Airbnb hosts maintain, repair and add new construction to their properties, including a Shipwreck-themed listing near Salmon, Idaho.
The tiny home's success prompted Nanney to develop two more Airbnb properties, too. The first is a $78,000 house in Grand View, Idaho — a small town about an hour south of Boise — which he bought in April 2021 with a $7,800 down payment.
The second is a nearby mountain property, which he co-owns with four family members. Their plan is to turn its current pole barn into a cabin. After it's listed, Nanney will receive a quarter of its earnings, he says.
"You can increase your income and reduce your debt while maximizing assets you already own," he says. "I don't like having things sit around when someone could be benefitting from it."
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