Our HOME. I still need to be pinched every once in a while because, in Hawaii, no one owns their own home outright at 25 years old. 2.5 years beats a 30+ year mortgage with full-time jobs, right?! We thought so too!
My husband and I started this tiny house journey in February 2015. Believe it or not, the original idea came from a low-budget tiny house documentary we watched on Netflix. My husband was absolutely sold after watching it, but I needed a whole lot of convincing. I eventually jumped on board, thank goodness, but it was not “love at first sight.” Once we sat down and worked on the basic pros and cons list, we realized that we couldn’t pass up this opportunity. The overall affordability of going tiny was the main driving force. Where we live, a one-bedroom Ohana (500 square feet or less) is between $1,600-$1850. Even at the low end of $1,600 a month for one year, we would have paid $19,200 to our landlord. At that monthly payment($1,600), we would pay off our home in less than 2.5 years.
We were right in the middle of planning a wedding (with only an 8-month engagement), I was in college working part-time, and my husband was working his fulltime graphic design job. It felt like a messy season in life to pick up such a huge project, but the busyness of life gave us an intense motivation to complete all of these projects before the deadline, day of the wedding. My husband and I both grew up in Hawaii and were well aware of the expensive housing market we would be entering by doing the norm. Let’s be real; moving off this Island was never on our radar, so we leaned into the unknown and decided to make this tiny house thing REAL! From the start, we knew we had to put in all the labor ourselves to reap the full financial benefit this alternative housing option would give us in Hawaii’s expensive economy.
Sadly, our plan to move into our completed tiny home after our honeymoon was far from reality. We had a few setbacks, aka we fabricated our trailer to save a few thousand dollars, so by the time we were married, we only had the framing completed — just an example of one of the many unexpected realities of building your own home. As if we didn’t have enough motivation to complete our project, we ramped it up by moving into my husband’s parents’ house as newlyweds. Totally not a part of the plan but yet again another compromise we made to save money and build the life of our dreams.
Building a tiny house in Hawaii has a long list of pros. For example, no building permit, architectural stamped plans, inspections, licensed contractors, minimal parking regulations, the year-round sunny weather, etc. But maybe the most intimidating part of tiny homes is that it must operate completely off-grid (as per the very short list of regulations for tiny homes in Hawaii). This means your electricity, water, and sewer needs must be onsite (retrieval & disposal). My husband and I never lived off-grid prior to this, so we were anxious to “feel” what this new lifestyle would be like. After many hours of research, speaking to a specialist in the field, and nearing the end of our tiny house build, it was time to start making this house livable. So here is what we learned, our tips, and some cost details to set up our off-grid system.
This whole off-grid lifestyle, we’re still getting the hang of. It feels more normal after three years of living this way, but it was incredibly eye-opening at the start and frankly hilarious. Some of our first nights in our house, we only used battery-powered lights at night because we were so afraid of running out of electricity. Clearly, we didn’t trust the personalized kit that was pieced together with our electrical load in mind. I can confidently say that my husband and I love it and talk about incorporating some of these systems in the next home we build or buy. It only took us a few months to get the hang of it and start to really love it!
PV: We set up a personalized kit and ordered everything that would ship to Hawaii from this company called altE. This company is based on the East Coast. In hindsight, maybe we should’ve done a little more research/visited the Big Island since many individuals are living off-grid there. Ultimately, piecing together our own system felt questionable since we had no prior solar experience. We felt confident in the hands of altE and worked with them exclusively to create a system specific to our needs, from start to end. The one item we had to source locally was our battery storage. They gave us brands to research, and we worked with Napa Auto parts to special order the battery bank we needed to support our system. We went with six each Trojan 6V flooded lead-acid batteries. These babies are heavy, approximately 125 lbs. If we had more money to spend on batteries, I would’ve gone with Blue Planet Energy Blue ion batteries. They are pricy but have so many benefits!
Setting up our PV/batteries was the ONLY part of our project we hired out. We spent $500 on labor for the electrician. He installed our 24 V package with a 1.2kw PV array (with the charge controller, inverter, etc.). The shipment basically came with everything we needed to set it all up. See the total breakdown below.
Invoice from altE $5,300 (includes $1,300 for shipping)
Total Cost $8,400
Composting Toilet: We purchased the Separett waterless toilet. I have zero personal experience with any other composting toilets, but we went for this option based on a few tiny house specific blog posts that recommended it. From research, I also loved that it looked normal-ish, was waterless, and seemed to be the easiest to maintain. What makes this toilet waterless is that the urine and feces never meet, which causes that horrible smell we have all experienced in a porta-potty — this type of toilet you do not need to add sawdust, peat moss or coconut coir. The human waste is not broken down while it sits in the toilet, but rather, it’s being dried out with a 24-hour continual fan in operation(all within the toilet). I know, this sounds crazy! Just check out the link and read all the details. Just know that this composting toilet is nothing like a porta-potty. I’d buy it again. Toilet Cost $1,500 (includes shipping to Hawaii).
Water catchment: We worked with a local company to set up our catchment system, Eco-Products Maui. We spoke to the owner multiple times and shared our goals in keeping cost low and DIY-ing this project. He had no hesitations about sharing his knowledge with us while knowing our intentions. He told us how to prep the site for the tank, what to look out for, gave us quotes for materials and spoke to us about all recommended accessory options (not to mention, recommendations on roofing type, first flow systems, tank placement.) We bought the majority of our items from his website then sourced the rest from Amazon, Homedepot, and Rain Harvesting Supply. The tank size we eventually went with wasn’t on his website, so always call! Even if you don’t live in Hawaii, I’d recommend checking out this website because I feel like it’s the most userfriendly and broken down in laymen terms. Our tank is 12’ x 4’, which holds about 3,200 gallons of water. This amount of water usually lasts about 6-8 months during the summer and winter months. The more rain we get, the fewer checks I write to our local potable water delivery company. Water Delivery to our site costs about $250 per 3,000 gallons.
Tank(4 sheets of steel, HDPE liner, mesh cover & exit flange) $2,157
44-gallon Pressure tank $560
Misc. (pipes/fittings/cable/bolts/etc) $250
Filtration system $300
Grey Water: Our absolute favorite resource to reference for reusing greywater is The Water-wise Home. My husband found this book randomly one day walking around Barnes and Noble, and it was and still is the best greywater resource we’ve seen. The author goes over every aspect of reusing water in your home, her (tried and true) systems, and the best part; her recommendations are affordable to put together and easy for all levels of plumbing experience. We dispose of our greywater just as she recommends. My husband and I especially love her systems because they are low maintenance (like six months to a year kind of maintaining.) It’s been one of those projects that you initially set up and forget about. The water we reuse in our home is split into two separate systems, kitchen sink and bathroom fixtures (urine from toilet, washer, shower & vanity.) My husband mapped out our branched system (all in the book), bought all the materials, and started the project while I was at work, so I don’t have a super-accurate cost for you guys. Here’s my estimate below;
Rather than being completely thrown off by this easily intimating factor to tiny living, challenge yourself to see it as a benefit, it allows you so much more freedom to find a spot to park. And truly gives you a greater connection with your resource usage.
With our overall goal to keep cost low, as you now know, we DIY- ‘d the heck out of this project! This choice completely worked in our favor and allowed us to build a 360 square foot home in Hawaii for only $45,000! It did take us 2.5 years to complete from start to finish, but I gotta say, It’s still quite shocking, even three years later.
Our plan from here is to help others make tiny living a part of their personal story, if they want, of course! I love sharing all the details down to the cost from our build to give you real-life examples of what can be accomplished even in an extremely expensive state. Tiny Living isn’t the end of our story, just a very sweet season in our life where we get to save money and build deeper connections within our family to reach our BIG goals: To own acreage in Hawaii, family compound style 🙂