EVEN THOUGH MARIN residents love their larger homes — 6,000 square feet in Ross with a pool house, anyone? — there’s something to be said for small and sweet. Smaller homes have long had their advocates, from Henry David Thoreau, who lived in a 10-by-15-foot cabin on Walden Pond, to the folks behind the Tiny House movement, urging the adventurous to live in less than 400 square feet.
It’s unlikely that Marin will become a hotbed of Tiny Houses any time soon, for one simple reason: “Our land is too valuable,” says Rick Wells, CEO of the Marin Builders Association. It doesn’t make sense to put a tea-cup-sized home on a million-dollar lot. Plus, zoning laws and minimum square footage requirements make it impossible to build a Tiny House in many communities. For many families with children, as well as diaper bags, lacrosse sticks and endless piles of laundry, small is just not an option.
But as Marin grapples with an affordable housing crisis, smaller dwellings offer one possible solution. Already, many homeowners rent out affordable second units on their properties, ranging from “small” houses (400 to 1,000 square feet) to the truly teeny.
While living in one may seem like a hardship, consider the upsides. “A lot of people work too many hours at jobs they hate in order to have a big house and then they don’t have time to enjoy it,” says Pepper Clark, a Tiny House consultant and co-owner of Bungalow to Go in Sonoma. “With a smaller home, there’s a lot less pressure to maintain it or keep up the income to afford it.”
Who says bigger is better? Here are three Marin homeowners who’ve found that living small is awfully sweet.
A Home on Wheels
THE TINY HOUSE that sits on Danielle Salone’s rural Bolinas property upends every image you’ve ever harbored of a recreational vehicle or mobile home. Gone are the generic interior, depressing aluminum siding and Grand Canyon mural across the rear. In their place is 333 square feet — including two sleeping lofts — of hip, modern style.
Like an RV, though, the house is on wheels, which is one of the reasons Salone bought it. A Bolinas resident since 1991, she’d been looking for a way to generate income — and stay home with her 12-year-old son — after the death of her husband two years ago. She wanted to build a vacation home on her quarter-acre lot to rent out on Airbnb.
After bumping up against zoning restrictions and a few resistant neighbors, though, Salone bought this house from Stephen Marshall and Ian Olson at Sonoma’s Little House on the Trailer. Because the house was on wheels, she was able to place it on her property as if it were an RV and elude many of the restrictions that apply to a second unit with a foundation. The home, with its cedar-and-corrugated-metal exterior, now sits in the corner of Salone’s lot, surrounded by a 100-year-old oak tree, potting sheds and dented surfboards.
Inside, the 13-foot ceilings and numerous windows create the feel of a much larger home. It’s an illusion furthered by the kitchen’s eight-footlong live-edge walnut countertop, which seems to span the length of the home, the culinary equivalent of an infinity pool.
Astonishingly, the house sleeps five, with a queen-size bed in the sleeping lofts at each end and a foldout love seat couch from Cost Plus in the little living room underneath. There’s a single loft ladder that can be carried between the two sleeping spaces, though that begs the question of what to do if you find yourself ladderless and in need of the bathroom in the middle of the night.
A built-in walnut table and bench serve as a dining area, just big enough for two. And above it all, a white chandelier from Ikea hangs like a piece of origami.
Salone says the house has been rented almost continually since it debuted on Airbnb last Labor Day. And the clientele hasn’t exactly been a trailer park crowd. “I’ve gotten bigwigs from Silicon Valley and actors and actresses from L.A.,” she says. “Tiny houses are so popular that everybody wants to experience it.”
WALK INTO JESSICA Tevis’ converted barn in downtown Novato, and your first thought is not “Wow, this place is tiny.” It’s, “Oh, this is so cute.” The home, which measures 330 square feet and was once a hay-baling barn, showcases Tevis’ ingenuity as an interior designer, recycler and garage sale devotee, as well as that of her tenant, Kim Rose Lundgren.
Tevis has owned the property — which includes the 1912 farmhouse where she lives, as well as the barn and a garage — since 1992, when she and her former husband bought it. They were young and broke when they purchased and needed to make the place more affordable. So he gutted the barn’s interior, installed plumbing and utilities, and created a rental property, leaving as is the barn’s exterior brown shingles and interior open-beamed ceilings.
Over the years, Tevis, a home stager, has furnished and decorated the home in her own unique style: part vintage, part shabby chic and 100 percent utilitarian. “Because the place is so small, I needed everything to be multifunctional,” she says.
The cushioned bench in front of the desk, for example, opens up for storage. The Ikea island that separates the kitchen from the living area serves as counter space, shelving and a kitchen table, with two bar stools nestled into it. The media cabinet in the corner, which Tevis found at a garage sale, is on wheels, so Lundgren can wheel it from the living room to the bedroom.
Tevis maximized the space in other ways, too. In the bedroom, one entire wall is consumed by the closet, which holds a dresser, a place to hang clothes, and extra shelving. Over the queen-size bed — which is covered with Lundgren’s own pink and rose-themed bedding — there’s a three-by-five-foot mirror, making the room and house appear larger. Also flanking the bed are two antique bed stands, possibly the smallest ones the French ever constructed.
After Lundgren, who moved into the place in 2014 following a divorce, moved out briefly last year, Tevis decided to rent the cottage on Airbnb. She covered the home’s walls with French posters (all purchased at garage sales and Goodwill) and topped the kitchen cabinets with playful items like chess pieces, replicas of the Eiffel Tower and (pseudo) vintage suitcases. When Lundgren moved back in, she liked the decor so much she kept it.
“Jessica has taught me how to live in a small space and be strategic about everything, especially storage,” Lundgren says. “I just love it.”
FOR ELSPETH SEDDIG, a naturopathic doctor, the decision to live small was as soulful as it was practical. “I enjoy living in clean, minimalist spaces,” she says. “If I have a house where my basic needs are being met — a place to sleep, hang out and cook — that’s the whole reason to live there.”
Seddig was living in San Francisco when she started looking for a place in Marin six years ago. She had a dog at the time, loved hiking and wanted easy access to trails. But she also needed a quick commute to her office in the city. She could have afforded a larger home if she ventured farther up the freeway but fell in love with this 824-squarefoot downtown Mill Valley home the minute she saw it. “I was just in euphoria, it felt so good,” she says.
The home’s charms abound. Built in 1903 for Mill Valley’s postmaster, it’s nestled on what is believed to be the smallest lot in town (2,009 square feet) in a tree-lined neighborhood of much larger, expensive homes. With a stone-and-brown-shingled exterior, a cobblestone patio and a very old redwood that shoots through the deck, the property emanates historical Mill Valley.
Inside, however, it’s all modern Zen, courtesy of an extensive remodel by the previous owner. Once you enter the home, your eye is immediately drawn to the stunning full-size kitchen, with Carrara countertops, dramatic gray and beige tile backsplash and Bertazzoni gas range, all proof of a Marin truism: no matter how small the square footage, you can’t go too high-end with the finishes. The only nod to size is the silver Fagor refrigerator, a slender European model designed for small spaces.
The living area is equally stylish, anchored by a square metal gas fireplace that Seddig installed after moving in. It heats the entire house on most days, with her energy bills hovering around $30 a month. In the summer, she opens the home’s French doors to cool off.
Just off the living room are two bedrooms, one used as a guest room/home office, the other holding her queen-size bed. Across the hall from her room, a marble-tiled bathroom includes a large Jacuzzi-style tub, Seddig’s favorite feature in the place. It’s where she unwinds at the end of each day, grateful to be home. “The house feels like a retreat to me,” she says. “Honestly, if I could have afforded a bigger house, I wouldn’t have wanted it.”
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Think Big Live Small“.