America is having a love affair with tiny houses, from TV shows "Tiny House Nation" and "Tiny House Hunters" to movies including "Tiny: A Story About Living Small." Pinterest has more than 900 boards devoted to tiny houses, and Houzz showcases thousands.

"Many Houzz readers have been fascinated by the idea of a portable home they can pay off quickly and personalize down to the smallest detail," editor Sheila Schmitz said.

Americans, whose homes average about 2,200 square feet, may be responding to the benefits tiny-house owners cite: financial and emotional freedom, a greener lifestyle, the satisfaction of building one's own refuge.

The phrase "'tiny house' put a name to the movement that was already there," said Thom Stanton, a tiny-home builder in West Virginia.

Stanton said fueling the movement are millennials, because their college loans have put traditional houses out of reach, and retiring baby boomers looking for affordable homes with minimal maintenance. Traditional homeowners are building them to shelter guests, family members or caregivers.

But there's a big drawback: Many municipalities haven't made room for tiny residences. It's a challenge to find a place to park a tiny house if you don't own land.

"Tiny houses exist in sort of a legal gray area, neither explicitly allowed nor expressly forbidden," said tiny-home owner Jay Austin. Though Washington, D.C., recently banned "camping" in tiny-house-like structures, Austin said he has been told the provision is unenforceable.

In Maryland, tiny-house legality will likely be handled at the local level as a zoning or building code issue, said Wiley Hall, of the state's Department of Housing and Community Development. Virginia housing codes are for homes built on foundations, not on wheeled platforms, and code standards don't govern RVs, said Amanda Pearson, of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

Sorting such issues will be crucial for owners, who recently formed the American Tiny House Association.

Ready to retire

Greg and Renee Cantori, of Pasadena, Maryland, have had a tiny house parked beside their 1,400-square-foot ranch home for three years.

The 238-square-foot home sits a few hundred yards from their 39-foot sailboat, docked on a creek. After they retire, they plan to sell the main house and spend time on the boat and in the tiny house on their land in West Virginia - a lifestyle Greg Cantori dubbed "surf 'n' turf."

Unlike an RV, a tiny house "feels like a real house," he said. The cottage-like blue house with white trim is a light-filled space with dormers and beadboard ceilings and walls. The large loft fits a queen-size bed and a smaller loft a twin. The house has a sitting area, kitchen and bathroom with shower and composting toilet.

The Cantoris bought the $19,500 house three years ago for retirement but also for a guesthouse and office. Greg and his brother towed it from Ohio, once parking in an Ace Hardware parking lot and returning to find a line of people waiting for a tour.

Spartan calling

Kevin Riedel, of Richmond, Virginia, was inspired by the idea of living in "gospel poverty" and focusing on his spirituality when he built his 130-square-foot house four years ago.

Then 23, he wanted "to have my own house but wanted flexibility in terms of where it could be, and I wanted something that was more affordable than getting a standard mortgage," he said.

His idea was to keep the tiny house on someone's property, but when he couldn't find a place, he bought land. Instead of the freedom he sought, he has responsibility as a property owner. As the only one of his friends who owns a place, he often hosts cookouts around his fire pit.

His cabin-like house has a gable metal roof and is clad in western red cedar. The door opens to a living area filled with a refurbished love seat. The other end has an L-shaped kitchen and bathroom tucked under the loft. Including the trailer, it cost about $20,000.

His parents insisted he include a flushing toilet rather than a composting one, because they feared he'd never be able to find a girlfriend otherwise. Since then, Riedel has decided to become a priest and will attend seminary this fall.

"Building a tiny house definitely isn't a fairy tale," he said. The first winter, his hot-water heater froze and broke. This past winter, the water supply pipe to the toilet froze and flooded the home, so he replaced the pine floor milled by a craftsman with vinyl tiles resembling wood.

A home base

For Jay Austin, 26, a federal worker, living in a 143-square-foot house in D.C. isn't political or philosophical. It's practical. He travels a lot, which he could not afford if he had rent or a mortgage.

It cost about $50,000 to build his in 2012.

"There is a trend in tiny-house design in which everything becomes miniaturized. I was more interested in a space that was small but not scaled down," he said.

He prioritized the kitchen counter over a clothes closet. The living room has bench seats on both sides with storage under. He stores his bicycle on brackets above a window.

The house was originally part of Boneyard Studios, a group of tiny homes that broke apart in 2014. It is now parked at a friend's house.

Tiny-home living surprised Austin "by how not surprising it is," he said. "There's just less walking between different parts of the house."

Tiny homes affordable but not worry-free

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