This Student’s Tiny House Helped Him Save Up to $8,000 on College Housing Costs

tiny house
Image courtesy of Joel Weber

When you think about college, do you reminisce about living in a tiny dorm room with a stranger and sharing a bathroom with 20 or more of your classmates? Probably not.

Joel Weber opted out of the traditional dorm arrangement and saved a ton of money doing it. Instead of living in a dorm, the 25-year-old junior at the University of Texas in Austin built his own 145-square-foot tiny house.

Installed on an 18-foot flatbed trailer, the dwelling is fully equipped with two lofts, plumbing, electricity, a shower and a propane stove. It took Weber a year to build the cozy house.

How can building an entire tiny home possibly be cheaper than renting a dorm room? We did the math to find out.

How Much Did His Tiny House Cost?

While many media sources quoted the cost of his home around $20,000, Weber told us he paid even less.

He said the media’s estimate was “the cost for someone else to build something similar brand new.”

Instead, he said his total construction cost was between $13,000 and $16,000 (he’s still adding up the final receipts).

How was he able to keep his costs so low? And how can you build a tiny home for even less? Here’s Weber’s advice:

Buy Everything on Sale

Weber made a point of buying as many materials as possible on clearance.

Ask for Discounts

When looking for materials, Weber frequently shared his project with people and asked for discounts, receiving bargains from both individuals and retailers.

Reuse Building Supplies

Since he had a job remodeling homes, Weber was able to take many discarded supplies from the sites he worked on and use these materials in his tiny home.

Reclaim Materials

Weber a variety of items people gave him for free, as well as bits and pieces he found dumpster diving.

“As a designer, I creatively found uses for many other reclaimed materials from neighbors and friends,” he said.

Paying for the Tiny Home

It takes a lot for anyone to save up $13,000 to $16,000. How did a college student save up enough cash to make his dreams of a tiny house come true?

Weber had his own dedicated savings account for the project, and spent as much time as possible working to build his tiny-home fund.

“[I worked] as much as I could while being a full-time student and commuting four hours between my work site and school each weekend,” he said.

Weber also received donations from friends, neighbors, family members and people he met along the way. He also set up a GoFundMe account for people who wished to contribute online.

Lastly, Weber built relationships with local tradesman who donated their skills to the project.

He kept his cost of living low, too.

“So far, I have saved an amazing amount because I couchsurfed through a work barter for the first year while building my house,” Joel said. “I currently have a free spot until I move to Austin from a very gracious host,” he added, estimating he’s saved thousands of dollars by living simply.

Tiny house
Joel Weber and his tiny house. Image courtesy of Joel Weber.

What a Tiny House Costs After You Build It

Once you build a tiny home, you have to pay to keep it running.

One major expense is the piece of land where your home sits. Typically, you’ll have to pay rent or a mortgage, along with property taxes and other fees if you own the space. You’ll also have to pay for utilities.

Weber pays about $300 per month for rent and utilities combined, which he says is half the cost of an average rent payment in Austin. And, during the summer, he was able to park his tiny home in Dallas for free before bringing it to Austin for school.

He keeps his utility costs down by using Energy Star appliances and LED lights. Additional expenses include water and propane for his stove and hot water heater.

Is It Cheaper Than a Dorm Room?

How do his expenses stack up to the average student’s costs?

At the University of Texas at Austin, renting a shared room in the dorms with a community bathroom costs $9,757 for nine months. (That figure includes the $1,500 in Dine In Dollars and $300 in Bevo Bucks dining credits each student receives to eat on campus.)

If you subtract the dining credits, that’s $7,957 per school year (or $884 per month) for housing.

Since Weber only pays $300 a month for land rental and utilities, the same nine-month period would only cost him $2,700. That’s a savings of $5,257 per nine-month school year.

If a student were to live in a tiny home for four years, he or she would save $21,028 on housing during the course of his or her education at U of T Austin. (The College Board says the average cost of room and board in 2014-2015 was $9,804 at four-year public schools and $11,188 at private colleges, though they don’t separate the costs of room and board.)

Of course, this amount doesn’t include the cost of building the house. To get a more accurate estimate, you have to subtract the $13,000 to $16,000 in construction costs.

That means living in a tiny home can save you $5,028 to $8,028 during a four-year college career. And the best part of all is you get the house at the end of it — you’re not just throwing money down the drain.

Could You Be Live in a Tiny Home While Attending College?

Weber offers five pieces of advice for students who want to create their own tiny houses:

  1. Start a savings account.
  2. Write down your ideas. “For me, as a designer, writing something down is the first step to it coming into fruition. I believe this applies to all of our ideas. Something about the step of taking an idea and writing/drawing it starts the process of actualization.”
  3. Plan, network, strategize. “Talk to the experts. Don’t let what you don’t know yet keep you from building it and learning it!”
  4. Take in the experience. “I learned so many valuable life lessons from building my tiny house. Those experiences aren’t something we can always figure out in a cost analysis, but they can be the most valuable to our lives.”
  5. Follow your intuition. “If your intuition tells you to go for it, then go for it! Take the risk! Prepare the best you can but just go for it!”

If you’d like to learn more about Weber’s tiny house, follow his journey on his Facebook page. Check out photos of his cozy reading nook, which looks way better than any library cubicle, and the moss-covered rocks he’s using to decorate.

Your Turn: Would you ever consider building and living in your own tiny home instead of living in a dorm or off-campus apartment?

Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.