How To Build A Tiny House On Wheels | What You Need To KnowJune 17, 2019
Been watching Tiny House Hunters and wondering what it really takes to build a tiny house?
You aren’t alone.
More and more people all over the world are embracing the benefits tiny living provides.
Finished tiny homes look incredible and are extremely economical, but figuring out where to start with building one can get confusing fast.
With this in mind, we’ve put together an introductory article to building your own tiny house on wheels (THOWs for short).
It covers the basic things to keep in mind when considering tiny homes and offers some tips on how to plan your perfect tiny life.
Table Of Contents
- 1 Figuring Out Your Dimension Limits
- 2 What Is Your Gross Vehicle Weight Rating?
- 3 4 Tiny House Trailer Options To Choose From
- 4 What To Consider When Choosing Your THOW Vehicle
- 5 Create A Plan For Your THOW
- 6 Once you know the type of trailer you want to use you’re ready to start planning.
- 6.1 Figure Out Your Budget For Your THOW
- 6.2 Choosing Your Design And Layout
- 6.3 Next, you’ll want to decide on the shell and layout of your tiny home. There are tons of tiny house plans available for you to choose from or you can design your own.
- 6.4 Insulation, Wall Paneling, and Flooring For Your Tiny House
- 6.5 Plumbing, Electricity, and Toilet Options For Your THOW
- 7 Go Tiny Your Way
Figuring Out Your Dimension Limits
Probably the most important thing to know before you begin making plans are state and federal vehicle limits relating to dimensions. In most places within the US, your tiny home must be no more than 13.5 feet tall and 8.5 feet wide.
This really comes down to lanes and bridges.
You can’t be any wider than this and still fit comfortably inside a standard lane or any higher and clear bridges on federal highways.
Some western states allow trailers up to 14 feet high but know that you will not be allowed to drive your tiny home in states with stricter requirements.
On the same note you should always plan out your route before taking your tiny home anywhere.
It’s crucial you know the exact clearance levels of every bridge, overpass, and tunnel you’ll be passing through.
What Is Your Gross Vehicle Weight Rating?
Every trailer has a maximum working weight limit known as gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).
This will normally be listed on a per axle basis and will determine the total weight the trailer can support.
Going over your GVWR is both a legal and safety issue.
The safety is the big one as overloaded trailers can suffer blowouts and other serious issues.
Legally you can be ticketed if your THOW is over the GVWR for its trailer. Until you get it fixed you won’t be able to take your tiny home anywhere.
When you’re planning out your tiny home you need to keep the weight of various components in mind.
A great example of this is wood vs structural insulated panels.
Wood is cheaper and can be easier to work with but it weighs significantly more.
Licensing & Why It’s Important
One very important consideration with tiny home trailer weight is licensing.
In some states, once you get above about 10,000 lbs you may be required to get a commercial driver’s license to pull it.
Check with your local DMV to find out more about licensing and towing requirements.
4 Tiny House Trailer Options To Choose From
The first purchase you should make for your tiny home on wheels is the trailer. There are several different types of trailers you should consider as well as variants of standard models.
1. Bumper Pull
Bumper pull trailers are what most people picture when you mention a trailer. They attach to a tow hitch located at the rear of your vehicle, usually with a ball hitch.
The biggest benefit of bumper pull trailers are how simple they are to get and use. They’re available just about anywhere in just about any configuration you can think of, and at a reasonable price.
They’re easy to connect to your vehicle and require only basic tow training to use.
The downsides of bumper pull trailers mainly relate to where they attach to your vehicle.
Because they basically hang off the back of your truck, the weight of the trailer is mostly carried by the rear axle.
They have a larger turn radius than some other trailer types. This also gives them more of a tendency to sway while you’re driving.
2. Gooseneck/Fifth Wheel
If you want the most control possible when towing your tiny home, a gooseneck or fifth-wheel trailer is the way to go.
These attach to either a ball hitch or a sliding plate lock located in the bed of a truck.
The benefit of a gooseneck trailer is stability and increased load capacity.
Because the weight of the trailer is balanced over the rear axle of your truck, it has a much lower tendency to sway while driving.
It also reduces the drag of the trailer on the rear of your vehicle.
This lets you tow more weight with the same truck.
For tiny house purposes, you can also use the space above the gooseneck in your build.
The biggest downside to gooseneck trailers is in their cost and lack of flexibility.
They’re usually noticeably more expensive than bumper pull trailers and they require you to use a heavy-duty truck to tow them.
3. Drop Axle Trailers
One of the biggest restrictions placed on tiny homes are height limits.
Drop axle trailers add an additional 4 inches of usable space to your tiny home.
This may not seem like much, but it makes a huge difference in the style and type of roof you can use.
The only real downside to a drop axle trailer is that they can be slightly more expensive.
They’re available in both bumper pull or gooseneck styles, so there’s really no reason not to use a drop axle trailer.
4. Deck Over/Dovetail
Deckover and dovetail trailers are designed with the deck of the trailer located over the wheels.
This lets you use the full 8.5-foot width of the trailer for your tiny home.
This can give you a nice bump in livable space side to side, but does come at a cost.
Deckover trailers raise the height of your tiny home’s floor substantially.
It’s very difficult to fit a usable loft into a tiny home built on a deckover or dovetail trailer.
The gains you get in width are far outweighed by the loss of height. For this reason, we generally don’t recommend this type of trailer.
What To Consider When Choosing Your THOW Vehicle
It’s very important that you factor the size and cost of a THOW vehicle into your plans from day one. Consider how often you intend to move your tiny home and whether renting or buying a tow vehicle is the best option for you.
The worst thing you can do is try to ‘make do’ with an underpowered tow vehicle.
For the vast majority of tiny homes, you’ll need at least a half-ton truck.
Even within trucks though there can be a big difference in tow ratings based on tow packages and trailer hitches.
Towing anything puts a greater strain on a vehicle than just driving. Manufacturers understand this and design specific upgrades for large trucks, known as tow packages.
In most cases, this includes reinforcement to the frame, more powerful brakes and electrical systems, as well as things like upgraded transmission and cooling systems.
It all comes together to create a vehicle much better suited to towing heavy loads.
Type of Trailer Hitch
The average tiny home weighs in the ballpark of 10,000 lbs.
In order to tow that safely, you’ll need a class VI or Class V hitch.
Class VI hitches are rated at 10,000 to 14,000 pounds of towing capacity.
They generally have significant reinforcement and can offer weight distribution systems that spread the load between both axles.
Class V hitches are the strongest you’ll get before you move up to something like a gooseneck attachment or a purpose-built tow vehicle.
They can operate safely with between 12,000 and 17,000 lbs of working load.
Create A Plan For Your THOW
Once you know the type of trailer you want to use you’re ready to start planning.
The first step is to figure out your budget, followed by what kind of square footage you need and the amenities you want to include.
Figure Out Your Budget For Your THOW
Before you make any other plans related to your THOW, you need to set a budget. You can either fund it yourself or use one of several tiny home lending options.
There’s a pretty big range in the prices of tiny homes. If you’re willing to do most of the work yourself, you can build one very affordably with either new or reclaimed materials.
If you’re looking for something more luxurious or if you prefer to go with a commercial builder expect to spend more. You can find out more about the cost of building a tiny home in our full article.
Choosing Your Design And Layout
Next, you’ll want to decide on the shell and layout of your tiny home. There are tons of tiny house plans available for you to choose from or you can design your own.
This covers things like:
- Layout of kitchen and living spaces
- Single, double, or connected lofts
- Bathroom placement and size
- Shed, gabled, flat, or gambrel roof
That’s just a basic overview, but you get the picture.
Once you have the bones of your tiny home figured out, you can start thinking about appliances, fixtures, and furniture options.
Insulation, Wall Paneling, and Flooring For Your Tiny House
The type and amount of insulation you use on your tiny home will have a huge impact on how comfortable and affordable it is to live in.
There are tons of different varieties of insulation you can choose from, but only three major categories. These are:
- Batt Insulation
- Rigid Foam Insulation
- Spray Foam Insulation
Batt insulation has been around the longest and is very similar to common household insulation.
Think sheets of materials like fiberglass, rock wool, or denim. It’s easy to work with and very affordable, but generally has a lower R-value (or insulation).
Rigid foam insulation includes things like polyiso or polystyrene.
These are easy to work with and have very high R-values but also require a fireproof barrier to be placed between them and the interior of your home.
Spray foam insulation is one of the best options for tiny homes.
It comes in two varieties, open cell and closed cell, and has excellent R-values, as well as helping to seal your home from unwanted airflow.
The downside is that you should generally have a professional install spray foam for best results.
Wall paneling and flooring has a lot more to do with your personal tastes.
For walls, you can choose pretty much any option you’d have in a regular home except for sheetrock.
A THOW is designed to move around.
Sheetrock can easily shift and crack during transit. The same logic applies to flooring.
You want to avoid things like tile or stone if possible in favor of hardwoods, vinyl or even carpet.
Plumbing, Electricity, and Toilet Options For Your THOW
One of the things that makes a tiny home on wheels so great is its flexibility. You can decide exactly how you want your home to be built and all the amenities you want it to have.
For some people that means full plumbing, wiring, and a standard flush toilet.
For others, it’s a way to explore alternative lifestyles off-grid, with extremely efficient water preservation and limited usage of power.
To make a tiny home livable most people are going to want a bare minimum of a kitchen sink system and a shower.
You can do this with traditional plumbing, such as pex tubing and a propane tankless water heater connected to a blue, gray, and black water tank system.
For toilets, we’ve already created an overview of the most common tiny house options and the pros and cons of each system.
You can check it out here.
Ensuring filtered water is important, too. I find gravity water filters to be the easiest–they’re perfect for filtering tap water or even rain water.
Tiny house electrical systems can be as basic or comprehensive as you like.
Many people choose to go with a professionally done system with outlets and hard-wired lighting.
Others prefer something more basic like a portable battery hooked up to a few solar panels.
If you’re looking for a fully off-grid tiny home, you’ll most likely use a generator, solar panels or some combination of the two.
This allows you the maximum flexibility for your lifestyle and budget.
Go Tiny Your Way
One of the biggest reasons people cite for going tiny is the desire to have an affordable home that really feels like their own.
They don’t want just another cookie-cutter house in the suburbs.
A tiny house can be endlessly customized to fit your needs and style choices, all for way less than the cost of your average starter home.
As long as you keep the basics we laid out in mind, you’ll be ready to take your first steps on the path to living your tiny life.
Interested in THOWs, but want to start small? Starting with campervan rentals are a great option for future Thow enthusiasts.
We also wrote a campervan conversion guide if you are thinking about building your own campervan.