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How a Palm Beach County family of 5 lives in a 500-square-foot house


According to Money magazine, the size of the average American home is about 2,6oo square feet. The Loxahatchee house where Jodi and Darrin Swank have raised their three kids is about 500 square feet. And the one that Gary Scrittorale put together by hand in the hot Florida sun is only 250 square feet.

Both the Swanks and Scittorale are part of a trend that’s seen Americans of all walks of life deciding that they’d like to be below average - in the size of their homes, at least.

“It’s a movement,” confirms Scrittorale, of the rising interest in tiny houses, structures that typically range from 150 to 500 square feet.

Seen in several television shows and magazines, they could be log cabins, or neat little cottages that look like a child’s play house. They could be adapted shipping containers or former mobile homes. The people who live in them have various reasons, but in the end, it’s not just about smaller spaces, but adapting one’s lifestyle, philosophies and even housekeeping practices.

“It’s five people in one little house. We try to live simple. And we’ve loved it,” says Jodi Swank, who has lived for nine years with her family in a tiny home on the property of Swank Specialty Produce, their 20-acre organic farm.

In their cozy green house, the Swanks make creative use of any available space - “Hooks are a necessity” - while making sure to constantly give away clothes they’ve grown out of and don’t want to store in their precious storage space.

Sure, it’s small, but saving money on their home, so that they could grow their business, paid off for the Swanks not only financially but by becoming “very close as a family. We’ve learned how to live without clutter,” she says.

Elaine Walker, co-founder of the American Tiny House Association in Palmetto, Florida, and a tiny home resident herself, says that people are drawn to these homes’ “lower costs, resulting in an ability to work fewer hours and focus more on relationships and experiences than on acquisition of material goods.” She also cites “the ability to live more sustainably, an opportunity for creativity and the ability to keep your home with you as you move around the country, (with) tiny houses on wheels.”

“Some might be motivated by (a chance) to reduce their carbon footprint, or to have a walkable lifestyle,” says Suzanne Hollander, a Miami-based attorney and real estate broker, and a professor at Florida International University’s Hollo School of Real Estate.

Because average rents in desirable communities might be too high for young people, or retirees who have downsized, they’re drawn to tiny houses or even micro apartments like the 450-square-foot ones proposed for downtown West Palm Beach, because “they address some of the issues…where the price tag is so expensive,” Hollander says.

There are at least three tiny home communities in Florida: Orlando, Palm Coast and an approved one in Rockledge. Where you can actually live in one depends on local ordinances and legal requirements. Although Walker says that Florida is “more receptive than other states,” the rules of some municipalities don’t allow tiny houses on regular urban plots, or don’t allow them to be put on land behind another existing house, a popular arrangement for some tiny homes.

In Palm Beach County, “generally, if a property is zoned for one single family home, that’s all you can put on it,” says John Thomas, director of residential appraisal services at the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office. There are 4,400 homes in the county under 500 square feet, although Thomas believes that most of those are secondary cottages behind the main home.

Scittorale, the former owner of Gary Michaels Paint and Design, constructed his 18 x 6 x 6 square-foot tiny house as a good business decision and a way to answer a societal need in “a country in bad shape. If I can help millennials or retired people to live in their own home, and still be able to afford to live a good life, I’ve done my job.”

His first house, built small enough to be legally movable on a small trailer, is on display on a lot in Loxahatchee. It is a clever experience in space usage. There’s a small two-person table that can be moved next to the kitchen counter to accommodate four. The bathroom has a full-sized shower, and a dry-flush toilet that collects waste in changeable cartridges.

Scrittorale says that in the first week of hanging his “Tiny House For Sale” sign (price tag: $25,000) on the chain-link fence, he had more than 30 phone calls, and people stopped in to see it for themselves.

“This is something people need,” says Scrittorale, who lives in a 1,500 square-foot home with his wife in Royal Palm Beach, but says that “if I were single, it would be this house, a brand new F150 (truck) and me on Daytona Beach.”

And his wife’s OK with that?

“Oh, she knows!” he says, laughing.

Near the corner where Scrittorale’s house is displayed, the Swanks’ home sits down a winding road on their farm, with a shaded screened-in porch at the entrance. It’s immediately striking how smartly they’ve used the space, with sunhats used to protect them as they work the farm hung on wall hooks that are both functional and add to the home’s rustic charm.

Each of their three children, who share an upper loft with a 4-foot ceiling, have a small three-drawer unit for their clothes and decorate the walls above their beds with posters. Everything “is stacked vertically, or stored under beds,” explains Darrin Swank.

The couple bought the land in 1999 and commuted to Loxahatchee from their 1,200-square-foot condo in Coconut Creek for years before deciding they needed to live closer. But since their accountant advised that they couldn’t build or buy an average sized home and expand the business, Jodi, a self-described “Brooklyn-born city girl” and husband Darrin, “who has wanted to be a farmer ever since he saw the ‘The Land’ exhibit at Epcot,” purchased the small home and put it on their property.

Like everyone who chooses to live small, they’ve made concessions. There’s “very little closet space,” Jodi Swank says, with one bathroom for five people. But it’s got all the comforts of bigger houses, like cable, air conditioning, ceiling fans and custom hurricane shutters.

“We’ve used every square foot,” Darrin confirms. “You can’t beat it cost-wise.”

Because of their size, tiny homes are often marketed for those just starting out, or people committed philosophically to living this way, or older people downsizing. It was perfect for the Swanks when they were a young family, but after nearly a decade they believe that their kids, ages 11-15, are at a point where they need “more space and privacy,” Darrin says. “This place would be perfect for two people.”

So they’re preparing plans to build a larger home - much larger - on their property, about 4,000 square feet. “I’m not gonna know what to do with it!” Jodi says.

The extra space will not only give everyone their own room, but allow “the kids to come back if they want to, for holidays,” Darrin says, who adds that they plan to possibly turn their tiny house into office space, or a bridal suite for the weddings that they hold on the property.

“People thought we were crazy,” Darrin says, “but we would do it that way again.”


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