Kelley Lewis always loved a project. That's how she ended up building her own tiny home. But before we get to that, let's back up.
Unexpectedly becoming a mom at 24, Lewis (now 36) put her dreams of working in the music industry on hold. Her priorities had shifted—she needed health insurance, for example, and didn't have it at the time. In order to maintain stability, Lewis first secured a retail job, and later a bank teller role, earning $10 an hour.
Though she wasn't passionate about working at a bank, Lewis learned about the in-home daycare business while on the job. One of her customers ran one, and she often picked her brain about getting started and the ins and outs of the business.
Soon, Lewis was a home daycare provider herself, making significantly more money than her previous jobs. "I went from making $10 an hour to roughly about $3,000 an hour, which, you know, was obviously a huge change for us," Lewis says.
It was important to Lewis to make her own money—it turned out to be a smart move. Lewis and her husband split shortly before she gave birth to their third child.
Despite the challenges at the time, Lewis started to pursue another dream: building a tiny house. Always having had a thirst for travel and adventure, Lewis faced down the obstacles head-on, hopeful that the end result would provide mobility and an additional outlet for her family to bond and spend quality time. Yes, it was hard on her budget to get the building off the ground (literally) with three kids in tow, but regardless, she was determined to make it happen.
When a piece of land about 40 minutes away from her Columbus, Ohio home became available, she jumped at the chance to buy it. Constructing a tiny home also meant that Lewis was able to skirt obtaining special permits required to build a structure 200-square-feet or larger.
It took six years to finish, but the house has everything she and her kids need: a great room, open kitchen, full bath, and sleeping loft with two full-sized beds. It's also perched on a nearby shoreline, making it possible to fish off the back porch. In total, the project cost her $30,000, which is significantly less than the average tiny home cost.
Since the house was built, Lewis and her family have used the tiny home as a weekend escape for quality time together. A lot has changed for Lewis from the time she embarked on the project. She franchised her home daycare business, which enables her to spend more time with her newly arrived fourth child with her husband; the pair reconciled after a number of years apart.
Now, they use their tiny home, along with another small cabin they recently purchased in Michigan, as a budget-friendly place to connect as a family. "When we're there we're really together, we're really listening, we're really making the most of our day and time," Lewis says.
So how did she make it all work financially, and what did she learn in the process? She shares her insights, ahead.
5 Lessons for Building Your Dream Home... and Life
Always save 10 percent of what you make.
Lewis learned this lesson early on at age 13 thanks to her work as a professional harpist. Her parents encouraged her to stash away 10 percent of what she earned—preferably more. The habit stuck. "Saving has always given me peace of mind, especially during those hard times," Lewis says. "Before I got divorced, we were a dual working household, and then it became a single working household," she remembers. Knowing she had some extra cash set aside helped her feel more secure during an incredibly challenging time. Her advice? "Save as much as you possibly can, because you're just taking care of your future self."
Don't be afraid to make your own rules.
For those considering tiny homes of their own, Lewis has some key wisdom: "Own the land, don't rent or squat. This defeats aspects of the self-sustainability you're trying to accomplish."
But that may require some outside-the-box financial planning. When Lewis found the parcel of land she wanted to buy, she knew she needed to act fast. "But already having a mortgage on our current home, the banks wouldn't lend me money," she explains. "So I had to get creative. I thought maybe if I reached out directly to the owner, he might consider owner financing. I hired a real estate attorney and a couple of weeks later, I owned the piece of land."
Know what you can DIY, and what you can't.
Building a tiny home is no easy feat. And though Lewis had some experience with construction before building her tiny house, she knew she couldn't do it all on her own. "I used my 2012 tax refund to get my tiny house started," she says. "I used the $5,000 I received to hire a shed-building company to build the frame. I was confident in my finishing skills, but didn't want to risk trying to frame a structure that would be stable and secure over our heads. I also hired an electrician to wire, because, let's not blow ourselves up today! But from framing interior walls to insulating, drywalling, flooring, cabinets, showers, designing, and decorating, I did it all!"
If you can, get your kids involved.
In the end, Lewis was glad she took on the project and shared the experience with her kids. "We learned a lot together, and my kids have a better appreciation for the cabin because they knew they helped," she says. "Of course, I'd often get antsy and just want it done already. But I valued the idea that the journey can't be rushed and this wasn't about the end result; it was about the journey."
Do what you can to give back.
When her tiny home was finished, Lewis's story got some press in the tiny home community. This meant that she was regularly asked questions by folks interested in taking a similar route. With that in mind, she decided to offer consulting services and tiny home floor plans through her brand, Cabin Chick. Though her main business income comes from her in-home child care company and franchise, she uses what she earns from her tiny house business to supplement her family's adventures and travel.
But it's about more than just sharing her expertise and making some side income. Fifty percent of the sales from Lewis's tiny house plans are donated to Pencils of Promise, which builds schools and provides valuable supplies for impoverished communities. Her reasoning? "In a lot of ways, the tiny house built me. I wanted to ensure my tiny house business ventures paid it forward."