Why We Don’t Build Our Houses To Be House Trailers

UPDATED: July 21, 2012 (see additional Facebook comments from brad at bottom of original post!)

Recently, one of our readers sent in this question:

I love tiny houses. This includes tiny houses built on trailers. In fact, I’ve recently made a deal to acquire a travel trailer to rebuild for this purpose. What amazes me is that very, very few people, when designing these homes on trailers, pay any mind whatsoever to airflow and other factors that would make towing easier and more fuel-efficient. Why is this not a first priority consideration in these designs??? Can someone from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company or Tiny Texas Houses elaborate?


Here’s Brad’s answer:

I Do Not build houses to be towed down the highway on a regular monthly basis and nothing I have built so far is likely going to be pulled with any ordinary family truck — even for Texas and we like 1 ton Dually Turbo Diesels with gooseneck hookups. My custom built trailer for one of my bigger houses will take the bumper off a normal truck or lift its front tires off the ground if you try to gun it.

I have considered one for my personal use and I agree with you, travel trailers should be designed differently than portable houses. Add to the mix my insanely heavy Long Leaf Pine (4 lbs a board foot) and Loblolly Pines (2-3 lbs per bf) the base weight is outside the realm of fuel efficiency but also beyond the weight capacity of any typical truck. My smallest houses come in at 8,000-10,000 lbs but weight is not my concern. They travel 65 mph down the highway when we transport at 5-6 miles per gallon perhaps a bit less on a big one or into a wind, but still, not bad for pulling 18,000-25,000 of house and trailer down the highway. Now with a team of horses and a good front and rear axle rigged trailer, we could still pull off moving them as they did in the 1800s, but not at 60 mph. The point is we still could.

As to people building them and using them to run down the road a lot. Weight, pieces falling off at 60 mph, cross winds, driving into winds affecting true wind pressures and likely lack of consideration in construction will eventually lead to disastrous results, in my humble opinion.

I have issues with using inferior new woods that are structurally suited for holding nails well let alone screws but the use of plywood, particle board, and other synthetics with numerous chemicals outgassing for the initial period of a year or two is also an issue that will come up with the extremely tiny houses you are speaking of as there is much less air inside compared to the surface areas and parts of many of the new material homes. That creates an exponentially more toxic soup until it is aired out.

As to aerodynamics, it is hard to beat an Airstream and you can buy an incredible shell with a great suspension system, for far less than you could ever hope to build an aerodynamic shell that would be tight, hold together under the extreme twisting, banging, and multiple forces that will tear at a house that is moved very often.

Likewise, size limitations for pulling without permits in different states vary, as well as how they need to be equipped for lights or other details. The vehicle weight is critical as well as the rubber on the road, the brakes on the trailer, reliability of the weather, and tongue weight. I have seen several vehicles spin out on the highway from having a tongue weight that was too light, in other words a rear weighted trailer and they end up in wrecks when they hit a bump at over 50 miles an hour and the rear wheels lift off the ground so your front wheel have your only brakes (!).

That very problem cost me a truck over a negligent employee in one case but thankfully no one got hurt as he did a 180 degree spin across lanes to tail end the trailer in the guardrail on the opposite side of the road. This is a nasty mistake most people do not even know can happen. There is way too much ignorance about pulling heavy things down the road to add into the mix the huge chance that someone will not understand axle placement, spring capacities, tongue loads, flexibility of materials and fasteners as well as the quality and life of the fasteners in extreme conditions, like near the beach for a month or two.

I predict some worrisome outcomes before people start to take seriously the issues with building houses that will travel frequently on the road — pulled by people who do not know what they are doing with vehicles that are not equipped to pull, let alone stop quickly, if anything should go wrong. I am not on that boat, bus, or taxi.
I hope that takes care of my position. I build houses that will last for a century or more, is nearly toxin free, heavy as can be so as to hold a nail, screw, or heart for the rest of time.

Thank you for the opportunity to expound and answer your question.

~ Brad Kittel
Tiny Texas Houses

My Additional comments to my TTH Facebook Friends…

Then we go to the other end of the load. What is the load capacity for the ball and how they are attached to the frame, rather than just the bumper, how stable is the load if they did not get the upgraded tow kit, the beefed up tow ball and perhaps, make sure the brakes on the trailer are working or one will jack knife or hydroplane if the load exceeds the friction of the tires on the rear of the vehicle pulling it. These are issues most people do not even know to question and anticipate the dangers, unlike truckers who do live with watching the results of poor planning or control of heavy trailers end people’s lives on a regular basis. Even with my houses, we have had a tire blow and the tread take out the fenders on the trailer throwing all sorts of steel on the road. The tires werre simply over three years old, and rubber tires have a limited life, much of which is spent on the shelf before someone gets a really good deal on old inventory that looks new. Check the manufacturing dates and get them fresh. This I know from experience.
Moving things only once every few years and never otherwise does not instill the best of habits and mine is only a cautionary note based on having seen so many problems. We have had tires that look perfectly good peel off with a half inch deep tread still on the tire when it happens. With 8 big tires across the rear of my trailer we can lose one or two and still stop safely. For smaller trailers with the 3,500 -5,000 lb axles with cheap, outdated rubber, worn, or simply under rated tires will also lead to major problems if someone is going for cheap as a guideline. The sidewalls blowing out will topple a high center of gravity load especially when the driver reacts and pulls off to the shoulder increasing the angle of inclination and potential for a rollover, especially with top heavy loads, ergo, tall, narrow, high center of gravity, and only two tires on each side so that when one goes out, the second tires can not hold the load by itself because it was at capacity to begin with, thus the passenger side is extremely prone to tipping into the ditch when one pulls over and stresses out the remaining tire on that week side. It happens with travel trailers all the time even thought they are built with much lower centers of gravity than a lofted plywood home with cabinets on the wall and a relatively lightweight trailer.

Just to make this worse without doing anything but taking out a different tire in a blowout and suddenly with a single set of tires on the back of the truck pulling a trailer blows and if the trailer brakes are not working right, slamming the brakes in any way could jackknife the pair in a second on a slippery road of any sort unless you are an experienced driver who will not panic with a semi next to you when it happens. These are not fantacies as I have personally survived a variety of these blow outs and lost tires as well as having my father loose his travel trailer and watch it shred itself over a half mile of highway with all of their belongings strewn along the way. When ever we push the limits of what our vehicles can do and the drivers are not prepared for the worst scenario, we are not just taking our own lives into our hands but also those who will meet with the consequences of our failure to consider these issues in advance of embarking on a grand escapade with a homemade house on a trailer behind you.

I am sure the tales of houses will follow, but if we are at least aware that these are all issues to watch for then we can be prepared, look for the signs of issues, and dodge the bullet that could come from negligence, stupidity, or ignorance on the road. I do not build road houses for people because I can not imagine the liability or the blame that would come to me if someone down the road did not pay attention to these things and something went wrong. Who’s fault is it? I don’t want to be in the group that gets considered for inclusion by the attorneys or the family of the deceased so I tread very carefully on advising, designing, or creating roadhouses that people imagine they can just go from back yard to back yard of friends for years to come.


9 Responses to Why We Don’t Build Our Houses To Be House Trailers

  1. Good points. Seems to me to be crossing the line into travel trailer too much anyway in some cases, where someone might just as well restore a vintage trailer, or purchase newer one. If goal is to circumvent building codes or have ability to move short distances, as with a hunting cabin, then that could still be done by mounting tiny house onto gooseneck trailer onsite, where ability to be moved or temporary status might a consideration.

    July 20, 2012
  2. Lee

    That’s why I got a used Airstream instead of a stick-built tiny house, as much as I love and admire the tiny houses and all their aesthetic and layout options.

    July 20, 2012
  3. Ted

    I’m in agreement with this. Tiny houses are the weight equivalent of a trailer loaded high with logs. Not a very efficient way to save money by bringing home with you on the road. Many of those photo montages of folks building tiny houses on trailers show standard building techniques. Just horizontal and vertical studs. Lots of protruding dormer windows and kitschy window boxes for flowers. Ugh.

    These things need LOTS of extra bracing and could benefit from having a rounded front like a horse trailer. I’d build my own really light-weight metal bar frame (or use the frame of an old camper), lots of diagonal braces, double-insulated with Styrofoam, vinyl or fiberglass siding outside and false wood paneling on the inside. Plus, I’d plan on jacking it up and driving the trailer out from under it when parked. Instead of a useless, teeny-tiny little pretty-porch on the end, I’d have a fold-out screened porch along an entire long wall, with french doors for light. To reduce solar gain in the summer, I’d erect a portable pavilion large enough to shade the whole house.

    July 20, 2012
  4. Peter Rody

    I must preface my entire comment with the fact that I do not want to own a house on wheels. I am more interested in finding a place that I would like to settle and building my own permanent small home, BUT this essay does not take into account a few important details about towable tiny homes. Firstly, an important reason people started to build these homes on trailers is because of issues with zoning laws in many states and how small a space a person is “allowed” to live in. Many places (states, counties, districts) require homes to be built to a certain size and this issue is skirted by building them on trailers. Also, one must account for a different point of view when it comes to these homes. They are obviously not meant to be travel trailers for the various reasons pointed out. If someone is planning on moving their home frequently an airstream, for instance, would be a much better option. But these homes should simply be viewed as permanent homes that can occasionally be moved by an average homeowner rather than someone with a massive industrial truck and not as something to be regularly moving across the country.

    July 20, 2012
    • godiva de maus

      One needs to remember that the reason behind the “Tiny House on wheels” is that many municipalities (and counties) severely restricted how small you could build a house on a foundation. Most places require any home built be a minimum of 700 sf. and I know of one small town in Idaho that requires a minimum of 1400 sf. This meant that if you wanted to live in a tiny house, you couldn’t, UNLESS, it wasn’t really a house, but a trailer. Trailers are treated differently under the law, and that was why Jay Schaeffer came up with building something that has the feel of a real home, but on wheels. I don’t believe he envisioned that anyone living in one would be moving it about often. They are not about being a travel trailer. They are about a lifestyle choice and working around a stupid system.

      October 27, 2012
  5. Patricia Lynn

    Along with all the prior comments – if you want your tiny home to be accepted in a “regular” residential area it has to blend in with the other homes, which means no cedar siding (unless you are in a mountain setting perhaps) – put regular house siding on your tiny home, no wheels showing and it has to be tied down so that wind storms don’t tip the thing over. It also has to be up to code – electrical and plumbing. As a real estate agent I am working with the town I live in to get the new tiny homes accepted. And yes I live in a tiny home – it’s the home I grew up in which is a 10 X 55 Smoker mobile home built in 1959. The whole area around where I live has older vintage tiny mobile homes. But if what you are building looks like an RV you are going to end up in an RV or trailer park. Chances of you getting a variance to park your tiny home on land you purchase in a town or city are almost nil.

    July 21, 2012
  6. Johanna Bruns

    I am one of the professional drivers (used to be) that saw all of the various ways one can lose control of a house on wheels. Pros can do it too– the half of a doublewide sitting in the gorge-deep median of I-70 in Colorado comes to mind.

    Everything Brad says about the tow vehicle and trailer being rated to pull the weight of the load is spot on, even if you only move the trailer occasionally for a short distance. Load distribution is critical too– I’m thinking of someone I knew too well that insisted in loading the tail end of a 5th wheel camper with books and wouldn’t weigh the load. He complained about how squirrely the trailer pulled even though the truck was a 1-ton dually diesel. He’s fortunate that he didn’t kill himself and everyone around him.

    The tire issue is also not one of just age or wear, but of maintenance. The tire that Brad referred to that lost its tread could have been a victim of chronic underinflation as easily as the tire’s age. Age would be the biggest issue on a trailer, but underinflation on the tow vehicle is more likely for a tread loss failure. Much can be learned from the tire failure poster in any major tire shop.

    In order to deal with minimum size issues for your tiny house, go ahead and build it on a trailer, but make the trailer easily removable and set it on blocks. The safest way to move it is to pull the trailer out from underneath and have a pro with a lowboy flatbed move it. Height issues are solved, and the rolling stock is best able to handle the load.

    Just my two cents,,,

    July 22, 2012
  7. These essays and comments are no doubt the proverbial cold dose of reality, and though no one with a single brain cell still functioning would now make or use a portable tiny house, it is remarkable to remember how differently people thought about issues of safety and liability decades ago. Being from the generation of the floorless car with lawn chairs to sit in (and fools we were) I do miss the eccentricities that allowed people to be so experimental. As owner of a fairly extreme art van that I drove from Maryland to Texas last Spring I am happy to report that I was not stopped by officaldom, no doubt because the cupolas, turrets, car parts and statues were clearly designed with craft in mind, and who knows how many stainless nuts, bolts and pressure washers were used. Let us think of tiny houses on wheels as fantasies, and hopefully someone will push the boundaries now and then to see what hybrid of house, trailer, charm and aerodynamics can be achieved by playing it no so sternly safe.

    August 29, 2012
    • Allison Bouknight

      Whoa, charmer – I think there might be a brain cell or two still firing for those people who choose houses on wheels. Please don’t assume that those who are interested in Tiny Houses on wheels are ignorant of the complexities of construction, code, and travel movement. Most people involved in any manifestation of the tiny house movement have done extraordinary amounts of research – they have to. They decide on the option that best fits their needs – houses on wheels are one of the options – and although it is essential to point out the drawbacks and dangers to those who maybe haven’t done their due diligence, there’s really no need to denigrate an entire community – a subset of your own community, nonetheless – because you don’t find that option suitable for your circumstances or any you can imagine.

      July 17, 2013