What makes a dream home?
Is it a white picket fence, a two-car garage and a yard for the dog to run around in? Perhaps it’s a secluded cabin on a lake or a mansion so large the whole extended family can live together. Or maybe it’s any home that you own that gets you out of an endless cycle of rental agreements.
The housing landscape across the country and in the Granite State is changing. According to the New Hampshire Housing Authority’s most recent housing needs assessment, the state’s senior population will be double what it was in 2010 by 2015, and their large, rural, multi-level houses will be difficult to live in.
At the same time, young households are not as interested or financially able to buy the large homes built by the baby boomers. The report states that homebuilders are struggling to sell starter homes that cost around $179,000.
But Granite Staters are as resourceful as they are creative. They’re already thinking outside the box, building tiny houses and close-to-nature yurts. They’re moving back to — or never leaving — their childhood homes or opting for a spot in eco-friendly co-housing communities. Here are eight alternative housing options that might steer you away from that three-bedroom, two-bathroom dream home.
a less is more adventure
A couple years ago, New Hampshire yoga instructor John Cole was in the middle of a fast and cleanse.
“I was at the point where I was at a loss on what to spend my time doing, since I couldn’t eat and didn’t want to do anything else. I guess the thought for me was, if I could do anything right now, at this point, what would it be?” Cole said.
Then he heard about the “tiny house movement,” an architectural and social drive that advocates living simply in small homes.
Cole was attracted to the idea of minimizing his environmental impact, having more financial freedom and a greater ability to travel while still having a place to come back to, and not having to worry about a lease or rent.
“Another huge draw is it [was] a unique way to creatively express myself that I hadn’t had before,” he said.
With little more than his computer, Cole got to work. He funneled his energy into studying interior design and architecture and teaching himself how to build.
He scooped up free plans and borrowed ideas from websites before using SketchUp design software to create blueprints. Then he started building a 7½-by-21-foot home in his parents’ Dover backyard.
Flash forward to the present. The frame for the walls is completed and Cole has recently finished erecting sheathing for the back wall.
“I’m getting very close to the point where I’ll be able to live in it,” Cole said. “It feels sturdier and sturdier.”
Creativity is key to making a tiny home feel a whole lot bigger. Cole’s will have a loft bed space, a bench that folds out into additional sleep quarters, a rain catchment system for water, a compost toilet, and a stock tank (picture a horse feeding trough) to use as a shower. Aesthetics and artisticness also come in to play. He’ll be using a large piece of hollowed out driftwood as a storage and lighting fixture.
Cole has spent about $4,000 so far and is expecting to spend a grand total of about $7,000.
“[That] is extremely good compared to what companies online would lead you to believe,” he said. “I’ve picked up used things as much as possible and really been very conscious of what I’m spending without sacrificing anything that would be detrimental to the structure.”
When it’s finished, Cole plans to reach out to friends or post advertisements online looking for land to park his home on.
Cole said that the trend has been slow to pick up in New England, compared with southern and western parts of the country.
“Regardless of the reason, it’s definitely growing more for sure,” Cole said. “I have met a lot of people who are interested in the idea.”
Shipping containers: from storage space to small abode
In 2009 Dan Sokol was a disheartened international contractor living in New York City.
Then he read an article about an Australian builder who won a global award for transforming steel shipping containers into unique, energy-efficient homes. The idea fascinated Sokol.
“My original life was finance and Wall Street, and I got fed up. I was leaving New York and wanted a business, and to do something creative, so I went out and bought a couple containers,” he said.
Sokol now owns LEED Cabins in Stratham. He considers his solar- or traditional-powered custom-built shipping container homes the perfect solution to a crowded world.
From the outside, they don’t look like much — storage spaces from about 20 to 40 feet in length with a few windows and a door. But step inside one and you’ll find a stylish, contemporary, fully functional abode.
“They can be customized however you want, from plain vanilla to very high-end mahogany floors,” Sokol said. “I’ve done a couple with solar power, after pricing came down enough to actually be cost-effective.”
To create them, Sokol first buys the containers, which can be found at storage yards. He said they need to be thoroughly inspected, because some may have held chemicals. Then he spray-seals the interiors, creates metal and wood framing, adds insulation and puts in the wiring and plumbing, just like a house.
“They are safer than any house,” Sokol said. “If a tree falls on it, nothing is going to happen to it. It’s bullet-proof, very secure, very quiet, very solid, it won’t mold up, and the benefit is also speed of construction.”
While shipping container houses and communities are slowly building steam in some of the nation’s western and southern states, they, like tiny houses, have been slow to catch on in the Granite State — Sokol has only sold his inventory to people residing in other states. The few in New Hampshire who have looked into the option have yet to receive a green light from local authorities.
Hillsboro resident Alfredo Valentin has been hoping to create a multi-container, 900-square-foot home for a few months now.
“I just think it’s kind of cool, kind of different, kind of interesting,” he said. “It’s a way to save the environment if you’re using correct materials. If you’re conscious about it and trying to use recycled materials or steel rather than wood, it’s a 30- or 40-percent savings just on wood.”
But Valentin is dealing with a serious roadblock. Local zoning and planning boards OK’d the project, but the Hillsboro building inspector said it was a no-go after Valentin submitted structural plans.
“I sent them installation instructions, and the only thing that [the building inspector] ever comes up with is it’s not adapted for the International Residential Codes. I’m getting shut out a lot. I’ve showed him the building is stronger structurally than any house built, other than concrete, and he basically is telling me, ‘I don’t see it.’”
Valentin doesn’t plan to stop trying and wants to lead the way for future New Hampshire shipping container hopefuls.
“I’m having a lot of issues, but I think I’m probably going to be the first or second one that’s trying to do it legally,” Valentin said. “I’m just trying to break ground.”
Yurts: soft, round and nature-bound
When Ken Ludwig began living in a yurt 15 years ago, it turned out to be just one room in his house — the other rooms were all outdoors.
“It was the one room that was warm and dry, but because the yurt has fabric walls you can hear everything outside, which makes you feel a lot more connected. You don’t just go in and stay all day like you might in a house. You also have outdoor space: a garden, fields, the forest, a workshop.”
The proximity to nature and hands-on lifestyle is often what attracts Granite Staters to living in the yurts that quietly speckle the state.
Ludwig has built many of them. He owns the Acworth-based company Two Girls Yurts, which went full-time four years ago.
He doesn’t advertise his yurts, and usually he doesn’t agree to do interviews. He likes to let people find him themselves. He says they are looking for a different kind of American dream.
“People who come to me are usually already desperate for something that living in a yurt can be a part of. They tend to be looking for a space to live in [while] not paying rent. They are looking to start living more with things they make themselves, whether it’s growing their own food or building their own shelter — not the sort of skills you or I learned in high school or college, but a whole different way of thinking, of knowing, of living.”
Yurts have circular frames with lattice walls, rafters on top, a tension cable and a skylight in the middle. Their design has remained largely unchanged since the 13th century in Central Asia, except in the U.S. and Canada they are covered with canvas or vinyl instead of yak pelt.
A good cover will last for more than 20 years, and the wood structure, just like the wood of a house, lasts even longer, as long as it’s well-kept.
Yurts vary in size to accommodate an individual or a family and are usually equipped with wood-burning stoves, places for food preparation and cooking stoves. They have dining room tables and living spaces with couches and beds.
While the structures themselves can seem mysterious, what interests Ludwig most are the people who choose to inhabit them.
“The majority of my customers are homesteaders, as I have been for 15 years. They are creating a life out of whatever they have, the raw land, and learning how to build as they go, as I did. They don’t tend to show up on the radar, but they are very interesting people.”
Costs run about $4,000 for smaller yurts and $10,000 for larger designs with bells and whistles like chimneys, windows or an arched door. There are additional costs for water, heat and electricity, if desired.
Not so mobile anymore
The newer houses in New Hampshire’s manufactured housing parks are the grandchildren of mobile homes and RVs, and they don’t look anything like their ancestors.
Back in the day, people used them like vehicles they could live in, parking them and then driving off again at will. But in 1976 builders began creating manufactured homes to meet housing codes rather than vehicle codes.
“So anything post ’76 is not really a vehicle,” said Juliana Eades, president of the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund. “In New Hampshire, most homes are placed in a lot and they don’t move again — partly because there is no place to move them to.”
Granite Staters who choose to live in one of the state’s 450 manufactured home parks take pride in both their homes and their close-knit communities.
“They are like any other home,” said Lois Parris, vice secretary for the Lakes Region Mobile Home Park Cooperative. She has lived in a manufactured home since 1983.
“I took out rugs and put down hardwood floors. I painted the walls. Like any other home, it needs to be kept up.”
Parris lives in one of the state’s 109 residents-owned cooperative “MH” communities. The rest are investor-owned.
Each year more and more parks are bought by their residents. The New Hampshire Community Loan Fund has helped all but two of those co-ops purchase the parks from previous owners.
“When parks come up for sale, home owners have a right to 18 months’ notice, so homeowners can get together and make a decision of whether they want to buy them or not,” Eades said. “A lot of the sellers like the idea of selling to owners and the land staying together.”
The Lakes Region MHP Cooperative was purchased by the homeowners in 2000.
“It is a close-knit neighborhood,” Parris said. “There are always changes coming up that get discussed.”
Together, residents develop rules and regulations and maintain the property. They decide when and why rent must go up. When costs change, they are paying themselves, not a separate entity.
“I wish we had more [MH co-ops in the state] and I would like to think that anyone living in a manufactured housing community who has the opportunity to purchase their community should most definitely do it,” Parris said.
Because they cost an average of 25 to 30 percent less than similarly sized site-built homes, MHs are attractive to anyone from young couples searching for their first home to elderly residents who want to downsize to low-income residents.
“In Warner, where I live, we don’t have apartment buildings,” said Steve Varnum, Eades’ colleague. “A manufactured home is the most affordable, and often only affordable, option for working people.”
the kids come home
Kid graduates from high school. Kid moves to dorm. Kid graduates from college. Kid moves back in with parents.
In 2012, almost 25 percent of young adults ages 25 to 34 (affectionately monikered “boomerang kids”) were living with their parents, according to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
Hooksett residents Donna Stavrou and her husband Dennis welcomed their daughter back with open arms. From 2004 to 2008, their daughter Christine moved home when her new husband, Kevin, went into the U.S. Air Force. After Kevin’s enlistment finished, he moved in too.
“I just felt that it would help them to get a start by coming back and living here and giving us some rent,” Stavrou said.
Stavrou felt blessed, not burdened, to have them home. Most parents, she said, only get 18 years with their children, and she was happy to have more. She also got to know her son-in-law much better than she would have otherwise.
“When I think back, it’s amazing how fast that time went by. It feels good to see them doing well on their own,” she said.
Parents must decide whether to charge their adult children rent, and what to do with that rent money. Factors like levels of financial hardship, length of stay and whether the child has a move-out plan often factor in.
Stavrou saved up the rent money, then gave it back when Christine and Kevin were ready to move out — a strategy she took from her own mother.
“When I was living at home, I paid rent at home too,” she said. “At that time it was only $20 a week, which was a normal amount in the ’70s. Then I found out my mother ended up paying for our wedding with that money, so that’s what gave me the idea.”
House rules are another consideration. Adult children might have to do a share of household chores and pay for things like groceries themselves.
In the Stavrou household the children bought their own food and cooked their own meals, though leftovers were fair game for anyone.
“I am the type of person who tends not to set too many rules and I hope by example and by how they were brought up and the fact that they are adults that they will just do the right thing and they will not overstep their boundaries or upset us,” Stavrou said. “I know other people who say, well if you’re going to live here, this is what you’ll do, the dishes, whatever — that’s not my style.”
With the kids successfully moved out, there’s the possibility of the Stravrous’ parents moving in down the road.
“My mother does not want to go into a nursing home; neither does my mother-in-law,” Stavrou said. “They both say it is the worst … my mother keeps saying she never wants to bother us, but she wouldn’t go into a nursing home, and we’d be happy to help.”
Modern-day communes: Sharing community spaces
With every social idea comes a counter-culture, and communes are the quintessential counter-culture of the traditional American housing dream.
The concept of living in a community of like-minded individuals who value relationships and environmental sustainability more than privacy and convenience may not be as prevalent at it was during its 1970s heyday.
Still, a couple of modern-day co-housing communities that embrace that lifestyle are developing in New Hampshire.
In Lyme, Pinnacle Project cohousing neighborhood is developing plans to build mixed-income homes for people who value community and sustainability. Then there is Nabanusit Neighborhood in Peterborough, which touts itself as “an old-fashioned community of new homes.”
The intentional community was founded in the mid 2000s. Its core values are respect, environmental stewardship, openness and interdependence. While the 29 diverse households all have their own homes, the epicenter of the neighborhood is a common house. Neighbors gather there for fun, meetings and weekly community dinners. There are also guest rooms for overnight visitors.
“In the interest of reducing our carbon footprint, our homes are designed to be smaller. But the common house is designed to be an extension of our homes,” said Melissa Mauer, one of Nabanusit’s owners and residents.
There’s also a 4-acre farm on the property.
“The farm, for many, is the reason why we are here,” Mauer, said. “We have a farm team and an agreement with a farmer who is developing as community-supported agriculture. Many, if not most of the folks who live here, are members of the CSA.”
Most management and maintenance activities are shared; Nabanusit operates on a process called consensus. Residents become members of various teams, including a farm team, grounds committee, and common house team. Important decisions are also made communally.
“Basically we look for common agreements,” Mauer said. “We want to honor the well-being of the entire community when making a decision. We talk things through. You have a lot of meetings because it’s important to fully understand different proposals.”
The cedar-shingled buildings are designed and built using energy conservation strategies. The community uses a wood pellet boiler system; heat and hot water are piped underground and delivered to all the units. Because it’s a pedestrian community, cars are kept on the periphery. Homes are connected by pedestrian walkways and surrounded by green space and courtyards.
Making life fun is another goal. There are often spontaneous campouts and other activities that encourage a high quality of life.
Living at Nabanusit isn’t necessarily an option for low-income individuals. The three homes currently listed on its website range in price from a four-bedroom, single family home listed at $449,000 to a two-bedroom plus loft unit that costs $249,000, not including monthly dues and yearly taxes. According to the website, high performance green building lowers operating costs.
Energy-efficient houses: Working toward net zero
In the more than 10 years Paul Button, founder of Energy Audits Unlimited, has been assessing homes for energy efficiency, Bedford resident Jean Fullerton had one of the most impressive homes he’s seen.
Fullerton has been concerned about climate change and dwindling natural resources for at least a decade. So in 2009, when she was planning her home, she decided to go all-in with energy efficiency.
“I was lucky; I had decided to build a house rather than buy one. Some of the work is clearly easier with new construction,” she said.
Using current energy construction standards, a home with a rating of 100 meets standards for new building. Energy Star homes have a rating of 10. A net-zero home creates as much energy as it uses. In New Hampshire, the average house is well over 100. Currently, Fullerton’s house is a 44.
Though it looks like a standard colonial-style home inside and out, her 2,400-square-foot house uses no fossil fuels directly and runs solely on electricity.
Because it is so well insulated and sealed and uses energy-efficient appliances, the monthly bill for all utilities is $130.
Although Fullerton enlisted a slew of power-saving strategies, the three major factors keeping her energy use low are insulation, air sealing and geothermal heating and air conditioning.
Insulation is critical to keep houses cool in summer and warm in winter.
“My house is well-insulated because the walls were prefabricated with six inches of styrofoam. … That can’t be done after the fact, but you can add insulation,” she said.
Air sealing with caulking around doors, windows, pipes and other places that air can move in and out makes a home cheaper to heat and far less drafty.
“When you have a leaky house, you’re losing a lot of heat that way. … One of the things an auditor can do is a blower door test. You take a large fan and blow air into the house and see where it comes out. That will give you a very good feeling of what your leaks are,” she said.
Geothermal heating pumps take energy from deep inside the Earth. You get out more energy than you put in, Fullerton said. When heating with electricity like she does, the geothermal source trims the amount of electricity used by from 30 to 40 percent.
Installation can be expensive, but because Fullerton was excavating she was able to do it for about $22,000 — and she got $11,000 of that back in tax credits and rebates.
“Instead of paying for an oil furnace, I paid $11,000, which is not much more expensive, and in the long term, it’s much cheaper,” she said. “If I heated with oil, I might pay a couple hundred just for oil, and I only pay $130 a month for everything.”
Fullerton hopes to lower it even more by eventually installing solar panels, a job that has become much cheaper in the past couple years.
“The solar electric is so cost-efficient [now] that there’s nothing that compares to it,” she said. “When I built this house it would have taken 12 years to recover the cost. Now it would only take six.”
55+ and assisted-living
communities: aging in place
Jim Miller of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage says the people who choose to live in 55+ communities aren’t necessarily trying to get away from kids — just the things that go along with them.
“They are trying to get away from the whole neighborhood situation,” Miller said. “Most of them are looking for just a specific lifestyle; it has very little to do with the children.”
Many residents of these age-restricted abodes aren’t retired and want to easily meet people their own age who share common interests.
Miller’s clients are often looking to downsize from a house to a condo, where their driveways are plowed for them and their sidewalks are shoveled.
“It’s just like living in any other condo really, except the age restriction. Some are self-managed, just like managing any other condo,” Miller said.
In the past decade, 55+ and other adult living communities have cropped up quickly as the state’s population ages — there are about 120 total.
The homes cost anywhere from $120,000 to upward of $600,000, so there’s something for many budgets, and in case you were wondering, children are allowed to visit — “They’re just not allowed to live there,” Miller said.
For some older adults, continuing care retirement communities may be a better option than purchasing a condo. These combine independent living and nursing home options to create environments where healthy and active people in their 70s and 80s can live independently. Then they transition into aid-based living on the premises if that becomes necessary.
“A lot of the residents would tell you they wanted to make this decision and make this move before they had to depend on their family. They don’t want their family to have to be caregivers for them,” said Laurie Goodman, communications coordinator for Hunt Senior Living, which includes Hunt Community and Huntington at Nashua.
The option keeps them close to the loved ones; when the time comes, residents don’t have to move to assisted living somewhere else, separate from friends and spouses.
Socializing is a major factor at the Hunt apartment communities. An activities director plans trips and events. There is also a variety of committees, clubs and games.
“There is a group that plays cribbage and a quilting group that calls themselves the quilting grannies,” Goodman said.
Costs to live in Hunt Senior Living apartments can be hefty, but they are 90 percent refundable. If a person dies, the money is refunded to his estate and is available. The entrance fee depends on the size of the apartment and goes to paying for upkeep, activities, and facilities like swimming pools and restaurants, where they also get a meal a day included in the fee.
“Moving into a community like this really frees them to enjoy their retirement,” Goodman said.