Tiny Homes vs. RV’s

Tiny House vs. Recreational Vehicle (RV) and Trailers

There is one question or statement that is constantly asked or said when tiny homes are brought up and that is “well, why wouldn’t you just buy an RV?”.

This is a fair question to ask, especially from an outsider who is unfamiliar with Tiny Houses or RV construction and use.

Below I will highlight several of the differences in the construction process, and then dive into the benefits of each and why someone might choose an RV or a Tiny Home.

Construction

RV’s are constructed and designed to be used for weekend getaways and short road trips.  The primary concern for RV’s these days is weight savings which allows for easy transport and smaller vehicles to pull bigger and bigger trailers.  

The unfortunate compromise with reducing weight is that in order to do so, you almost always have to compromise structural integrity.  This weight savings is spread throughout the trailer, from the frame, the walls, the cabinetry, the fixtures, basically anything that the manufacturers think they can save a few pounds or ounces they will typically do so.  What this results in, is a light weight, easy towing, vacation ready machine that is great at what it is designed to do.  Generally you don’t get a reliable quality built product that is meant to be lived in for extended periods of time or hold up to years of use (just look at the typical condition of a 10-15 year old RV or Trailer).

Below I have outlined many of the differences between the core construction of an RV and a Tiny House.  This is not a comprehensive list and there are extreme variances that exist, but this is fairly representative of what you will find in the mass market.  Obviously there are 500k Motorhomes with marble floors and built on a rock solid frame, but below is what your typical consumer will be working with.  





RV/Trailers TINY HOME
Trailer Steel, assembly line production, as lightweight as they can get away with Steel, often custom made/fabricated Typically very heavy duty – overbuilt
Framing 2×2 wood or aluminum 2×4, 2×6, Aluminum, Steel
Insulation Styrofoam, spun fiberglass Fiberglass, Cotton, SIP’s, Spray Foam
Windows Mostly single pane Endless options – dual paned is typical
Roofing Aluminum, EPDM rubber, Fiberglass Asphalt, wood, metal, composite
Floring  Vinyl, laminate, carpet Wood, Engineered wood, tile etc.
Interior walls Laminate, Luan, Aluminum Wood, Tile, Fiberglass etc.
Fixtures Plastic, Household Endless options – basic to luxury

As you can see above, there are many differences in the construction process, but lets switch gears and talk a little about the benefits and downsides of owning an RV.

The case for and against a Recreation Vehicle (RV)

According to the RVIA (RV Industry Association) the RV industry has seen rapid growth over the last 8 years with 5 of the last 6 years seeing double digit increases in units shipped.  Annually, the industry has a $50+ billion economic impact, and provides more than 150,000 jobs and $7.9 billion in wages.  There are more manufactures, layouts, materials used than ever before and when you look at growth in the segment you understand why.  People like to travel.  And as the Boomers have begun leaving the workforce, they are hitting the road in record numbers.  

The industry has also recently started appealing to younger generations and almost every manufacture has a model line aimed at the young adventurer or small families.  All it takes is a quick Youtube search to come across hundreds of sub-30 year olds traveling the country in a trailer, van, 5th wheel or even converted school bus.  

Why the uptick in younger nomads?  The overwhelming answer you find is that the new generations live for experiences, not material goods.  You are more likely than ever to get a young person excited about a custom built “off grid van” than the newest model Ferrari.  To them the van represents “experiences” yet to be had, while the Ferrari represents an unobtainable object that provides quick thrills and inflated, often unwanted status.

The quickest way to enjoy travel on the road is to head down to your local dealer or browse the online classifieds and within hours you could be on the road to wherever your heart desires.  You can even finance your dream for up to 10 years in many cases!  

The case for purchasing an RV is strong, but there is one aspect that created the demand for tiny homes and many don’t realize it until after they’ve traveled down the road singing “take me home, country roads”, and that is maintenence and durability.   

I would recommend to anyone considering buying an RV to join a few Facebook groups and monitor the discussions and common trends.  One of the most common things you will see is “_______ part broke, does anyone know how to fix it?”, or “_________ stopped working and now I have no hot water/Air Conditioning/power/heat/etc/etc/etc.”  You have heard or will hear the statement that “the trailer is basically experiencing a non-stop earthquake as you travel down the road”.  And while this is true, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for things breaking, it should be used as a baseline for trailer construction.

One misconception is that the more you spend the less problems you will have, and while this tends to be true, the more expensive trailers are not exempt from issues big and small.  We purchased a 2017 Airstream Flying Cloud last year and we just got it back from 4 weeks in the shop for an internal leak that lead to floor damage.  Had this not been under warranty (4 months from now) then we would have been on the hook for 90 hours of Labor and parts!

So if you have one take away its that if you have an RV, things will go wrong, and you will probably have an on-going list of thing that need to be replaced, touched up or modified.  

For people that plan on living in their RV full-time, this problem is expedited and enhanced significantly.  RV’s are not meant for full-time living (check every warranty from the manufactures – if you are full time, your warranty is void).  The fixtures, furnishings, electrical and HVAC are not meant to be used for extended periods of time, and if they are, you will discover quickly why the manufactures void the warranty for such conditions.

The case for and against Tiny House Ownership

We have already discussed the differences in construction between RV’s and Tiny Homes, but I want to stress that the options for layouts and building materials in a THOW (Tiny Home on Wheels), are almost limitless.  You desire a clawfoot tub in your home on wheels, you can have it.  Need a studio to make music while on the road, you can have it.  Want to have a yoga studio steps away from your lofted King size bed, it can be done!  Not only can you customize your dream layout, but you can build it with almost anything, from reclaimed barn wood to synthetic stacked stone, marble countertops and glass tiled showers, your home is only a limit of your imagination (and budget…).

What this means is that most tiny homes are built to the same or even better quality than a traditional stick and brick home.  Many times you find residential appliances and HVAC systems being utilized in tiny homes rather than cheaper, less reliable RV units.  The emphasis on Tiny Home construction is in quality, efficiency and overall livability rather than how light the manufacturer can make the trailer in order for a Nissan Murano to tow a 32ft rig down the road.  

This focus on quality does mean that most Tiny Houses weigh more that their assembly line made counterparts.  A 20ft Tiny House can weigh as much as 9,000 pounds, whereas you can find the same length trailer (granted no lofts, so much less space) can get down to 3-4,000 pounds.

Another important factor with Tiny Homes is that much like a standard home and unlike many RV’s is that they can be remodeled fairly easily.  The framing is very similar to a standard home, and the flooring, wiring, plumbing and fixtures can be found at most big box hardware stores.  In comparison, finding the exact part for an RV can be exhaustive and many times very costly.  We damaged a drawer in our Airstream Dometic refrigerator and what you would think would be a $15 part turned into a $65 piece of plastic!  Overall, the regular maintenence and eventual remodel or repairs on a tiny house are far simpler and far less expensive.

What is best for you?

The best answer for the differences between RV’s and THOW’s is that they are designed for 2 different purposes and you really need to consider what your purpose for purchasing either are.  I made a guide below to hopefully help you if you have been debating between the two.  This list is by no means a comprehensive guide, but from my personal experience owning several trailers and tiny homes.

Type of RV Description Drivetrain
(A) Class A Biggest RV’s on the road Motorized – gas or diesel
(B) Class B Vans, Sprinters or super compact Motorhome
Motorized – gas or diesel
C) Class C Midsize Motorhome option
Motorized – gas or diesel
(PU) Pop up Manual operation to construct trailer
Pulled by car, SUV or truck
(TD) Teardrop small travel trailer in teardrop shape – very light
Pulled by SUV or truck
(TC) Truck Camper sits in bed of truck – typically bed over cab Placed in bed of truck
(TT) Travel Trailer from small to very big Pulled by SUV or truck
(5WL) 5th Wheel largest truck pulled trailers
Pulled by Full-Size Truck

Below is a simplified chart to take into account when selecting whether an RV or Tiny House might be the best option for you.  This again is by no means a comprehensive guide, but comes from my knowledge and experience. There are extreme variances to this chart (couples living Full-Time in truck campers and Families owning 45ft Class A Motorhomes that take just a few weekend trips a year.  You really need to understand how you live while on the road and determine what you need to be comfortable and enjoy the lifestyle.  If you feel cramped then you will not be happy, and if you have a massive rig that is a pain to travel with and don’t need the space, the same is true.  Do your research, ask people, follow groups on FB and if you can rent a few different options and see how it feels.  It is very common for people to go too small or too big on their first purchase, so the more you know, the better you will be off and the more money you will save in the long run (trading in used RV’s is never a profitable experience…).

MAIN USE TINY HOME           (Yes/No/Maybe) TINY HOME (SIZE – FT) RV (STYLE) RV (SIZE)
Weekend trips/Couple: 1-2x month No/Maybe   15-20 B, PU, TD, TC, TT 15-20
Weekend trips/Family: 1-2x month Maybe 20-24 C, B, TD, TT, 5WL, 20-30
Road Trippers/couple 14-30 day trips Yes 18-22 B, C, PU, TD, TC, TT 15-25
Road Trippers/Family 14-30 day trips Yes 20-24 A, B, C, TD, TT 18-30
Long Stay/couple 60-120 days at 1 or a few spots Yes 20-24 A, B, C, TD, TT 20-27
Long Stay/family 60-120 days at 1 or a few spots Yes 24-30 A, B, C, TD, TT, 5WL 22-35
Full Timers/couple – live permanent either at 1 spot or traveling Yes 20-24 A, B, C, TT, 5WL 25-32
Full Timers/family – live permanent either at 1 spot or traveling  Yes 28-34 A, C, TT, 5WL 28-40

I hope that this article has been helpful in someway and has helped explain the differences between these two options.  At the end of the day if you are reading this then congrats, you are on your way to a very enjoyable lifestyle.

Justin Beers

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14 reviews
  • Toby Schultz

    Oh my gosh, I’m so excited. I hike in Cave Creek every weekend. Can’t wait for the tiny house hotel to open. When do you anticipate taking reservations January 4, 5 & 6th, 2019.. 3 houses for 3 nights? Can’t think of a more exciting way to celebrate my 60th birthday with my out of town guests from Boston and San Francisco.

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