Small House Plans: How to Choose

This is where the fun starts :).  You can take that vision in your head and start putting it on paper.  It may be the most crude drawing ever, but at least it’s a vision.  Your vision.  A great springboard for ideas (any idea) is to investigate what already exists.  Do established, tested small house plans exist?  Of course.  There are literally hundreds of them available at Google’s fingertip.  And it can get overwhelming.  Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

1) Size matters.  The building codes that regulate a tiny house on a trailer are very different from the building codes that regulate a small house on a permanent foundation.  Knowing what the rules are upfront will help you choose the target square footage for your home.  You can get this information from your city’s zoning and building department because they will ultimately be the ones to issue a building permit.  The zoning department may say any unit < 400 square feet, for example, will never be approved because your lot happens to be in a neighborhood of sprawling homes.

2)  Know the setback requirements.  Setbacks are the required distance between your house and neighboring structures.  Each lot is in a zoning district which has its own setback requirements.  You can contact your city’s zoning department to get this information.  This step may be unnecessary if your lot is large.  However, this is a crucial step if your lot is small and flanked by other houses.  Please note that setback requirements are not set in stone — you can apply for a zoning variance,  which is essentially asking the zoning department to approve your proposed changes to the setback requirements.

Case example (my lot):

  • Target small house size:   between 700-900 square feet.
  • Setback requirements were determined by emailing the lot’s address to the zoning department.  They responded by confirming the lot is zoned residential and the setback requirements are as follows:  the side setbacks are 3 feet (so three feet away from the neighbors on either side), and front and rear setbacks are 15 feet each.

My lot is 22′ w x 100′ L.  Substract the setbacks to get the maximum possible footprint for the house:  (22-6) x (100-30) = 16′ x 70′.   Therefore, although my lot size is 22’x100′, my house can only be 16′ x 70′ max.

This information serves as a starting point. 

3)  Examine various houseplans online.   This concept is exactly the same as looking at pictures of interiors for design inspiration.  In this case, look at the layout and sizes of each individual room.  Which floor plans fit best with your lifestyle?  Do you love to cook and find people gravitating towards your kitchen to hang out?  If so, it might work better to make the kitchen with an eat-in area larger by taking some square footage away from the living room.  Get a general sense of what appeals to you and what does not. 

In my case, maximum house width of only 16′  really reduced my options.  My preferred style of single story ranch under 1000 sq ft narrowed the options down even further.  I was left with a healthy, manageable number of houseplans to browse through on various different sites.   

Here are a couple of my favorites:



This one has a little vestibule upon entering – the idea of a little area for hanging coats and taking off snowy shoes before entering the living room appeals to me.  I also love all the windows in the front room.   The loft is pretty cool too – great little area for overnight guests to sleep.

Here’s the second one:

First Floor Plan of Craftsman   Narrow Lot   House Plan 89763


With this one, note how they fit a double vanity into the bathroom.  A closet for the washer/dryer and two hallway closets were also squeezed into this floor plan –  awesome!

4)  Ask yourself  if you want a custom-designed house.  “Stock” plans are not for everyone.  In most cases, modifications need to be made to suit a particular preference or need.  In other cases, modifications may be necessary to place a house on a specific lot with specific soil conditions.  Regardless, before you purchase a plan online, decide if the modifications make it worthwile — if too many modifications are required, it may make more sense to have the house designed by a local architect.

5)  Price per square foot estimates are not reliable –  It’s tempting to choose a house plan based on cost per square foot.  If you have a starting budget, cost per square foot estimates seem like a reasonable method to determine how much square footage is affordable.  Here’s the thing:  there are too many variables involved for any builder to give an accurate cost per square foot estimate for the small house. 

Take this example:

Tumbleweed Homes offers a ready-made 89 sq foot home, the Epu, for $45,997.  Do the math and that = $517 per sq foot!  By this estimate, with a sample budget of 200K, one would only be able to afford a 387 sq foot home.

Here are some of the variables involved with small houses specifically (and I’m sure there are many more) that affect cost/sq ft estimates:

  • The cost of the expensive parts of the house like the kitchen and bathroom are not spread out over the rest of the house.  A kitchen may cost $500/sq foot, but average that out with 4 bedrooms that cost only $20/sq foot and you get a much lower cost per square foot for the entire house.  With a small home with only 3 other rooms total, that cost can’t be spread out very far.  Therefore, smaller houses will always cost more per square foot than a larger house of similar quality.
  • Degree of energy efficiency – essentially, the better the insulation or “thermal envelope”, the more expensive the house.
  • Quality of interior finishes – basic example – laminate flooring that costs 99cents/sq ft will dramatically reduce cost/sq ft estimates compared to $8/sq ft handscraped wide-planked oak.

Therefore, unless you and your builder know exactly how you want to insulate, which heating/cooling system you want, which finishes you want, etc.   you cannot get a reliable cost per square foot estimate and should not use it as a deciding factor for your houseplan.


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