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Compact Home or Tiny House? - Part 1: Definitions

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

At first glance it can be hard to differentiate “tiny houses” (or “micro-homes”) from compact homes (or accessory dwelling units - ADUs). However, the more you learn, the more you will realize that there are considerable differences between the two. It will be important to familiarize yourself with these distinctions if you are considering living in one. Not only are there differences in how these dwellings are designated and approved by local building codes and zoning bylaws, but there are significant disparities in accessibility, convenience, and budget between them. For now, let’s start with some basic definitions.

Tiny houses

The term “tiny house” refers to a smaller, single room dwelling (usually with a sleeping loft) somewhere between 100 - 250 square feet (although they can be as large as 400 sf). For reference, this is about the size of a living room in a mid-sized house. Given that tiny houses are typically one room dwellings, that space will include a kitchenette, a bathroom, a bed or loft, and spaces to sit and/or eat.

Tiny houses are often classified as temporary structures that can be placed on site, much like a motorhome or trailer. For this reason tiny houses are commonly put on wheels or temporary structural beds. Among temporary residences they occupy a middle ground in terms of mobility: more mobile than a trailer, but less mobile than a motorhome.

Compact homes

In comparison, compact homes or ADUs tend to be 400 - 1,200 sf and include most of the amenities of typical standard-size houses (1,500 - 2,500 sf). Unlike tiny houses they have separate rooms, generally including a kitchen, dining area, living area, bathroom, and bedroom(s), all organized in a spatially efficient design.

Unlike tiny houses, compact homes are recognized in many towns and states as permanent dwellings that can be approved through a special permit process. In fact, in an effort to address the rising popularity of ADUs, some towns have recently changed their Zoning bylaws to make them legal structures without requiring the homeowner to apply for a permit. (See Hingham bylaw change).


Ultimately, both housing types offer a smaller footprint, a more affordable budget, and better spatial and energy efficiency compared to standard homes. Of course, they do not accomplish this in the same way, and differences between them go beyond size and layout. They both address different needs and appeal to different population demographics. If you’re planning on building or buying a smaller dwelling, you’ll want to weigh carefully which type of home is the best fit for what you’re trying to do. To that end, in the next post we will examine their respective advantages and disadvantages.

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