Mortgage-free, tiny home on a housekeeper’s salary

“Johnny Sanphillippo has never made more than $20,000 per year (he works as a housekeeper, as well as, a gardener and house painter), but he knew like “any other American” that he wanted to own his own home.

When he talked to bankers about qualifying for a home loan, “they look at you and their eyes glaze over and you realize, they’re going to give me a lollipop and send me home, which is pretty much what happened”. So he decided that if he went far enough away from his hometown of San Francisco he could find something he could afford to buy with cash.

He finally heard about a deal in Hawaii (back when oil was cheap and airline tickets were $99 from SFO) and for $3000 cash he bought himself an empty lot in a failed subdivision on the Big Island.”


7 thoughts on “Mortgage-free, tiny home on a housekeeper’s salary”

  1. The interesting thing about this approach is that this method may not be as risky as typical “fly under the radar” approaches.

    There typically is nothing illegal about building a garage only. Happens rather often actually.

    As Owen rightfully points out, the potential legal problems come when someone attempts to occupy the garage without an occupancy permit.

    The worst case scenario in this situation would be that the owner/builder cannot afford to build the full house, and is not allowed to occupy the finished garage. At that point, they can sell. They stand a more than reasonable chance to recover most of their costs because they have improved the property, and already have an approved building plan on file for the rest of the house.

    This is far less risky than building an unapproved house, and being forced by the government to tear it down because it doesn’t meet code, or it wasn’t approved or inspected.

    This guy built a fully approved and inspected structure, a legal garage. He simply stopped building before starting the house.

    The other interesting legal aspect is that many houses have garages that have been converted for habitation. Garages often get transformed into children’s bedrooms aging parents rooms, man-caves, etc. If the work is designed and done correctly, plans for converting a garage to habitable space are approved rather often.

    If this case ever went to court, there might be lots of precedents on file showing that living in a garage has been done, is being done, and the building inspectors/code officials have not only allowed it, but approved and inspected them.

    With equal protection clauses… it would be an interesting case.

    Clearly the difference would be that the other precedents would include a house that was next door to the habitable garage.

    Would that be enough for the government to force this guy out of his home?

    I don’t know.

    These types of cases rarely go to a jury trial, but if I were on such a jury I know I would vote to let this guy live his life in peace… and make the government pay his attorney’s fees.

    But then… I doubt they’d let me on the jury in the first place. They’d ask me a couple of questions during jury selection and quickly discover that I was way too biased on the issue.

    • He probably got away with it because he’s in a failed subdivision. No one cares now. But what if lots of neighbors start building nice homes? They could apply pressure and get this guy kicked out of his garage.

      • Yes, that’s certainly a possibility.

        However, it’s still a lower risk strategy for flying under the radar.

        The government won’t be knocking on his door insisting that the garage be torn down.

        If a bunch of people move into the neighborhood and are building big houses and making noise, his property values will go up. He will be able to sell at most likely a significant profit, and someone else can use that garage as a garage and build the house that he never built.

        Not an ideal situation, but it’s unlikely that this guy will be forced out of his house, have it torn down, and the guy loses almost everything. In fact, this guy is likely to come out ahead, even if he is forced out.

        That’s what makes this a lower risk strategy.

        • Oh yeah, I agree. I was just warning people of the risk of living in houses/garages without occupancy permits. What you say is probably the most likely outcome. His property is near the beach and so it’s just a matter of time before others start building there and prices go up.

          • All the more houses for the housekeeper to work in, I suppose.

            Perhaps he’ll be able to raise his rates?

    • He saved his money. Paid $3,000 cash for a lot in a failed subdivision in Hawaii (no other houses or businesses nearby, although near the ocean). He presented plans to the building authorities for a complete house with separate garage, but never built the house. He built in stages and included a bathroom and sink area for a future kitchen. He now has a little house that looks like a garage.

      Note: Most of the time you won’t be able to fool the building authorities so easily. Usually they will not let you move into a garage.


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