Feeling a little “blah” about the idea of a traditional apartment or a suburban house with a white picket fence?
You’re not alone. From the rise of tiny homes to the spike in co-living spaces, people from all walks of life are rebelling against skyrocketing housing prices.
By “skyrocketing” I mean home appreciation at triple the rate of a normal market.
And it’s not just about money, either. With more Americans than ever working remotely, there’s less reason than ever to chain yourself to one location.
Whether you’re looking to save money, embrace a more nomadic lifestyle, or just beat your own drum a little differently, scope out these ideas to get you excited about alternative housing. We’ll start with mobile-oriented ideas, then move into drop-in homes for those with land, and wrap up with a couple ideas to live for free.
1. Live on a Boat
Who said you have to live on land?
My sister Lauren dated a guy who wanted to live closer to her, so he bought a used houseboat for around $40,000 and rented a slip a few blocks down the waterfront Promenade in Baltimore’s Fells Point. It had two bedrooms, full electricity, a 46-inch LED television, heat, running water, and of course a motor.
I always thought they should have toodled down the coast, parking the house boat in the Keys or somewhere equally enticing. They didn’t, alas. But I love how this other couple sold their home, bought a multifamily rental to become landlords, then bought a houseboat and are currently sailing around Europe. All with far lower living expenses than back home in the US.
If you’re interested, my fellow personal finance blogger My Money Wizard breaks down all the advantages to a houseboat, from cost to mobility to an upgrade in scenery and view.
Nor is a houseboat the only boat-based alternative to buying a house. Why not sail around the world with your spouse, significant other, or just a (really) good friend? Check out Kristin Hanes’s experience at The Wayward Home to see what it’s like to live full-time on a sailboat.
Keep in mind that most countries offer lower cost of living than the US. To get a sense for what’s possible out in the wild blue yonder, check out these ten countries where $2,000 a month buys the good life.
2. Tour the World in an RV
When you think of an RV, what do you picture? If you think of those rickety beige trailer-buses from the ‘70s, think again.
Today’s RVs often share more in common with luxury homes than trailers. Many include enormous “slides” – rooms that slide out of the main section to create a spacious, multi-room home when parked. From jacuzzi tubs, queen-sized beds, fully-equipped kitchens and comfortable bathrooms to any other amenity you could ask for, RV living is whatever you want it to be.
Or you could keep it simple with a camper van. Your choice.
Whether you earn $1,000/month or $10,000/month, consider a fun and mobile RV lifestyle at whatever luxury level you can afford. It sure beats overpaying for a dingy apartment!
My father-in-law doesn’t live full-time in his, but he’ll take off for months at a time with his wife in their upscale “mobile mansion.” This is alternative housing at its finest.
On the other end of the spectrum, Paul and Nina live a frugal-but-fun and rewarding full-time life in their RV, on a modest budget. They prove you don’t need much money for a fun nomadic life, and can take advantage of the many cheap unconventional housing alternatives out there. You just need to get creative!
3. Tiny House in Tow
By now, everyone’s familiar with the tiny house movement. But it’s worth noting some of the advantages to hitching up a tiny house to the back of your car or truck.
First, you don’t need a dedicated RV – you can keep your own car or truck, assuming it has enough power to pull a hitch. Which, let’s be honest, is usually much cheaper than buying an RV for your alternative housing.
Second, you don’t need an RV park necessarily, for power and water. Many tiny homes have their own solar roofs, with rainwater reclamation and filtration systems. That means you can pull up just about anywhere you like, and settle in for as long as you like. Assuming the law doesn’t come shaking its stick at you.
Who needs a mortgage, anyway? Throw down $10,000-50,000 and go forth into the world!
4. Other Nomadic Options: Housesitting, Airbnb & Beyond
No one says you have to buy a home, even a nomadic one. Why not go live in other people’s homes?
Depending on the destination, it’s possible to live extremely affordably in others’ homes using Airbnb or similar short-term listing services. For that matter, long-term stay hotels are an option too, and in some countries, they’re cheap.
But they still cost money. Want to stay for free in others’ homes? Offer to housesit! For a free matchmaking service for pet owners and house sitters, check out TrustedHousesitters.com. Additional options include Craigslist, local pet owners’ groups on Facebook, and local Realtors.
5. Prefab Cabins
Own some land? Pick up a prefab cabin!
Even better, build your own cabin using a cabin kit. My father and uncle did this – they bought a 10-acre lot near the Madison River in Montana, bought a three-bedroom log cabin kit, and spent a few summers building it.
It’s gorgeous, boasting solar panels for electricity, a rainwater reclamation system for running water, and a propane-powered on-the-fly hot water heater.
For heat, a pellet stove or wood-burning stove works wonders, and are cheap to buy and install.
6. Shipping Container Homes
Shipping container homes are cheap and easy to drop in anywhere.
They can also look and feel more “homey” than you’d think. Nothing says you can’t cover the metal skeleton of the house, both on the inside and outside.
Perhaps best of all, you can combine multiple containers to customize a home to be any shape or size that you like. Check out these case studies of shipping container homes built for under $10,000 as cheap unconventional housing alternatives.
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7. House Hack
Who wouldn’t want to live for free?
The idea is simple: you buy a home and find ways to have someone else pay the mortgage. The classic model is buying a small multifamily, and renting out the neighboring unit(s).
No sweat, right?
Well, maybe a little sweat, if you’ve never bought a home or rental property before. Here’s a detailed house hacking case study on how a 27-year-old with no real estate experience house hacked and currently lives for free in a beautiful suburban home.
If multifamily properties are scarce where you want to live, you can do this with a property with a carriage house or casita, or with an income suite. or even buy a home and rent out other bedrooms Deni and I have both done this, and it’s worked out beautifully.
In fact, Deni even house hacked her suburban single-family home by bringing in a foreign exchange student, and the placement service covered half her housing costs! A little creativity can go a long way, both with alternative housing and clever ways to cover your traditional housing costs.
8. Teach Abroad and Live for Free
I actually do this myself!
More specifically, my wife works as a school counselor at an international school in Brazil, and before that Abu Dhabi. Her school puts us up in a luxury three-bedroom apartment, in an excellent building with a pool and gym. Beyond our building is a beach and boardwalk.
As an added bonus, you don’t have to pay U.S. income taxes on your first $108,700 earned abroad (for tax year 2021).
We and many of our friends have traveled the world this way, living on multiple continents, raising their children and sending them to the (outstanding) embassy schools where they work. It’s an incredible lifestyle.
In fact, it’s also a great way to save money and invest in real estate. Look no further than Ashley and Kevin Thompson, who have now retired using rental properties in their early 30s after saving the money they earned teaching abroad.
Housing is the number one expense for nearly everyone in the world. If you can reduce or eliminate that cost, it will free up much more of your income to invest in income-producing assets, such as rental properties and dividend-paying stocks.
And the more expenses you can cover with your passive income, the closer you’ll be to financial independence and retiring early (FIRE)!
What alternatives to buying a house have you considered (or done)? Share your experiences and thoughts on alternative housing in the comments below, we love hearing from readers, and are always looking for case studies to feature!
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About the Author
G. Brian Davis is a landlord, real estate investor, and co-founder of SparkRental. His mission: to help 5,000 people reach financial independence by replacing their 9-5 jobs with rental income. If you want to be one of them, join Brian, Deni, and guest Scott Hoefler for a free masterclass on how Scott ditched his day job in under five years.