Couple Giving Old Camper New Life as Tiny Home

Nov 08, 2017
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

The 20-year-old travel trailer was ready for retirement, but when Morgan Ross’s aunt and uncle in South Jersey were parting with their well-loved pull-behind camper last summer, she and her boyfriend, Max Serrao, saw an opportunity to fix it up. They took it and parked it in Serrao’s parents’ yard in Ocean Acres.

While they pondered its fate, it sat there through last winter. By the time spring rolled around, Serrao’s parents said “time’s up” and wanted it out of the yard. So the young couple got to work.

Early on, they realized the floor was bad, but the frame was solid; so the only original parts they were left with were the tires, axles and metal base needing some rust removal work with an angle grinder. From that point, there has been nowhere to go but up.

Serrao, a 2012 graduate of Southern Regional High School, works in construction for a living. Ross graduated in 2013 and is now a graduate student at William Paterson University. They have been together five years and often work on building projects together. Serrao describes Ross as the hardest worker he knows.

Together they find the right balance between Serrao’s propensity for over-the-top ideas and Ross’s voice of reason. Their hashtag for social media purposes is #significantlysmall.

Originally they thought they might want to live in the renovated camper but have since decided the minimalist lifestyle really isn’t for them. Nonetheless, they were committed to the challenge of making the 150-square-foot space livable for two people.

“I thought they were nuts,” Serrao’s mother, Sue, commented lovingly. In truth, all the parents in the equation are proud of the kids’ ambition.

The couple’s vision for the tiny home includes plenty of natural light from several windows, a loft “bedroom,” a bathroom complete with composting toilet and full-size shower in a freestanding tub, separated by a pocket door from the kitchen area, with a window above the sink, a countertop (maybe folding or peninsula-style) for eating or working, and a lounge/entertainment corner. Heating/cooling solutions will likely be a pellet stove and mini window unit. Flooring will be a laminate; walls, an MDF or lightweight wood to keep the weight down as much as possible – but Serrao’s opinion on that is “I don’t want to sacrifice ideas for weight anymore than necessary.”

The combined weight limit for the two axles is 7,000 pounds.

On Aug. 10, the pair bought a bunch of lumber and started framing it out. Currently it’s a shell of a tiny home, vinyl-sided, with a split roofline for roomier sleeping quarters, awaiting fiberglass insulation, ice and heat shield in the ceiling.

Their thinking is that this first effort is “a cool way to get into real estate,” and they can sell it easily (“People are always interested in what they’ve never seen before”) to finance future projects. Much of their problem-solving thus far has been done by trial and error. “We can always build another one,” Serrao said.

Serrao’s favorite part of the process is the framing, he said – cutting angles and assembling the bones of the structure. “I love framing. I could frame houses all day, every day.”

Ross, on the other hand, is eager to start the interior work. “I liked framing; I’m over framing,” she said. She’s ready for the fun of shopping for materials and hardware to finish the inside.

They anticipate starting on the interior by Thanksgiving and getting the whole job done over the winter. At this point they expect to start moving very quickly.

With no shortage of ideas but a limited amount of space, Ross created an idea board (“the original Pinterest”) to collect photos and plans. They follow @tiny.house.nation and others online for inspiration and information – though the facts tend to get a little fuzzy from one RV park, building and zoning office or state motor vehicle agency to another.

A prospective buyer should know that figuring out where to put a tiny home won’t necessarily be easy. New Jersey’s laws don’t know whether to define such a thing as a dwelling or a vehicle (given its wheels), so the safest bet, for now, at least until the laws and regulations catch up to the trend, might be to hook it up to a truck and pull it around on road trips. Consult online resources (tinyhousegiantjourney.com is one) for lists of RV parks around the country that accept tiny homes.

In her research, Ross has learned the whole “tiny home” movement began on the West Coast about 15 years ago and has gradually made its way across the country. But lawmakers out west still haven’t figured it all out, she said.

In the meantime, lifestyle pioneers continue to explore the environmental, social and personal benefits of paring down, while the rest of us watch, wide-eyed, maybe even a bit envious, wondering at the possibilities.

— Victoria Ford

victoria@thesandpaper.net

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