Small home-based business with 2-year waiting list is growing in Houlton
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HOULTON, Maine – A couple of entrepreneurs in Houlton believe they have found the perfect solution to the housing shortage affecting so many people. And if the way their business has exploded is any indication, they might be absolutely right.
Corinne Watson and her husband Tom Small are the owners of Tiny Homes of Maine. Founded in 2016 when the couple were both working in business in southern Maine, the company quickly found its niche providing affordable housing at a fraction of the cost of a traditional stick-built home.
It’s no secret that Maine is experiencing an unprecedented boom in the real estate market at the same time as there is a shortage of affordable housing. The few homes available for sale are quickly scooped up and put up for contract – sometimes in less than a week for amounts well above asking prices – leaving many potential buyers off the market. But buyers see Tiny Homes as a solution to these problems.
With orders for 70 homes to be built, Tiny Homes of Maine is taking names for its 2024 waitlist. Demand is so high the company will expand later this year, through a partnership with the city of Houlton. The city is building a new facility in its industrial park, which it will lease to Tiny Homes of Maine for 20 years.
The city recently awarded the company $250,000 from a community development block grant to purchase equipment and inventory, as well as working capital for the Tiny Homes manufacturing plant in the park. Houlton Industrial.
“On behalf of Houlton City Council, I think it’s fair to say that we [the council] are unanimous in our support for the expansion of Tiny Homes of Maine through the CDBG [grant] and specific construction project,” said board chairman Chris Robinson. “Council’s vote indicates that the Town of Houlton is open to the development of new businesses.”
Small houses only have the name. The largest dwelling manufactured in Houlton is a 10-by-38-foot juggernaut called the “Sebago”. The exterior width is usually 8.5 feet and the overall height is 13.5 feet. The maximum length, including the towing vehicle, cannot exceed 60 feet.
Most are between 20 and 30 feet long, with up to 400 square feet of living space, not including the attic.
This makes homes easily accessible and mobile if a person decides to move to another part of the state or country. And recent legislation has made it easier for people to park their tiny homes in Maine.
Watson, who is an electrical engineer, said she started work on her first tiny house while employed at IDEXX, a manufacturer of veterinary equipment in Westbrook.
“We had three kids in daycare and we were picking which one of us had to go on field trips, if any, and I just didn’t feel it,” Watson said.
Changing professions wasn’t necessarily on Watson’s radar in 2015 when she convinced her husband to build their first tiny house as a fun project. Little did she know that it would soon become one of the fastest growing companies in the state.
“Tom is a residential home designer and he’s very talented,” she said. “So I asked him to check this little thing out at home. I grew up in a small house in Smyrna and have always loved small spaces.
It took the couple nearly 18 months to complete this project, but Watson felt they had something she could market. They officially launched Tiny Homes of Maine in Windham in 2016. But finding a space big enough to build the houses – and enough people to work there – proved too difficult.
In 2018, they moved the business to Houlton, where there was enough manpower and plenty of space to grow their young business. The couple still ran the business from their home in Windham, while carrying out their regular jobs.
Then in 2020, the world changed.
COVID-19 closed their children’s school, as Maine transitioned to remote learning. The couple moved to Houlton, where their children could continue their education remotely, and they could be closer to family, while getting away from the spike in cases in southern Maine. Both Watson and Small are from Aroostook County.
“We didn’t go back there,” Watson said. “Our whole family was here, and our kids said they wanted to be closer to Grammy and Grampy, so we never went back.
The pandemic has created supply chain shortages that have affected production. Everything from wood to windows to tubs was much harder to come by.
But with a statewide housing crisis forcing more and more people to seek alternative options, many customers seem willing to wait.
The price of a new unit—estimated between $90,000 and $140,000—may be a bit high for some in Aroostook County, but statewide and nationally, that price proves too good to resist.
“People are buying and selling houses with cash because we have such a crazy market right now,” Watson said.
Andrew Mooers, a Houlton-based estate agent, said the property market was already buoyant before the onset of COVID-19. But once the pandemic hit, that market went into distortion. People with jobs sold their homes for big bucks and moved to Maine to find affordable housing, he said.
“People are moving out of the crowded, expensive city with high crime traded in for small town, friendly, low population rural Maine,” Mooers said. “Some people have decided to sell and move to Maine where there are fewer people, lower prices, a simple and friendly small town life.”