What kind of person would spend $155,000 to buy a burned-down shack on a trash-covered lot? Jordan Strang and Aubree Bernier-Clarke did just that on a 2016 episode of Tiny House Hunters, passing up a “rustic cabin” and a “roomy ranch” in favor of a pile of charred remains. When I spoke to them shortly after the episode aired, the couple made a compellingly sane case for their choice as the most sensible option for the L.A. real estate market.
Strang and Bernier-Clarke wanted to build not one but two small structures on the property: a 600-square-foot main house and a bonus, 333-square- foot guesthouse. But once building began and they ran into unexpected expenses, the couple decided that the main house would be too cost-prohibitive and moved into the guesthouse—a true tiny house—instead. Strang and Bernier-Clarke recently moved out and closed on a standard-size two-bedroom house.
Slate caught up with the couple to see what they’ve learned from their experience with tiny living. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Slate: The last time we spoke, more than two years ago now, you had demolished what was left of the existing house and were hauling trash off the property. How long did that end up taking?
Aubree: Oh God, I mean, every time it rained, more stuff would emerge from the ground, so I wouldn’t even say it’s fully cleared today. The real trash haul, it took like a month to get out all the main stuff, but there were areas that even now still have piles of weird stuff.
I asked you then, and I’ll ask again: Anything interesting?
Aubree: What did we find? Some creepy baby dolls …
Jordan: We found thousands of these green, 1-liter glass bottles, and we continued to find them. If we had counted them, I think there would be, oh my gosh, upward of 3,000 of them.
Aubree: It’s this beer bottle that has a little pop-top that you could reattach; I don’t remember what it’s called, maybe Grolsch. You’d think you cleared an area of trash and then you would hit what should’ve been the ground but it was pieces of plywood and then you’d pull those off and there was another hole full of glass bottles.
Jordan: We found a cool wooden bear that I have still.
Aubree: I found a weird little ceramic elf. That’s the last funny thing that I found.
When did you finish construction on the house itself?
Jordan: We moved into the tiny house in May 2017. There was some gap time between the trash clearing and the building of the tiny house when we were just kinda planning.
And to exorcize the baby-doll spirits, I assume.
Aubree: A lot of sage got burned on our property.
Tell me about the house you built.
Aubree: Basically, it’s an approximately 18-by-18-foot square. And when you enter into the house, you’re in sort of an L-shaped main room that takes up 75 percent of the space. And one corner of the L is the kitchen, one corner is the living area, one corner is the bedroom. The other 25 percent is the bathroom, which did have a door. That was the one separate space.
Jordan: The best thing I think we did in kind of maximizing the space was making sure that it had a real bed. Even though the house was small, we didn’t loft the bed—we kept it on the ground. We were able to have a queen-size bed, a proper large closet where we each had half of a very big amount of storage space. We had a living room area with a sectional sofa, a kitchen with an island and two bar stools that you could sit at, and then a full bathroom.
Aubree: Really, it was just like living in a very nice studio apartment.
Why did you ever move out?
Jordan: It was all about the bed thing.
What about the bed thing?
Jordan: When your bed is in your living room, it’s kind of hard to ever be like, “I’d rather put clothes on and sit at a bar stool and eat my breakfast.” I’m like, “Oh, I could just eat it in bed in my pajamas.” You just start to devolve into this primal human that’s like, “I could just do everything in bed.”
Aubree: I felt like an animal taking food back to its den at a certain point.
Jordan: We would come home from wherever we were and be like, “OK, we’re in for the night” and just immediately put on pajamas and be in bed. It’s fine, but it’s kind of hard to live like that after a while. You feel like a frat boy or something.
The other thing we did, which I think was good but then also turned out to be bad, was we got really nice closets from Ikea with sliding doors with mirrors on them, which helps the space feel larger. But you can only access one side of them at a time, ’cause you’re pushing the other slider over the person’s closet. If I was in there and Aubree wanted to get dressed, I had to take my clothes and move them somewhere else. That was definitely another challenge, a time where it felt small. When I was like, “Oh, I just wanna be able to open my own closet.”
Aubree: Then if Jordan was getting ready, I’d be like, “Well, I guess I’ll just stay in bed.”
You’ll soon move into a normal, not-tiny house.
Aubree: I think we’re gonna be happy. It’ll be interesting to see what it’s like to sit at a table again and have a kitchen that’s not necessarily in the bedroom.
Jordan: We did host people at our tiny house and we had a nice outdoor dining area but it is challenging when you’re like, “Oh, I’d love to have people over” and want to be able to shut the door to my bedroom and not have to think about how every element of my life has to be on display at all times.
Aubree: When we were just watching shows about tiny houses, people would always be like, “Oh, they’re so easy to clean. It’s so fast to clean your tiny house.”
Is that true?
Aubree: It’s much faster to clean a tiny house than a full-size house because it’s such a smaller house—but you literally have to clean it every day.
Jordan: Because if not, everywhere you look is messy.
Aubree: Any amount of mess becomes overwhelming really fast. What’s good about it is that I was kind of a slob before this, and I’ve become a very neat, organized, clean person that doesn’t collect a bunch of crap anymore. I’ve gone from just being a hoarder to Marie Kondo.
You’ve gone full Kondo? Wow.
Aubree: I’m like 70 percent Kondo now.
Speaking of reality TV, do you ever watch Tiny House Hunters now?
Aubree: No, it’s triggering.
Do you ever regret not choosing a more traditional tiny house—like the two options you passed over in favor of the burned-down shack—instead of building your own?
Aubree: No. I think if we were dead set on living in a tiny house, the one that we’ve built was definitely the best one. I feel so proud of what we made. I liked living there. It would be more of a question of choosing tiny over traditional—which I still don’t regret, because I think I’m a better person for living tiny. That’s so fuckin’ cheesy to say. But I’m a much cleaner, less messy, less clutter-y person. And I think that that’s something I’ve struggled with throughout my life, and I feel I’ve completely exorcized those demons now. Jordan can live with me forever and not get annoyed with my mess from this point forward.
Jordan: I think it forced us to do a lot more things outside of our home, which greatly improved our life. I think that if your home is small, you wanna hang out there less of the time, and you spend more time hiking or going out and hanging out with friends or having experiences and traveling. The house really forced us to do a lot of those things that we wouldn’t have felt the need to do otherwise if we were living in a place that was comfortable. Then you’re like, “Oh, I never need to leave here.”
What advice do you have for people who are considering a tiny house?
Jordan: I think personally that you need minimum 100 square feet per body.
That’s still very small!
Jordan: It is, but you see people on shows all the time and they’re like, “We’re gonna build a tiny house and it’s 240 square feet and us and our three children are gonna move in.” And those people, I would love to know where they are after even two months.
Aubree: Tiny House Hunters: Where Are They Now has got to be a show.