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HOULTON, Maine — One Houlton entrepreneur couple thinks they have come up with the perfect solution to the housing shortage that is affecting so many. And if the way their business has exploded is any indication, they may be exactly right.
Corinne Watson and her husband Tom Small are the proprietors of Tiny Homes of Maine. Founded in 2016 while the couple were both employed in the corporate world of southern Maine, the business has rapidly found its niche in providing affordable housing at a fraction of the cost of a traditional stick-built home.
It is no secret that Maine is experiencing an unprecedented boom in the real estate market at the same time there is an affordable housing crunch. The few homes available for sale are being scooped up quickly and put under contract — sometimes in less than a week for amounts well above asking prices — leaving many potential buyers out of the market. But buyers see Tiny Homes as a solution to those problems.
With orders for 70 dwellings to be built, Tiny Homes of Maine is taking names for its 2024 waiting list. Demand is so high that the corporation will expand later this year, thanks to a partnership with the town of Houlton. The town is building a new facility in its Industrial Park, which it will lease to Tiny Homes of Maine for 20 years.
The town recently awarded the business $250,000 from a Community Development Block Grant to purchase equipment and inventory, and for working capital for the Tiny Homes manufacturing facility located in Houlton’s Industrial Park.
“On behalf of the Houlton Town Council, I think it is fair to say we [the council] are unanimous in our support of the expansion of Tiny Homes of Maine via the CDBG [grant] and spec building project,” Council Chair Chris Robinson said. “The council’s vote is indicative that the town of Houlton is open for new business development.”
Tiny homes are that in name only. The largest dwelling manufactured in Houlton is a 10-foot by 38-foot behemoth called the “Sebago.” The exterior width is typically 8.5 feet and the total height is 13.5 feet. The maximum length, including the towing vehicle, cannot exceed 60 feet.
Most range between 20 and 30 feet long, with a living space up to 400 square feet, not including loft space.
It makes the homes easily accessible, and moveable, should a person decide to relocate 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 working on her first tiny home while employed at IDEXX, a maker of veterinarian equipment in Westbrook.
“We had three kids in day care and were picking and choosing which one of us got to go on their field trips, if at all, and I just wasn’t feeling it,” Watson said.
Changing professions was not necessarily on the radar for Watson in 2015 when she talked her husband into building their first tiny home as a fun project. Little did she know it would soon blossom into one of the fastest growing businesses in the state.
“Tom is a residential home designer and is very talented,” she said. “So I asked him to check out this tiny home thing. I grew up in a small house in Smyrna and have always liked small spaces.”
It took the couple nearly 18 months to complete that 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 homes — and enough people to work on them — proved to be too difficult.
In 2018, they moved the business to Houlton, where there was adequate labor and plenty of space to grow their fledgling company. The couple still managed the business from their home in Windham, while working in their regular jobs.
Then in 2020, the world changed.
COVID-19 shut down their children’s school, as Maine transitioned to remote learning. The couple moved to Houlton, where their children could continue to get their education remotely, and they could be closer to family, while also getting away from surging cases in southern Maine. Both Watson and Small are natives of Aroostook County.
“We didn’t go back,” Watson said. “All of our 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 shortages in the supply chain that have affected production. Everything from wood to windows to bathtubs have been that much harder to get.
But with a statewide housing crunch forcing more and more people to seek out alternative options, many customers appear to be willing to wait.
The price tag 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 point is proving too good to resist.
“People are buying and selling homes with cash because we have such a crazy market right now,” Watson said.
Andrew Mooers, a realtor based in Houlton, said the real estate market was already brisk before the onset of COVID-19. But once the pandemic struck, that market went into warp drive. People with jobs sold their homes for big money and moved to Maine to find affordable housing, he said.
“People are getting out of the crowded, expensive city with high crime traded in for small town, friendly, low population rural Maine,” Mooers said. “Some folks decided to sell and move to Maine where there are less people, lower prices, friendlier and friendlier small town simple living.”