After her divorce, Michelle Boyle, 54, said she had no savings whatsoever. Now, she runs two businesses renting out four tiny homes she built herself, as well as four teardrop trailers she renovated.
Boyle told Insider that in the early 2000s, she was a recently divorced single mother of two struggling from paycheck to paycheck, fearful she would never manage to retire.
“At that point in time, I had not saved a single dime for retirement. I was just kind of scraping by supporting my two kids, no child support, that kind of scenario,” she said.
She kept this up for 12 years, but as soon as her kids were off to college, she decided that things needed to change.
Boyle, who describes herself as “a digital nomad” who works remotely, figured living in a tiny house would reduce her costs drastically enough to help her start saving for retirement.
“I have never, in my entire life, had the sense of financial security — financial optimism — as I do right now. I had not a dime in the bank in 2014, and now I have two businesses. So a pretty substantial change in a fairly short period of time,” she said.
Michelle Boyle moved into a tiny home in 2015 to save money for retirement — little did she know that tiny homes would become her business, too
Boyle was short on cash when she made the decision to start living tiny but had the idea of looking for sponsors who might want to chip in. She said that she ended up financing her tiny home with the help of 24 sponsors, who she said often gave her “dented, dinged, or overstock inventory in exchange for social media content.”
“It’s like NASCAR,” she said, adding that in 2015, when she built her house, tiny homes were still fairly new but gaining popularity, and companies were eager to get the word out through her budding social media presence.
According to Boyle, she financed less than a quarter of her tiny home, affectionately called “My Tiny Empty Nest,” with her own money, and said she did around 70% of the work herself with the help of her boyfriend.
While she has no background in construction, she said she has a “really high level of confidence and a really high tolerance for risk,” as well as a solid understanding of her own limitations and when it’s time to bring in professionals.
“It was kind of a ballsy approach. You look up videos, you ask people, you try, you fail, you try again,” she said.
Her 204-square-foot house, which sits on three acres, is a modern split loft, meaning that the main floor has a U-shaped kitchen in the front, above which there are a guest room loft and storage space.
In the middle of the home, there’s a living room with the highest ceilings in the house since there’s no loft space above it.
In the back, there’s a small walk-in closet with a washer and dryer, and a bathroom with a shower. Her bedroom, which has a queen-sized bed, nightstands, and a TV, is an around 4-foot high lofted space above the bathroom.
“It’s an intentional choice,” she said of living small. “I don’t have every single kitchen appliance. I don’t have a blender, or a bread maker, or a rice maker, but I don’t need it. I’m perfectly happy. You’d be amazed at what a knife and a cutting board can do.”
According to Boyle, one of the biggest misconceptions people have about living small is that you have to give up practically everything you own.
“It’s not as much of giving up everything as it is prioritizing what you love,” she said.
Boyle loves shoes for example and said she’s found clever ways to store them in various secret nooks all over the house, such as inside her stairs.
She explained that when it comes to tiny homes, “you’re not designing per square foot, you’re designing per square inch.” Boyle said she even has baskets hidden in the few inches under her kitchen cabinets, where toe kicks usually go.
In 2016, she said House Beautiful declared her tiny house one of the 10 most popular homes it featured that year, which she credits with launching her career in the tiny home industry.
She said that she attended 14 tiny living festivals across the country in 2017 alone, usually as a speaker or moderator, and has since started a blog and podcast on tiny living.
This got her thinking about ways to monetize tiny home living.
“In a nutshell, I can design and build a tiny house that I can sell and make a few thousand bucks, or I can design and build a tiny house that I can rent and I can make a few thousand bucks per quarter per house forever,” she said.
She built a second tiny home in 2018 and described it as “an absolute immediate hit.”
“I got Superhost status from Airbnb, it was almost 100% booked in the first summer, and within six months it actually paid me back every dime I had put into it,” she said.
Boyle has since designed and built seven tiny homes, four — soon to be five — of which she’s renting out on a former Christmas tree farm in Sherwood, Oregon.
She said that her My Tiny House Village “is as big as it will get,” describing it as boutique-y and exclusive feeling, adding that she wants to keep it that way.
In 2019, “out of boredom,” Boyle started renovating teardrop trailers she now rents out as part of a second business, Oregon Teardrop Rentals.
According to Boyle, 2020 was especially busy for both her tiny homes and trailers. She said that her occupancy rarely fell below 65% and was usually around 95%, especially in the summer months.
“The teardrops really ended up being a somewhat accidental solution to everybody’s cabin fever,” she said. “Both the village and the teardrops did pretty well in 2020, even with all the chaos.”
“People want experiences over stuff now,” she said, explaining the popularity of her rentals.
“Yes, you can stay in a hotel room or you can stay in a tiny house on a retired Christmas tree farm in the middle of Oregon’s Sherwood Forest,” she said.
However, she adds that for those wanting to commit to the lifestyle, “downsizing is tough.”
“Minimalism is hard,” she said, calling it “an introspective process” that gets you thinking about the choices you’ve made, and why you made them.
According to Boyle, dreaming big and working hard is the key to success
“My story is very much that this is intentional, this is comfortable, this is feasible. It quite literally changed my life and my future,” she said of tiny home living.
She said that growing up she never dreamt about becoming an entrepreneur and business owner.
“If someone would have told me that I could have done this, that I could have done anything, be anything I wanted to be when I grow up kind of thing, I would have started this a long time ago. I would have had a huge empire by now. Probably,” she said.
Boyle is proud of the work she’s done, and the businesses she’s built from scratch in only a few years.
“I’m so proud, I’m so happy, and I’m so tired,” she said.