Mortgage-free, tiny home on a housekeeper’s salary

Johnny Sanphillippo has never made more than $20,000 per year (he works as a housekeeper, as well as, a gardener and house painter), but he knew like “any other American” that he wanted to own his own home.

When he talked to bankers about qualifying for a home loan, “they look at you and their eyes glaze over and you realize, they're going to give me a lollipop and send me home, which is pretty much what happened”. So he decided that if he went far enough away from his hometown of he could find something he could afford to buy with cash.

He finally heard about a deal in (back when oil was cheap and airline tickets were $99 from SFO) and for $3000 cash he bought himself an empty lot in a failed subdivision on the Big Island.

Without a loan, he knew he couldn't afford to build a conventional home. He'd always loved tiny houses, but the permitting office wasn't as enthusiastic about allowing him to build small. So he had plans drawn up for a conventionally-sized home, plus a 400 square foot garage. He just the garage.

Once the inspectors signed off on his fully-equipped garage (which included a bathroom, utility , electricity, and capture), he let them know he wasn't planning on the house. Then he set about swapping the garage door for sliding glass and the utility sink for a regular kitchen.

Instead of relying on a loan to buy a house up-front, he had to do it the slow way, in stops and starts as he worked to pay off he step of the process. First, he saved up for a foundation, then the shell, then septic, etcetera and today, 13 years later, the home is complete.

Johnny Sanphillippo's blog:


  1. Give me a lollipop and send me home …. exactly! So now what. Where us this place is it doable anymore. Do you want a neighbor. I have some saved.

  2. I’m just wondering how come the license was not taken away once the authorities realized it wasn’t a garage but rather a home. After all, that was not what they approved.

  3. Well done looks amazing ; you should write a book as the amount of people I see getting into trouble ( building large homes : that they can’t afford; good luck ; your home is beautiful

  4. You can also buy house on tax sales. I have seen homes selling for $3k. Fixed it as you go, and make do with the place you want to retire.

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