Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review - Trailersteading: Voluntary Simplicity in a Mobile Home

This is a guest post by friend, and fellow sustainable living enthusiast, Jennifer Kennedy. As mentioned in my previous post about the book, I didn't feel I could write an unbiased review since Andrea and I were featured in the book. I asked Jennifer to do a review as a guest post, and she graciously accepted. 

In 2008 my husband and I moved into a single-wide trailer—a 1969 Norfleet—in rural south central Kentucky. The trailer and the land it sits on, which is only about ¾ of an acre of mostly red clay and sandy soil, were free. It originally belonged to my in-laws, who abandoned the property when they moved into town a few years ago. When I finished college and we needed somewhere to go, preferably closer to family, this place was ideal.

Having been vacant for some time, the trailer and the property were both in desperate need of attention. The septic tank cried out for help, the landscaping warranted a little taming (even by our let-it-be standards), and the trailer simply wasn't livable until we replaced a few windows, floors, fixtures, and some of the wiring, and of course gave everything a thorough cleaning. Fortunately, my husband and I are both handy, and all of this was accomplished quickly and at minimal expense, leaving only a few cosmetic issues we knew we’d tackle as time permitted. Even with all of that, living here has allowed us to save a considerable amount of money, which we've been able to divert into activities that are far more important to us than going into debt for shiny new cars or a big house we don’t need.

My husband grew up in the trailer we live in now, and I spent several years of my childhood in a single-wide trailer. Many of our respective childhood friends also lived in single-wides, and some of our current friends still do. Trailers aren't at all uncommon in this region. Although there is some self-imposed regional stigma associated with living in a trailer, which I think is strange, I find trailers to be unassuming, approachable, and pretty darn comfortable, much like the people who live in them. Neither of us had any reservations about moving here. I was surprised, then, to discover that the longer we lived here, the more embarrassed we felt. Though we keep it clean, our home looks unkempt inside and out because of our unconventional attitudes toward repurposing, upcycling, lawn maintenance, gardening, rainwater collection, and animal stewardship. There are piles of bricks, cinder and concrete blocks, wood scraps, and a few spare rolls of fencing arrayed carefully around our home for future use, and our rainwater receptacles happen to be garishly colored and placed haphazardly around the front and back porches. We provide homemade “houses” for the stray and feral cats in our neighborhood, mostly made of plastic totes. Because we live in a small neighborhood with neighbors living close by, some of whom are less than understanding, we've come to feel a bit self-conscious of our choices—though not enough to make different ones—and we long for more space and privacy.

Anna Hess’ book, Trailersteading:Voluntary Simplicity in a Mobile Home, was recommended at the perfect time. When Jonathan mentioned it, I could practically feel my ears perk forward. Having become discouraged with my own living arrangements, I had some reservations, but I was instantly seized by Mrs. Hess’ easy, familiar tone. It helped that reading about her personal journey was in many ways like reading about my own, except that I haven’t gone quite as far down my path toward household independence.

It was a delight to see what other trailer-dwellers have done with their homes. My husband and I have felt rather limited in the projects we might undertake to further renovate our place, but Trailersteading has been an encouraging, inspiring read. Our list of possibilities has grown. However, we've also been considering whether to upgrade to a newer mobile home, perhaps with a bit more space for storage and food preparation, and ideally with better “bones.” In that case, Hess supplies plenty of helpful information about finding, buying, moving, and setting up a “new” trailer, as well as tips for energy efficiency. When living in a metal box—one likely to be poorly insulated, at that—it’s especially helpful to know how to keep it cool during warm months and warm during cool months. Positioning your trailer for passive solar heating, planning your landscaping to seasonally maximize shade and sun as needed, and adding thicker walls and a gabled roof both stuffed with extra insulation, for example, are excellent strategies outlined by Hess.

For me, the most interesting parts of Trailersteading were Hess’ frank look at the disadvantages of living in a trailer, and her exploration of ways to make trailers more like permanent real estate, with case studies (including Jonathan and Andrea) to serve as examples. It’s easy to extol the virtues of mobile homes as green homesteads, but there are risks and challenges of which anyone thinking of buying a trailer should be aware. The risk of fire, for instance, certainly shouldn't be overlooked. This is nicely balanced by her discussion of the homey additions owners might make, from choosing the right woodstove (and choosing the right place for it in your trailer) to adding porches, decks, sunrooms, permanent foundations, basements, redwood siding, or even combining two single-wides to create a larger home for a growing family.

When my husband and I moved here, we didn't intend for it to be permanent. We still don’t; in order to meet our goal of better supporting ourselves on our own property, we do need a bit more outdoor space. But we aren’t quite so firm in our desire to eschew trailers in favor of a stylish strawbale or cordwood home full of farmhouse-style antiques and stacks of milk glass dishes. We’re more pleased with trailer life than we initially expected to be, and, thanks largely to Anna Hess, we’re prouder than ever of our own homestead in progress. 

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