Tiny homes are very much in vogue right now, as buyers look for a cheap, simple home at a time when house prices and rents are through the roof.
For Ky and Shantae DeBuse, buying a tiny home was a way to have it all.
Sick of expensive apartment-hopping, the then college students realized in 2015 they could have a house in a city they love – Northfield, Minnesota – while experiencing life to the full by avoiding expensive mortgage and utilities bills.
Unfortunately for the couple, who have a son, JP, their tiny home dream turned into a nightmare when the Arkansas-based builder they hired, Scott Stewart of Slabtown Customs, left them with a shoddy, corner-cutting home that is uninhabitable in the winter.
They've now been forced to raise money through GoFundMe and turn to the community for materials and labor to help them make their home livable.
The pair sold most of their belongings as they prepared to adapt to tiny home life, and paid the builder $45,000 for a 30-by-8 foot trailer with 2 lofts, a full kitchen and bathroom, a small living room and a hidden office.
Things started going wrong
Alarm bells started ringing when Stewart failed to respond to them when they asked for updates. They even flew out to Arkansas to check on the progress only to be told they couldn't get too close to their trailer for safety reasons, and were instead shown an immaculate show-home.
Adding to the stress at the time was that Shantae was finishing her degree and commuting to Minneapolis daily as she interned at a youth shelter, while Ky was working full-time at a local dairy co-op and required an unexpected hospital stay around the time the trailer was delivered.
When their home arrived, a few months later than promised, initially the DeBuses were happy, writing on their blog site Operation Tiny Fix-It: "The appearance was aesthetically appealing and we were so happy to actually have the house and frankly to never see Scott again."
But problems appeared immediately, with the interior exposed to the elements by the many unsealed holes dotted throughout the house to allow for cables and pipes to enter.
There was also no window flashing, faulty electrics, an exposed grey-water system, shoddy craftsmanship in the interior, and exposed water pipes under the trailer – meaning they'd freeze in winter.
Worst of all was low-quality insulation that results in the house staying below 55 degrees during the winter even with four heaters running.
"We have been informed by our doctors that we can no longer live in the house under such conditions and frankly, we don't know if we can brave another winter," they wrote.
"Every time it rains or snows we get water inside the house through the back windows which were built without flashing coupled with poor roof coverage that brings water straight into the house."
"With the insulation in the walls being exposed the water quickly resulted in mold to many areas of the home," they added, noting that they have both had bouts of pneumonia since moving in.
Looking to the community for help
The DeBuses told GoMN that the trailer passed an inspection per Arkansas law, though they weren't present for it.
And because it's a tiny house they paid the builder up-front in its entirety, with the sale not contingent on an inspection.
"We wrongfully assumed that we were buying a new home that wouldn't need further inpection on our part or repairs," they said.
Attempts to get Stewart to rectify his mistakes never came to fruition, and the pair had to abandon their legal action against him when lawyers' bills ran up to more than $4,000 just to start proceedings.
They realize that even if they followed through on the lawsuit, it could be a decade before they get all their money back.
GoMN has contacted Slabtown Customs for comment, with a quick Google of the company showing that other customers have had problems with them in the past.
The DeBuses have had to turn to the local community for help, holding a week-long event called "Operation Tiny Fix-It" from Nov. 4-11, asking people to donate their time, supplies, food, water, tools and money to help them get their tiny home into shape.
As far as materials go, they're looking for donations of wood, siding, insulation, electrical wires/conduit pipe, caulking, axles and a dumpster to dispose of trash.
A GoFundMe has also been created to raise $15,000, of which just under $1,000 has already been raised.