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The big impact of Sonoma’s Tumbleweed Tiny House

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Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, the hottest builder in the tiny house craze, is headquartered right here in Sonoma, where the rooftop of its first teeny creation is peeking up from behind a fence just off Broadway.

It is owned by Steve Weissmann, who is joined by a team of tiny house believers who work out of a bungalow on West MacArthur with the enthusiasm that one hopes for when building a company that’s grown 50 percent every year for the past five years.

Tumbleweed Tiny Houses are technically RVs that look like permanent homes, and are just as cozy. Most owners do not tow them from place to place, but park them behind their real homes to serve as guesthouses or backyard offices.

They also appeal to retirees looking to downsize – and as a place to put “boomerang kids,” young adults who show up on mom and dad’s doorstep and find that a tiny house out back is a boon. And for those with a swath of land, tiny houses become weekend escape destinations and yes, you guessed it, vacation rentals.

Weissmann likes to describe their major markets as “hippies and hipsters,” referring to those at both ends of the adult lifespan. “People with families don’t buy these,” he said. Because where would the toys go in tiny homes that are only about eight feet wide and range from 117 to 186 square feet?

They also can’t be parked just anywhere and, for now, Weissmann confirmed that living in them is mostly a no-no in Sonoma County.

“My opinion is that that’s going to change in the future,” Weissmann said. “I think 10 years from now tiny houses will be common and in 20 years half the country will be allowing them.” He points out that there are 17,000 municipalities in the country, each with different zoning rules, and that buyers need to do their research to conform to local law.

So, while Sonoma currently may not be the marketplace, the nationwide interest in tiny homes is huge, resulting in the launch of magazines, blogs, websites and cable television shows dedicated to the lifestyle, and Tumbleweed is a favorite among buyers. “The number one reason for that is because they look fantastic. They are very customized and it’s all about the look,” Weissmann said.

Tumbleweeds come in four models, with lengths from 18 to 26 feet, and prices ranging from $57,000 to $80,000, depending on size and custom upgrades. They are not the least expensive on the market, but that’s because Tumbleweed doesn’t scrimp on quality, said Weissmann. They even have a one year “onsite warranty” that promises they’ll go to the owner site for repairs anywhere in the country, which they refer to as “going the extra 1,000 miles.”

Weissmann’s goal is to “legitimize and mainstream tiny houses,” and to do that he’s made them easy to own. One of the drawbacks for early buyers was that it could be difficult to secure financing for tiny homes. Weissmann’s solution was being the first tiny house company to manufacture them as RVs, permanently attached to a trailer foundation, making them easy to finance and insure. Most RVs that look like houses are called Park Model RVs, but Tumbleweeds are classified as “travel trailers” that are fully road-ready and, therefore, more bank-financing friendly, he said.

Weissmann and his wife Bernadette live in Sonoma with their young family, and he said that Tumbleweed would always be headquartered here. “My wife was lucky enough to grow up in one place, and I want that for our children,” he said. Bernadette Gilman Weissmann was raised in Sonoma and is a longtime history teacher at Sonoma Valley High School, where she is currently on sabbatical for a year.

Tumbleweeds’ administrative headquarters, where planning, marketing and accounting take place, have been in Sonoma since 2012. The tiny houses are actually built in Colorado, by a company that was previously owned by two Amish brothers who one time specialized in chicken coops and sheds. Weissmann recently bought the company, and spends one week a month there overseeing the operation. “They found us when we were looking for builders. They are such great guys.” Tumbleweed now has 55 employees and Weissmann expects that will grow to 80 by the end of this year, with a goal of $10 million in sales for 2016.

Tumbleweed Tiny Houses are marketed mainly through the internet, and if you Google “tiny houses” Tumbleweed is the first company that pops up. Weissmann said the site gets a half million hits a month, and generates about 100 serious business leads a week. The company also has about 250,000 Facebook friends. In addition to completely built tiny homes, which they deliver nationwide, Tumbleweed also sells do-it-yourself plans and conducts workshops on how to build tiny homes.

Weissmann admits to working like a maniac, but his face lights up when the subject turns to his wife and family. “I have two focuses in life, my family and my work,” he said. He earned his degree in quantitative economics and decision science, and it would seem he using his education is serving him perfectly.

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