Getting Creative: Managing the High Cost of Living on Nantucket

Dec 17, 2014

Newlyweds Rachel and David Shepard built and moved into a "tiny house" as a way to avoid the seasonal housing shuffle and stay on Nantucket, where the median price of a single-family home on Nantucket is just more than $1 million.
Credit Justine Paradis

Newlyweds Rachel and David Shepard were making dinner at home on Nantucket. In many ways, it was a typical house. It had electricity and running water. True to Cape Cod, it was even shingled. But it was also what’s called a ‘Tiny House’.

" A normal house," Rachel said, "except it’s built on a trailer. So it’s mobile, and the trailer limits the size. It’s twenty feet long by eight feet wide."

David and Rachel are both in their late 20s. With their wedding on the way, they were ready to own something. They both have good jobs. Rachel works as a landscaper and David is inventory manager at Bartlett’s Farm. But still, on Nantucket, a home is way out of their price range. In 2013, the median price of a single-family home on Nantucket was just over a million dollars. That’s way more than the state median of 322,000. Plus, Rachel and David were tired of the seasonal apartment shuffle.

David tried to recall how many times he had moved since he came to Nantucket.  "Probably ten times in five years. There was Pine Grove, Hinckley, three houses at the farm - so that’s up to five. Surfside, the Shack, twice, here. I guess I’m up to nine. So close to 10."

Unless they wanted to keep shuffling between apartments, Rachel and David had to find a creative way to stay on Nantucket. They couldn’t buy land. But Rachel had learned in college about the Tiny House movement that’s gaining traction across the country. Basically, a Tiny House is defined by two characteristics.

"The mobility and the size," she said. "Super small means super simple, just down to basics, because you have to. And then mobile, being kind of a liberating aspect: you can go anywhere."

Their Tiny House is the about the size of a garden shed. It sits on its trailer a few feet above the ground. This summer, Rachel and David spent weekends putting on the finishing touches. They did most of the building during the off-season in a friend’s backyard. They used Rachel’s grandfather’s tools, the same tools that built her parent’s house in the mid-island area.

Rachel and David Shepard aren’t the only young couple on island to find a creative way to live affordably. Matt Ortega and Brittany McCarthy live in a sailboat in the harbor year-round.

As part of their effort to remain on Nantucket despite its difficult housing market, Matt Ortega and Brittany McCarthy have opted to live on a sailboat year round. This winter is their third on the water.
Credit Justine Paradis

Brittany McCarthy works as a bartender and Matt Ortega started his own tiling business this year. In the summer, their anchor spot is a fifteen minute Zodiac ride from town.

The pair met on Nantucket two years ago. Matt Ortega moved to the island from New Jersey, Brittany McCarthy from Attleboro, Massachusetts. Neither of them liked living with housemates, and they bounced around a lot. So, when they got the opportunity to live on a sailboat, they jumped at the chance. This winter will be their third on the water. But it hasn’t been easy. They only have an 80-watt solar panel for electricity. And they get wet every time they go home.

"I have waterproof pants," Matt said. "Waterproof socks, shoes, coat, watch, bag... I have a bunch of waterproof crap."

"If it’s pouring," Brittany said, "you have to go. If it’s rocky, and wavy, you have to go."

From the very beginning, the couple also dealt with storms.

"I was on the boat for maybe 36 hours and then Hurricane Sandy came," Matt recalled. "It was pretty crappy.  I learned how to tie my lines tight - a lot of stuff which I wasn’t ready to think about."

For Brittany McCarthy, being on a boat during a hurricane was still better than being on land. After Irene, she was stranded in Attleboro without electricity for ten days.

"That means you’re relying on a company to make sure you have electricity," she said. "Now it’s relying on us. If something breaks, we fix it, so we can have the power. "
 
Independence is important to both couples. Rachel Shepard said the 2008 housing market crash made building the Tiny House even more appealing.

"I feel like trust was lost when the recession happened," she said. "You know, all sorts of people losing everything, having to sell their houses, having to go bankrupt... You can trust yourself."

"It’s a little ironic to me we built something with such mobility in order to stay on Nantucket," David said. "It’s more than just a house - in a lot of ways, it’s our future. It’s gonna take us places."

"Yeah," Rachel said. "Wherever we go."

Matt Ortega and Brittany McCarthy aren’t sure if they’ll stay on Nantucket forever, either. And the housing shortage won’t likely be solved anytime soon. In the meantime, others have followed Rachel and David Shepard’s example. Keep a look out: soon, they might not be on the only ones on Nantucket living in a Tiny House.