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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 25, 2020 11 months ago

Builder's tiny homes resonate in a big way

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Wisconsin-based tiny home builder powers up on expansion to Florida with two new villages in the works, plus a manufacturing facility.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Escape Tampa Bay Village, a community of eco-friendly tiny homes created by Dan Dobrowolski, founder of Rice Lake, Wis.-based Escape Homes, has proven so successful that two more adjacent communities are in the works. 

Located at 11008 Highway 301 in Thonotosassa, Escape Tampa Bay Village opened to great fanfare in the spring. Dobrowolski, a University of South Florida graduate with ties to the region, paid $400,000 to acquire the one-acre parcel and then had 10 tiny homes, which range in size from 400 to 800 square feet, towed to Florida from the company’s manufacturing plant in Wisconsin. 

Seven of the 10 units have been sold, and Dobrowolski has held a couple back as model homes until the new villages are open and ready for sales. “We slowed things down a little bit,” he says. “Our concern was, especially with the new areas coming online, that if they all sell, we can't show anything to anybody.” 

The adjacent villages, at 11004 Highway 301 and 11014 HIghway 301, respectively, are on larger parcels and will have purpose-built model homes for potential buyers to check out. 

“Rather than finishing and selling it, which is more or less what we did with the original village, we'll be building it out as we go — more of a traditional type [of development],” Dobrowolski says. “We know they’re going to sell fast, so we’re in a race to get the new properties open.” 

'We know they’re going to sell fast, so we’re in a race to get the new properties open.' Dan Dobrowolski, Escape Homes

Interest in tiny homes has surged during the pandemic, Dobrowolski says, particularly among potential buyers from high-density, cold-weather Northeast states. Some people want to relocate permanently while others look at Escape Homes’ offering as a seasonal or second residence at which to wait out the COVID-19 crisis. 

“COVID-19 has accelerated demand,” he says. “I’m not trying to be clever here, but it’s an escape. People are pouring into Florida.” 

Sustained high costs to buy and even rent housing in the Tampa Bay region has also helped drive demand, says Dobrowolski. The village’s first resident, 31-year-old Tim Mastic, bought a tiny home for a lower monthly payment than his one-bedroom apartment in Riverview.

But the community’s appeal cuts across generations and demographics: the second buyer was an 81-year-old retiree, and she was followed by an entrepreneur in his 40s, a professional couple who both work for the city of Tampa, someone relocating from New York and a transplant from Florida's east coast. 

Courtesy. Dan Dobrowolski, founder of Escape Homes, has longstanding ties to the Gulf Coast.

“It’s a melting pot,” Dobrowolski. “It has really turned out the way we had hoped it would, which was we wanted it to include a broad base of people — young, old and everything in between.” 

Despite the interest in his brand of tiny houses, the self-deprecating Dobrowolski has no plans to change Escape Homes’ pricing structure. “If we were smart,” he says with a laugh, “we would price them higher. But it’s going to be more or less the same.” 

Similarly, Dobrowolski doesn’t plan to increase density. The original village could have held more than twice as many units, but he kept the site plan open and spread out because that’s what pandemic-driven buyers look for. The new villages will be about three times the size of the original but will be even less dense, with more green space. 

“That’s not very smart, as well,” Dobrowolski says. “We have a thing about space and green and that feeling of having plenty of room to spread out. We think that's important. Instead of stacking units in the normal way, like a trailer park, we put them in sideways. We want you to feel like you have a house that you walk up to, you've got your own deck there in the front, with landscaping, foliage and space.”

He adds, “It feels big, even if it’s relatively small.” 

Dobrowolski is so sold on the potential of the Gulf Coast market he plans to open an Escape Homes manufacturing facility in the area, to complement the one in Wisconsin. It could be a new plant or an existing facility repurposed to make tiny homes. He’s zeroed in on two potential sites in the Tampa area and one in Sarasota, where his family has owned property since the mid-1970s. 

“We have to expand,” Dobrowolski says. “not only in terms of the numbers of units we need to build, but also distribution — we have so many new customers that are in Florida and the Southeast that it just economically makes more sense.”

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