LA GRANDE — A local home builder is offering a small solution to a countywide housing problem — tiny homes.
Megan Fehrenbacher, owner of Mega Tiny Homes in La Grande, has been building tiny homes for just over two years, starting out with a small cottage she built after a friend’s retreat burned down in Tollgate.
Fehrenbacher said the business has an important role in not only building affordable homes for the community, but as a form of rehabilitation. She said she had grown frustrated with substance abuse treatment centers, which she saw as a retreat that did not prepare its graduates for life after therapy.
“I wanted to start a work rehab, where they don’t just go to rehab and talk about themselves,” Fehrenbacher said.
The inspiration comes from her son, who she said struggled with substance abuse disorders in the past. Now, she’s helping to build futures.
“My son went through 18 rehabs,” said Fehrenbacher, noting the most beneficial to her son’s health were work rehabs, where he would spend time on farms or recycling centers working and building up his marketable skills.
“All of the other rehabs, he would get out and nobody wanted him,” Fehrenbacher said. “I said to myself, I can do this better.”
She built her first tiny home with the assistance of Stacey Bowman, who now works for Mega Tiny Homes.
“I learned a lot,” Fehrenbacher said.
Navigating through the codes and requirements of homebuilding, such as proper electrical work, was a challenge for the fledgeling homebuilder. Still, orders began coming in.
Her first order was for 60 houses. However, the order was a sham, with the buyer fronting the money for only five houses. Fehrenbacher was wary and able to keep her business from going into excess debt.
Tiny houses, which have experienced a huge increase in support over the past decade, have attracted young homeowners and elderly alike. The low-cost of entry allows first-time homebuyers to get a foot in a market that increased dramatically since the 2009 housing crisis, which saw foreclosures across the country and downwardly spiraling home prices that left many with negative equity. And older homebuyers are interested in smaller spaces, due to children leaving the home and having excess space.
Tiny homes often are confused with modular or manufactured homes, which Fehrenbacher said have lower quality than her company’s tiny homes. While manufactured homes have improved over the years, the stigma around them remains, as well as often true stereotypes of cheaper materials and workmanship in their construction.
For Fehrenbacher, the focus is on quality.
“We definitely build a heavy and nice house,” she said.
There is a drawback, however. In Oregon, tiny homes are technically illegal to sell — instead, Fehrenbacher markets her homes as “trailers” or “cabins” to work around the prohibition.
Of the workers at Mega Tiny Homes, Ray Valdez is the most dedicated. Prior to his employment, he would walk to the manufacturer each work day, sit down for lunch and wait for his chance to work.
At first, Fehrenbacher wasn’t interested in hiring the man. After a week, Valdez left. Fehrenbacher asked her employees which car he drove. They replied he didn’t. She ran after the man and hired him on for a week. She said Valdez is her most crucial employee.
“He’s the man,” she said.
As home prices around the state continue to rise, Fehrenbacher said she hoped the legislation around tiny homes changes, and her business helps to solve the housing issues in La Grande and Union County.