Yurts, Truly: The New Boomer Bungalow

Here is what life is like in a yurt. You live in the woods in a glorified tent, with fabric stretched over the wooden skeleton of your one-room quarters. You burn wood to keep warm. You have a propane stove for cooking dinner and an outhouse for when nature calls. And if you’re a budget-conscious retiree, you save tens of thousands of dollars a year over what it used to cost you to live in a three-bedroom, suburban ranch house.

This was all part of the calculation for Dave Cruey, who hopes to sell his house near Houston for $250,000 after he and his wife, Harmony, move later this year to a two-acre homestead in New Mexico. Dogged by the high cost of living in mainstream America, the 56-year-old blacksmith paid $40,000 five years ago for a picturesque plot in the cedar-blanketed hills overlooking the Sacramento Mountains. Slowly, he has built a 210-square-foot custom yurt with an outdoor kitchen, a bathhouse, a shop and two 12-foot “guest yurts” for when his sons visit.

Call it the reverse American Dream. With 78 million baby boomers inching toward their golden years, more and more are seeking out a simpler, cheaper and more adventurous way of life. It makes sense in a nation where, in 2009, 27 percent of Americans depended on Social Security for from 50 to 90 percent of their monthly income, according to AARP. With those born in 1960 or later not slated to receive full retirement benefits before their 67th birthdays, many who haven’t socked away loads of money are looking for new options.

Many manufacturers and dealers of simple homes like kit cabins and yurts — modeled after the circular shelters favored by Mongolian nomads — report an increase in interest among retirees.

Cruey estimates he and his wife will go from spending about $60,000 per year for property taxes, homeowners’ insurance, utilities and other living expenses in Texas to an annual budget of about $25,000 to live on the New Mexico lot. With little money set to come their way during retirement, the couple needed to shift gears, he said. So, in recent years, they spent parts of their summers living in a used motor home and building their future homestead.

The move to a rugged backwoods life appeals to the Texas couple. Asked what attracted him, Cruey said, “Independence. Self-reliance. Freedom from society. Trying to have a self-sustaining lifestyle, you know. If the power goes out, we don’t want to have to worry about it.”

Ivy Fife, marketing director for Colorado Yurt Company, which sells homes for as low as about $6,000, said she has noticed an uptick in older folks looking for an alternative.
“As they near retirement, they want to simplify and get away from the concerns of having a house,” she said. Aside from financial benefits, Fife said other factors are driving the trend. “I mean, it’s cool,” she said with a laugh. “It’s this sort of non-conformist thing. There might be some budget concerns behind the decisions for older people to move into yurts, but in a lot of cases, it’s just the appeal of it. It’s just the way they want to live.”

Jim Gega, owner of Trophy Amish cabins in Michigan, builds 10-foot by 16-foot cabins and delivers them across the country for as low as $7,800. He said around 80 percent of the customers buying his simple, rustic homes with traditional log cabin exteriors are in their 50s or older.

“Their kids are grown and moved out, they’ve got some land. For 10, 15, 20 grand they’ve got a nice place that’s going to last,” he said.

In 1978, Alan Bair started Pacific Yurts, the first American manufacturer of the small, round structures. He said the trend with older people has become clear in the past few years. Bair thinks the ailing economy and housing crisis have pushed a lot of people into the lifestyle, but said it does “provide a sort of value of life that’s really whole and fulfilling.”

It’s a life that Cruey is adamantly looking forward to, and one he is trying to persuade other retirees to embrace, as well. He has started his own simple-living company, Mountain Wind Yurts.

“We’ve got a lot of baby boomers that will not be able to live on their Social Security checks,” he said. “We’re trying to develop a product that can help Americans get away from a mortgage. People can build their own home, move in in a couple weeks, done deal. I think people are tired of working so hard for so little.”

Marty Douglas, a 60-year-old former Boeing mechanic and his wife, Mary Anne, sold their Illinois house after retiring last year. They are now building a 30-foot yurt on 40 secluded acres in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado while living in a 19-foot Timberlodge camper. Douglas said the simplicity of the lifestyle was the biggest draw: “Mostly the desire to live in Colorado, off the grid, just to kind of be away from town and not dependent on local utilities.”

Rosa Lee has two more years before retirement, but has already moved into what she calls her dream home. With her 702-square-foot yurt set on 15 acres in Mount Pleasant, N.C., she proves that yurt life can also mean leading a life of luxury, with a flat-screen TV, granite counter tops in a full kitchen, indoor electric and plumbing.

“People walk in and they’re like ‘Oh my gosh,’” said the 58-year-old, who works from home for Xerox. “It’s really, really first class for a tent.”

“I wanted a beautiful dream home,” Lee added. “But I wanted to be able to retire without a mortgage hanging over me.”

Cruey thinks homesteading provides a better quality of life for retirees. “The pace is slower,” he said of yurt life. “You don’t have to stress about money as much. You can work less, so you have more time to spend with family. You can do things you wouldn’t have time for otherwise.”