In 2014, Idaho native Ivan Ellis Nanney did something unusual: He took a marketing job traveling the country with a giant cement-and-gypsum potato.
During the famous Idaho Potato Tour, tourists can stop and take a photo with the giant potato, which is transported to the United States behind a red semi-trailer. While on tour, Nanney met a Boisean colleague named Kristie Wolfe, who turned the original six-ton potato into an Airbnb property.
As their friendship progressed, Nanney helped her create more lists. The friendship inspired Nanney, who spends six months of the year traveling, to create her own Airbnb property. She bought a parcel of land outside of downtown Boise for $17,000 and spent another $17,000 to build a small house on that lot, she says.
He listed it on Airbnb in June 2019, with a plan to live there himself for six months of the year. But by mid-2020 it was so popular that Nanney decided to list it year-round and find other accommodations in Boise.
This year, the tiny home made $49,600 in revenue and counting, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.
“It’s become very popular,” says Nanney, 34. “It just didn’t make sense for me to stay there. [The income] it has become almost completely passive.”
The income funds most of Nanney’s travels, including annual trips to Sri Lanka, where she also makes money organizing tuk-tuk tournaments. It’s lucrative enough that he’s working on building two more rental properties, he says.
This is how the little house came together.
A nomad’s base
After Nanney graduated from Boise State University, he spent nearly three years recording his travels abroad, then returned to the United States to work with the famous potato tour of Idaho. The job saved him a significant amount of money, and in late 2015, he spent $17,000 — a combination of “potato money” and earnings from freelance gigs — to purchase his parcel of land.
He spent another $17,000 over the next three-and-a-half years to deconstruct an abandoned building on the lot and build a small house entirely out of “secondhand materials,” installing electricity and a water line himself, he says.
The money came from a variety of freelance video jobs, including a six-month stint as an experience content creator for Cancun.com in 2018, Nanney adds.
Living full-time in the tiny house was pointless, given how much she wanted to travel. He figured he could host family members while he was away—one had just suffered a home foreclosure at the time, he says—or pay the renters.
“Looking at the tiny houses and the cost, it made sense to have a home base,” says Nanney. “It was providing a backup plan for the family, then also providing that passive income to free me up so I could pursue my passions and work on other projects and not be saddled with a mortgage.”
Technically, the income isn’t entirely passive: Nanney still blocks out a couple days a year to stay in the tiny house, so she can repair or improve the property.
She also works about two hours a week organizing stays and pays a cleaner about $150 a week to run the house while she’s away, depending on the number of bookings.
Internal and international affairs
The tiny house’s income comprises the bulk of Nanney’s annual income, he says — and, more importantly, it has shown him how to make money in a way that fits his globetrotting lifestyle.
Since 2019, Nanney has spent at least two months a year in Sri Lanka organizing Amazing Race-style races in open-top three-wheelers called tuk-tuks. The concert annually pays out $5,000 or 35% of the profits from the largest tournament, whichever is higher.
Also earn money by helping other nearby Airbnb hosts maintain, repair, and add new construction to their properties, including a Shipwreck-themed listing near Salmon, Idaho.
The success of the tiny house prompted Nanney to develop two other Airbnb properties as well. The first is a $78,000 home in Grand View, Idaho, a small town about an hour south of Boise, that he bought in April 2021 with a $7,800 down payment.
The second is a nearby mountain property, which he co-owns with four family members. Their plan is to turn his current barn into a cabin. After it goes public, Nanney will receive a quarter of her earnings, she says.
“You can increase your income and reduce your debt while maximizing the assets you already have,” she says. “I don’t like things sitting around when someone could benefit from them.”
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