Engineer eyes Chch for portable rooms

TALIA SHADWELL
Last updated 12:29 09/02/2013
Chelease Ngawaka is happy with her tiny room in a box, with niece Lily-Jean

ROOM FOR ONE: Chelease Ngawaka is happy with her tiny room in a box, with niece Lily-Jean, aged 1.

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How much would you pay to live in a box?

Kiwis hungry for housing are shelling out $45 a week for a small space to call their own, and the Palmerston North creator of the Room2Rent business has his eye on the accommodation market in quake-stricken Christchurch next.

Engineer Matt Whiteman has been surprised by the demand for his portable rooms, which at 3.6 metres by 2.4m are a little bit cramped.

"I just built a few a few years ago and sold them and I thought, oh, I could probably build these and rent them. It just seemed crazy."

His portable rooms are now in backyards around the Manawatu region, as well as in Whanganui, Taihape and Upper Hutt.

Chelease Ngawaka was struggling to fit her family of five in their three-bedroom Highbury house, so they simply plonked another room in the backyard - with no complaints from the landlord. "It gets a little cold in winter, but not really that cold because you can just put the heater on for 10 minutes with the door closed and it gets too hot," Ms Ngawaka said.

The most innovative use of a Room2Rent Mr Whiteman had seen was a family of three who put a bunk bed that slept all of them in one cabin, also managing to fit a set of drawers, a dressing table and a 42-inch flat-screen television set.

The business is now three years old and Mr Whiteman is renting out 60 rooms a year, with plans to produce an extra 30 a year to meet demand fuelled by his advertising on Facebook and TradeMe.

He recently sold his first franchise to a Wairarapa business and is focusing on rolling out the operation in Christchurch, too, where he senses a strong market for the pre-fab concept in a housing market crippled by earthquakes.

"It would just be crazy over there. I'm just starting to get things together to sell some franchises in Christchurch.

"It's just a pain to get them down there."

His plan is to continue manufacturing the rooms himself in Palmerston North to ensure he keeps his slice of the business, then he will send them down to the South Island filled with freight to balance the shipping cost.

Watson Integrity property manager Greg Watson said the cost would be particularly attractive to students, although landlords would likely charge a little extra rent for adding more people to a lease.

"It is certainly an interesting concept . . . I suppose with certain properties it would hold a certain appeal. In cases of a smaller house the appeal, of course, is the price difference," he said.

He said the downside would be having the additional stress on features of the main property, such as the kitchen or bathroom. That may discourage landlords from welcoming an encampment of Mr Whiteman's boxes in their gardens.

Mr Whiteman was not concerned about people stealing his idea, saying the more people in affordable housing, the better.

"I say go for it. All competition is healthy. The only thing is they have to be able to do it from scratch and it is hard."

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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