The legality of Tiny Houses is really the skeleton in the closet of Tiny Houses; in most instances, it isn’t legal, there is no other way of putting it. That said there are individuals who have successfully navigated the red tape or achieved an understanding with the code enforcement people where they just leave each other alone.
But what about putting it on a trailer? But what about minimum square footage requirements? These are two commonly cited “loop holes” from various people in the Tiny House world, but it really isn’t the magical solution make it seem like. Why? Simply put it often comes down to the fact that you are making these houses your primary residents. That term is key, primary residence. When that comes into play, it is a whole different ball game. So yes you can build something under X amount of square feet in your county, but most places have minimum codes defining what a habitable structure is. This often includes heat, cooling, running water, and a minimum square foot requirement often 300 square feet or larger. In some counties in NC who want to boost tax revenue, I have seen the minimum set as high as 3,000 square feet!
So the real answer is yes you can build without a permit or put it on a trailer, that part is legal, but no, legally you cannot live in it as your residence.
Some of us simply would respond to this with, well how can they stop me? The common ways municipalities formally discourage this is through fines, destruction/removal, and prevention of access to municipal services (water, sewer, electricity, trash, etc.)
Like I said, this is Tiny House’s dirty little secret. I have seen over the years websites adding disclaimers, removing and altering language about the legality of tiny houses etc.
But does that mean I can’t live in a Tiny House?
The answer: You can live in a Tiny House, but I am going to give to you straight about how you can do so. First off, a lovely disclaimer, it’s up to you to do your research, because each municipality is different and you take this endeavor upon yourself.
The first and easiest way is to appeal to your local code enforcement. They are really nice people, they just get crabby when people don’t take the time to understand the law and work with in it. I first recommend you do some research, spend a few hours looking around your cities building codes, laws, etc. If you are really serious I would go ahead and get a copy of the code book that your city often sells for about $35. Next check out a website called municode.com This has many cities actual codes posted, but not all. As you get into this you will quickly realize, building codes are a nightmare to learn, soon I hope to release an e-book on working with municipalities.
Once you have done your research I suggest contacting a contractor, you can use that person as a subject matter expert (you may need to pay them) but they can help you streamline the process. This isn’t required, but it is suggested. Talking with them will let you figure out exactly how you are going to present it to the code enforcement officer.
Finally contact your local code enforcement and share what you’d like to do and state you are looking to find a way to achieve your goal, while meeting all building code requirements. You will often have to get a special exception (which the term is called differently in different places) which includes plans, submittal of documents and applications, perhaps even lawyer fees. After a lengthy process you will get an approval or a denial, so be prepared for it. Keeping a positive attitude will go miles here.
So what about less than above board ways? I see this as an civil disobedience issue.
Well first off, breaking the law… is well… illegal… so you do this under your own decision and deal with the consequences, you are responsible for it, not me. The big thing with doing things not to code is first of to understand that some codes are designed to keep people safe. That is important to remember. For example 2 point of egress is a safety thing, while you lawn can’t be taller than 18” isn’t. So if you don’t go by the codes, look at its intention or research it. If there is a safety concern, think creatively how you could address it in another way.
The next big thing about doing things not on the up and up is frankly, don’t get caught. So let’s consider ways you could be brought to the attention of code enforcement. Your annoying neighbor could report you, a code enforcement agent could see your house from the road as they drive by, a tax assessors could come out and could report the house, or aerial tax assessment photos might peak some interest. Lets not make this easy for them by considering all the ways we could be reported and take active steps to mitigate these risks. It essentially is risk management. Depending on where you live and the community that is there, it is very likely people could learn about your home and not care or even embrace it. Ultimately it is best to keep a low profile, I personally am at odds with this because I want to use my house as a statement for advocacy. It is up to you where your comfort level is.
The next big thing to tackle is how you are going to get water, sewer and electricity to the property. Depending where you are and what you want to do this can be difficult. Since you don’t have a certificate of occupancy, you have to do research and get creative. This is where a contractor will be useful, because they will be able to educate you on the options and give you the right terms to use when applying for these.
So that’s all for today, this is a huge topic, I will be writing more on it in an e-book I hope to get out soon!