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How To Get Started – A Practical Guide: Buying Land

We are coming down to the home stretch, today we will be talking about finding land to put your tiny house on.  In my last post in this series I spoke about the legalities of Tiny Houses (read it here), so make sure you read that one as a backdrop for this post.

Finding land where you can have a Tiny House is an exciting process.  At this point you can see things coming together on your Tiny Home.  It is worth mentioning that it can sometimes be easier to purchase land with a home on it, rent that house out, and put your Tiny House elsewhere on the property; This helps you with the whole primary dwelling issue.  For some they just want raw land.

Regardless, I encourage everyone to take some time to create a list of attributes they want in their land.  What size do you want, are you able to conceal a Tiny House on the property, does the land have access to municipal utilities, does the land “perk”, if you are going have a septic system, where will it go and where will your house go.  Other things include the location of course, what town/city and what part of town do you want to live in?  For some, good solar exposure for solar panels or water on the property.

For many people it makes sense to talk with a realtor as in many states it doesn’t cost a buyer anything to use their service and even if it does cost, it might be worth it.  Regardless if you use a realtor there are taxes and city/state fees that are required, so you will need to plan for those.

If you do decide to get a realtor, don’t just pick one out randomly.  Do your homework, make a short list, then interview them, I’m totally serious!  Even as a buyer you want to know their background, the record, references etc.  In the interview come prepared with a few photos of the house you would like to build, the plans/floor plan and be ready to talk about how the home you want to have isn’t quite above board.  You need to find a realtor that is comfortable with this and get one that knows the rules and how to creatively get you utilities, certificate of occupancy, etc.

During your interview it is important to discuss the fees, taxes and terms.  Do they charge buyers (not all states do)?  Remember that their commission is negotiable, don’t ask them if it is negotiable, just negotiate.  If you don’t they will just charge you the maximum and take your money gladly.  Another thing to be warned of is if they use terms like “the going rate” which there is no such thing and they can even get in trouble for suggesting it.  In a down market, they are usually more open to negotiation.

You also want to get references from them and review the terms (exclusive or not) and how they typically handle the process.  Never just sign something on the spot, take it with you, review it carefully and sleep on it.

For those of you who don’t want to use a realtor or realtors cost money In your state we need to get creative.  The fact is that realtor’s association is a bit monopolistic in my opinion because they closely guard their MLS listings, get regulations in their favor and other tactics.  To find land we need to again make our list, then start our search.  We want to check EBay, Craig’s List, the newspaper,  do a search for local realtors website’s to get addresses,  find property owners through local tax records (usually online), word of mouth, and finally just driving around.

You will still need a lawyer to handle the documents, remember to have your own lawyer, don’t use theirs.  Take time to review things ahead of time, if they are trying to rush you tell them to back off or you walk away.

Once you find a land you want to be sure that you are clear on the boundaries, when was it last officially surveyed?  Where are the build-able sites on the lot?  What about utilities, internet, and trash?  Septic tank site and does it perk?  Ask about zoning in the areas around the property and consider what might be able to be built there.  You should always walk the land and the property lines, looking at flat spots, run off/erosion, is there trash from people dumping, consider clearings and if you might need to make more space.  Most often you will not be able to build in a community/neighborhood, but ask about home owners associations or other land restrictions.  For those who like to garden, a soil test is a good idea too.

I also suggest mapping out where the closest grocery store, gas station, hardware store, restaurants, hospital, airport etc.  Going out to the property early so you can drive the route from there to your work during normal commute times is useful too, know where traffic is and how it would impact you.  Finally consider road access to the property, making sure it is not land locked, how will you get to your property, could a delivery truck make it to the property?

So in summary, there are a lot of things to consider, take your time and don’t let emotions get into the mix.  If a realtor/buyers agent doesn’t cost you anything, then I’d recommend it as long as they interviewed well and their terms are agreeable.  Regardless you will have to pay some lawyer fees, taxes etc.

Because this is such a huge topic here are 4 great resources for you to read to get a handle on it all:

How To Get Started: A Practical Guide Part 6

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!

How To Get Started: A Practical Guide Part 5

Today we are going to talk about how to start reduce your stuff.  I feel that it is important to start reducing things down before you even build your Tiny House because after you weed out things, you will begin to see how little your really need.  Inevitably you will still need to get rid of some things even after you do this when you move into your house, but I feel 2 passes are needed for most.

I should note that discussing consumerism and materialism prior to this step was an important choice in order.  We have now established a backdrop which should frame your mind when approaching these things.  So I am going to first offer up some tips then some techniques to start organizing.

Tips:

  1. Start small: Don’t try to tackle your house, or even an entire room, try just one are ie: your desk
  2. Everything has a place and everything in its place:  have a designated spot for everything
  3. Put it away now: Once you get things clean, if you use something, put it back right away
  4. Use an inbox and keep it empty:  This applies to mail, email, etc.  your goal is to have it empty at all times.  It comes in, you respond or calendar then file it.
  5. Setup a file system: Papers and emails seem to pile up on people, so take the time to have a file system, I digitize everything and I’m done
  6. Setup a system for pending items:  Where many people get into trouble is what to do with pending items, so setup a system to organize things that in holding

Techniques:

Box Method:

This is simply my favorite approach, it is effective and simple.

Find a box, any box, size appropriate for your stuff of a certain area.  The important thing to remember is to tackle one defined area at a time, usually you can define an area by its function.  Your desk is a great place to start (then later move on to your clothes, then the kitchen, etc.).  Take everything and I mean everything!  Out of and off of your desk (with the exception of your computer and desk lamp) and put it into the box.  No cheating now, just do it, I want every drawer empty, the desktop clear and the floor clear too if you have stuff piled up.

Now once you have done this, write today’s date on it and take this box and put it under your desk or within arm’s reach.  That’s it!  No just kidding, as you begin to work and find that you need things go to the box and pull out that one single item.  If you need a pen, get one pen, not all of them.  If you need ruler, take it out of the box.  Continue doing this for a month, hence the date you wrote on the box.  At the end of the month schedule 20 minutes in your calendar to sort through the remains.

When you do this take your box and set your trash can right next to it and begin considering each item.  For 95% of all the things in that box, you will end up throwing away.  A few items will be something that you use every now and then, but with no consistency, but you feel that your really really really need.  Then ask yourself:

  • Is this something that I could borrow easily when the need arises?
  • Could you achieve this function of the item, in another way?
  • Is there something in my desk that can do this function?

For many things you will find that you can borrow them or you don’t really need it.  There are those things that you just have to have.  You emergency inhaler is a good example, however the snow globe that Deborah in accounting gave you 4 years ago and that has been sitting the back of a drawer is not.

Throw away or donate the remains and you will have an area that is cleaner and has the things that you need, now just want.

100 or 300 0r ____ item challenge:

For some people a solid goal is what they need; Arbitrary goals mean they can’t take the first step, so I use this technique with those folks.  The concept is you set a goal for yourself in terms of number of items then eliminate down to that number.  What I suggest for determining the number is nothing above 500, but what ever number you choose, shave off 50 items to push yourself.  Now the rules for this is that each item counts as a single item.  For example, a fork, knife and spoon are three things, not a set of one.  There are some things I will give you a pass on to not count on your list, I don’t count fridge, stove, toaster, microwave type of things.  I do however count clothing, 1 shirt = 1 shirt.  Depending on the situation I will say items specifically for your work/income are not counted, but I would push many people to include them if possible or do a 100 item challenge on your work place, we spend a good amount of time at work, less stuff means we can think clearer, work better and more effectively.  Check out this guys website on this: http://guynameddave.com/100-thing-challenge/

Going Paperless

As if being greener isn’t motivation enough, going digital, as I call it, means that you are able to reduce the tangible items you need. Digital files take up no space if you have them stored online, with the added advantage of being able to access them from anywhere.

How to get started on this?  First you need a scanner, depending on how much paper volume you have, you might want to invest in an auto-feeding model.  I have yet to try out, but am anxious to try the Neat Receipts system which includes software to organize it all.  However you do this, please please please! backup and be really paranoid about it.  Combined with backing the files up, they become safer than real world things. I currently have my computer setup to automatically mirror my hard drive to another within the computer (google RAID), then I have 3 external hard drives that are backup to, then finally I have another that sits in a fireproof box at my house and another in a safety deposit box at the bank.  The IRS officially accepts all scanned copies of receipts and bank statements.

But this extends beyond receipts. books which can take a ton of space can now fit on your Kindle, instead of renting and DVD’s get a Roku Box, for music I have it on my ipod and also online on a platform called OpenTape, I also put all my recipes in a wiki and finally I organize my documents on a free online file manager called Xoda.  The point is, I look at everything I have and look for a digital equivalent, then back it up religiously!

It All Goes Back In The Box

Our good friend Michael over at TinyHouseDesign.com posted this great video on his Facebook page and it just really hit home on some really key truths.  I have talked about how when you downsize to a Tiny House, you actually gain.  You gain freedom from debt, you gain time, you gain deeper relationships, you gain insights to what is important.

How To Get Started: A Practical Guide Part 4

Now many of you who are looking to actually live in a Tiny House have some level of awareness of this cultural phenomenon we know as consumerism.  It essentially functions by creating social pressures to buy more stuff, our culture has an instilled mentality that we need more stuff to be happy.

The more stuff, the more happiness right?  Wrong.  Studies have actually shown that the purchase of stuff gives us a quick high, but ultimately leaves us even more unhappy.  Buying more stuff means we need to work more to pay for it, we incur more debt.  All of these things bring stress, give us less time to relax, time away from family and friends and when we do have free time, we are hounded by collection agencies.   When we move into a Tiny House, we need to reduce the amount of things we need to fit in, this actually reduces stress, focuses us on what is important and create greater value for what little we do have.

I encourage you to have some time set aside to do some introspection.  During that time consider what you have purchased over the last month using receipts and a spreadsheet.   I have seen it a million times, people who don’t track it, don’t realize how bad the problem is.  This is a pretty well document phenomenon.  Studies have shown that when people track things, they typically spend 1/3 less, just by tracking it!

It has taken me a long time to really weed through my subconscious to get to a point where I can realize when these deep rooted influences are pushing me to buy something.  I have been on this journey now for 2 years and still am struggling with it.  I do intentionally strike a balance between separation of consumer culture and still staying generally socially acceptable.  Clothing for example is a big societal function, fashions and trends drive us to buy more and I think many have a hard time breaking this cycle.

Now it is true, men’s clothing is easier to do this with, but I still believe anyone can do it.  My clothes literally can fit in a big suitcase, all of them.  I own 1 suit, 3 pairs of pants, 2 shorts, 10 shirts, 15 undershirts, 30 pairs of socks, 30 pairs of underwear, 3 work shirts, 3 shirt that get dirty, 2 pajama pants, a hat, rain jacket, winter jacket, one pair of dress shoes, one pair of running shoes, and one pair of garden shoes.   I have also worked to be able to work from home or a job that I can dress casually, this drastically reduces the amount of clothes and limits social pressures.

So today start looking at what you have spent, take some time to think about how these cultural norms influence you behavior and check out the story of stuff to help understand these mechanisms.

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