Tiny House, Tiny Living, The Tiny Life.

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!

9 Comments
  1. The easiest “under the radar” strategy, which I have used successfully for many years, can be employed if your tiny house is sited on property on which there is already a legally permitted dwelling–and if you can reasonably imply that the legal dwelling is your formal residence.

    Central to this strategy, is of course, the importance of maintaining a low profile on site, and not antagonizing your neighbors!

  2. Great series of articles … I am interested in your e-book, when do you think it will become available ?? Keep up the good work …

  3. One of the main reasons for said laws is so the government and major corporations can keep track of us. As in where we go, what we do, who we see and how we spend out money. I have had the pleasure of seeing the results of this first hand, several times. They fear those with a nomadic life style, or the ability to have one AKA trailer tiny homes, or tiny homes in general.

    They fear the tiny homes because it is not in the norm. The government can’t tax as much and lose money. The corporations can’t hate them because that cant sell you a lot of large bulky products. It is mostly the money game.

    A few years ago (okay closer to 10 years ago) I have the pleasure of working for AT&T. At the time my parents had sold their house, and bought a small motor home. They spent the next 8 years doing what is called Boon-docking. Which is finding a place in the middle of nowhere, parking and living there for a month or two. To make sure they got mail, they got a P.O. Box, and a cell plan with good coverage.

    During training at AT&T the instructor said that we were required to get their physical address, and that a P.O. Bow would not work. At the time this also included their cell phone coverage. I asked the obvious question of what if they do not have a physical address. I was then told that EVERYONE has a physical address, somewhere. I explained to then about my parents and who they live. The instructor got upset saying that it is impossible to do that. Because everyone needed to have a physical address and s P.O. Box didn’t count because there are no phones wired to them.

    When I explained they had a cell, this got her even more upset. To make a long story short I got the pleasure of talking to AT&T corporate peoples about this ‘situation’ (their term, not mine)

    Fact is that a lot of people do not understand the concept of tiny or nomadic (aka trailer) living. They fear it believing that those who live that way are up to no good. I have even heard the phrase that they are hiding something (please not the humor in that. Hiding something in a tiny house is a bit hard to do).

    I personally believe that it all comes down to control. The government and corporations, want to control us telling us what we are allowed to have and not allowed to have. To be honest I do believe that this is their right in some cases. But they want to have control over most aspects of our lives. What to buy, how often to buy, how big out houses should be. All in the name of selling us more stuff and then taxing us for said items we purchased.

    I do believe that the real power of the size and kind of house we live in should be the community’s. Those who our living habits directly affect day in and day out. A yurt in a community of townhouses is out of place. It can affect the property values of the area. But if said yurt was in a community full of yurts and other like dwellings, then it can work.

    There should be areas for small houses, like there should be areas for large houses. It should be one of those freedoms we enjoy. Not some faceless entity telling us we MUST choose just one way because it benefits them in the end.

    Of course that is just me.

  4. I agree with ogunshi’s last statements starting with “I do believe”. The thing that he misses is that most of the size requirements that we are stuck with are put there by the people living in our communities just as he says he would like.

    I live in a rural area and the local Town Boards adopt the County Zoning ordinance because it works for them. It is not hard to believe that a majority of people don’t want to live next to something materially different from their own lifestyle. This is indeed about control but at a very local and personal level. Exxon couldn’t care less. We shouldn’t assume that just because we would be blissfully happy in a community of 200 square foot tiny houses that the existence of such a community has no impact on the neighbors or the neighbors have no right to their own point of view. This local control means, however, that once a critical mass of informed voters is reached these things can be changed. I think and hope that is going to happen.

    There are already zoning alternatives. For example in this County “camping cabins” are allowed in zoning that permits campgrounds but not in Residential. As suggested above a guest house under 500 square feet is allowed if there is already a primary residence over 750 square feet.

    As the article says you have to educate yourself about the options. I personally believe you will meet with the best chance of success if you understand the objectives of your local zoning, talk to the folks that administer it, and try to be a little flexible yourself.

    Good Luck!

  5. Some of the more rural areas in counties do not have any zoning requirements. Those are the areas that need to be looked at for building Tiny Houses.

  6. I would love to build a small neighborhood of houses between 200 and 500 sq ft, some smaller, some bigger, but all in the “tiny” range. I’d also like to have it close enough to business districts and public transport that folks could ride bikes and scooters to get to where they want to go. Looks like this will never happen. I live just northeast of Atlanta, and here it’s all about the big roads, big houses, big cars. Sad.

  7. Let’s keep in mind that laws are created by people and hopefully for people.

    If indeed the tiny house movement is a movement, then it implies that there is a growing number of people who have different views about housing, housing values, lifestyle and aesthetics.

    The more demand and acceptance there is of ‘different’ norms, shifts the meaning of norm, opening the way for change to take place which could accommodate the different points of view.

    Tiny houses probably confound local councils because it’s something they have not considered before because it was not a common occurrence. However, situations change, people change, technology changes, economies change and therefore laws change, otherwise we wouldn’t need lawmakers.

    Work with your councils and find the legal way if possible and encourage the changes necessary to pave the way for the next person and the next person.

  8. I have been offhandedly researching tiny houses and recently decided to take action in a year. This is one of the best articles I have read to date in regards to placement for your ‘residence’. I came to this site (and article) from Permies.com and it will become a favorite website. Thank you.

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