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Why Your Tiny House May Pass Inspection, But It Isn’t Legal

For a long time I have been thinking about how tiny houses should pave a path to legality, but it has been very difficult to have a quality dialogue about it because there is so much that is misunderstood.

The question of how to become legal is a contentious one.  Most of that contention stems from the following elements:

  1. Less than honest building companies telling half truths when it comes to legality just to make a sale
  2. People calling their tiny houses legal, when in reality the building inspector didn’t want the head ache of filing paperwork to condemn the house, so they just pretended like they didn’t see it.  If that inspector had to go on record about it, they’d never allow it.
  3. The fact that most folks don’t understand the nuances of most building codes
  4. People assuming because one person did it a certain way, that it will work everywhere

I think number two is pretty big and is the main point of today’s post.  There are many people claiming their house is legal when it is in fact not legal at all.  The truth is that building inspectors are people who are often overworked and are in desperate need of more staff.

How this plays out is that there are a variety of things that happen where a tiny house breaking codes will go unchallenged by the inspectors and the city, but if it were to be brought up in court, if neighbors made too big of a deal of it, that house would be condemned in a heart beat.  It’s an important distinction: legal or not contested, I would assert that anyone who says their house is “legal” is in fact just not contested.

A few reasons your house could “pass” or not be challenged:

They never even came to your house:

There are times that an inspector will say they visited the site, but didn’t have time, so they didn’t show.  Most cities require inspections to happen within a certain time frame, but with fewer inspectors and the city continually raising the number of inspections per inspector, stuff just doesn’t get done. Their work metrics makes it so they literally don’t have enough time to do it all.  This plays out where they have to fudge the numbers and just approve stuff sight unseen.  There are even some cities, if they don’t get to your site within a certain time, the city website auto approves the permit.

They don’t want to fill out the paperwork:

There are times where busy people will make decisions based on not making more work for themselves, this equally applies to inspectors or municipal workers.  When they see the house they make a judgement, is this worth the paperwork?  Will people make a fuss over this house?  Will approving this now save me time and work?  In man cases they’ll just sign off because they don’t have time to fill out all the paperwork that goes with condemning the house.

They’re having a good day:

After working with the city on getting thing permitted and past code I’m floored at how much is left up to the whim of the inspector.  If they had a great send off from their spouse that morning, they are happy with their life, or are just having a good day that day, they’ll approve stuff just because.  Catch them on a bad day, they’ll spread that misery around in the form of failed inspection stickers.  We’d like to think the code is black and white, but in reality it couldn’t be further from the truth.

They like you:

When I had my water meter inspected I just happened to at the bottom of my driveway when the inspector pulled up.  I walked up to the guy in his truck and began chatting with him.  I don’t recall what we chatted about, but we hit it off pretty well.  Twenty minutes later he said “alright, things look good here, take care!”  He literally never even got out of his truck and he approved the install.

I even have had one friend had an inspector approve their tiny houses and then the next day got a call to ask for a date.

It would cost too much to pursue

I have had two instances where I have seen an inspector approve a tiny house for one reason only: it would cost too much of the city’s money to force a person to get it to code or condemn the house and drag it all through court.  When the city condemns a house, it triggers a whole line of actions on the city’s part and in some cases the inspector will size up the person who owns the home: are they likely to take this decision to court?  Typically the person who is able to afford a tiny house, is also able to afford a lawyer, so the inspector does some mental math.

In one of the instances that I was present at, the inspector confided in us that he wasn’t going to condemn the tiny house, because it would cost the city about $30,000 to do all the things required by law, to fight it out in court, and all the staff time it would eat up;  He said they had a budget for such things, but he picked and choose when to use that money to condemn homes when he saw parents he suspected of neglecting their kids: If he condemned the home, he could instantly get full access for a social worker to make sure the kids were being taken care of.  So when it came to a tiny house with a owner that was proud of their home and a chance to end abuse of children, he passed on the tiny house every time.

Their time is better used elsewhere:

If an inspector has to make a decision on whether to hassle you on your tiny house or chase down the builder of an entire neighborhood, it becomes a numbers game.  An hour with you is an hour he could be getting a large scale home builder to be safe across an entire neighborhood.  It literally comes down to if the tiny house owner burns to death in their home, that’s one person, if he instead makes sure the electrical work is done well with a bigger builder, he could prevent hundreds of deaths.

They actually like tiny houses:

A surprising number of inspectors really like tiny houses.  It’s a breath of fresh air when a homeowner takes such pride in their house, when a home is built well, when it looks great.  Many inspectors work hard to keep big business builders and lazy sub-contractors honest; the less than honorable ones will purposefully cut corners to save money, inspectors spend a lot of time trying to prevent that.  So when a home owner is trying to make the best house they know how, some inspectors will go way beyond just enforcement and instead educate.

They’ll talk you through how to safely ground your house, what is the purpose of different nails, how a $.86 huricane tie can make your house much safer, or remind you to put a smoke alarm in.  It isn’t their job to do this, but they like talking shop and a tiny house is something new and exciting.  If you’re the person that’s listening intently or jotting down notes, your chances of getting a pass on paper is much higher.

They couldn’t find the house when they showed up:

By their nature, tiny houses are… tiny.  So they don’t stick out like normal construction sites do.  In the case of my house, I live on 26 acres, my house and gravel pad takes ups a very small portion of that and I barley cleared trees.  If you drive down my driveway you can’t even see it until your right on top of if, not to mention you can’t see it from the road.

This came into play with me, I had put in to not have a “storm water” fee on my water bill because under a certain square footage they will remove the monthly charge.  I didn’t know they were going to send an inspector until he called me.  When he called he said “I went to check out your house, but couldn’t find it, do I have the correct address?”  I was shocked that an inspector was at my land, but just told him he had the correct address, the water line was for spigot (a half truth for sure, neglecting to mention the tiny house attached to said spigot).  He said “great” and he’d approve it.


What all this means is that tiny houses that are often called legal is in fact not, they are simply not pursued or an inspector choose to not condemn the house.  It’s a huge difference, but people often confuse the two, which makes for a difficult conversation when it comes to building codes.  In many ways these things are good news, they allow tiny house people to live out their lives in peace having the city inspection behind them.  The unfortunate factor here is that if city officials were pressed on the matter, if they were to be called to give an on the record approval, they’d condemn the house instantly.



If I Had $1M To Further The Movement

what if questionI was sitting on the porch of my tiny house the other night thinking about tiny houses and the movement when the question floated into my mind: “If I somehow became the steward of $1,000,000 to further the tiny house movement, what would I do?”  It’s an interesting question and I really like thought experiments like this.  So, here is what I’d do:

I think an important first step would be to establish a tiny house proof of concept with a city and create a model that other cities could follow.  I would most likely start in my hometown of Charlotte, mainly because I know the codes better and have some good connections with folks that I’d need to leverage in order to make my plan successful.

I’ve had some preliminary conversations with some community development leaders, developers, lawyers and a few political figures at the point, but have yet to take it much further because the later phases of execution would require funds that I simply don’t have.  So I’d start a dialogue with some key people and then also contract the services of a few people, primarily lawyers that have experience doing community development.  I don’t think things would need to get pushed into the court room, but a few of the lawyers I have in mind know the landscape better than I do, they have the personal connections, they know what meetings you need to show up for, they know who other follow on votes and they know the process.  These things are valuable to the execution of the plan.  I figure it will take about $50,000 in contractor fees, mainly because most of the people would be lawyers ($200-$300 an hr).

Running Total: $50,000

From there I’d work with these people to start conversations with the city about getting a program started where we would essential do a trial run on a particular piece of land for a tiny house community.  I figure about $5,000 in fees, filings, paperwork, etc.

Running Total: $55,000

land_for_sale_29cConcurrently I would be shopping for land, somewhere in the 10-20 acre range of which I have about 5 locations that would be ideally suited for this project.  The key here would be land that could be rezone for a cluster housing setup and located within a 30 minute drive of downtown Charlotte.  The location would be key.  Most people today want the amenities of a city and Charlotte is a decent sized city to meet that need, plus land is relatively cheap and still available.  For the land I’d be looking to spend up to $250,000 which would be the home of the community and a common house that would also later be used to run training events, meetings, etc.

Running Total: $305,000

Next once we had the land and the city’s support, I would work the land (grading, access, roads, parking), install infrastructure (water, sewer, solar, internet, gas), then begin construction.  For this I’m assuming $75,000 to meet city requirements.  I’m also assuming they’ll require us to install storm drains, side walks, and a retention pond because of the number of people, it would be similar to an apartment complex in their eyes.

Running Total: $380,000


Once I had the land secured, I’d put out a call for residents.  There would be an application, interview, and selection process.  The goal would be selecting people who would be good stewards of the first location, would have the ability to interface with the public and the media very well, and people who could help us put a good foot forward in the community.  The group would also have to function well as a team, because I would want a community, not disparate individuals that just want a place to put a tiny house or live cheap.  I envision the people selected would go through a lengthy interview process, jump through a lot of hoops and prove that they are the right people for the mission.

With that group I’d want to do some team building, some communications training and community building.  There will also be some media interface training, so that they can keep calm when a reporter tries to pull a “gotcha”, when a detractor speaks out, or when something goes wrong and they need to operate under pressure.  For that I’d budget about $5,000 for various activities and facilitators.

Running Total: $385,000

 From that point I’d design the houses with each of the people using some tiny house designers I know.  The plans would be used to build the house and then either given away or sold as a revenue generator for the non-profit mission of this incubator.

Established Revenue: $1,000 / month

Each house would be designed, built and paid for by this project, but each person would enter into a 2 or 3 year lease on that house.  I’d guess between $200-$400 for rent and utilities a month.

It might be possible that some of the paid work needed to be done by this project could be paid to these members if they had the required skill sets for the job.  This could also aid in keeping the project accessible for low income individuals.

I would want 10 houses to on the property, half to be people bringing their own house, half built onsite built with about half the labor done by the people themselves.  I figure total cost per built house would be $40,000 for the five built on site for a total of $200,000.

I would also have a common house built (about 2,500 square feet).  I figure about $200,000 for that building.  That building would have a large room, community kitchen, a guest bedroom, laundry and toilets.

In this space I’d tried to save a lot of costs here by doing workshops where people come for the week and get hands on with building a tiny house.  Tickets would be pricey because of the time, meals, organizing etc.  I figure $1500 a person.  This would help offset the costs of the houses.  For the common house I’d try to do that with straw bale or ob and again, make that an event that we would sell tickets to.

Worst Case Running Total: $785,000
Target Running Total: $600,000
Established Revenue: $3,500-$5,000 / month

 This would close the initial phase of the first location.  From here the idea would be to document the entire process and produce some high quality materials, media, and website.  These could be used by tiny house people and by municipalities.  I figure there will be some coding, design and material fees with this $5,000.

Running Total: $605,000
Established Revenue: $3,500-$5,000 / month

The next phase would be taking the revenue generated and building that revenue to become a self sustaining non profit.  The hope here is that with the initial $1M we could build an engine that could pump out tiny house havens and develop training for DIYers, Builders and cities to elevate the community.

The remaining funds to kick off the next location and essentially do lobbying on behalf of tiny houses.  I would also look into tiny house financing, developer partnerships and tiny house insurance.  We would develop tiny house codes that municipalities could plug and play for cities and we would help them in that process.

I’m also playing it safe with the budget because things will inevitably be more expensive, unexpected costs will come up and there will be some staffing costs.

Final Total: $850,000
Revenue: $13,500-$15,000 / month

So that is how I’d move the movement forward with an infusion of $1M.

Your Turn!

  • How would you use the $1M differently for the movement?

Tiny House Building Codes

It’s been a while since I did a post about how tiny houses deal with building codes, so today I wanted to share the top 5 myths about building codes, zoning and tiny houses.

Building Code Myths(1)

Myth 1:  I don’t need a permit if it’s under ___ sq/ft.

This is true, typically if you are building something under a certain square footage than you don’t need a permit.  The catch is there is an exception to this is and it’s when you want to dwell/live in it.  The second you place any personal property in that house, it is classified as “dwelwing” and it doesn’t matter if its 10,000 square feet or 10 square feet, you need a permit.

Myth 2: It’s an RV, Mobile Home, Camper.

Again this true… If your home is being built by a certified RV or Mobile Home manufacturer; also important to note, to become a manufacturer it will cost you several thousand dollars, an LLC and an inspection process to ensure you meet all 500+ requirements.  So you can’t just build an tiny and and say “look!  it’s a RV or Mobile Home.”  To top it off once you do become classified as such, you often can only reside in certain zoning areas, which are fast disappearing.   There is an exception to this: if your state has a “home built RV” class, but these are few and far between and more and more campgrounds and trailer parks refuse entry on them.

Myth 3: I can just say I’m “camping”

Somewhat true.  Typically municipalities have limits of how long you can camp.  This is is often 2 days to 30 days in one spot or on one parcel of land.  In the city I live in, you are legally not allowed to camp at all unless FEMA has declared a state of emergency.   In some cases you can “camp” if you move every few days, but the city could also say “you’re not camping, you’re dwelling” and then its curtains.

Myth 4: They can’t stop me!  I’ll do what I want.

In some places you’re right.  It’s often the case that its not that they can’t stop you, but they won’t unless it becomes a big public issue.  In most places they can stop you.  They will come in and condemn you tiny house, which means if you enter it, they’ll arrest you for being in your own home!  They can also fine you, run a bulldozer through your house to destroy it, or deny you utilities like they did to me (read about it here).  All of which they legally can do, have done and you have no recourse for.

Myth 5: It’s on wheels codes/zoning don’t apply.

This is a big myth perpetrated by those who want to make a quick buck of tiny house people.  It is true that having a tiny house on wheels will help things generally because it confuses the bureaucrats, you can move it so easily, etc.  But the truth is that the second you dwell in it, all bets are off and the city can do what they want.

So what can I do?!?

There are two approaches to this:  1) you can beat them at their own game and know how to leverage the codes 2) you can fly under the radar.  Each of these have their pros and cons.  To get a better understanding of these things I have an ebook of how you can work within the system to gain legal status with your tiny house.  I show you the key barriers for tiny house folks, offer possible solutions and give you strategies to beat the system.  I also show you how to fly under the radar, how to live in your tiny house without getting caught.  Both are covered in Cracking The Code: A guide to building codes and zoning for tiny houses.



Tiny Houses Are Hard, But So Is Everything That Is Worthwhile

The truth is that when it comes to tiny houses, there are many things that will be difficult.  No ShortcutWe all love to dream, we all love to imagine what could be, but when it comes time to actually pull the trigger you need to grapple with some of the realities.  This isn’t to say you can’t live tiny, it is to say that it comes with a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it.

More and more I have come to realize that the things in life that are the hardest are the most worthwhile.  If you think about it, what I show you how to do on this blog or at the Conference is changing the trajectory of your life in such a radical way that it boggles my mind even today.  So when faced with having our lives change in such a dramatically positive way, it makes sense to put a lot of hard work to make it happen.  So here are three reasons why tiny houses are hard, but really worth it.

1. Its a lot of hard work

It takes a lot of really really hard work to build a tiny house.  It’s not scare anyone, but I think people don’t always grasp this fact.  While the process is easy, the scale is approachable and the learning cure made easier with the awesome resources we have now, it doesn’t make the work any easier.  So the process is easy, but the work is hard.

2.  Tiny House Bring An Inherent Risk

When you build and live in a tiny house, you’re taking a risk.  You will most likely need to do it under the radar.  In the ebook mentioned below, I show you how to mitigate the risk of flying under the radar.  In the end, when it comes to codes, people’s perceptions, dealing with neighbors, and much more: its messy.  There will be drama, sleepless nights of worry, having to move and convincing the guy from the power company that you need a panel setup in the middle of the woods, but “I promise I’m not building a meth lab” type of talks.

Our Writer Andrea had to move three times in a single year because of various things beyond her control.  I thought I found land only to have it pulled out from under me.  There is an inherent level of risk that comes with tiny houses and you need to be able to deal with that; if not, then tiny houses might not be for you.

3. Building Codes Are Sticking Point

No matter what anyone tells you, getting your tiny house legal with codes is rare and if it happens, it took a ton of legwork. I see it in the comments all the time “all you have to do is X” and while we want to to believe that its “just that easy”, it is not.  If you doubt this fact, give your code enforcement office a call and try out that person’s magic phrase or loop hole, make sure you mention you want to LIVE in a house that is 150 square feet, see how that works out.

That said if you put in the hard work, you can find solutions to building codes, but it will take a lot of time, piles of paperwork, getting variances, and maybe even go to court; only then you can get it done…. maybe.  I talk about this whole process in my ebook, so I’m not going to belabor this point much more.


So while these three things a very tough, they are very much worth the time, effort, and hard work that comes with it.  Tiny houses have the ability to change you life, isn’t that worth some toil?


Your Turn!

  • What are the tough points for you and how are you trying to overcome them?

Cracking The Code – Updated!

Cracking The Code - A guide to building codes and zoning for Tiny Houses_Page_001Many of you have checked out our ebook Cracking The Code – A guide to building codes and zoning for tiny houses; well today I have some good news!  We have updated the ebook and added 14 more pages of core content to the ebook with our Toolkit!

Here’s the kicker!  If you bought the old version, I just sent you the updated version for FREE!  So those of you who supported The Tiny Life, thanks so much, we hope you’ll enjoy the free update.

The Toolkit comes out of some great feedback we got from the first version, where I presented what I came up with as the single best approach to tiny houses and building codes.  What we have learned since then is that people were able to take what we taught them and then started coming up with some creative ways to make tiny houses legal in their own towns.  So I took those approaches and created this Toolkit which teaches you 10 additional ways to make a tiny house legal!


Get your copy today!

Get Cracking The Code Here

If you have bought the ebook already and are having any issues with it, use the “Contact” tab and let us know, we’ll help you out!

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