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Posts Tagged Legal & Zoning

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!

Top 10 Tiny House Questions

I realized the other day when I speak about Tiny Houses I almost always get these questions and figured people coming to the site might find useful.  So here we go:

1. What is a Tiny House?

A Tiny House doesn’t really have a definition, which is one of its strengths, it is a creative and flexible concept.  The general gist is that we are looking to design and construct a dwelling for one or more people that is proportional to the number of people who live in it, but is smaller than the typical American Home.  I generally classify a Tiny House as under 200 square feet and a small house 200-400 square feet for a single person.

2. Why the hell would you live in a Tiny House?

There a are a whole slew of reasons why we want to live in smaller spaces.  Most people will point to three motivations: Environmental impact, financial reasons and life simplification.  I am not going to argue about environmental issues, but the fact is we need to live smaller in all meanings of the word.  We have to reduce our impact, our waste, our inputs, our outputs, our footprint and shift to a resilient and sustainable future and that isn’t a “sustainable” future like the commercial interests want to sell you.  There are also many who look at the current true cost of homes today and question the wisdom in purchasing such a large investment that is seen as a debtors prison.    Finally, living in a Tiny House allows you to bring focus and intentionality to your life, allowing you to focus on what is important in your life.  When you aren’t tied to a home that you owe on, when you don’t have heaps of clutter you can focus on things like relationships, yourself, learning, etc.

3. How much does a Tiny House cost?

I have seen people who have went through great lengths to recover materials from dumps/Craig’s list/etc and already had the tools, they built it for under $3000.  On the upper end, using top shelf materials and paying for someone to build it for you, $50,000.  The average Tiny House person spends around $20,000 and does the work themselves.

4. Isn’t a Tiny House on a trailer really just a trailer home?

I would say no, but other disagree.  Trailer homes often are much more expensive, the ones coming out of the factories have next to no appreciation for aesthetics, they often don’t focus on minimizing environmental impacts and often are made of low quality materials.  There are a whole host of social consciousness issues surrounding Tiny Houses.

5. I have a family, you’re crazy to think that it is a practical option!

The Tiny Houses I typically talk about are around 150 square feet, but what people seemed to have selective hearing on is when I talk about the definition of a Tiny Houses is that a Tiny or Small House is respective to the number of occupants.  A small house for a family of 5 might be 1000 square feet.  I also write from the perspective of a single male who doesn’t wish to have kids, but would probably build a bigger house when I get married.

6. Aren’t they dangerous, what about tornadoes or hurricanes?

We work to make our houses to be as safe as possible, there are codes which promote safety, but sometimes codes lag behind and out of date.  Building Tiny House can adhere to most of the same codes or even exceed them.  Since many Tiny Houses are built on trailers, they have to be road worthy, which means it can tolerate stresses far beyond those of a traditional housing.  For high winds, we use hurricane strapping which anchors the house to the ground more strongly than most houses are built today.  The use of higher quality materials and better construction means you are better protected.  Finally, in the event of serious danger, you are able to hitch your house to your car and drive out of harms way, which is pretty useful for flooding, just drive to the high point.

7. Are they legal?

In many cases they operate in gray areas.  There are some municipalities that will work with you and I encourage you to do so, but sometimes they simply won’t.  Having good relationships with your neighbors, large enough land to hide it, use loopholes, and flying under the radar is sufficient for most.   Often it comes down to semantics:  it is not a dwelling, it is a storage shed; it is a trailer, not a home.

8. Where do I put all of my stuff?

When you move to a smaller home you need to weed through your possessions, many of us find that there are many things that we haven’t used or needed in years!  It really starts with an understanding of consumer culture, the problems it brings and the benefits you gain by at least partially removing yourself from it.  We are always going to need things, we will always need to purchase things, but the differentiation between needs and wants is a difficult thing to start doing.  We also need to be cognizant about how our culture influences us in this aspect, because it has a strong hold over many of us.  I am still in this process of myself, getting rid of what is not truly needed and reducing my possessions to the basics. There are those who try to do the 100 thing or 300 thing challenge, I don’t necessarily do that, but I have been able to shift my mind set to really question my stuff and my purchases.

9. Do they have running water, flushing toilets and lights?

Yes and no.  It depends on the house, there are many people who live in Tiny Houses who have all the creature comforts of modern society.  At the same time, there are those who bring in their own water, use composting toilets, and capture their power from the sun.  Many call this “off the grid”, my hope is to design my home to be able to tie into the grid fully, but can also operate off the grid.

10. Awesome!  How do I start?

My post on Monday will outline how to get started moving towards living in a Tiny House!