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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.



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.



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!

Reporting Tiny Houses To The City…. There’s App For That

Today I was researching codes and zoning when I discovered Charlotte now has an app for reporting public nuisances.  You can snap a photo, mark the location on a map, then send it the complaint anonymously.  You can see it at    http://charmeck.org/Pages/MobileApp.aspx



For those of you who don’t know, I blog to you from Charlotte, NC; A decent sized city in the south with around 2 million people.  It’s a great place, it has a lot to do, not a lot of traffic, good jobs, and while ranked 17th largest city in the US, I can still find a multi-acre lots here.

Well Charlotte is also a very difficult place to be a tiny house person, with the city growing by 40,000 people every year, our code enforcement and zoning are very busy, leaving little time to entertain the idea of a variance for tiny houses.  Between strict codes that are difficult to get variances on and a most of Charlotte’s housing under HOA’s, its a tough place for tiny houses.

So I thought I’d share this new innovation that cities are taking up.

If you want to know more about how codes affect you, check out our ebook: cracking the code!  here


Your Turn!

  • What do you think of this app?
  • Have you talked with your local code enforcement about tiny houses?

Our Wheels Stay Put…For Now

Last post I was pretty much freaking out about having to go and talk to town officials about parking our house on our friend’s farm but I’m sure glad I did! It ended up being a fairly straightforward process, however (there always seems to be a however with tiny houses) we only have a permit for a year. As long as it’s on wheels it’s considered a temporary structure and can only be lived in for 365 days. After that, I’m not sure what we do.

P1000545They didn’t say it was renewable so do we keep it on wheels or try and set it on a foundation? I feel like taking it off the trailer will be quite a hassle with zoning and code but trying to explain to people that you LIVE in this, that’s it’s NOT a camper and is your home is pretty much beyond people’s expectation. Some children I care for down the street actually passed by and asked if it was a new playhouse for the children of our friend! This is totally fine with us. We figure the less serious people take our living situation the better off we are.
It’s pretty amazing to me though the amount of attention such a small square footage receives. We have had strangers stop their cars, get out and ask to take pictures. Folks are asking if we build them and how much they cost. There is definitely an opportunity here to gain community support. Who knows? Perhaps even change the zoning laws! I’m definitely debating how I begin to advocate on the town administrative level so that tiny housing can be considered a legally viable living alternative to the statue quo.

We plan to live in this area for at least the next ten years, who knows-maybe the rest of our lives, so I feel like it’s well worth the effort to begin changing the laws. It’ll probably take me ten years to accomplish so I might as well get stared!
The fact that we landed on a farm whose owner is open and supportive of our lifestyle was huge. For changes to happen I feel we need support from property owners like her who have a solid place in their community and can say, “We had a tiny house on our land and it was a positive experience!” Not to mention that the situation often benefits the land owner who either receives work trade, rent or some other barter situation from tiny housers.


In my mind it’s a way to create a more locally minded economy rather than paying a bank for a mortgage we can’t afford. Cedric and I were looking at properties a couple months ago but in Vermont either you find raw land, which isn’t cheap and needs a lot of money put in to make it livable, you find a camp, which is usually only livable in Spring, Summer and Fall or you get huge houses with a price tag far beyond what we can consider.

It’s not an easy situation for the tiny house dweller but right now I’m extremely grateful to have a place to rest our weary wheels for the next year. Winter in a tiny house is a whole new issue for us and we realize we need to start getting ready now for those cold, blustery months. With all the challenges we’ve faced, I still look forward everyday to climbing into our snug little home and enjoying the knowing that it is ours, and ours alone.

Your Turn!

  • Any advice on how to get started advocating change in zoning laws?
  • Have you received community support in your city/town living in a tiny house?
  • What are most folks reactions to your tiny house?


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