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:
- Less than honest building companies telling half truths when it comes to legality just to make a sale
- 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.
- The fact that most folks don’t understand the nuances of most building codes
- 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.