Tiny House, Tiny Living, The Tiny Life.

Tiny House Living: Security and Simplicity?

After Ryan’s post earlier this week, I got to thinking about sense of security. Living in a tiny house definitely decreases dependence on money but living the tiny life does not necessarily mean a life free of worries.

happinessBefore jumping in, I have to say that the completion of La Casita came at a time of great upheaval in the lives of my fiancee and I. Our rental had been foreclosed on, the bank had kicked us out, the tiny house was 3/4 done and we were essentially homeless. Luckily I had family in the greater Charleston area that took us in but it was a harsh reality for a couple of months. Since moving in to our house, life has been easier in terms of money but in terms of legal shelter there have been distinct challenges.

I guess my first question for someone thinking about a tiny house would be:zoning do you mind living in an illegal situation according to most zoning codes? If this doesn’t bother you then my second question would be: does possibly not having a home address, which can make acquiring a driver’s license, a post office box or your citizenship difficult, concern you?

These are some of the realities we’ve faced living in a tiny house. Without a home address, it is very difficult to get our driver’s licenses in Vermont. Without a home address my fiance can’t start his citizenship application and in Charleston I couldn’t get a po box without a street address. Not everyone has this issue when it comes to tiny living but it has been a constant for us since moving in to La Casita and I never considered this would be one of the issues I would face.

Having just moved to a new community in Vermont, we’re slowly meeting folks and people are incredibly nice and open to what we are doing but we’ve already had a town official contact us about living in the house and its questionable legality. In a town of 3800 people, it’s not going to take long for us to be noticed. In a city of 100,000 it was much easier to hide from zone enforcement although they would roll by in their truck about once a month. They never stopped and asked questions but the possibility was there and we knew it. La Casita was a “temporary studio space”  to anyone official who asked but it was fairly obvious we were living in it. Luckily, we planted it in the ghetto where cops and officials were more worried about busting drug dealing than some illegal zoning issue. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that neighborhood and living there was wonderful. We had great neighbors and no one ever messed with us but if we had parked anywhere else in the historic district of downtown Charleston, I’m certain we would have been forced to move.

Restrictions such as where you can place your house are an issue for some.money For us, things worked out and hopefully, once our house makes it to Vermont, we’ll find another great situation. Our neighbors in Charleston loved the house and they not only understood but admired the concept. Many folks would say, “I want a house like that! No mortgage, no big bills, no worries!” and to some extent this is true! There is a lot less added stress in the $$$ department of life but other stresses arise. In terms of security, I feel more snug and at peace in a small space than I ever did in a large one.  Big hotels make me anxious and expansive spaces indoors don’t bring me a sense of security. As kids, my sister and I would burrow under our day bed and pretend we were foxes in a den, snug and warm in a small, dark space. Other animals certainly get it. Look at our closest and most loyal of animal companions: dogs. Most enjoy having a small space in which to den and it’s proven that an anxious dog provided with a kennel or small, designated space of their own will feel great comfort and calm.  I’ve certainly received comfort and a greater sense of calm since moving in to La Casita. Except in one capacity: fire.

Fire_Extinguisher_operational_PicLa Casita helped tamper my concern of earthquakes. Charleston lies on a major fault line that shakes from time to time. In a tiny house, I had no worries about that anymore! The house would just sway with the earth but when it comes to fire, my fear has grown. Any home can catch fire but the thought of being in such a small space with the main exit down a ladder can sometimes make me nervous. Now that we have to consider heating options for the house, safety tops my list of features for any element While we have an upstairs and kitchen extinguisher we are considering a sprinkler system for the times when we aren’t home. It may seem over the top to some but since this is our house and no one will insure it, we have to take the necessary precautions to protect it.

That’s probably the third question I would ask: do you mind being uninsured? I don’t mean to strike through anyone’s determination to build and live in a tiny house but the reality of it is not only unfair, it’s annoying. Try calling insurance agencies and asking them to insure a dwelling on wheels the size of a shed and most will tell you  “we aren’t able to label that” (aka: zoning doesn’t allow it and/or know how to label it and neither do we). If a traditional agency does decide to cover you, try making a claim and see what happens.

So what do you do? Well, in this case, you look to your community. I’d loveinsurance to see a community invested agency that would cover tiny houses or as Ryan suggested in his post about possible non-profit or cooperative insurance initiatives. Folks think it’s cheap and easy to build these structures but when it’s your house, that’s a complete fallacy. So all the time and money you put in is essentially your responsibility to protect and at times that can be a real downer in the security sense of living the tiny life.

Living life comes with a host of difficulties and while I’ve listed some of the issues we’ve come across, I stand firmly behind this statement:

Living the tiny life is the best life for us!

DSCN3694

We love it because in the end, for me and Cedric, our needs and wants are satisfied by tiny living. We can agree it’s important not to be blind to the realities tiny housers face but if, like us, you find that the good outweighs the bad than you won’t be disappointed with living the tiny life.

Your Turn!

  • What is your experience insuring a tiny house?
  • What precautions do you take with tiny home protection?
  • How do you address the illegalities of living in a tiny house?
  • What positives outweigh negatives in your tiny life?

39 Comments
  1. Hey Andrea,

    Thanks for the post, definitely thought provoking. My biggest concern with our Tiny house (yet to be built), is that I won’t like it. Do you know of anyone out there that built a tiny house and then changed their mind because they couldn’t cope? I imagine this would be a bit embarrassing since you basically have to become a tiny house advocate before embarking on the journey. Any suggestions on how to come to terms with this worry?

    Thanks!
    Kelly

    • Hi Kelly!
      I’m hell-bent on building a tiny house in a few years, and I have this same concern. Right now I’m leaning towards building a Tumbleweed Fencl, so my plan to address this worry is to live in a Fencl with my boyfriend for a week. Luckily there’s one that you can rent in Oregon (the Bayside Bungalow – it’s beautiful). It’ll be expensive to get there and stay for a week, but I figure it’s worth it to determine that that’s exactly the lifestyle I want. (Now my only worry is whether or not I’ll actually get a chance to stay in it – I’m currently living in Japan and won’t have a chance to do this for a while, so if she stops renting her Fencl anytime soon, I’m in trouble!)

    • Hello Kelly,

      I actually don’t know anyone who has built a tiny house and couldn’t cope. If you find it’s not for you then you can always sell it and try something else. You could try one out first. They have tiny houses for vacation purposes on the west coast but I don’t know how realistic that would be. Living and vacationing in one are pretty different. What size is your house going to be? I think the best advice I could give is get a trailer closer to 8 feet because our trailer is 7 and once we built our walls and put in insulation we’ve got about 6 ft. inside. It’s a little too narrow. Also, 20 feet in length will give you more space than you realize. I like the length of our trailer at 16ft. but for two people it can be a tight fit. Just 4 more feet adds a world of difference. Our friend is building a tiny house that is 8’x 24′ and it feels incredibly spacious compared to La Casita!

      I hope this was of some help! Good luck!

  2. Thanks for the well written article, Andrea.

    Question: Is zoning more forgiving if the house were NOT on wheels/mobile but on an actual foundation? Would that help?

    Blake

    • Blake, it is usually the opposite. That is why so many tiny houses are built on wheels, because often they avoid some of the zoning restrictions.

      • If you’re open to different locations you can find places where local codes aren’t an issue. I live in Albuquerque I’m building a 150 sq.ft. house on a foundation. That is about the absolute smallest house you can build legally following the International Building Code (You have to have a 120 sq.ft. living space plus a bathroom), but I think it still qualifies as a “tiny” house. I live right in the city. When I applied for my building permit I dealt with some dubious city employees, but it was refreshing to hear their boss, when he was called over to help, say that “it’s a trend now, we’ll probably be approving houses even smaller than that in the future.” So, don’t assume you can’t build small just because you hear that it’s not legal in a lot of places. It’s worth looking into if you decide that having a real address, insurance, and everything else this great article mentions is important to you. I’d love to see more tiny houses going up here in Albuquerque (gratuitous plug for my town and its reasonable codes).

        • Thanks Andrew for commenting! There are alternative options out there. I hope we start hearing a lot more comments like that about approving tiny houses in the future!

        • This is great news! Thank you for posting your experience. We are on wheels, our county is not as advanced….

    • Hi Blake! Thanks for the kind words!

      Jeremy’s got it on this one. We built on the trailer to avoid zoning codes but there are still living restrictions in trailer in some states. Each state has it’s own rules and regulations. If you build on a foundation and it’s the minimum size requirement for a full time dwelling then you’re fine. That can be anywhere from 250 sq feet to 500 sq feet, it just depends on the state.

  3. These are very good questions that hardly any tiny house advocates mention. I live in a tiny house. It’s not particularly legal, I use another address and mailbox. No insurance. It works for me, by the grace of my friends, but I can see others being worried about it.

    Why would you want sprinklers in your home? What could catch on fire while you’re away?

    • Well now that we are getting a wood stove I’m further worried about fire. Probably more so when we are sleeping than when we are away. We will keep it heating through the night so we don’t freeze. Also, our puppy is home alone part of the day and I just want to take all precautions possible to keep him safe when we aren’t there. There is also the fact that our house sits right beside our neighbors house and a broken down shed and if one of those caught fire we’d be in trouble.

  4. In Charlotte, the housing ordinances specify a minimum of 250 sq feet for 2 people, but if the dwelling is not attached to the ground, another structure, or a utility system for more than 30 days, the ordinances do not apply. Therefore, a completely self-contained tiny house does not violate anything.

    I’ve not heard of a roving random inspector here, though. Someone would have to report us out of fear or spite, I think. I guess Charleston, with it’s emphasis on architecture and tourism, would be a tougher nut to crack.

    I hadn’t thought about the trouble not having a fixed address might cause… that’s a very good point of discussion. Do all states require a fixed address to obtain a PO box? I thought that was the point of PO boxes.

    • What do they define as “not attached to the ground”? I.e. on weels? what about on concrete blocks or piers? OR heck, automotive jack stands for that matter?

      • They don’t specify in the ordinance. I assume this means it’s up to the individual inspector (if someone reports you, and they have to come out). A good argument can be made that if you can move it at all, it’s not “attached,” so temporary piers/jack stands are ok.

    • I’m not sure about all states require a fixed address but in SC you do although it was much easier to acquire a po box here in Vermont. They were very relaxed about it. We had to take all sorts of documents to the Post Office in Charleston.

      Our neighbor called us yesterday to say that a roving inspector had come out to the neighborhood looking for us. They didn’t find us though! We were in that spot one year and that was my guess for how long we could live in downtown Charleston in the house.

    • Don’t know thing one about small houses. However, I do know about PO Boxes and esp. in cases where one does not have a street address. The answer is yes, you HAVE to have an address A) If your county has NO rural routes (Rt 1 Box 57, etc.) or B) You DO have rural route addresses but no mail delivery there. (Don’t let ‘em fool you, I HAVE lived in places where the mail will NOT go!) You still have to find out the RR/Box which isn’t always easy, as I found out. Once lived in a place they kept all the addresses in town in a spiral bound and when I needed an addy, they put their heads together, spit-balled me a number and wrote it in between 2 other folks! THAT was wild! Here, in MD, I had for FORCE the PO to acknowledge my “BSMT” apartment “number” – try ordering online when the PO won’t “recognize” your address!! And they’d been delivering here since God made dirt! Seriously! /

      That’s another consideration for folks w/ tiny houses and no addresses. How about bank accounts, do you even GET electric? They’ll need an addy for that, water and sewer too, taxes.. Dang, y’all DO have a problem, don’t you?? Whoa! Huh.

      Not having insurance CAN be gotten used to – even in a mobile home rental, we couldn’t have insurance (more than a mile from a water source). Now we’re too poor and we’re in far worse danger of being flooded w/ everyone else’s sinks and toilets! (Cellar apartment.) You’re prolly WAY less slack than we are and that’s a good thing, which is why you own your own home, but nothing in life is guaranteed and sometimes you won’t have insurance after your first claim anyway and no one else will take you after that so you’re right back at square one. Better to get used to it now.

      So, take what would be a monthly payment (or more) for your insurance, stick it in an account until it equals what it would take to replace everything from the ground up. Also, make copies of all important papers – AND PHOTOS! (also mementoes, newspaper clippings etc.) – scan them, store the originals somewhere away from you and frame copies of pics. Maybe even store yearbooks away from you, if you still have them, more room in your home that way. Pretty much covers you there and is good commonsense for anyone, tiny house or not.

      Get a friend to allow you to use their addy as your DMV address. If you don’t have a warrants on you for something, (and one hopes not!), all the DMV will ever find out or really care is that they have an addy to send your renewal letters, etc. Only time that may come to play heck with you is if you need exact photo ID for a job or some other situation. We’re older, we’re past the point of jobs, so some things we could get away with more then, than you can now. Don’t know what to say about that. Same thing goes for passports and such, that’s going to be one of the few forms of ID acceptable pretty soon and they need accurate addresses.

      By way of a small PS, WV once tagged a vehicle to us and we lived in MD – AND THAT’S WHERE THEY SENT US THE REGISTRATION!!! Address and all! Go figure. The DMV did it plain and knowingly. Blew our minds! :) God was good to us on that one, believe me. No one cared, that county got their taxes, and everyone got what they wanted. Too bad the world has gone to Hades since then.

      • I got an idea. Contact a Property and Casualty insurance agent. Check if you can insure your house under the “fine art” category or the “trailer” category.

        As for addresses, it’s really an American, European thing. Go to many parts of the world including Puerto Rico and your mailing address would look like this: hc ## box #### Name of Town, Puerto Rico (Zip Code). Your regular address would be like this: The Tiny House near the bakery. Everybody gets used to it and it works! One time my dad wanted a dump truck to come over to put cement on the ground. The guys rolled up and basically said who ordered the cement? Everyone knew it was my dad. The address they got was that it was one of the houses past the border of one town into the next near the bakery. I hope this helps someone find answers. I don’t own a tiny house because I’m too poo to buy them. (I can’t even afford the letters of poor.)

  5. In Oregon you can get a title, registration, and plates for your tiny house if it’s on wheels since it qualifies as a travel trailer. Once you have it titled then you can get it insured as a trailer with just about anyone but be sure to do so as a “full-time RVer.” since regular travel trailer insurance is limited.

    Oregon DMV:
    A travel trailer is designed to provide facilities for human habitation (permanent sleeping and cooking facilities). If the trailer is more than 8.5 feet wide, it cannot be titled or registered. A travel trailer is any of the following that is 8.5 feet wide or
    less that is not used for commercial or business purposes:
    a. Manufactured dwelling
    b. Recreational vehicle
    c. Prefabricated structure
    The width of 8.5 feet is measured when any expansion sides or “tipouts” are in the usual travel position. The length is measured from the foremost point of the trailer hitch to the rear extremity of the trailer body, not including the spare tire. Any fraction of
    a foot in length is rounded down to the nearest foot. A travel trailer may not exceed 45 feet in length. If the trailer exceeds 45 feet in length, it cannot be registered.

  6. I go along with Kylie C. This is a travel trailer. You stay withing the 8′ wide. I would think that when you bought the trailer, you got a title with it.
    I have a 30′ Class-A motorhome that I blew the engine up in three years ago. It is an Executive model which in its day was the top of the line with built in AC and even a central vacuum system. The cabinets are all solid wood. I have it parked behind my home in the second driveway and I started an RV hookup by running power (220v 40amp), an LP gas line from the tank behind my garage, and a water hookup. I have a large fiberglass holding tank I am looking to bury next to it. The reasoning is that because of health issues, I am not able to do the work I use to and paying for my home is getting tough. I am looking to sell my home to my daughter and her husband and I will live in the RV behind them. While it looks like it is still on its wheels, it is actually up on cribbing to stabilize it and remove the weight from the tires and suspension. I have insurance on it, not as a running RV but an RV that is in storage. It is covered from natural disasters and fire. This will be my experience at “tiny living”!

  7. Since you’re living in a small town I’d check out the county code since many counties don’t regulate living in trailers/RVs like municipalities/cities do. It might be easier to rent or buy land outside the town limits.

  8. I live in Florida, and our local homeless shelter lets people use the shelter address as a street address. You can even have mail delivered there. That might be an option to try for getting a street address for the purposes of getting drivers license or P.O. Box. As for immigration, I doubt using a homeless shelter address would be a good idea since the US Gov is interested in making sure new immigrants have a housing plan. I have been living in temporary housing for several years (a hotel, a friend’s house, renting a room), but I have been lucky enough to have family nearby that let me use their address as a home base for my driver’s license, vehicle registration, voter registration, and P.O. Box registration.

  9. You bring up some very real points that people need to be aware of before starting a tiny home journey. It’s not about being negative or discouraging people, it’s about being informed.

    For me, living illegally is not an option, even if my career license would allow it. I know it works for some people, but not for me.

    I am open to moving and have tried getting info on building codes in different areas I have looked at, but it’s hard. There doesn’t seem to be an easy resource with that info. I would love it if there was a book or web site that listed all the areas where small or tiny homes are legal. Just randomly researching towns all over the country is not time efficient!

    • I’ve heard of tiny house folks in the northwest states that have an easier time with zoning codes. Although most folks I’ve heard of are exploiting loop holes which, in time, could be closed if enough people start to do so. Most states have minimum square foot requirements for dwellings. In South Carolina it was 400 sq. ft. which is still pretty tiny. Anything under 500 is still tiny in my book.

    • Using the quite reasonable answers above that anything on wheels and permanent this and that = RV, tap into the RV’ing “information pipeline”. I bet Florida is RIFE w/ allowances for these sorts of homes, as well as places to park your vehicle for however long AND an address. Same as the Southwest – Texas, Arizona, places that the retirement numbers are high, even if you aren’t one.

      (Advantage, somewhat, to the elderly RV’ing set? Fewer kids in the park and WAAAY fewer folks in the “off season”!)

    • Molly,

      You may find http://www.tinyhousefamily.com inspiring. Hari and Karl just received a Certificate of Occupancy from their county/township. Hari is quite knowledgeable and has a great blog. (Recently published a book on Amazon, too.) So, it is possible to live tiny and legally. It seems to all be handled at the local level, and can vary widely from township to township or county to county within the same state. Or, as in the case of PA, from township to township WITHIN the same county! Just depends on where you want to be and their specific rules. Many of these local jurisdictions do have an online presence now, but I am not aware of any collective publication.

  10. Are there any builders in MA and Where can you park these Houses on wheels?

  11. What about buying a lot or piece of land to put this house on? Or how about a mobile home park? Technically, these are just really small mobile homes. Then you have an address and the utility hookups you need. Sure, some parks are kind of skanky (hence the name trailer trash) but I have seen some very nice parks built around lakes that provide a very nice yard (http://www.sandypines.com/). There are small mobile homes called “park models” that are almost small enough to qualify as a “Tiny Home.”

    • That is an option we were looking in to in Vermont but we did not find anything that was remotely nice. We did find a great campground that we could have had a very nice lot on but in the end we found land. Campgrounds are an option but in this particular location we would not have had water in the winter. That seems to be the case in a lot of campgrounds up here but it was a gorgeous place overlooking beautiful mountains. Although I was not crazy about looking at RV’s all the time…

      • Donna,

        There is a great tiny house builder in MA named Tory Smith. His number is 978-877-9118. You can see a video of an 8×20 tiny house on wheels he built for a client here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vl-fGc7x5G0 called, “Joseph and Aravinda’s Tiny House on Wheels.” I was truly impressed with the quality of his work. He’s been in construction for about 10 years, and really “gets” the whole tiny house thing. Good luck!

  12. There are many places, such as in the county around Tucson, where you can’t live in a single-wide mobile home, camping trailer, or RV except for a very short time. It would only be allowed within the confines of an established mobile home park (80 ft max length) or “park model” park (40 ft max length). Most of the counties in Southern Utah won’t allow single-wides on private property. A number of the mobile home parks have been bull-dozed for shopping centers or stick-built home developments. Your rental lot can be sold out from under you. So there are even fewer spaces available.
    There still are places where you can do pretty much as you want out in the rural county areas … but it is going to require research on your part before you move there.
    You can have mail delivered “General Delivery” awaiting pickup, at any post office. It doesn’t happen much anymore, so they may be a bit surprised by it … but we have done that it the past and would pick up a basket of mail about every 6 weeks or so. I’ve also used the address of a storage unit facility as my mailing address. There are some businesses out there that will provide you with a mailing address when you rent a box from them.
    I know of one case where a guy built a tiny house on wheels, lived in it for 3 weeks, and then sold it for the cost of the materials he had invested in it. There have been some single people who have built some and then connected up with a partner and moved out of the tiny home and let an adult child or someone else live in it. There were also some young couples who started having children and decided that it was no longer feasible to live in a very tiny house on wheels. So, there have been people who have decided that “tiny house” living was just not for them.
    Older couples may not be able to do the loft climb, but find that with reduced retirement income and less to take care of … a tiny house is a good thing. And it gives them independence while keeping them nearby their children. Separate space, yet help and family close by. For an older couple, a floor plan that features a fold-out couch bed seems to work well. I’ve seen those designs in older camping trailers.

  13. Good food for thought in this post!

    As for the lack of a mailing address, author JJ Luna offers several solutions in his book about privacy called How To Be Invisible. My local library has copies of the book and at one time I think the past edition could even be downloaded for free from his website, but that may not be the case anymore.

    Update: Having just looked at the website, it appears you can download a free ebook on the topic of separating your name from your home address, which would cover similar content.

    I’m not affiliated with Luna, but have found his information very interesting and helpful. jjluna.com

  14. Tiny houses are alright. Our grand-grand parents haven’t lived in mansions and castles. Limited space issues are normal but can all be overcame. Nothing much at all.

    • I agree with you. All it takes is a bit of creativity to create a truly livable, comfortable abode. Our ancestors did it and often I just feel that tiny houses are a hark back to simpler ways people used to live. Mobility and shelter that can move with us are inherent in our history.Thanks for the comment!

      • When our species was still a “hunter/gatherer” mindset, we were a migratory species. We moved to hunt and gather at a new place after one area was depleted. The idea of a living space that was mobile would have been a given.
        It wasn’t till the birth of farming/agriculture, did we put down roots. We had to hang around for the harvest. Then, after doing all the prep work to have one crop, you hang around to plant the next crop. Suddenly people became sentient and started building non mobile dwellings.
        We still show our migratory tendencies when we get older…we head south for the winter!

  15. Regarding your PO box problem – I currently live in an apartment but for various reasons did not want my address known, nor did I want my mail coming here. So I got what is considered a PO Box at one of the shipping stores (the one I’m using is called Pak Mail, I know there are also UPS shipping stores that I think might do the same thing for you). They give you a legal street address with a number (people think it is an apartment number) and they do this so they can receive packages for you (Fedex, etc.). It has worked out great for me. I have used this legal address for my driver’s license, car registration, credit card statements, bills, etc. with no problems whatsoever. It helps that it is right across the street from my job so I just run in once a week on my lunch hour to get my mail. I realize that this would become a problem if I ever decided to become a criminal and run from the law and they go to serve me a warrant and discover that it is a shipping store, but I live a very clean simple life as a law abiding citizen so I’m not really worried about it.

    Regarding having a legal living situation – I want to buy a tiny house for retirement as I’m worred about having enough to retire on, like most people. I live in Tampa, FL, and have found a small residential community that has no deed or zoning restrictions and you have allowed to have RVs, trailers, anything you want on your property. Most of the properties have homes on them, but also might have a couple of mobile homes for additional extended family and then an RV in the corner of the property to boot. Would a tiny house be a legal problem in this type of community? I’m looking at lots that have wells and septic systems. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    • Whoa!! I never EVER thought of that – how awesome!!! Virtually every neighbor I have is a thief, (well, at least the ones I know and that’s for sure), and if FedEx or UPS leaves a box on my stoop, it’s gone like 37 seconds after s/he drives away! I swear I even got a bologna & cheese – no mayo even! – sandwich stolen off my handrail!! S’truth! The bus ministry left it for me as I normally ride but went home w/ someone else that day…well, details aren’t important, but that’s an AWESOME idea!! Huh. Our Rx co wants *desperately* to mail us our meds but w/ all the thieves, no way! But if I had a box, they’re so much cheaper that way… You made my day! :D

  16. Another note – regarding Christine’s comments about Florida and RV and retirement communities – I live in FL and hadn’t even thought about that angle. Since I live right here I’ll reserach it and get back to everyone.

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