Tiny House, Tiny Living, The Tiny Life.

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.

 

 

16 Comments
  1. Some very good points, especially about how random some of this stuff can be for something that’s supposed to be highly regulated. Calling someone for a date after doing an inspection at their place seems to be a bit sticky ethically though, especially right away! Another thing that gets muddled is the difference between passing code and being compliant with local zoning and bylaws. Just because something is built fully to code, properly inspected and approved doesn’t mean it can just be plunked anywhere. Local bylaws dictate size, type, siting and all kinds of other housing details. A fully approved house in one area might not comply in others.

    Sometimes you can apply for a variance, which may or may not be approved (also a somewhat random process) or even get some actual regulatory changes passed. Sometimes in going through the bylaws you find some that seem to contradict each other. It can be a crazy patchwork of “rules” often made up to deal with a particular situation long since gone that just happens to catch up another person because it’s the closest thing that sort of covers their situation. Diplomacy and persistence can sometimes get it worked out where confrontation, no matter how good the logic of the argument, will not.

    • I live in a small house that I’m planning to use tiny house innovation to improve. I wholeheartedly agree that building codes can be extremely confusing. I decided to approach the problem proactively. I’ve gone to the local inspector’s office with my plans for home improvement projects first. I ask what the common mistakes and problems are and how to avoid the pitfalls. Polite inquiry will almost always get you clear answers and good advice. I’m more at ease knowing that something is done properly, and safely, than I am just being able to say “It’s legal.”

      I also agree that negative confrontation is a bad idea for any situation. I know that people use that approach, but I have yet to see even one example where it worked out well. I’ve seen a number of examples of the opposite result. It seems more sensible, and efficient, to deal with another person in a positive manner.

      • Thats what I hope to do, use tiny house ideas to remodel my old OLD small mobile home. It’s grandfathered in as far as where it is, but I am sure there are things that must be ‘inspected’ when doing a remodel. I just love the ideas in a tiny house.. but my mobile home will be small enough.. its 12×50. thats fairly small in todays housing market.. and it’s only me. My friends think I am crazy because they are all 4 bedroom 3 bath house lovers with all the extras and all the big bills and headaches. I want a debt free life..

  2. I am demolishing an ancient mobile home and building on the trailer. I own the mobile home and it is my contention I am just remodeling, alot. It is in a mobile home park where I rent the lot. Do I need any kind of permit? This is in Florida. I have searched the internet, including city websites. I don’t think I do but doubt if that is correct. Any information would be helpful,

    • Do the wiring following the nec {national Electric code} Electrical should not be taken lightly or by some back yard So called electrician. I have been doing electrical work for 30 some years and repaired a lot of peoples do it yourself work sometimes after electrical fires.
      Ask any ?
      Peace

    • Thats exactly what I intend to do. But I own the property that it sits on and the neighbors are very excited that I am doing something as it has been totally demolished by the ‘nightmare’ tenant. Unlivable, in the eyes of the county, but they said that I could remodel.

    • I just spoke to a county inspector and he said that they do not inspect mobile homes or their remodel. The only thing required to inspect is the electrical and other connections, if any. Thats good news!! I have an old mobile home that I need to remodel and I had called him (here locally everyone knows everyone) about what the legal aspect is. It has been on the property for well over 40 years and was recently demolished on the inside by a drug crazy tenant that I could not get out. No more renting. I am going to make it my tiny home and live there. Eventually adding solar power, garden, and anything and everything I can to be off the grid.

  3. While this may be true, the inspection or lack thereof, also happens with larger houses so it is NOT specific to tiny houses, especially in more rural areas.

    Like with any other house, pull the bldg permit records before you buy. Or go one better, get a home inspector just like when purchasing any size home, and get it inspected. You’ll get a list of their observations and home’s issues.

    This article is more of a bldg drama, than new information. A seasoned professional like a home inspector is your best bet, again big or small house.

    I have worked in the bldg industry and this happens all the time big or tiny. (and I am not a home inspector but worked with lumber yards, county, and residential builders for 25 years.

  4. I am interested in tiny houses and enjoying your website! Very informative!

    One thing I have noticed is that there are grammar and punctuation errors which distract from the information. Would you like someone to edit your articles?

  5. Don’t you find all this rather depressing. This reminds one of living in a repressive country with an army of functionaries enforcing excessive regulation because of a fundamental lack of power and freedom of the people. There are jurisdictions where they have outlawed tiny homes based on the most ludicrous excuses because of a threat to the whole real estate and property industry, plus the horror they feel at relinquishing power and control by the government. I am sorry, but I am less generous in my estimation of these inspectors and their bosses. Some are petty, litigious and absorbed with their own power or simply amoral.

    • I agree to some degree. I don’t know why we have to continually pay for every little improvement, every little change. So what about property values? The old worn out mobile home sitting on my property would actually improve the value of the neighborhood if they let me remodel without extortionist gouging..

    • I’ve been waiting on that too in America as tiny houses gain popularity. Bankks and big business can’t have anyone getting away cheap so I do look for higher prices (have seen a big increase in the past 2 yrs) or more codes for tiny homes just to put the squeeze on. Seems the PTB dont want people debt free or getting ahead.

  6. This article is relevant.
    Do remember, however, if the Tiny House is built on a trailer, it is not a house at all.
    Instead it is a load on a trailer and the Building Inspector has no authority to Inspect it….that’s the dept of Motor Vehicles job….

    If it is moved to a Foundation, then he has an obligation and duty to inspect it and make sure it is to code.

    Mike Mitchell,
    Island Coalition for Tiny Houses
    (no relation to Ryan…)

    • are you sure about that?? In florida if the wheels are not on it, its considered permanent.

    • Please also remember that since a tiny home is on a trailer, it is not a house for another reason. Which means it probably does not meet local zoning regulations for a residence. Most single-family zoning districts in urban and sub-urban areas do not permit trailers as the primary structure on the lot. Structures require foundations. Therefore your tiny house would not be permitted. Please check with your local planning & zoning office before considering a tiny home in a residential zoning district.

  7. So I did some investigating and as I may have said before, in Florida anything on wheels is not considered the department of the building inspectors. They only inspect anything going to it, such as plumbing and electrical for safety, whether on wheels or NOT. But of course the land must be zoned for Mobile homes. Thankfully my property IS zoned for mobile homes and I plan on getting mine as soon as I can afford it.

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