Archive for the Do It Yourself Category

Setting Up Your Land To Start A Homestead

When you’re just starting out and setting up your homestead there are a lot of things that you need to think about.  We all have big aspirations of what we want to do on our land, but there is a lot of work that needs to go into it all before we can really do anything.

land to homestead

In some cases we are coming into a piece of property, or our property that we already live on has certain elements, layouts or assets that we need to work with or around.  While I am always looking to capitalize on what I already have in place, I’m also not afraid to make changes or remove something if it doesn’t work in the way I need it to.

Get A Plan In Place

When it comes to setting up your land, I always ask myself a few key questions:

  • What is the land telling me?
  • What are the very specific things I want to do on the land?
  • What are the workflows that are going to happen on the land?
  • How can I reduce effort, improve ergonomics, and make it more efficient?
  • How can I design it to be flexible?

These are some really important questions to ask yourself because if we are just starting out, we can nail these few considerations and make our lives easier, our design will work for us, we will have less frustrations, and we can prevent burnout or injuries.

What Is The Land Telling Me?

take time to listen to the landWhen it comes to setting up land or starting on a new piece of property we need to make some observations before we begin.  If you have the chance, try to live on the land for a year before committing a lot of time or money.  It also gives us time to take a bunch of soil samples and get them analyzed.  That isn’t always possible, but if you can manage it, it’s well worth your time.

By taking the time to see how each season works with the land you’ll understand it’s character.  You’ll learn where the warm sunny spots are and where cold air settles in low spots. You’ll learn where water pools in the rainy season, where it soaks into the ground well and other areas that it just seems to sit on the surface for a long time.  All these things tell you how the land naturally behaves and it’s our job to work with that, not against it.

Two things I’ll do on a new property is in the cooler months, go walking in shorts despite the cold.  This let’s me sense with my legs what parts are warmer or colder than others.  If it starts to rain a whole lot, I’ll put on a rain jacket and go out walking; looking for how the water flows on the land, where it pools, where it gets boggy.  All these things are helpful in your planning.

What Are You Going To Do On The Land?

writing in notebookBefore we even begin to plan what our homestead is going to be like, we need to know what we are going to do on that land.  We can’t figure out a direction to walk if we don’t even know where we are going!  Take the time to be honest about you and your life.  If you’re going to homestead and work a full time job, what can you honestly dedicate to your farmstead when you’re pulling 40 or 50 hours a week?

Plan for your worst day, not your best day.  When you’re tired from work, it’s raining out and very cold in January, what do you want your life on that land to be like on that day where you want to do nothing?  If you plan for that, every other day will be a pleasure and it will make it viable for the long term.

When I was planning my future homestead I realized that a lot of what I thought I wanted to do just didn’t fit with my lifestyle.  I wanted to travel some, not have to wake up at the crack of dawn, and have a place that I could easily keep up so I could relax sometimes.  This meant certain things were ruled out and other things became more realistic.  What life do you want to lead on that land?

What Are The Workflows?

If we are planning to homestead, we are the kinds of people that don’t shy away from hard work, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be smart about our work either.  I started out with a list of everything I wanted to do on my homestead and then broke each one down into that activities and actions that needed to take place for those things to happen.

feeding chickens

We want to be super efficient and be smart about everything we do, because there is never enough time in the day and a little planning up front will pay off big on the back end.  So come up with your list and then start to envision in your mind how you’re going to do everything.  What are you doing, what do you need to do those things, where are you lifting, moving, pulling, pushing.  Play out these things in your mind to figure out how you’re going to do work on your stead.

Reduce Effort, Improve Ergonomics, and Make it More Efficient

We want to be smart about how we get things done on the farm. A really great primer to this way of thinking is 2 second lean principles, which we did a post on.  On our farm, we want to always be looking for ways to be better, work smart and reduce possibility of injury.

An example would be chickens.  Let’s say you want 5 birds in a chicken tractor, in my mind I’d play out a day in the life of taking care of them. I wake up at my normal time and get ready.  I walk out to the tractor, it’s raining outside so the ground is wet. I go to a bin in the garage to get their feed and fill their feeder which is clogged so I have to climb into the tractor, and I drag the hose across the yard to top of the waterer.  I reach into the nesting boxes to get any eggs and I move the tractor a few feet to fresh grass.

improvement on the land

So from this example I’d analyze what work happened and how I might make it better.  Starting out with it’s raining and the grass is wet (remember plan for your worst day) it would be really good if I had some farm boots to wear out to the coop so I don’t get my professional job shoes dirty and wet.  I needed to get some feed, where did that feed come from? Is there a way that I could back my truck right up to where I need to unload it?  Do I have to bend or lift things, is there a way I could reduce it or prevent injuries/strains?

Is there a way to locate the feed and water closer to the chickens?  I might consider if a mobile coop is worth it, or would a fixed coop allow me to run a water line to it and have a little storage area right there to keep feed in and back my truck bed right up to it?  If I have to get in the coop, maybe it’s better to make it 6 feet tall so I don’t have to stoop inside, and how can I set it up so I don’t have to go inside often and cleaning is a breeze?

golden comet chicken

Think through all these things, look for places where a tweak can save your from extra work, walking back and forth, repetitive tasks, or not having things right where you need them.  If we are starting from scratch, let’s make our lives easier!

A Flexible Design

When we are starting, out we are operating under a lot of assumptions and even with careful planning and experience, we may find that our plans need to change.  Being flexible is a huge part of being able to solve problems and as homesteaders at our core, we are good problem solvers.

If I’m spending time to build something, paying money to install something or other big decisions, I ask myself what if I had to move this, change it or expand it? If we ask these things we can think about the future and bring flexibility into our design.

be flexible with your plans

A real good example is running water lines for spigots.  When I ran mine I had the trencher rented for a day. That meant I could keep trenching to add more hydrants.  At that point adding 100 feet more of water line and putting in three more hydrants was very easy and pretty cheap.  Hydrants are $70 each and I can buy a 100 foot roll of pex for $40.  So I ran my water lines where I needed them, then added one in the back corner, one near where I could build another garden bed in the future, and one next to my driveway to wash my car.

Think about if you had to change things, move things and what happens if my plans don’t work.

Access Is Key

There are a few things I always look for when considering land and access is critical. The first step to getting the land to the point where you can live on it is simply being able to access it. This comes in the form of roads, driveways, turnarounds and parking pads.

Before you even think about laying down the road, you must first clear the way, remove trees, level the dirt and make your path to your new home. You have a couple of options: gravel, cement, and asphalt. Gravel is the most economical and I’ve found if you know how to build a gravel drive properly it can last for a long time.

road access to land is important

Always go bigger than you think you need. You want to make sure that you can easily fit a dump truck, cement truck or trailer and have good places to park and turn around for the bigger vehicles and trailers.  I would also clear 4 to 5 feet on either side of the driveway and grade it somewhat. When you open up the woods you’ll find that trees start to push into the opening as they make a bid for sunlight, this will give you a buffer so you don’t instantly need to start cutting it back.  I give myself this buffer so I can just run a bush hog down either side and make quick work of it.

If you can get your water, sewer, internet, phone and power installed before you put down your final grade of gravel, you’ll save yourself a lot of work in many cases.  I’ve had it where the power company came in and said they would put in the line for free, but they needed to trench right down the middle of the drive.  If you allow 4-5 feet on either side, you can give yourself room to trench utilities into the property without tearing up your road and make it easier when repairs are needed.  I always try to put my sewer on one side of the road and drinking water on the other. For power lines if buried, I try to put power on one side of the road and data/phone on the other so there is no EM interference.

Here is a video of the installation of my road, turnaround and parking pad. Note I had a much easier time because there used to be an old dirt road in this location, so it was simply a matter of cleaning it up and leveling it out. The whole process took about 6 hours of hard work.

Infrastructure

There are a few things that are critical to actually making a piece of land or a home viable, this all comes down to installing critical infrastructure right off the bat and doing it the right way.  This is one of those things that doing it half measured is not going to cut it.  The saying is “buy one, cry once” and when it comes to getting your infrastructure in, this couldn’t be truer.

Water

No matter what you’re going to do or how you’re doing it, you need to have a very reliable, high quality water source that brings it right to where you need it.  I have seen people who tried to save a few bucks, had a water truck deliver water to them, do water catchment, try something alternative or temporary and it never works out.  If you can get tied into a municipal water line or have a good well dug for you, I’d save up for it or skip that land.  Water is life and you can’t compromise on it, you’ll just end up frustrated, broke, and doing it the right way like you should have the first time.

water connection

For water I am connected to the city water. The meter and installation cost me $2,200 (city sets price), but that is only from the water main to the closest edge of your property. You then need to connect it from there to your house, which, for me, was $700 for materials, $800 for ditch witch rental, and $1500 for a plumber to do all the connections, fittings and other tasks.  For running water lines; once you have your main connections you can do most of the work yourself and it isn’t too difficult if you’re willing to work hard.  I used PEX water line and ring crimps, buried below the frost line and frost proof hydrants for hose connections.

While you have your trencher, go ahead and future proof your system, put in a few extra connections, make sure you bury everything below the frost line and I’d recommend not using PVC or Poly Tube; go with PEX, it’s much more durable and cheap too!

Power

Having power is another major consideration you need to make.  In some cases getting tied into grid power can be expensive. Other times they will run the power line for free.  This is one of those things that I’d save up for and do it right the first time.  I currently live off the grid with my power, getting it only from my solar panels, but there are times where a grid connection would be nice.

tiny house solar panels

Heating (air, stove/oven, water heater)  and cooling take around 60%-80% of a home’s power consumption, the rest is all pretty easy.  If you’re going more off grid, starting out smaller is better and making sure your system can scale.  Check out my post on how I set up solar for my home here.

Since we are on a homestead consider if you need certain special hook ups like a 220 volt outlet for a welder, a 50 amp plug for a tiny house or camper, or running power to different parts of the yard where you need it.  Again, when you’re trenching it’s often just a little extra work and a few hundred dollars to add extra hook ups.  When I trench for power I try to put it on the edges and go a little deeper so I don’t have to worry about hitting the line with a tiller.

Places to consider to run power are: to your outbuildings or workshops for tools, finding things in storage or for those late nights of work.  I’ll also make sure I have lighting to illuminate areas I have animals really well; in case a predator is lurking I can flip on some really bright lights to spot them quickly.  In some cases it’s good to have power near the pens and paddocks so you can power a waterer to stop from freezing, a power washer for cleaning or corded tools for repairs.

I’ll also light areas for my infrastructure: a well, septic pumps, driveways, and other areas that if something breaks down I can flip on a good light to see what I’m doing while I fix it. Additionally consider some motion detection lights so that if someone wanders on to your property it will light them up and keep thieves at bay.

All these things can be done more easily ahead of time with some planning and for a cheaper cost since you already have trenchers or trades people on site.

Sewage

There are a few ways to handle this, it mainly depends on your local laws, so be sure to check with your township on what the rules are.  For many it will either be a septic or city connection.  In some cases you may be using a composting toilet or even an outhouse; these are often subject to local laws so make sure you know what you can and cannot do.

Internet/Phone

internet on the homesteadWhile this may not be at the top of musts for most people I like to include it here because often when you’re setting up everything else, it’s a good time to get this setup as well.  Having a connection to the outside world will allow you to set up security cameras to keep an eye on things while you’re away, or may allow you to work from home or remotely for better job opportunities.  Your homestead may start selling things and online order, customer emails/call and website stuff are easier when you have a connection.  Finally in many rural areas cell phone signal isn’t great, so being able to watch a YouTube video or call for help is a consideration.

Outbuildings, Animal Shelters And Storage

With any property you’ll need a place to put things, store things, or covered areas to work on things that you don’t want inside your house.  For me I have a place to keep all my tools, gardening supplies, lumber and things I need to work the land.  If you have animals, they’ll need housing appropriate to them. You’ll need storage for feed and hay, and other things to raise those animals.

If you have equipment like lawn mowers, tractors, generators etc you want to make sure those can be kept out of the elements. These expensive pieces of equipment can be made to last a lot longer if they aren’t subjected to the rain or snow.

Fencing

One major cost that people don’t anticipate is fencing.  If you have a large property a good fence around the perimeter is a large cost even if you do it yourself.  I try to get my fencing setup so I can run a bush hog or mower on either side of it while still being on my property.  This will make maintenance easier, define your property line, and allow you to walk or ride along it regularly to make sure no breaks have happened.

fencing your land

So those are some things you need to consider when it comes to setting up your land for a farm, a homestead, or a tiny house.  Keep our basic tenants of learning from the land, having a solid plan, focusing on work flow and staying flexible and you’ll have a great piece of land that will work for you.

Your Turn!

  • What are you plans for starting a garden, farm, or homestead on some land?
  • What have you learned at tips and trick when setting up your land?

5 Easiest Vegetables To Grow For Beginner Gardeners

I’ve been there, the seed catalogues come in January and you get all excited about what to grow this year in your garden.  It can be hard to figure out where to start, so I thought I’d share my recommendations on five easy vegetables to grow in your garden in your first year.  The biggest mistake new gardeners make is not starting small:  They have too big of a garden, they try to grow too many things, and in the end they get burnt out.

what to grow for begginers gardening

My advice after teaching people how to start gardening for years is to only start with a few things.  Three to five types of vegetables in a single variety of each.  This will give you a really good foundation to start your gardening journey.

Grow What You Eat

grow the vegies that you like to eat basketA very common this that I see newbie gardeners do is get excited by what they could grow, but they may not really like things or they try new stuff before they find out if they really like them.  If you were to look in your kitchen right now, what vegetables are you purchasing from the store?  Many of those could be good contenders for your first year’s short list.

There will be some things that you buy that aren’t in season or are more complicated to grow, but many of what most people like will be on our list below.  So consider what you eat, choose the easier ones to grow and let’s stack the deck in our favor!

Get Your Garden Prepared

It’s important to not just think about the vegetables that you’re going to grow, but to also think about growing good soil.  Have good soil is really what makes a garden go from okay to amazing, so don’t skimp on this step.  If you have never gardened before, check out our post on how to prepare your soil for a vegetable garden.

From Seeds Or From Seedlings

There are some things that do really well from seeds and some things that starting with a seedling is the way to go for first time gardeners.  Seedlings are simply very young plants that have been started ahead of time indoors, that you later transfer outdoors into your garden.

seedlingsIt can be tempting in your first year or two to in addition of starting a garden to also raising seedlings indoors, but my advice is to avoid this.  Your first few years to learn gardening is a lot, to add learning to start seeds into seedlings is too much and you’ll just burn out.

 

Below I’ll mention which ones I’d start from seed and which ones I’d start from seedlings.

What Plants To Start With?

Here are a few of my favorite plants to start with.  These are pretty easy, widely available and you can find lots of knowledge from local people and online. Start with three to five of these in a single variety.  It will be tempting to choose a bunch of types of vegitables and a few varieties of each, but doing so will bring complexity, stress and a greater chance of failure.  We don’t want that!

Zucchini

zucchnis from gardenThere is an old joke that I like to tell.  In the city people lock their doors so people don’t steal their stuff, in the country they lock their cars so someone doesn’t leave them a bag of zucchini and squash in their front seat.  What is really great about this plant is that it grows really fast, its very simple and it produces a ton of vegetables.

I’d suggest starting out with three plants of zucchini if you have a family.  There will come a point where you can’t eat anymore (trust me), at that point I usually just pull the plants out of my garden and compost them. For your first year I’d start these from seedlings, they’re easy to find, cheap and makes it easy to start.

One piece of advice that I give is I’ve found that there comes a point when I start to see squash bugs on my plants.  When I see more than 2 or 3 of them on a plant, I pull that plant right then and there.  New gardeners will often be hesitant to prune or pull out plants, you can’t be afraid to.  Squash bugs are very difficult to combat, every trick I’ve read online doesn’t do anything for my garden.  So I plant a few extra than I need and then just pull the plants as soon as I see the bugs and am content with whatever squash I got to that point, usually I’m sick of it by then anyways!

Tomatoes

These are a favorite for most people and a garden tomato can’t be beat.  I would absolutely use seedlings for tomatoes.  The two varieties I suggest are “Early Girls” or “Roma”.  If you have short growing season I’d suggest Early Girls because they produce pretty quickly and earlier than most tomatoes.

tomatoes just picked

A few notes about tomatoes:  If you find that you are getting a lot of flowers, but they’re not really translating into tomatoes it’s often because they aren’t pollinating well enough.  This could be because they’re aren’t enough natural pollinators like bees or Humidity is binding up the pollen.  Tomatoes will often stop fruiting when it gets really hot, then start back up when summer temperatures start to wind down.

If you live in a very hot and humid area and Early Girls aren’t working for you, consider the variety “Pink Brandywine”.  They produce great tomatoes that are huge and tend to fair a bit better in higher heat.

Finally know that you will need to support the tomatoes in some manner.  This could be a cage, it could be a be a steak or string.  My favorite way to stake these is get a 6 foot pole that is durable metal coated in plastic and then use the rolls of twist ties you can buy at the store.  I find other options just don’t hold up over the years or are too cumbersome.

Radishes

I’ll be the first to say these aren’t my personal favorite, but they are super easy to grow and they open up the soil some as they grow.  I’ll plant these for the chickens to peck out of the dirt and for friends who like them.  Radishes take between 14 and 21 days to grow full which is very fast and they are a cooler weather crop so early spring or fall is a great time for these.

radishes from garden

These are very easy to grow from seeds and they’re very cheap to buy a lot of seeds.  The seeds are very small, so what I will do is prep my bed nice and even, then just scratch the surface a little bit with the back of a garden rake.  The rule of thumb for seed depth is 3 times the length of the longest dimension of the seed.

In the case of radishes this means you barley cover them if at all, just make sure you keep them nice and moist with a fine mist (not a spray).  It can be easy for these to dry out, but since we plant in the cooler parts of the year it’s a little easier.  For spacing I follow the same approach I use with lettuce, so read below to find out how I do it.

Lettuce

There are a million varieties of lettuce so it can get overwhelming.  Ask around locally to see if people have favorites that do well in your area.  I often just get a lettuce seed mix which is several kinds all mixed together.   You loosely broadcast the seeds over a smoothed and prepared bed and lightly water.

leafy greens

Since we are starting from seeds, we need to know how to space them so they’re not so close that they crowd the others, but not too far that we allow for weeds or wasted space.  For lettuce I typically just shake the seeds out over the entire bed as evenly as I can, then when they start to grow up to about 2 inches, I go in and pluck out some of them to make enough space.  I typically go for about four inches apart from other plants, but I also try to choose the strongest ones.  It doesn’t have to be perfect!

Lettuce is grown in cooler weather, so spring or fall, the heat of the summer is often too much for most varieties, but there are some options for those who live in hot climates.  From seeding to harvest is about 3 weeks and you often can cut the leaves right above the soil about an inch and the lettuce will grow back another two times or so.

Beans

green beansThe two main types are “bush” or “pole” beans, the only difference really is that the pole beans need something to climb.  I often just stick with bush beans because it’s less poles and structures I have to deal with. These are a great plant to start out with in your first garden.

Beans are easily started from seed and are a larger seed.  Because we know the rule of thumb: plant three times the longest part of the seed, they typically get buried about an inch or so below the soil.  I usually take my rake and with the handle side make a little divot, drop the seeds about 6 inches apart and then lightly brush the soil of the trough back over the seeds.  Again, we don’t need to get out our ruler here!

So those are my recommendations on how to start a garden the easy way, to stack the deck in your favor and keep it all fun.  In the comments let me know what you’re going to try.

Your Turn!

  • What’s on your list to plant this year?
  • What tips do you have for first time gardeners?

 

Putting A Tiny House On Jack Stands

I wanted to do an updated post today on an older topic that I briefly touched on in this post, but have since had some lessons learned. A tiny house is a very heavy thing, and my tiny house is around 6,500 pounds. Having your tiny house mounted on jack stands is very important for a number of reasons:

  1. You can more easily level your trailer to make building things square and plumb
  2. You can avoid tire shock from your trailer resting on the wheels in one spot
  3. Walking in your house will be more stable
  4. You can remove your wheels from the hubs to dissuade theft

 

jack-stands-tiny-houseInitially, I had put my tiny house on jack stands that were seated on a gravel bed, with a paver on top which I leveled with sand. This didn’t go so well. The pavers kept cracking and I had to replace them several times. It was obvious that the pavers weren’t going to be a good option. I knew wood was an option, but I was worried that even with treated wood, they’d eventually degrade, mold and rot – not something that you want in your foundation.

This picture is of the cracking pavers and you can see the wood on top that I added as a stop gap as I came up with plan B; it was bad enough that even the board started cracking. I decided to upgrade the foundation and put in cement footings right next the current stands so I could quickly move the jack stands.

If I were to do it all over again, I would have installed a concrete slab with self leveling concrete, and built in some drain lines into the slab. It would be a simple affair to roll the house onto it, set all my jack stands to the same setting and it would be instantly level.

As I mentioned, I decided to put in the footing just in the spots I wanted to seat the jack stands. With just a quick hole in each corner plus some high PSI Quikrete, I had my footings. I let the footing sit for a while to cure and harden up, then carefully jacked up the house with a bottle jack. On the rear of the trailer I had to add these cement footings to gain more elevation because there is a slight slope to the ground. So the front of the trailer (the back of the house) is just on jack stands, but the rear is on blocks. The footings were about $7 and gave me an additional 8 inches of height.

jack stand tiny houseHere is the new setup.  It’s hard to tell in this photo, but under that footing block there is a hole filled with high PSI Quikrete. Getting your tiny house seated on the jack stands is really hard work; it takes some serious elbow grease and you have to be really careful.

My house weighs in at 6,500 lbs and if a stand tips, or a support plate slips, there is nothing you can do other than get out of the way and watch it fall.  I really don’t like lifting the house alone because I’m afraid that if something were to happen, my arm would be trapped and I would either pass out from shock or couldn’t reach my phone to call for help. It stresses me out.

The lesson learned is to take the time to install serious footings that your jack stands can sit on. Make sure the stands are perfectly level and the base they are sitting on is level and sound.

 

 

Living In A House With Wooden Walls & No Sheetrock

It took me a while to figure this one out, because I’ve always lived in a house with standard Sheetrock walls, but a mystery came to light when I noticed something strange…more on that soon.

fir interior no sheetrock

I have never been in a house will all wooden walls like in my tiny house. For the inside of my wall I opted for 1/4 inch Douglas fir tongue and groove siding. I’ve personally seen several tiny houses now that have used Sheetrock and it works beautifully, but I wanted the look of the fir. The fir was very easy to work with and the stuff is very light (only being 1/4 inch thick after all).

oscilating saw: Needed with no sheetrock

A few quick tips for working with 1/4 inch T&G interior siding:

  • Most commercial packs come pre-scored on the backs so you can snap them quickly with just your hands
  • Choose packs deeper in the pile and check for the grooves for damage
  • Use an oscillating saw (pictured above) to cut notches around openings such as windows, doors and outlets
  • Tung oil is a non toxic treatment for your interior

So now onto the mystery.

When I first hooked up my mini split, which does both my heating and cooling, I turned it on and cranked it up. Later that night I noticed as I climbed into bed and noticed that my sheets felt almost damp. I was perplexed by it and then started to worry that the dehumidifying part of the mini split wasn’t working. I checked the drain hose and a steady stream of water was coming out from it, so I knew it was working and not clogged. I decided I had just let a bunch of humid air into the house when I was going in and out and the mini split was just recovering.

Dealing with humidity when living with no sheetrock

Over the next week I kept finding the same thing and I began to worry that I was going to have a moisture problem. My sheets always seemed damp and I knew over time that could mean one thing: mold. I started thinking about how I could combat the problem, going over options in my mind for the better part of two weeks.

I was wondering if it was just so humid here in the South, was I in trouble? Was it that in such a small space, a human breathing put off too much moisture? These were the things swirling in my mind. Then I noticed something: my sheets were suddenly not damp any more. In fact they were perfectly dry.

This was very perplexing to me. Why was my house all of a sudden a very normal humidity, and suddenly the moisture in the air was so low?

I thought about this for a while, when all a sudden, it hit me!

It was the wooden walls! Unlike Sheetrock, Douglas fir has pores, which were used to transport water when it was a tree. Before I had installed my mini split, I left all my windows and door wide open to keep cooler, but with that came the moisture of humid NC summers and my walls drank it up.

Then I turned on the mini split and the dehumidifier started removing that moisture in the air. The wood naturally wants to equalize its open grains with the moisture in the air, so it released moisture back into the air. So essentially it took about 3 weeks for my house to breathe out all the moisture my wooden walls had taken in. My house breathes!

So the mystery is solved and my house is nice and dry. It’s interesting what you learn when you live tiny. In a larger home I’m not sure I would have noticed.

 

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.