Living Tiny, Happily and… Legally

Happy Legal Tiny House

Thinking about living tiny? There are many advantages to choosing to live tiny in a tiny house. You can design your own lifestyle, have more financial freedom, with the ability to travel. When deciding to live tiny, one of the biggest questions to consider is where to put your tiny home. There is a lot of confusion about whether certain types of tiny homes meet local zoning laws, so you have to be careful.

The popularity of tiny homes has skyrocketed, but they’re still relatively new and city governments have been slow to define laws that apply to them. Some cities have well-defined regulations while others are still quite ambiguous. Part of the problem is defining what “tiny home” officially means.

Defining a Tiny Home

According to the 2018 International Residential Code for One-and-Two-Family Dwellings, commonly referred to as the “Tiny House Appendix”, a tiny house is “a dwelling that is 400 square feet or less in floor area excluding lofts.” Habitable space in tiny homes should have a minimum ceiling height of 6 feet 8 inches. Bathroom and kitchen ceiling heights should not be less than 6 feet 4 inches. Lofts cannot be less than 35 square feet and need to be at least 5 feet in any direction.

Some cities allow tiny homes to be an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). An ADU is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development as, “…additional living quarters on single-family lots that are independent of the primary dwelling unit. The separate living spaces are equipped with kitchen and bathroom facilities These living spaces can be either attached or detached from the main residence.” This ADU type is more common in larger cities such as Portland, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where it’s still being considered. Because the rules for ADUs vary greatly by neighborhood, it would be good to check out The American Tiny House Association’s information regarding ADUs. One study found that North Carolina, Texas, Oregon, California, and Florida were the top five states that had the most tolerant zoning laws for tiny homes.

Credit: Top 5 States for Tiny Homes; Where are the best places to build tiny? by Katie Gloede


Tiny Home on Wheels vs. Permanent Foundation

Because a tiny house on wheels (THOW) is built on a trailer, it can’t be wider than 8’6″ due to state department of motor vehicle laws. While this restriction is not a problem for most people looking to live tiny, some people might prefer more leeway when designing a home. If this is the case for you, putting a small home on a permanent foundation would be a better option. Additionally, some zoning prohibits permanently living in an RV (as THOWs are sometimes still classified) full-time, so check local regulations to see if this is allowed.

If you can’t put your tiny home on your own property, another option is to look at tiny home communities. A great resource to find both short-term and long-term parking for your tiny home is Try It Tiny, the Airbnb for tiny living. Try it Tiny is a great place to find a tiny home community and also offers options for parking on residential properties.

Living Tiny within Zoning and Building Codes

If you’ve decided to build a tiny home on a foundation instead of purchasing one on wheels, zoning laws will definitely come into play. If you don’t submit the proper paperwork to the city, you might be subject to fines or other actions. City permits usually cost money but ducking the cost now may end up costing you more later.

Hire an architect or design-build contractor to create a site plan with drawings. The plan should have all the details usually found on a professional blueprint, including interior/exterior dimensions, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and where hookups to power and water will be. Yes, this costs money, but trying to “wing it” because it’s “just a tiny home” will probably backfire and cost more money than if you invested in a good set of plans up front.

The right professional will know the local building codes. They’ll know whether or not you’ll need a permit from the city for your particular design and may even be able to re-work your design to avoid requiring certain permits. You don’t necessarily need them to do the physical work, but paying for knowledgeable advice up front often costs less than paying to undo DIY mistakes.

Size Restrictions

As far as the size of your planned tiny home, some parts of the United States have virtually no size restrictions as long as building codes are met. The American Tiny House Association is a great resource to find both state and local regulations if you have a particular state in mind. Some of the questions they answer are:

  • What is the minimum square foot requirement for a new house on a foundation?
  • Does a specific area allow tiny homes in a backyard of a private residence?
  • Are you allowed to “camp” on private land? If so, for how long?

You can also find the latest tiny home news in each state and information on how to register your tiny home.

In Conclusion…

Living tiny is a great option if you’re looking for a lifestyle with more freedom, but you need to know what you’re doing and comply with local laws. Consult with someone who knows local building codes to make sure you stay on the good side of city government. As the tiny home movement gains traction across the country, changes are happening and it’s important to keep up with the regulations in your region of interest. Although living tiny requires preparation and research, it’s a decision you’ll likely be glad you made.

Close to Home’s ASPIRE DIY Tiny House on Wheels KIT

Close to Home's ASPIRE DIY Tiny House on Wheels KIT

Close to Home’s ASPIRE DIY Tiny House on Wheels Kit enables the enthusiastic DIYer to get a jump start on the lengthy design phase of the design/build process. This Kit home is an option if you determine to go the Tiny House on Wheels route, which allows for flexibility in the changing world of legally living tiny.

UPDATE 2/13/2019: To follow the latest legal issues around tiny houses in WA State, check out this link – you can sign up for updates and even testify regarding your thoughts on the matters of affordable housing/tiny houses, etc. If you live in another state, hopefully you can find a similar link to your state government. We’re posting updates on our social media, so please follow along there! We’re hoping for BIG NEWS on TINY HOUSE legal issues later this year!

Interested in forward thinking cities? Want to dive into some details? Here is what Fresno, CA has done.

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