One of the most common questions I hear centers around where people can live in tiny houses legally. The challenge is that in many communities the definition of what qualifies as a residential home has been too tightly defined. For example, one of the things you’ll find are square footage minimums that define the smallest size a home can be, which can often be several hundred or thousand square feet.
I personally think all these rules are insanity because who in their right mind could determine a fixed minimum house size for everyone in a community. If the powers that be are trying to protect home values in the neighborhood they’ve also lost touch with reality because real estate appraisers will typically use similar properties for value comparisons. Luckily there are some ways to work within the system – to get around the system.
Photo credit Kahili Mountain Park via Tiny House Blog.
- Avoid building codes – Begin by finding communities that don’t have a lot of building restrictions. There’s a good ebook to start your search called No Building Codes written by Terry Herb at Containerist. The ebook outlines the building codes for each US State, at the state-level. If you are open to relocating and want to a quick reference by your side when seeking out states with few (if any) restrictions this is a good ebook to have.
- ‘Camp’ on your land – Trailer-based tiny houses are usually seen by most municipalities as RV trailers since they are built on wheels. So you can typlically live in a tiny house anywhere it’s legal to ‘camp’ on your own land. This is not always permitted so check the local ordinances with local law enforcement and/or the planning department. Other issues may still apply like how you’ll need to deal with waste water and drinking water.
- Alternate zoning – Look for multi-family zoned land. Typically there is no minimum unit size defined for multi-family zoned property which allows apartment building to have small apartments. It’s possible that with the right proposal, a planning department may approve building the first unit of a multi-unit tiny house development.
- Trailer park – Rent space at a trailer park. Some trailer parks have restrictive requirements like many homeowners’ associations, so avoid those. But many will be happy to have you park your custom trailer home in along side the other trailers.
- Build an eco-village – Consider buying an existing trailer park or campground with friends and turn it into an eco-village. This is one of my favorite tiny house community concepts because the zoning and infrastructure are already in place at these kinds of properties; although I’ve yet to see someone give it a try.
- Move out to the countryside – Many rural areas, even near major metropolitan areas will be more flexible with living solutions. There are many areas where migrant housing has already set precedents and paved the way for tiny house living.
- Backyard camping – A friends backyard might be a viable option if ‘camping’ is be allowed in your area. Setting up a tiny home in a backyard may also legally comply with the laws that support ADUs (accessory dwelling units). Even here in regulation-ridden California we have laws that permit the addition of in-law units.
- Hide in plain sight – I’m not advocating breaking the law but many people have found that simply setting up housekeeping in plain view works fine. The reason this works is that something so cute and in plain view is seen as a quality contribution to the neighborhood, not an eyesore. Onlookers seem to assume it’s some kind of cute shed, playhouse, or home office and just smile and continue on their way. Few would assume someone actually lives there, after all, who could live in a house so small? LOL
- Seek a variance – This is essentially asking the local planning department to consider an exception to the rule. If you work the green angle and diversity angle you may get more traction. There is quite a bit of risk with this approach because you have to buy the land before you can apply for building permits.
Finding a place to live in alternative housing requires thinking outside the box and looking for pre-existing loopholes. By all means try to avoid breaking the law and risking loosing your home. Building your home on a trailer can reduce the risk because you can simply move it if asked to by authorities. But it’s alwasy much nicer to find a place where you’re welcome to stay as long as you like.
“because you have to buy the land before you apply for building permits”
Whao, I’m pretty sure that is not the case everywhere. If you work with the seller they can give you permission to apply for the zoning amendment ahead of time. Also, while I am one of the ones that posted the variance thing as a suggestion, I later found out that where I live, in order to put a non-wheeled (so either with foundation or prefab but just resting on the surface style) tinyhouse, you need a zoning amendment.
These are usually temporary, apparently and can be for a year to 10 years before you have to reapply or renew it in some way. Unfortunately they are apparently not a very satisfactory solution because the municipality has no obligation to fork it over and they seem to be very anal about it.
Reading the minutes of your local council meeting can give you some idea of what you’re going up against. As far as I could tell from the minutes I read, it was a stretch to get a stand alone temporary (no foundation) accessory dwelling unit approved even in a wooded rural area for you own parents, the bastards even demanded that the property owner sign a contract for various useage conditions for the unit e.g. has to be continously used and only by the owners parents.
It’s not like this everywhere, though, apparently seattle and vancouver permit by default the construction of certain tinyhouse like things search “vancouver laneway housing” and “seattle cottage housing”, so maybe we can extend that to other cities.
Oh boy Michael, I think this is a big can of worms. Pardon, in advance, the long post that I feel is coming. I am familiar with Oregon Building Codes (based off of IRC) and many of the greater Portland area municipalities’ zoning codes. I write from this perspective.
States that have building codes truly are protecting folks. The code and inspections ensures that the house is being built safely. Moreover, room size minimums are to be sure that unscrupulous builders do not create 1000sf 5 bedroom (3 of which are 6’x5′ without a closet) homes akin to tenement housing. This is accountability and guides consumer expectations. I do realize that consumers have been conditioned to expect a small bedroom to be 10’x11′ and the previous example would probably not sell.
The codes also are in place to protect firefighters in rescue situations. I recently was privileged to listen in to the Oregon State Code Board and their revisions to our next code update. Most of their structural concerns were with firefighter safety. A floor over a basement collapsed last year due to structural inadequacy, causing the death of a couple firefighters. Windows are important too. You may be able to squeeze out of a 2’x2′ opening, but if you are unconscious, you will appreciate having a 5.7sf opening that a firefighter can get into, pack and all.
Oregon has minimum room sizes (70sf) and ceiling heights (7′ +/-) but these can be ignored if you are building the house yourself (contractor’s license not required) and will be living in it for at least two years (not selling it right away). The Carver series of homes on my website plays with this notion. All three homes are less than 300sf. Two have ‘legal’ rooms and the third ignores that standard.
I don’t believe that any jurisdiction in Oregon regulates minimum house size. These restrictions are generally put in place by upper scale housing developments with HOAs. You probably don’t want to live there anyways. Accessory structures are allowed without a permit in most zoned areas if they are 120sf and less. Oregon has increased this maximum to 200sf.
Camping on your land near municipalities is generally allowed but carries a rule of no more than 30 days in any 6 month period and cannot be closer than 3 miles to an established city (Clackamas County, some rural zones). I understand the idea is to keep transients from mucking up areas. Oregon apparently does not like it’s transients.
Your idea regarding multi-family is a great idea. Some of the zones around Portland allow for separated structures, but some require attached units. City of Portland has a minimum amount of units to be built on a piece of land. For instance, a 100’x100′ parcel in R-2 zoning requires a minimum of 4 units. They must all be built at the same time or within a couple years of each other.
Variances can be sought around here, but require several things. The first is that you must get approval from a percentage of neighboring properties within a certain radius. The second is that you must prove a hardship in order to apply for the variance. Most of the time, the use must not preclude the base zone use. For instance, trying to get a house built in an EFU (exclusive farm use) zone has several restrictions. The land is considered high quality and reserved for crops.
Setting up as an ADU is generally encouraged by the City of Portland and most other jurisdictions. Portland has even reduced their fees to create an ADU. Clackamas County will only allow one kitchen on a piece of property.
I like the idea of hiding in plain sight. I was recently looking at a piece of land that was 30’x1300′. This was a county owned property that was being auctioned off at a starting bid of $1048. It was zoned for farm use only, but allowed buildings that were incidental to farm use. My thought was to use the land as my own personal garden and orchard. I would build a 198sf (avoid permits) cute (neighbor appeal) ‘processing shed’ (incidental to farm use) and use that as a tiny cabin. My family of four would spend weekends there. In the fall, we truly would use the bed platforms to process bushels of apples.
My best option for a permanent home would be to purchase one of these substandard county parcels through auction that was zoned for housing. These parcels are considered substandard because they won’t fit a 40′ wide home and are therefore sold for 4 digits as opposed to 5 or 6. Many rural properties around here want a 10′ side setback. With the previous 30′ wide property (were it zoned residential), that would allow for a 10′ wide home, plenty wide enough for me to work with (and allows for the minimum 7′ wide rooms). In fact, cantilevers are allowed that would allow some rooms to be wider than 9′ inside.
Problem is that while I would spend $1000 for the land, I would end up spending $5000 or more for a well and $10,000 for a permit. I would install a composting toilet and avoid the septic cost. I do the building myself and after all costs are considered, I’m in a permanent legal place of 600sf for around $40k. This is acceptable to me but I know that others will be wanting to do the whole package for under $10k.
My other option was to enact the camping clause, drag a 28′ trailer to the site, and build a tiny home on it. Maybe even with pallets!
I hope this helps some of your readers who live in other parts of the country to explore their local codes and see what they can pull off.