Tiny House Building Code Myths

In the Tiny House and Shed to House Conversion world, I continue to see the same question daily about tiny house building codes: Can I legally put a Tiny House or Shed House on my property? Unfortunately the only accurate answer is Maybe. State and local codes vary drastically, so let’s explore the most common tiny house building code myths.

Navigating the Maze

Building codes and zoning regulations can be very confusing for those interested in living in a tiny house or a converted shed house. The maze of rules can make just getting started an exercise in frustration, especially for those without a construction background. Hopefully I can dispel some of the confusion and clarify some of the myths associated with tiny house code compliance to make things a little easier for you.

The unfortunate fact is there are more regulations on small houses and dwellings than you may think. That’s because banks and developers want to restrict less-profitable small-dwelling construction and keep people saddled with large mortgages. But change is on the horizon as more people decide they don’t want the burden of over-sized houses or the over-sized debt that goes with them.

Tiny House Advocates

At the forefront of the battle to allow tiny houses and establish tiny house communities is the American Tiny House Association. The ATHA works tirelessly to persuade state and local lawmakers to establish codes and regulations that support small-scale housing so that more people have access to affordable home ownership. In addition, there has been a rise the past few years in independent grassroots movements working to educate local lawmakers about the advantages of tiny homes and tiny home communities.

The result is the adoption of Appendix Q in the ICC or International Code Council standards. 

Appendix Q

In brief, Appendix Q addresses specific aspects of constructing tiny houses:

Appendix Q- Adopted into the 2018 International Residential Code ( IRC ) building code to provide regulations and standards for tiny homes on a foundation that is 400 square feet or less.

Appendix Q relaxes various requirements in the body of the code as they apply to tiny houses that are 400 square feet or less. Attention is specifically paid to features such as compact stairs, including hand rails and headroom, ladders, reduced ceiling heights in lofts and guard and emergency escape and rescue opening requirements of lofts.

SOURCE: IRC2018

While Appendix Q is a great advancement for the cause, it still does not eliminate many of the problems associated with establishing your tiny home or shed home. Local building codes and zoning ordinances still apply. And, what’s more, not all areas have accepted Appendix Q. Due diligence is most definitely still required for anyone wanting to build, locate, and live in a tiny house or converted shed house.

Tiny House Building Code Myths

I’ve been following the tiny house movement closely for many years now. I’ve also conducted extensive research into small-dwelling codes and regulations for the sake of establishing our own homestead. Repeatedly I’ve seen the same misconceptions crop up that can spell doom for a tiny house or shed home project. Here are the most common myths on building codes, zoning, and tiny house and small cabin conversions I’ve encountered.

Myth #1

My tiny house is on wheels, so building codes and zoning regulations don’t apply.

This myth was started and continues to be perpetuated by individuals and companies who want to make a quick buck selling you a tiny house or the plans for one. Simply putting a house on wheels does not make it exempt from building codes or zoning laws.

While it may be true that those wheels can help you slip through the loopholes in certain regulations, you would be remiss to accept this myth as fact. The hard truth is that the minute you move personal belongings and start living in your tiny house on wheels, it becomes, legally, your home and subject to local home ordinances.

It’s important to remember that, in general terms, tiny houses on wheels are still a fairly new concept, and dealing with them can be confusing for local authorities. Outside of Appendix Q, there is little regulation or consistency of tiny house zoning. Instead of trying to stake your claim and hope for the best outcome, I recommend the following approach:

A. Examine the codes and zoning regulations of your city and/or county and leverage those to your advantage. Find the minimum requirements to make your tiny house or cabin compliant and use them to design your build. 

B. Talk with your local Building Inspector. They can provide a wealth of information and, in most cases, will be happy to work with you to help you accomplish your goals within code. They can also assist if you wish to petition your city or county commission to adopt Appendix Q to the area’s building codes.

C. Submit plans and ideas to your local Zoning Board before you build if you are concerned about a zoning issue with your tiny home location. You can ask for a Conditional Use Permit or a Variance which would give you a permitted exception to locate your tiny house or building on a particular piece of property. If your request is denied, the decision can typically be appealed to the City Council, County Commission, and, if necessary, brought before a court judge.

D. Be neighborly. Complaints from neighbors can work against you as you seek approvals for your tiny house or cabin. Do your best to be a good neighbor so others will welcome you as theirs regardless of the size of your home.

E. Advocate for change. If your area does not yet support your tiny house dream, reach out to the American Tiny House Association for ideas on how you can best convince your local legislators that it’s time to allow people to live tiny.

Myth #2

It’s my property, so they can’t stop me from building a tiny house or shed house.

Many people assume they are entitled to build whatever they want on their personal property. And, in certain areas of the country and in certain situations, this assumption can be somewhat correct. But it can be a very costly mistake if you build your tiny home or shed cabin and then discover you are wrong.

Building inspectors have a civic responsibility to uphold the law as it relates to building codes. That said, many building inspectors will work with you and make what allowances they can to help you achieve your dreams of living small. Others, however, can be very inflexible. It’s always a good idea to meet with your local building inspector early in your tiny house process to determine how much support or resistance you will be facing.

Depending on the location of your property, the proximity of your neighbors, and how “out of sight” your tiny house or shed cabin is, you may be able to “fly under the radar” as far as the building inspector goes. In this situation, you may only have an issue if someone lodges a housing or code complaint against you. Only you can decide if you want to live with such a risk.

Because not being in compliance with local building codes is serious business and can lead to dire consequences.

If the building inspector finds your tiny home or shed conversion is in violation of the area’s building codes, they can obtain a court order to force compliance or begin condemnation proceedings. In the meantime, you my be cut off from electric, water, and sewer utilities if you utilize them. If your dwelling is condemned, you can be arrested if you enter the premises. Worst case scenario, your home can end up being demolished under court order. And, to add insult to injury, you will likely be held responsible for related court costs.

With the ever-changing codes and regulations pertaining to tiny houses and shed houses, we can only recommend, again, following steps A – E listed above under “Myth #1” to ensure a safe and legal transition into your small home.

Myth #3

My tiny house is under 300 square feet, so I don’t need a building permit.

The fault with this thinking is that the intended use of the building matters more than the square footage. Once you place personal property in the structure and begin residing there, it becomes a “livable dwelling.”

With few exceptions, livable dwellings are subject to permitting laws regardless of their size.

Before you get too upset by this news, it’s important to remember that building codes have generally been implemented for our safety. Complying with these codes through the permitting process ensures our homes are structurally sound and less prone to electrical fires and so forth.

And let’s be realistic: the smaller the living space, the more concerned we need to be about safety. A fire in a 300 sf tiny house kitchen is going to be far more dangerous to the occupants, after all, than is a fire in the kitchen of 3,000 sf house that will have a lot more doors and windows through which the occupants can escape.

So even if you find your area doesn’t require much in the way of building permits, please be sure you still put safety first when constructing your tiny house or finishing out your shed home.

Myth #4

I’m living in a camper/RV/mobile home, so tiny house codes and regulations don’t apply to me.

This myth has two parts to it. One pertains to the structure itself, be it a camper, RV, or a mobile home. The other depends on how your area is zoned for those structures.

In order to be legal for occupancy, your camper, recreational vehicle (RV), or mobile home needs to have been built by a certified manufacturer and have the relevant “seal of approval” displayed somewhere on the structure. This certification — obtained by the builder through a process that’s both extensive and expensive — affirms the dwelling was built to necessary building and safety codes.

Any camper, RV, or mobile home not built to certification standards will generally be considered out of compliance and unlawful to occupy from the outset. So it is definitely a myth to think codes don’t apply to such dwellings.

Even if your camper, RV, or mobile home is certified, though, you may still run into problems with zoning. Many communities restrict campers and RVs to 30 days of use within their boundaries. Even campgrounds typically restrict on-site parking of campers and RVs to 60-90 days to keep anyone from turning the campground into a permanent home.

Mobile homes, while built to be a more permanent home than campers or RVs, are often strictly regulated by zoning laws. Mobile homes are often relegated to “parks” specifically designed for them that are separate from neighborhoods with traditionally-constructed homes.

Zoning restrictions on campers, RVs, and mobile homes are more stringent in some regions than others, so make sure you check your local and/or state laws (or the rules of the RV park or campground) before deciding you will live in one of these structures long-term.

Myth #5

If anyone complains or I “get caught” in my tiny house on wheels, I’ll just say I’m camping.

As discussed in Myth #4, zoning regulations typically restrict the location and duration of comping activities. And it’s likely these restrictions will apply to your tiny house on wheels.

Most zoning regulations dictate that RVs are not to be lived in permanently. Since tiny homes on wheels most resemble RVs, many municipalities will simply apply the same restrictions. Which means you could easily find the tiny home you want to live in long-term running afoul of the law.

Although you may be able to get away with the “camping excuse” for awhile, you will be better off in the long run seeking the proper approvals or variances to allow you to be honest about what your tiny house is: your home.

Myth Busters

Communicating with and educating our local, state, and federal lawmakers about tiny homes will create the legal changes necessary to dispel the myths we’ve examined here. We’re hopeful that, before long, tiny houses will be a common and accepted housing option for those who want it.

Until then, be sure to do your own due diligence so that your tiny house dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare.

To learn more, visit our Tiny House Regulations by State page.