Tiny House Building Codes and Myths

In the Tiny House and Shed to House Conversion world I continue to see this same question every day about Tiny House Building Codes  – Can I legally put a Tiny House or Shed House on my property?

The only real answer to this question is – Maybe!  

Many owners are struggling to deal with Building Codes and Zoning laws throughout the country and code questions come up quite often.  Today, there is more regulation on small houses and dwellings  than you may think.  At the forefront of the battle to allow these small houses are local advocates and the American Tiny House Association who have been working tirelessly to persuade local and state lawmakers to allow them as an affordable housing options and for people to live a self sufficient lifestyle.  The Result is the adoption of Appendix Q in the ICC or International Code Council standards. 

Building Codes and Zoning Regulations are one area that can really be confusing for new Tiny Homeowners and can cause of great deal of frustration when they first start on their projects.  To help make things a little easier, I can hopefully dispel several of the myths that come up with Tiny House code compliance and heal your misconceptions.

 

First, you need to understand how to navigate through all those regulations that exist without Appendix Q in the picture and to avoid heartaches later on down the road to homesteading.

Here are the most common myths on building codes, zoning, and tiny house and small cabin conversions.

Myth #1 :
I am told that my Tiny House or Shed is on wheels, so Codes and Zoning doesn’t apply to me so i am legal!

Simply because you may have a house on wheels does not make you exempt from those pesky codes and zoning.  This is a huge myth started by those companies or individuals who really want to make a quick buck selling you a tiny house or the plans for one.

It may be true that those wheels will help you comply with the many loopholes and certain regulations that exist. In general terms Tiny Houses are a new concept and it can also be confusing for the local authorities .  Without Appendix Q ( which I previously mentioned) there is little regulation that is specific to tiny house zoning.  Those wheels also mean it is easier to move which can also allow you to work around those regulations.

The real truth is — the minute you begin living in that “house” and move in your personal belongings it legally becomes a home.  When you make it your “home”, and you start sleeping in it, all the bets are off and the local government can and will rain on your parade.

So, What am I suppose to do?

It is indeed disappointing and frustrating when you soon realized there aren’t enough ways to legally live in your Tiny House on your property.  Even if some Inspector signs off on your inspection, the chances are great that its still not technically legal with every code and regulation.

The best approach that I can recommend is this :

1- Learn the codes and zoning of your local city or county and learn how to leverage those to your advantage.  Find the minimum requirements to make it compliant and use those in your design and build.  Work with your local Building Officials as most of the time they will work with you.

2-  First begin by submitting your plans and ideas to your local Zoning Board ( if you have one) if the location you want to put it creates a zoning issue. You can ask for a Conditional Use Permit or a Variance which provides you with a permitted exception to locate your Tiny House or Building on a particular piece of property. If they do not approve it, you usually have an appeals process with the City Council or County Commission. If not them, the courts.

3- Be kind and get along with your neighbors – Believe it or not, neighbors can be the first to throw a kink in your plans if they complain or oppose it.

4- Talk with your local Building Inspector if you live in a City or County that has Building and Zoning Codes. Many of them will be happy to tell you if its allowed and work with you to ensure that you get it right.  If they don’t allow it, you can always present your plans to your local City or County Commission and seek approval to adopt Appendix Q in the Building Codes.  I can tell you this – It will not happen overnight!

5- If all else fails?  Push for Change at the local level to allow codes for Tiny Houses!

6- OR, You can always play your best hand of cards and fly under the radar.  This isn’t always the best option and you can lose plenty if you get caught doing it without proper permits.  Which leads me to Myth #2…..

Each of these options do indeed have their pros and cons.  If your local area has no Building Codes and Zoning, you may only need to get permits for Electrical and Septic if required.

Myth #2:

“They can’t keep me from building my tiny House or Shed. It’s my property I can do what I want!”

Indeed, in certain areas of the country you may be somewhat correct.  The question isn’t whether they can or cannot stop you—- They Can and WILL!  Generally speaking, most Inspectors won’t try to stop you unless it becomes a public issue.  A public issue can be something as simple as a citizen complaint and it can happen. Complaints and public input are the biggest causes of housing and code complaints.

If you stay out of the newspapers and don’t cause ” a scene”, or someone doesn’t complain those Inspectors may just look another way and not really go after your code issues. Don’t always think that is the case though.  There are Inspectors that will!

Keep in mind that Inspectors hold alot of power and decision making authority. If they decide they don’t want you living in a tiny home  they can use those laws to enforce it.

Not being in compliance with those laws is certainly a risk. The truth is that THEY CAN STOP YOU!  They can obtain a court order, or begin condemnation proceedings.  Condemnation simply means this —- If you decide you want to enter your home, you can be arrested…You can also be fined daily for each day you are not in compliance…You can also be denied any connection to public utilities like electric, water and sewer if those are your only choice.  I have known of cases where the city literally bulldozed the home.

If this happens you really have no recourse accept to appeal to your local city or county commission or through the court system.  You may also need to hire an Attorney who specializes in these matters.

Myth # 3:

Do I need a Building Permit if my house is under (??) Square feet?

The Answer is Maybe – And, It Depends!

Usually, if you are wanting to build a structure under a certain amount of square feet of living space you would typically not be required to obtain a building permit. Many local authorities in the country have exempted themselves from Building codes– which means, you aren’t required to obtain a building permit.  Sooo, the question here is — Do I need a building permit to build a tiny home under a certain square feet?  Here is the caveat: Any exception to a building permit rule is the term ” Home” or “House”. When you decide to dwell or live in a tiny house it changes from a structure to a house or home and you would be subject to building permit issues where they apply.

Keep in mind that the moment you place any personal property in that house or home, that place is and will then be classified as a “livable dwelling”.  Building regulations are pretty specific in that it doesn’t matter the size of the dwelling by square feet, whether its 3000 sf or 100 sf, you would still need a building permit. Each local government can have the authority to regulate and designate the square footage of livable space.  These laws vary by state and local jurisdictions, as do tiny home size limitations.  The secret is this– If you plan to live in it, you are probably going to need a building permit if required.

 

Myth #4:

My Tiny House is a Camper, RV, or Mobile Home – Those Tiny House codes don’t apply to me!

If you look at the wide range of the possibilities of this Myth – it can be somewhat true.

Lets begin with the RV and Mobile Home myth — Is your Tiny Home built by a certified RV or Mobile Home Manufacturer?  It is possible to live in a home-built trailer house, but to comply with the codes you will need to become a certified manufacturer. To become a certified tiny home manufacturer, the certification process can cost you thousands and require you to complete a rigorous process of inspections to make sure you meet the more than 500 plus requirements.  It ain’t easy folks!  Inspectors will look for that seal that must be affixed to the tiny house to show its met standards much like are required for Mobile or Modular Homes.

Simply saying that you built a Homemade RV or Mobile Home wont work!  It will only pass inspection and be classified as a certified RV or Mobile Home once you have that certification.  Once it passes inspection, RV and Mobile Homes are typically only allowed to park and reside in specific zoned areas like RV Parks or Mobile Home Parks. Mobile Homes are allowed on private property as long as the property is zoned for it.  The only exceptions would be that some states do have Home Built RV classifications. You would need to check your local or state laws for specifics.

Myth#5:
If I get caught — Can I just say I am camping?

This also is somewhat true – and I emphasize SOMEWHAT!

It is possible, in theory, to get around those regulations by saying you are camping.  In keeping with code compliance it is allowed in dwellings like lean tos, tents, etc.

When you encounter problems is when the local jurisdiction has very specific ordinances on how long you can camp. The time usually is 1-90 days in many cases, but that’s typically in one spot or parcel of property.  That is…if its allowed !  Many areas have it designated to campsites.  To get around these regulations, they typically move the RV, camper, or tent around every few days.

There are have been a few instances where someone in their tiny home “overstayed there welcome” if you will –and we fined by the municipality for “dwelling”.

Under most Regulations, RVs are not allowed to be lived in permanently.

In closing its always best before you decide to locate your Tiny House or Shed Conversion on  your property or someone else’s  is to be sure that it will be compliant with local laws and ordinances.  Many people have had their dreams thrown out the window because they didn’t research.  When looking for property to build your homestead, make sure you can legally do what you want to do.

 

You can find many Building Regulations nationwide Here 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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