I still remember our enthusiasm when we decided to buy a tiny house. We knew it was the housing solution for us, the way we could build a dream home for ourselves at thirty. We sat down and started researching the entire process and BAM! We kept coming across the same problem that seemed to have no solution at all: Tiny houses aren’t legal!
We thought, there must be some catch, some way to understand or access zoning codes that we're missing, something we're not understanding. We reached out to the tiny house community and made a couple of tiny house friends, who gave us the same answer. Tiny houses aren’t legal!
While some tiny houses are indeed legal, the majority of them aren't. The building code that determines this is the “minimum size for habitable domicile,” which sets regulations for how small a house can be and varies by municipality. Some people try to work around this by making their tiny house RVI certified (as in, their tiny house is technically a recreational vehicle), but you’re actually not allowed to live in an RV either, for longer than a few months. So while this might be a good solution for some (and will likely make it easier for you to park your tiny house in RV parks), it doesn’t actually make your house legal to live in.
So what can you do? Here are our top five suggestions to help you along:
1) Live under the radar and be nice to your neighbors
Here’s the thing… tiny houses usually aren’t legal, but there’s also nobody scouring the hillsides trying to ruin the lives of tiny home dwellers. Instead, you’ll almost always only have to move if someone complains to the local government about your tiny house. Accordingly, while you might not want to advertise that you're moving into the neighborhood, you ought to check with any neighbors that might have a problem with your presence. In particular, try to avoid any neighborhood feuds that might leave you as collateral damage.
2) Find a mutually beneficial landlord relationship
Don’t look for charity in your landlord, and don't go with someone who wants to help you out because they think tiny houses are cool. Instead, try to find someone who wants to earn extra income with little effort. That way, they have an incentive to keep you happy on their land. Naturally, if you happen to have a family member or friend you can rent land from, all the better.
3) Consider buying your own land and building a foundation home
In lots of places, you can live in a tiny house as long as it's a temporary residence while you’re building a bigger home. This means that you could get permits to build a foundation home, a mortgage to purchase land and construction, and live in your tiny home legally throughout the construction of your foundation home (in most places, the timeline tends to be around two years). Once your foundation home is complete, you could turn your tiny home into a ready-made guest house or rental property. We're seriously considering this plan once we’ve paid off our house.
4) Consider living off-the-grid
This one's pretty straightforward… living off-the-grid gives you access to more options for land (since you won’t need hook-ups), and it removes any connection that you might have to the city. Living off-the-grid makes it less likely that you’ll ever have to move your house against your wishes. Of course, it also comes with an array of unique challenges, so it’s a give and take.
5) Find a municipality where tiny homes are legal and advocate for adding them to your own zoning codes
There are some places in the States where tiny homes are legal. Fresno, CA and Austin, TX come to mind. Most importantly, the ICC (the organization that writes zoning codes for almost everyone) has updated their codes to include tiny homes. The problem is that most municipalities do not update their zoning codes all that often and they can make changes to what's written in the ICC. So while many more places will likely go tiny house legal, they’ll only do so if local citizens push for those changes. If you can move to a place where tiny homes are legal, great! If you can’t, then do what you can to make them legal where you live!