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Tiny House Codes And Zoning: Taking Matters into Our Own Hands

In the tiny house community we are often talking about the various building codes around the country, and the world, and how they affect tiny spaces. Tiny house bloggers often get asked the question “do you know the building codes in [my city]?

Building codes are so location specific that they can vary greatly mile by mile. The only way to know for sure about the building codes in your area is to talk to the local government. Unfortunately, you can’t be surprised when they tell you that you can’t live in a tiny house where you want.

Fixing Tiny House Codes and Zoning

Tiny house builders do many things to get around this issue. Some will pick a location because of the friendly nature of the building codes. Some will build on wheels so the house can be moved if it ever becomes a problem. Some will build on unincorporated country land that isn’t likely to strictly enforce codes.

There is one more option that I’m not sure any of us have really considered.

Running for local government.

photo credit: Will Merydith via photopin cc

photo credit: Will Merydith via photopin cc

Click below to read more about my crazy ideas for extreme tiny house code reform.

How About.. A Tiny House Town?

This form of radical rule changing works best when done collaboratively. Consider this scenario: several families and individuals who aspire to build tiny homes move into a small town. They get to know the community and the city government. After the period of relationship building the group runs for city council. Once that is accomplished they work on changing the laws regarding the zoning and code regulations.

To make this work everyone who runs for office in the town needs to take the job seriously. While you’re main objective might be to change the codes to be friendlier to tiny house development the rest of the job still needs to be given the right attention.

There may also still be regulations that come from the state government but it is much less likely that that state, and even the federal government, would do much to challenge the local codes once they have been changed.

Creating a Safe Haven for Tiny Housers

Once the codes have been altered the town can become a place for tiny houses people to live without fear of being asked to move or tear down their homes. Other tiny house dreamers can move into the area to be with like-minded people. Not only would this foster change with the building code issue but would also create a de facto tiny house community.

Tennessee Tiny Homes photo by Laura M. LaVoie

Tennessee Tiny Homes photo by Laura M. LaVoie

Creating Tiny Home Communities Instead?

Additional ways to make this idea more viable is to have groups of tiny house builders buy larger plots of land and create a contract to subdivide. Land can be expensive if you’re buying multiple acres but buying it with a group of people can make it more affordable.

What Would You Do or Suggest?

I know this idea isn’t exactly perfect but I thought it might generate some discussion. Would you run for local government to change the codes for your area to be friendlier to tiny house builders? How could you make this happen?

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Laura LaVoie

Contributor and Tiny House Owner at 120SquareFeet.com
Laura M. LaVoie is a professional writer living in the mountains of North Carolina in a 120 Square Foot house with her partner and their hairless cat, Piglet. Laura graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in Anthropology. She has been published in magazines and anthologies on the subjects of mythology and culture. She spent nearly 15 years in the temporary staffing industry before deciding to become a full time writer. Laura works closely with the Zulu Orphan Alliance volunteering her time and the skills she's learned building her own small house to build a shelter for orphans and other vulnerable children living near Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Laura also enjoys simple living, brewing and drinking craft beer, and popular culture.
{ 20 comments… add one }
  • alice h
    April 3, 2013, 12:52 pm

    You need to have very good relations with the rest of the town so they don’t feel like a bunch of “newcomers” are trying to “take over their town”. Regardless of how well intentioned you are there are going to be some people who will be dead set against you just because you’re “new”, sometimes even if you’ve been there for years. There is often a “ruling clique” that you need to have onside before the rest will join in, unless you find and tap into a massive resentment against that clique (not always something you want to get into) and there are always the contrarians who need a lot more convincing. Sometimes your very enthusiasm can work against you. Pick your town and your battles carefully and never, ever BS anybody or act like you know it all.

  • sunshineandrain
    April 3, 2013, 9:19 pm

    I agree with Mary Bachmann Walker on Facebook. The government itself is not our Tiny House friend. We, as individuals in each of our communities do need to do research on the codes, attend town/ city council meetings, especially those concerning code variances. Ditto on the rest of her thoughts.

  • ET
    April 4, 2013, 12:04 am

    Read what Tom Meyers, building code regulator, has to say.

    • Jerry
      April 7, 2013, 12:44 am

      Thanks for the link, here’s wishing Tom Meyers luck!

  • April 4, 2013, 11:11 am

    Well, I HAVE joined the Planning and Zoning Commission in my town for this very reason. I have never ever felt that this is an ‘us-against-them’ argument that most of the comments are insinuating. Even at that, I have been VERY surprised at just how supportive my city has been to the idea of small dwellings. The city planners are actually following me and keeping up on my site, I have received many comments about how cool that is an even encouragement and unsolicited comments about bringing (Meridian, Idaho) a tiny neighborhood. Now I could just happen to live in the most awesome place in the country but my guess is that if you get a little more involved you will demystify this whole idea of tiny for people and it will become much more acceptable. I like to think that if I was some stranger they wouldn’t think I was a ‘crazy hippie’ persay, but certainly have their doubts… but now that we are on the same team and this [tiny house] is just my particular lifestyle it is normalized instantly.
    Your commissioners and city council are just regular people, they will vary as much as regular people will, some are engineers, some doctors, some retired some moms and dads… by nature people doubt what they don’t know. It should be our (tiny house folks’) first priority to normalize this idea, in my opinion, I know that varies A LOT. Each of us can do our part though, if for you that means joining your cities efforts then great!
    I don’t think a WHOLE bunch of tiny house people joining council is the best idea because it is important to have a diverse council but I think it’s definitely important in YOUR town to have a tiny person on the commission or council if the end goal is to get tiny houses legalized… in most cases that may very well mean you…

    • Alex
      April 4, 2013, 11:18 pm

      Thanks Macy and way to go for joining the planning and zoning commission in your town! That’s just awesome. We’ve got a lot to learn from you.

    • Jerry
      April 7, 2013, 12:37 am

      As a member of the small business community, I can tell you that you have the right idea! When businesses come up against regulations, they don’t let that stop them, the work with the city council to find a way. Sometimes it means the regulations get changed, other times it means a variance is issues, and sometimes lawyers have to get involved (hate those occasions). A business would do it’s best to show why it would benefit the community to allow their petition, how it would bring jobs and how they would pay taxes etc. Housing developers are the best at getting zoning changed to suit their needs, so studying their methods would be wise. Those who wish to make changes via local governments should do their homework and show the benefits in ways that would make that government body look good. Publicizing any cooperation is always a good idea, and always attempting to stay on the front lines in regards to public relations is key!

    • Teresa Lyn
      March 5, 2014, 12:13 pm

      Macy, I think you have EXACTLY the right idea, and more importantly – the RIGHT ATTITUDE.

  • frankie
    April 4, 2013, 3:25 pm

    This is how it’s been done since the dawn of time. We are trying to build our own tiny house co-op community http://www.gofundme.com/tihococo

  • LaMar
    April 6, 2013, 4:12 pm

    Good to see someone bring up these issues!
    More remote counties still have fewer codes and many only require an approved septic and water system. Counties want taxes and small homes and houses on wheels and even trailer homes are dissalowed because they woun’t bring in taxes and may lower the value of surrounding properties.

    Some counties have seen the light and are willing o work with small home builders because they need permanent residents and people don’t want or have the money for big homes like they used to.

    I had to fight with my county and I used the newspaper to expose their silly rules and got enough public attention that they ran for cover and left me alone. My property is granfathered in literally- it was my grandfathers old homestead and was purchased under the homestead act so as long as I kept it for the original purpose the state laws protected me from the county.

    I suggest getting the building codes before purchasing any property and look for the words “or alternate approved system”. This usually means you can use a commercial composting toilet, solar and wind power, and may even allow rain water harvesting.

    Tell the county inspecter what you want to do and show them the systems and designs already being used and educate them and thay will be more likely to work with you. If not then look elsewhere for land or get on the county board or make a huge stink in the media. Counties hate bad press and if you can get other folk organized a good old picket at the county courthouse will get bad council people voted out or change their opinions.

    What would help is if people in each state set up a website for small home owners and could organize and rally as a group to change county laws.


  • Adam
    April 7, 2013, 11:52 am

    One of the best ideas I’ve seen posted on here, as far as zoning is concerned, is to buy a trailer park. Get rid of the trailers and move in your own and optionally others’ “trailers” as we know them.

    As others have pointed out, it’s always been the case that if you have an economic self-interest, you want to own the system. For better and worse that is how it is done.

    Decades worth of “unionizing” would have to be done to roll back the combined interest of those for whom bigger is better (ie more money for them): real estate developers, construction industry, people who make their living selling supplies, trucks, coffee, anything, to construction workers, architecture industry, real estate agents, people who work in municipal government bureaucracy from assessors to cops to teachers, McMansion owners etc etc, and above all the financial industry — basically everyone has a vested economic interest in the inflationary model of economic growth, and that means house size and valuation inflation.

    Luck won’t be enough to roll that back. Only organization.

    March 5, 2014, 1:56 pm

    There is difference in zoning for a mobile home park and a trailer/rv park.
    That being said the real problem for small/tiny is the cost of infrastructure for town locations. Even in counties the cost of septic is betweenn $6000 and $30,000. I currently own a small mobile home court with probaly the cheapest rent in Iowa , but there is still the cost of infrastructer and taxes that would probaly keep most tiny home people from renting. One other note we have to notify who and how many mobile homes are in our park. It wouldnt take the city/county long to fine us for having trailers/tiny homes. Locally there is a min square footage for lot size which keeps the cost up.

  • Alex Henderson
    March 5, 2014, 3:47 pm

    I am doing a master’s in city planning and I love the idea of a tiny house community. One way you can get the zoning to become flexible is to apply for a Planned Unit Development (P.U.D.). Check with your local planning office to see if that is possible for the land you’re thinking of converting to a tiny house community. Applications for P.U.D.’s often involve some sort of site plan and may involve writing a special set of zoning rules that will only apply to the parcel you are developing. One zoning rule for your P.U.D. could be a maximum size requirement rather than a typical minimum size requirement. 🙂

  • Ruth Vallejos
    June 9, 2014, 3:43 pm

    There are zoning ordinances, which tell you what can be built and where. Then there are building codes, which tell you what is required for legal habitation.

    With zoning, you can apply for variances. For instance, if houses are on wheels this would require a variance as a lot of jurisdictions have rules about mobile dwellings.

    With certain building codes, you can apply for what is called an alternative materials and methods request with the building department. This is to show that yes, this doesn’t meet the standard building code – but here’s what we’ve done to keep it safe.

    I would advocate starting with an informational meeting with rough sketches of site and building plans. Then you can hear what concerns the powers that be have, and how you can work together to mitigate it.

  • marsha
    June 9, 2014, 5:01 pm

    there is a 51 unit rv park that has been unoccupied for over two years and is for sale. this might make a wonderful tiny home community. it is located in the coastal area of oregon in Bandon oregon and is for sale 250K.. anyone interested??

  • Liz H.
    June 9, 2014, 5:16 pm

    We aren’t to the point of building yet since my 94-yr-old mother-in-law needs us close to shuttle her to the store, church, etc. And on retirement in less than 10 years now we plan to relocate. But I’ve been following this issues to some extent, & it occurred to me that a good place to start in making an appeal is with the small size of NYC apartments. If 400 sq. ft. is enough for an apartment dweller, then why shouldn’t it be enough for a small house?

  • Linda
    June 9, 2014, 6:07 pm

    One way to get around code is to build a “potting shed” in your garden. Works every time. Be sure to put a potting bench in the living room before the inspectors come out… if they do inspections in your area.

  • Doc
    July 13, 2014, 10:14 pm

    Such a huge fan of the trailer park model, infrastructure in place, already legal. Combine this with a PUD and you have a winner. Expand the lot size to allow for less density and gardening if you like. Restrict home size to a maximum limit. If size restrictions are in place see if you can convert to long term camping use. There really is s better way. May be easier than you think as I drove around my neighborhood this week and saw mostly smaller homes, 500-800 sq ft. This would not be that far from the “norm” here. Yes, right around the corner they are duliding a 14,000 sq ft mcmansion, but that is not the “norm”, not really.

    • Doc
      July 13, 2014, 10:20 pm

      P.S. that’s the trouble with waterfront communities, everyone thinks they have to have the biggest house on the lake. Why?! You’ll spend most of your time outside if you lived here. I think they miss the point over being on the river or lake.

  • Marilyn
    January 3, 2016, 4:55 pm

    I don’t understand why the government is making it so hard for people to just live a a better way. Pretty soon there will be a lot more baby boomers retiring and unfortunately a lot of people are not financially able to but still will need to. It just makes perfect sense to allow people to take care of themselves and not end up in the streets or a burden on their families.

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