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Living Legally in a Tiny Home

Tiny homes, sometimes defined as homes under 400 ft2, offer many benefits. Some view them as a way to simplify and downsize, and others see their quick and affordable construction as a way to combat the housing crisis. The movement has grown massively in recent years—there are a tiny home trade association, a grassroots association dedicated to improving the legal environment for tiny homes, and even several TV shows on tiny homes. But the legal landscape is still adjusting, and it can be confusing to determine whether a tiny home is within reach. This article lists five factors to consider before building or buying a tiny home, including several promising locations to consider.

The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit law firm. If you believe your rights are being violated by a city or town that will not allow your tiny home, contact us at the link at the bottom of the page.

1. Zoning Laws

Uses of land are often strictly controlled by zoning boards, and one common obstacle for tiny homes is minimum square-footage requirements in single-family residential zones—typically set well above the size of a tiny home. Cities are responding to this in a variety of ways.

One frequent response is to allow tiny homes to be placed, with restrictions, in the back yards of existing homes. These tiny homes are classified as “accessory dwelling units.” The obvious problem with this is that not everyone wants to live in someone’s back yard (and of those who do, not everyone can find a willing homeowner).

There are better ways. Some cities simply lower or eliminate minimum square-footage requirements in residential zones (see below). Other cities set up new zones specifically for tiny homes, and flourishing tiny home communities often spring up in these zones.

2. Building Codes

Many building codes contain requirements, like tall ceilings and wide stairs, that are infeasible in a tiny home. The solution is simple: change the code. This is exactly what many places are doing. In particular, many states and cities are adopting Appendix Q to the 2018 International Residential Code, a widely used model code. As it explains, “Appendix Q relaxes various requirements in the body of the code as they apply to houses that are 400 square feet in area or less. Attention is specifically paid to features such as compact stairs, including stair handrails and headroom, ladders, reduced ceiling heights in lofts and guard and emergency escape and rescue opening requirements at lofts.” But building codes are adopted piecemeal by cities and states, and not all have made accommodations for tiny homes in their codes.

3. Wheels or No Wheels?

Tiny homes on wheels (THOWs) offer freedom and mobility. But the law has been especially slow to catch up to them, since neither of the closest traditional classifications—RVs and permanent houses—is quite right. Year-round occupation of RVs is typically only allowed in RV parks, making that designation inappropriate for THOWs. On the other hand, most building codes and zoning requirements stipulate that houses must be on permanent foundations. Appendix Q only addresses homes on permanent foundations, and a number of cities that welcome tiny homes only do so if they are on permanent foundations.

Despite the challenges, some towns have come up with creative ways to accommodate THOWs. Sitka, Alaska has created a new and simple code for THOWs: Appendix Q from the floor joists up, and an adequate load-bearing trailer beneath that. Beresford, South Dakota has created zoning specifically for THOWs, allowing them to remain on wheels as long as they are adequately tied down and have skirting around the bottom. Spur, Texas (where winds can be very strong) offers help taking THOWs off their axles and placing them on concrete foundations while they are in city limits. THOWs on land just outside Spur city limits can remain on wheels. These examples show that there is a solution to almost any obstacle to THOWs.

4. Location

With cities varying so much in their zoning laws and building codes, it can be difficult to pick a city for your new tiny home. Here are some (by no means all) cities and towns that stand out as especially welcoming places for tiny homes:

Sitka, Alaska. Sitka allows tiny homes in any zone that allows single family homes. It also allows THOWs in a number of other zones with a conditional use permit.

Durango, Colorado. Escalante Village, in the mountain town of Durango, is a thriving tiny home community. There are also tiny home rentals available for those looking to try out the lifestyle.

Walsenburg, Colorado. In 2014, Walsenburg eliminated a 600 ft2 minimum zoning requirement in order to make room for tiny homes. The city often has more jobs than housing, and it sees tiny homes as a way to increase affordable housing.

Rockledge, Florida. Rockledge has amended its zoning ordinances to allow for “pocket neighborhoods” of tiny homes, including THOWs.

Flat Rock, North Carolina. The mountains of North Carolina are home to several tiny home communities. There are a variety of options here, from well-appointed tiny homes in neighborhoods with great community amenities to smaller areas in which to set up THOWs.

Beresford, South Dakota. Beresford has zoning for both tiny homes and THOWs, offering plenty of options for people looking to move there.

Spur, Texas. In 2014, Spur designated itself “America’s First Tiny House Friendly Town.” The city has step-by-step instructions on the its website detailing how to bring a THOW to Spur or build a tiny home there.

5. Permits

Remember that, whatever the laws in your town, you will usually need to get a building permit for your tiny home or permission to set up your THOW. This can be an opportunity to petition local lawmakers and zoning boards to accommodate tiny homes: it can be done.

Additional Resources

Visit the Tiny House Alliance for more information.

Conclusion

Navigating zoning, codes, and more can be confusing. But people across the country are successfully living in tiny homes, either by moving to towns that welcome them or by petitioning their own towns to remove restrictions.

If you believe that a town or city is violating your rights by not allowing you to have a tiny home, you can contact us here:

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