Building Codes in the Tiny Housing Boom

Learn how building codes have changed to reflect the times as more people begin embracing the tiny home movement.

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by Unsplash/Jed Owen

What does tiny house code compliance look like? Learn how building codes have changed to reflect the times as more people begin embracing tiny homes.

Data aren’t readily available on how many people are living in tiny homes in the United States. Home-ownership data are typically collected by the mortgage industry, and since real estate experts say 68 percent of tiny home dwellers don’t have a mortgage, data are difficult to find. However, the national Association of REALTORS estimates that little homes under 1,000 square feet make up about 1 percent of the market.

If so many people are interested in the idea of little house living, why aren’t there more folks living that dream? A primary factor is that many people don’t believe they can give up their large homes (and all their stuff) and still be happy. Dale and I didn’t think we could, until we did. But the movement is also held back in part due to building codes on minimum square footage, and requirements for permanent water, sewer, and electrical sources.

The majority of people building or buying little homes are building or parking them in rural areas because codes in most cities don’t allow for tiny homes. In addition, cities generally require dwellings to have a permanent water source and flushing toilets (while many portable tiny homes have composting toilets).

Many of these codes were put into place after the Great Depression and during the post-World War II boom. During the Depression, people were forced to create shantytowns just to have a place to sleep. Most of these dwellings were not only unsightly, but also unsafe. Local governments wanted to make sure residents were building safe homes and not “tenements” or “shantytowns.”

In addition, many counties, cities and states haven’t figured out how to define a tiny home on wheels. Many people build mobile tiny homes so they can travel and take their home with them. Tiny homes on wheels are generally better insulated and built to last longer than a traditional recreational vehicle. Moreover, they’re designed for full time living, while a recreational vehicle is not. But cities and counties don’t know how to classify a tiny home on wheels. Is it a mobile home? An RV or a guest structure, particularly when it is parked in someone’s driveway or backyard? Each local jurisdiction has its own ordinances, and the definitions vary. Therefore, some people living in tiny homes may be doing so outside of the law, putting themselves at risk of fines or even losing their homes.

People who want this lifestyle must pick up the torch and take it to the next step. One of these cases involves Michael Brown and his wife, Ann. In a highly publicized 2015 case in Chesterfield, Virginia, the Browns sought to live the tiny house dream in a home built on an 8-1/2-by-20-foot trailer. The cute little home featured beige siding, a red door, and even a little white picket fence on the front porch. Aside from the wheels underneath, it looked just like a miniature suburban home. They parked it in the backyard of their large property and rented out the main house.

According to the local ABC News affiliate, the home was classified by the county as a recreational vehicle, and local codes prevented people from living in those types of dwellings full-time. “Both the building code and the zoning ordinances probably have some catching up to do,” Ron Clements, Chesterfield Building Inspection Assistant Director, told ABC.

In one town in Arkansas, the city council voted in the spring of 2015 to ban homes under 600 square feet from the town. The local ABC affiliate there reported, “They believe banning tiny houses, homes smaller than 600 square feet, will also improve the landscape and beautify the residential area around Walnut Ridge.” It appears that the council has the NIMBY attitude (Not in My Backyard) and still believes the tiny house movement is akin to the shantytowns of the last century.

There have been some victories, however, in changing the codes and ordinances around the country. Portland, Oregon, long a hub for the tiny house movement, has some of the most relaxed laws in the country. Cities and towns such as St. Cloud (Minnesota), Madison (Wisconsin), and Spur (Texas) have redefined their minimum-square-footage requirements for new and remodeling construction, embracing the movement.

In other areas, some RV parks are beginning to advertise as “tiny house friendly.” One such place is Orlando Lakefront at College Park, which advertises on its website that it is one of the first RV parks in the country to solve the challenge of where to park a tiny home.

Several nonprofits and organizations that assist the poor have also been helping homeless people get into tiny homes, and they’ve been successful in establishing code-compliant communities. Occupy Madison, a nonprofit in Wisconsin, raised money and built three homes on private property. In November 2014, the first occupants moved in just prior to the cold setting in. The nonprofit plans to add an additional four homes to the community, as well as a community center, as soon as funds are raised through donations.

Operation Northern Comfort and A Tiny Home for Good, two nonprofit organizations that help the homeless in Syracuse (New York), are hoping to build three tiny homes on a vacant lot on that city’s south side. According to news reports, the lot is owned by the county. The nonprofits are hoping to buy it so they can build the tiny homes using donations and proceeds from fund-raisers. Residents would be selected based on an application process and would pay rent based on income. The nonprofits hope the effort is just the beginning of helping end homelessness in the city through building tiny homes.

In another highly publicized 2015 story, the town of Waveland (Mississippi) decided to allow tiny homes under 574 square feet to be built in order to ease a housing shortage that resulted from Hurricane Katrina. Pye Parson and her son lost their home in Waveland during the hurricane and moved to Birmingham, Alabama. Pye, a realtor, dreamed of returning to Waveland with her new husband. The television show Tiny House Nation highlighted that dream in an episode documenting their 500-square-foot home being built.

However, prior to production, they had to clear a zoning ordinance that required the frontage of homes to be half of the size of the lot, which in the Parsons’ case, would have resulted in a house with at least 1,200 square feet.

Once the variance was given on the zoning, the tiny white home was built. It sits on stilts (as many do near the ocean) and features 12′-to-19′-high ceilings, both of which make the house appear much larger. The home includes two bedrooms and plenty of outdoor living space.

Mayor Mike Smith said on the show that he was convinced that little homes may be the way to help his community continue to rebuild. News reports have since suggested the mayor is looking into working with a developer to build a tiny house community.

If you want to build a tiny home in someone’s backyard, many local ordinances, especially those in cities with a high retiree population, allow for “mother-in-law” quarters on the property of larger homes (now referred to as accessory dwelling units). These typically cannot be on wheels, however, and must have power, water, and sewer hookups on a separate utility or connected to the main house.

Whether it is in a city or a rural area, never embark on building a little home without first thoroughly checking out the local county, city and/or state regulations regarding building codes. It’s also a good idea to first consult with a local builder with experience constructing little homes, as he or she may be knowledgeable about local building codes/laws. Foregoing these steps could turn your dream home into a nightmare.

Insurance is another major issue to be aware of when you have a tiny house on wheels. Even if your home is debt-free, you may still want to get insurance for fire or for the loss of items inside your home. Many companies that build tiny homes on wheels can refer you to insurance companies, since their homes are in the same classification as mobile or prefab homes or RVs. Luckily, since Our Little House and the Belle Writer’s Studio are on permanent foundations, we didn’t have any issues obtaining insurance through a major insurer.

When the codes and insurance frontiers are conquered, I predict that the tiny house movement will become a more accepted way of life in America and around the world. People will begin to recognize that living in a small space allows each person to achieve the definition of the American Dream that includes “the freedom to make both the large and small decisions that affect one’s life; the freedom to aspire to bigger and better things and the possibility of achieving them; the freedom to accumulate wealth and the opportunity to lead a dignified life; and the freedom to live in accordance with one’s values.”

Read more from Living Large in Our Little House: Tiny Home Hustle: Building a Business with Less Inputs

Reprinted with permission from Living Large in Our Little House by Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, and published by Reader’s Digest, 2016.