Codes and the Tiny House

If there is one question most tiny house builders get asked the most it is the dreaded “Code” question. Building a tiny house is in part an act of rebellion. It is a sort of civil disobedience. Tiny houses are not considered truly legal anywhere, so building one can take a little creativity. I reached out to Macy Miller of MiniMotives to get her professional take on building codes. She is not only a tiny house builder herself but she works with her city as well and had an insider’s view of code enforcement. Here is the interview I did with her for your code research pleasure.

Where is the best place to start to find out what your local codes are?

The best place to start is to go down to your local City Hall, inside of it there is a “Planning Department.”  People are there to help the public through all their building and zoning questions.  If you are curious about code requirements but are planning to build on a trailer you may want to leave that part off in the conversation.  Once you mention that the tiny house is on wheels they will look at you like you’re crazy and stop helping – once it’s on wheels it becomes a DMV/Highway District issue rather than a city code issue.  However, the DMV will not be able, in most cases, to help you out with any ‘code’ related stuff. They will do their own checks as much as they can to make sure your house won’t fall off the freeway and endanger others, even then, they are not structural engineers so don’t expect too terribly much!

Even though most code officials won’t be able to help I still highly encourage people to go speak with officials, this will serve to let them know there is a growing demand for help and safety in this area.  Those people you speak with are more likely to bring it up at their next meeting and the code officials are the ones who make the codes – they all meet and discuss the priorities and adapt to them, the more people they collectively see coming in to ask about tiny houses the more likely it is that tiny houses are going to start to be considered at the code level.

If you want to go the passive way around things you can look up a copy of the Residential Building Code as well as your local building requirements (generally found on your cities website under something that resembles a ‘Planning and/or Development’ department – this book and these codes are however pretty complex and difficult to work through without experience. If you try and you get stuck you always have the code officials at City Hall to help you understand.

Photo credit Tammy Strobel of Rowdy Kittens.

What are the typical things that tiny house builders will come up against in the process?

Typical things that will come up and what drives a lot of people to go with the wheels route instead of a foundation are minimum house sizes. That is probably the biggest limiting factor as I see it.  The smallest minimum habitable dwelling I have heard of is 400 square feet and even that had to be as an accessory dwelling (in combination with the bigger “main structure”).  There are of course other factors, I think the next biggest one would be the egress requirements from a loft type of space.  [This is typically] 5.7 square feet of operable [window/door], which are navigable; but not if you already don’t meet the size requirements.

Once you get into a tiny house on wheels situation you have other enforceable code issues you will have to work with, not so much in the structure but in the parking.  If you are on wheels you will have to register your house as a semi-trailer, an RV, or a mobile home (these are the only divisions I have heard of, there may be others out there though).  The issues with each should be considered, a mobile home can only be parked in designated mobile home parks (maybe not the ideal situation for most of the crew that is interested in tiny houses… unless someone starts to develop tiny house parks… which is a development option I am interested in looking into – but that’s a whole OTHER story! :) – the best I can tell this is because they have systems set up to tax these dwellings appropriately for city functions like fire/police/schools etc.).  Semi-trailers cannot be lived in for any amount of time and RVs generally have rules set by each city for how long you can live in them in the same location (our limit is 30 days).  Not to say that you couldn’t find a place to park it where no one will ever complain.  Generally the time limit with RVs isn’t enforced unless there is a complaint. The best way to avoid this would be to speak with your would-be neighbors and make sure the subdivision/city codes don’t have any statements prohibiting RVs.

What is the best way to make your case to the local government about building a tiny space?
Right now there is no way I know of.  These are not legal; you won’t get any sort of official approval.  You may be able to do it and fly under the radar but there is not a single tiny house that is fully “legal.”  The best thing we can do right now is bring the issue up to local officials so they can start to put it on their radar for future meetings when talking about codes.

Right now the 2015 codes is being worked on, I have pretty much been assured that tiny houses won’t be addressed in it.  Currently most areas are still on the 2009 code, switching over to 2012 next year (they re-evaluate codes every 3 years).  That means, in the best case possible, we are looking at getting tiny houses incorporated into codes by 2018 and not fully adopted until 2019-2020 but every government process is very involved and time consuming.  We need to be able to show a demand for change and we need a few strong leaders that can push at a higher level for change.  I think we definitely have a group of willing people to step up and push at a higher level, myself included, but if there are others I would highly recommend they get involved, they can email me specifically if they want! [You can reach Macy through her blog at Minimotives.com]

What are the best ways to get around codes when thinking of building tiny? 
Building on wheels is the biggest thing you can do.  You become a DMV/Highway District issue, you pay your permits through them (which are much cheaper than building permits) and you do what you can. There is a huge lack of security in knowing you can just be where you are, you become very dependent on your relationships and finding someone who will share their lot with you and hopefully doesn’t have neighbors that will complain. If they do, you find a new spot.

What are the best ways to work with the community to make changes that will help tiny house builders?
Be involved!  Talk to city planners and code officials and let them know what you would like to do. You can do this without telling them you’re going to do it anyway.  Get this on your local cities radar, just endure the crazy looks.  One local county here actually saw the demand and have changed their local zoning codes to say that you can live in an RV full time, so long as you meet a short list of requirements, that means that, in that county tiny houses registered as RVs are in-fact legal with a little extra care. Unfortunately this is a very rural area and isn’t where I personally want to be.

I have actually expected more crazy looks than I’ve gotten. There are a lot of people who will think you’re brilliant for wanting to do this. Tiny houses were not a big deal 60 years ago, they were totally normal.  Now there are whole generations of people who have bought into the “American Dream” of so much debt you can’t help but work ridiculous amounts of your life away paying for it.  With the economy how it’s been we are seeing a lot more understanding and almost jealousy of being able to pare down to something that makes so much sense!

I should say, if you ever get a chance to talk to a planner/code official, either by going down there purposefully or just bumping into one, the best question you can ask is “Are you guys (or is your city) looking at the possibility of tiny houses and allowing for them in zoning codes?”  They will almost always say “nope,” but it will plant a seed in their head and it will carry forward.


Laura is a contributing writer for Tiny House Listings and she walks the walk. Her and her husband live in a 120 square foot cabin in Asheville, NC that her and her husband Matt built themselves. You can learn more about Laura and Matt at their website 120squarefeet.com.

Want to get great tiny-house related stories like this sent directly to your inbox? You’ll also get new tiny houses posted for sale as well, absolutely free. Click here to join us.

This post has 80,670 views

Category : Blog

26 Comments → “Codes and the Tiny House”


  1. A. Spath

    Nov 01, 2012

    As someone who’s looking ahead to doing something like this within a few years, this article is very helpful! I am also wondering about insurance for these dwellings…are there any blog posts, or might someone be willing to author one, about this topic? I’m pretty sure thta the insurance companies will say “If it’s not up to code, we won’t insure it…”

    Reply

  2. Abel Zyl

    Nov 03, 2012

    Apparently, Quebec, Canada, has an on-the-table way to site tiny houses on wheels. British Columbia is not far behind.

    I live in the Pacific Northwest, and know ALOT of people living in tiny houses on wheels… i recently polled them, and not one is ‘code’ or zoning approved for fulltime living. If it has no bathroom or kitchen, things are more legally doable, as a sort of bedroom, or guest space.

    Oregon is pretty progressive. Things may happen there first? Just guessing.

    I am all ears about anything anyone has recently heard or pulled off, as far as the local planners are concerned. Cause I own a tiny house on wheels (and am a builder.)

    So nice to see this discussion happening.

    Reply

    • Michelle

      Mar 21, 2013

      Can you tell me more about the Quebec laws? I haven’t been able to find anything. I live in Montreal and want to have one built

      Reply

  3. Claudia

    Nov 03, 2012

    Thanks for all the info, Laura!

    The main reason I haven’t (yet) taken the tiny-house-on-wheels plunge is there is no place to legally park it for fulltime living (most of the local RV parks don’t allow year-round living plus they’re not the nicest places to live and the building codes prohibit RV/mobile home use on private land unless you’re hours away from civilization, which isn’t ideal).

    Reply

  4. Karen Batchelor

    Nov 03, 2012

    Thanks for the very helpful discussion on the tiny house zoning and code issues. I want to build next year and appreciate your help in identifying the roadblocks along the way.

    Reply

  5. Anni

    Nov 03, 2012

    Thank you for this piece. It was really helpful. While I keep looking at and longing for a tiny house, I’ve never been able to get a straight answer out of anyone as to exactly WHERE one can be put. This really cleared all that up. What is the one local county who has changed their codes, at least for those on wheels? Maybe it’ll be the right place for me.

    Reply

    • Laura M. LaVoie

      Nov 06, 2012

      I would have to ask Macy Miller as she was referring to a county in Idaho so I am uncertain.

      Reply

    • Macy Miller

      Nov 08, 2012

      I believe it was it was Cassia County Idaho (I can’t be 100% sure, the guy slipped out of the room before I could talk to him). The county requires you either buy an approved composting toilet OR sign a contract with a waste removing service. Both of which seem pretty achievable!

      Reply

      • Ivan Nanney

        Jul 05, 2014

        Hey Macy,

        Which route did you go with registering your tiny house? Mobile home or RV?

        Reply

  6. Molly

    Nov 03, 2012

    I am sure you have done a lot of research on the issue. but not all of this is correct. There ARE towns where the minimum square footage for a single family home is smaller, with no other buildings required on the property. I have read several blogs from people who built around 400 sq feet, all legal and to code. There are also lots of places where you can have a mobile home on your private property as the only dwelling. No mobile home park required. There are also LOTS of places outside city limits where you can legally park your tiny home on your own land, no other building required

    Then again, I live in the Midwest. The tiny home movement seemed concentrated on the coasts, so maybe people are not familiar with codes in the Midwest.

    Reply

    • Laura M. LaVoie

      Nov 06, 2012

      I do know that Macy was speaking of her specific experience in the Boise Idaho area. I know that there are places near Asheville where a 400 square foot home can be built according to code.

      Reply

      • Laura M. LaVoie

        Nov 06, 2012

        Oh, and I’ll add – always check your local codes. They can vary not only state by state but county by county. Building Codes and Tiny Houses are *NOT* one size fits all.

        Reply

        • Molly

          Nov 07, 2012

          I agree about always checking local codes. What bothered me I guess from this article was that in the very first paragraph it says, “Tiny houses are not considered truly legal anywhere.” A lot of people are going to take that at face value and think they cannot park a tiny home anywhere in the country legally. If she is writing about just one local area, then that needs to be stated. A lot of people look to sites like this as a source of information for their tiny home dreams.

          Reply

          • Laura M. LaVoie

            Nov 07, 2012

            Tiny houses are very much a legal gray area throughout this country. That is precisely why we are getting this issue out there and hoping to change the attitude and ultimately the laws over time.


  7. Amy Turnbull

    Nov 03, 2012

    I really enjoyed this interview. I have been dreaming the tiny house dream for the last few years. I sold my 2,800 square foot home in Sherman Oaks, California and am studying City Planning at California State University, Northridge. I definitely want to be involved in this movement! I’m currently living in 500 square feet and I have a 16×6 travel trailer so I guess you could say I’m trying the tiny life out!

    Reply

    • melanie

      Jun 15, 2014

      Hi Amy
      I live in Burbank. I was thinking of buying land and building as small of a house as I legally am allowed to. I think Los Angeles County is 800 sq feet? Do you have any information so I can start learning how to do this? Thanks:)
      Melanie

      Reply

  8. ImReady

    Nov 06, 2012

    I live in North-East Texas, and I guess you can park anything you own, anywhere on your own property that you want to. Nobody can tell you what to do on your own land. Maybe our laws are different than other states, I’m not sure. In cities, it might be different, but, here, in the country, you’re your own boss. Well, there is one thing, if you want to have electricity to your tiny home, you have to have an up to code septic system. This is a law with ALL houses, not just tiny ones. Plus, our state law requires an aerobic septic system now. BUT, if you’re “self-contained” all you need is electricity. I am not sure, but, I believe that if you have a piece of land, and just have a well pump house, you may be able to get electricity ran to it. Or, a barn for animals….I should check these things before posting, but, I haven’t. I may see what I can find out, and re- post later. I am a builder, and have a very strong desire to build tiny houses, for myself, and to sell as well. I’ll see what I can find out about the laws here.

    Reply

  9. Molly

    Nov 07, 2012

    The Tiny House blog has an article today about a person who built a tiny home in VT and parked it on his private land. He wrote that their are no building requirements in VT, but that each home must have a septic system. It’s good to know there are places you can legally park your tiny house.

    Reply

  10. Andria

    Nov 28, 2012

    Thanks for the helpful article. My husband and I have just begun our journey of building our tiny house on a trailer, and I’m starting to delve into the ever frustrating book of codes! We live in the Washington, D.C. metro area and have yet to find a county nearby that allows this type of living. I know there is a group in the heart of D.C. that is building a tiny home community, but that’s it. We’re looking for more rural in Maryland or Virginia. These tips will hopefully make our quest much less painful!

    Reply

    • Janna

      Mar 29, 2013

      Andria in DC area, I would love to get in touch and to see how your tiny home building experience is going so far. I am considering building one in Montgomery County MD and would love to speak with someone who has had any amount of experience with it in this area.

      Reply

  11. bob henry

    May 08, 2013

    Here is my latest effort in the effort to make tiny houses a known option !

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Senator Daniel Coats
    And Representative Todd Rokita

    The desire for clean air, clean water and a safe environment are important goals shared by everyone. I support responsible environmental legislation that protects the environment, while also protecting the rights of individuals and businesses. Todd Rokita

    This letter is directed to two men whom I feel have the above goals in their agendas. I am writing because I have spent the last 11 months building a tiny house and now find it illegal for anyone to live in less than 750 square feet in Indiana. I knew after the loss of my wife I would be unable to exist long on one income with the debt load that we had formerly shared so I started building my tiny house. It was to be a last resort, an economic lifeboat to house me in comfort in the most efficient manner possible if needed. I retired last August at 62 in concern to get it locked in before the elections. I was aware the 1500+ benefits would not begin to provide enough to fulfill my financial obligations so my planning was starting to prove out.
    I have continued to work, and soon used up the benefits that I was eligible for in fixing my car and keeping the bills paid and to have heat for the winter. I no longer have social security benefits available for the remainder of 2013 as I have exceeded the maximum earnings and once again I am flowing out to sea on the waves of debt. I place the house on short sale in March to alleviate the house payment and used what disposable income I had to keep current with all other creditors and what was left went into the tiny house construction. I have been working with the state department of transportation to purchase” salvage” property left over after the relocation of S.R. 28 near Frankfort IN. It is located right across from where I work. This will save the gas and time I now invest in my 52 mile round trip commute to and from work. The DOT grinds so slow it is maddening as we are in the 11 month of my request. Added to the frustration the Clinton County zoning board sees a tiny house on wheels as an RV hence I have to rezone the property for a single unit campground on special exception. If they had ruled it as a mobile home I guess I would have had to zone as a single unit mobile home park. This is because there are no rights or precedence’s for tiny houses especially when it’s on wheels. Not an RV not a mobile home not a standard framed home but yet it shares some features of all.

    I am linking in my build thread. It is lengthy weekly cronical of my build efforts starting with the Design in November of 2011 It is well illustrated and shows the care in design and strength of the tiny home’s framing.
    http://www.tnttt.com/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=47804
    The last two pages document the problems I am having with Tippecanoe County with regard to temporarily placing the tiny house where I have just leased a 1500 square foot shop while I wait on the DOT to complete their “environmental” study.
    To date it has taken 10 month, it was originally initiated on Wed. July 25 2012 by Bert Herron of INDOT to Mjchel Kuel of Colliers International the real estate sales arm of INDOT). I would like to say Bert has been my rock I think she see the merit in what I am attempting to do.

    I will end with the most recent post on page 32 of the thread above from a very wise fellow from Illinois. He makes a lot of sense and exposes the crux of the problem experienced here and elsewhere.

    Bob, my experience with local laws have always said that if something is not expressly allowed then anything else is not. So the fact that your building does not fit any current description may be what is working against you. Most of my dealing with municipalities has been VERY frustrating. They are people that have never had to do anything but look in a book and find a way to deny you. Why, because that is the easiest way to end things. Looking for solutions or seeing that what you want to do is not covered anywhere is work. They won’t go there.
    If I were you I would not use my jail scenario. That was more for you, as to say they are putting you in jail with their ruling yet they don’t meet their own criteria by housing inmates in 48 square feet rather than the 750 that Indiana requires in a residence. My experiences have also shown me that while you need to be firm you can’t be rude or threatening in any way or they will just turn you away, and enjoy doing it.
    My strategy would be to show them that times are changing. New ways of doing things are evolving. Use the green approach. Smaller dwellings that do not disturb the ground. Less carbon footprint. Less waste in both utilities and trash generated by larger homes. Show websites of tiny homes with examples of where people put them and how the local governments dealt with them. Be careful to show those communities that were welcoming and had a good experience with tiny homes and there owners. Use your arguments as a learning experience for those who’s minds you need to change. Other than the fact that they don’t have a box for your project fits in, ask them what are the reasons for denying you and what steps need to be taken to allow you to go forward. This has been the process since we stopped living in caves and moved into log cabins and tee pees. Somewhere along the way someone wanted to live in a mobile home and had to do what you are asking now. Others wanted to live in a townhouse, sharing walls and common grounds. All these required rearranging of the ways we were use to living. So what you are asking is no different. You just need to get them to see that this is a movement that is coming whether they like it or not. You just happen to be the first they are seeing of it. You are there to educate them not fight with them, and to find a solution. My suggestion, show them compelling arguments in favor of this . Then request a temporary variance, because you are not currently governed by a statute. Ask for a 3 year variance. At the end of that time your project would be evaluated. If they found you to be unworthy for ANY reason they could with draw their variance and you put the wheels on you home and drive away. Before you do that, go to all the neighboring properties and ask for their blessing. You should also keep the property in pristine condition. Lawn always mowed, plant flowers, the place has to be charming. The same interest must be present that we currently receive with our teardrop trailer campers. You know what happens where we drive into a camp ground with big 5th wheels and giant motor homes. They often times just dismiss us as Kooks. But once they see what we are doing and start to understand, they often compliment us on how streamlined our little campers are.

    I wish you well. I just caution you to go in smiling, not with guns drawn. These people are not usually reasonable, they don’t have to be, they work for the government and unfortunately “we the people” are not who they work for.

    I am in hopes you can take a moment from your busy schedule to intercede for me and others who would like to embrace this simpler, greener, and more economic mode of housing. Washington State and Oregon have embraced the tiny lifestyle and have even offered state help to develop this trend. At current all Ken Brown the Tippecanoe County building commissioner can tell me is build it bigger and more wasteful and Clinton county can not decide if I am a home an RV or a mobile home.

    Robert L. Henry

    Reply

    • Laura M. LaVoie

      May 08, 2013

      There is a great new resource out: an ebook by Ryan Mitchell of The Tiny Life called “Cracking the Code.” You can find it at http://www.thetinylife.com

      Reply

    • randy

      Jan 02, 2014

      Sir I would encourage you to look at the link I am providing.I found this and plan on purchasing my land soon.From what I understand your tiny house would not be much different than staying in a covered wagon or renting a cabin at a campground.I will post these at the entrance to my property.I fully expect a fight but in this case the law will side with me,hopefully.

      http://indianahomestead.com/log-cabin-rule/

      Reply

  12. olga

    Nov 03, 2013

    has anyone in orange county, ca tried this? have u had any trouble there?

    Reply

  13. daniel james

    Jan 20, 2014

    i think it would behoove any tiny house builder to become acquainted with sui juris law… that we need permission from the government to do anything on private property just goes to show how much the vision of the founding fathers’ has vanished… we are all kings and queens of our possessions… and what people forget is that we were once (and still are) lawfully able to exercise our right to freedom so long as we do not infringe on any others’

    Reply

  14. Clint

    Jun 08, 2014

    I think the best way around having to run electricity out is to go solar with some sort of backup station. If you’re going to do this anyway, do it right and remain completely off the grid.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Send to Friend

Email Agent