These tiny rule-benders are the cutest outlaws, ever.
A common misconception is that you have to break rules to live in a tiny house. The truth is, tiny houses are flexible, clever little dwellings that in some places, defy classification. Where rules do exist, it’s possible to be resourceful and thoughtful about how to work within them so you get the amazing tiny house you want - while not running afoul of the law.
Here in Oregon, we have some of the most restrictive housing codes in the nation. That said, there are no rules prohibiting you from living tiny. In my decade of tiny house building, I have been asked, literally hundreds of times, “How can I legally live in a tiny house?” The fear of successfully building and moving into a tiny house only to get run out of it by government bureaucrats is a fear shared by many. But – do not fear! If you work within the rules, living tiny is not only great, it's legal.
Here are five things you need to know before you build, to make sure your tiny house is safe, sound, and within the rules (please check with your governing bodies to make sure before you take our thoughts and run out and start building! Iam not an attorney, and am not offering legal advice. I’m just helping you know where to look and what to consider when you think about how to build your tiny house):
1. Understand Your Neighborhood's CC&Rs:
Some neighborhoods have restrictive Contracts, Covenants & Restrictions. Think of an upscale neighborhood that wants to make sure all the houses are high-end and made of stone and all the homeowners cars are parked inside the garage. This is less than 1% of all American Neighborhoods. On occasion we've encountered neighborhoods where there are restrictions on tiny builds, but it's extremely rare. More likely, your CC&Rs are full of hilarious little tokens like, “Homeowners can have two chickens, but not three, and zero roosters.” Comb them for tiny house restrictions, and our bet is 99% of the time, you’ll come up empty handed.
2. Learn About Building Classifications:
One work-around in restrictive neighborhoods, should you be unlucky enough to live in one, is simply to submit your building plans to your governing entity (typically a city or county) with a creative classification. One example: in neighborhoods where Additional Dwelling Units are problematic, you could potentially use the category of Accessory Structure instead. Knowing this simple class reduces permit fees and opens up the building to fewer code requirements and restrictions. Win-win!
3. Consider Going Mobile:
Sometimes - not always - a mobile tiny house build can be a good workaround when you face restrictive codes. This can be true, but is not a universal truth. Typically, a mobile tiny house falls into the RV classification. This is only true if we follow a strict rule-set that includes items such as, a total width of 8'6” or less, length of 40' or less, and no peaked roof or wood siding. Additionally, a mobile tiny house only needs to involve the government when it’s time to move it (the DMV - everyone’s favorite!). Barring that, however, in many states there is no need for permission from anyone to build a mobile tiny house when you adhere to RV code.
4. Banks Hate Tiny Houses and Won’t Fund Them, Right?
We’ll give you this much: this was true until very recently. For decades, the rule was that no homes under 700 square feet were financeable. But guess what? Times change, and banks still need to sell you loans, so they’ve adapted. The tiny house movement has pushed lenders into new ground, and we've seen conventional mortgages on tiny houses - as long as they meet the minimum room size requirements, which are quite small. Talk to a mortgage broker or two before you give up on that 30 year tiny house loan with a payment that is laughably small.
5. Can’t We Just Build This Without a Permit?
More often than you might think, actually - so, yes, sometimes. In many states, buildings under 200 square feet do not require a permit. If you fully exploit the rules (working within them, but applying them creatively), you can get more space out of a footprint this small than you might expect. For instance, lofts built with less than 5 feet from floor to ceiling typically don’t count as square footage. Pop-outs (think: RV pop out) that are permanently out and house closets or day beds often won’t count either - as long as you keep it less than 5 feet between the walls of the tiny house, and the wall of the pop out. In my tiny house building years, I’ve worked with dozens of clients to perfect the 200 square foot tiny house that has almost 350 square feet of useable space.
Now: Go find out what tools and tricks I’ve shared will work for you where you live, and get going on this project, already!
Need more help? At HOW TO BUILD TINY, we know that building a tiny house is among the most exciting, exhilarating, challenging, devastating, amazing things you’ll do in your life. Building a house with your own two hands is truly an accomplishment. We can help you get this right the first time. If you make any one of these mistakes - much less a handful of them - or - gasp! - all of them - it will cost you a lot of time, money, and tears. Save all of that by learning How to Build Tiny up front. You can get in on this action in an unprecedented (and never to be repeated) way by supporting our Kickstarter. You can snag a ton of our educational courses and services there for a fraction of what they’lll cost in the future and you’ll help make tiny house building more efficient, effective, and productive for yourself and your tiny house compatriots in the future.
Contribute today - and tell your friends! We can’t do this without you. You’re the one who gets to build a new tiny house reality. Let’s take this movement to the next level.