There’s a lot to love about tiny houses, which have a reduced footprint of no more than 400 square feet; many are half that size or smaller. They’re full of cute spaces, cubby holes, loft bedrooms, and mini major appliances. They appeal to notions of simplicity and a low-maintenance, low-impact lifestyle. Their small configuration also makes them more affordable than a full-sized home in some circumstances.
Sounding ideal? Before you get out your toolkit and begin drawing up floor plans, you should know that legalities surrounding tiny homes are unique to them. Here’s what to expect.
Foundation or Movable?
Before we dive into specifics, let’s differentiate the type of tiny home you’re planning for. Some tiny houses are built on a fixed foundation, while others are built so they can easily be picked up and transported from place to place. These “movable” tiny houses are typically classified not as residences, but as recreation vehicles, or RVs.
With a different classification, the regulations for movable tiny houses differs greatly from tiny houses built on a foundation. For one, movable homes are usually approved to park in RV parks, but the length of stay is often limited. The need to relocate, perhaps as often as every few days or weeks, may diminish the appeal of living full-time in a movable home. If you plan for your tiny house to be a permanent residence, we recommend building on a foundation instead of planning to travel regularly with your home.
Because of their uniqueness, tiny houses aren’t governed by the same set of rules as traditional-sized houses.
Zoning ordinances not only dictate how parcels of land can be used within certain geographical boundaries, but they also place restrictions on structures that can be built within a zone, such as minimums and maximums to square footage and height.
Tiny houses may violate zoning laws because, as David Reischer, New York attorney and CEO of Legal Advice, explains, “many zoning regulations will require a house to be more than a set minimum of square feet.”
In some instances, an exception to a zoning ordinance can be granted. For example: granting a nursery a variance to grow plants for sale on a larger lot in a residential neighborhood, even though that area isn’t zoned for commercial activity. Depending on local regulations, which vary town to town and state to state, a variance can create an opportunity to build a tiny house in a place where it normally wouldn’t be allowed. Several states have adopted flexible zoning ordinances, including California, Texas, and Colorado. You check out the top five tiny-home-friendly states here.
It’s not just a matter of where you place your tiny house, but also how you build it. Building codes are sets of regulations governing the design, construction, alteration, and maintenance of homes and other structures in a community. Similar to zoning ordinances, building codes vary from place to place.
Many communities adopt model building codes established by the International Code Council (ICC). In 2018, the ICC approved Appendix Q, model codes specifically for permanent residences under 400 square feet. These guidelines were a huge win for tiny living advocates, and Appendix Q has been approved by several states and counties. In places that haven’t adopted specific tiny house building codes, tiny houses typically follow the same building codes as full-sized residential homes. It can be harder to get them classified as a permanent residence in these places, so be sure to plan ahead and familiarize yourself with local legislation.
Even if your home is tiny, you’re going to want to make sure it’s insured. Ron Hettler, CEO at Hettler Insurance Agency, an independent insurance brokerage firm in Texas, says insurance is available for this type of home, but there are a few factors to consider:
- How was the tiny house built
- If the tiny house is movable, how often you plan to move it
- Whether you own or lease the land on which the tiny house is located
- Whether you intend to occupy or rent out the tiny house
“If a tiny home has a permanent foundation, it’s eligible for a dwelling fire or specialty homeowner’s policy with Foremost,” Hettler says. “Lloyd’s of London also sells a policy for the main dwelling, personal property, loss of use, personal liability and medical payments to others. However, this policy doesn’t cover theft of a tiny home.”
If you’re going the movable home route, a tiny house built to RV specifications by a certified manufacturer is easier to insure than a tiny house you built yourself, Hettler adds.
Tiny houses aren’t always easy places to live, and getting to the point of moving in takes some strategy. But if you plan ahead and are fully aware of what you’re getting yourself into, your new tiny home could be waiting for you just around the corner.
Feeling overwhelmed? If so, consider purchasing a regular-sized home with traditional legal expectations. Check out NewHomeSource for all the latest listings in your area. For more tiny home inspiration, check out our Instagram!
Marcie Geffner is an award-winning freelance reporter, writer and editor in Ventura, California. In the last decade, she has penned more than 1,000 published stories about residential and commercial real estate, banking, credit cards, computer security, health insurance and small business, among other subjects. Editors describe her as “detail-driven,” “conscientious,” “smart” and “incredibly versatile.” Her award-winning reporting has been lauded as “rock solid,” “spot-on relevant,” “informative,” “engaging,” “interesting” and “nuanced.” Her stories have been cited in seven published nonfiction books and two U.S. Congressional hearings.
Prior to her freelance career, Geffner was senior editor of California Real Estate magazine. Later, she became managing editor of Inman.com, an independent real estate news website. She also has prior employment experience in technical writing, corporate communications and employee communications. She received a bachelor’s degree in English with high honors from UCLA and master’s degree in business administration (MBA) from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. She enjoys reading, home improvement projects and watching seagulls at the beach.