Tiny House Rules In California You Should Know (Explained)

In Tiny Housesby Maria Fredgaard

According to “Tiny House Society”, the state of California has an overall score of 7/10 for being friendly toward tiny houses.

Although that is a generous score, we think it should be higher. Why? Because California laws are changing.

Recently, California has been making moves to amend their tiny house rules, policies and laws to fit in with the reality of what the Tiny House Movement in the United States has become!

We’ve listed some of the new and changing rules for California’s tiny house living. Check it out!

Are All Rules the Same Throughout All California Counties?

Like most states, each county and city will have its own building codes and zoning ordinances. This is because county lines tend to have different jurisdictions on its citizens, and don’t always agree.

California alone has 58 counties and 478 cities! Many of them have strict codes on what a tiny house can be used for, and where it can go.

In the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Sacramento, and Sonoma, tiny houses on wheels are allowed as “caregiver dwellings”. This means that the tiny house has to be in the backyard of someone who needs constant assistance from the owner of the tiny house.

However, there are a few counties that are relaxing their standards. Most notably, Fresno, San Jose and Sonoma counties of California are making great strides toward the tiny house movement!

In Fresno, for example, city zoning approved tiny houses on wheels without the owner having to be a full-time caregiver! The town of Ojai, after hearing about this, is also considering relaxing their laws on tiny house living.

We’re seeing a more relaxed view toward tiny house living, and easier laws and checklists for tiny house owners and builders in these areas!

However, be careful about major and expensive cities like Los Angels. Proven to be less inviting toward tiny house living, Los Angeles had seized the tiny homes that were built for homeless people in its community.

They have only just recently agreed to return them, but do not support the building of more communities within Los Angeles’ borders.

California Safety Standards

Universal tiny house safety standards for California are set by the California Department of Housing and Commercial Development (DHCD).

Site dwellings (foundation-type) must register with California Building Codes (CBC). Site dwellings now include ALQ’s, ADU’s, granny flats, backyard cottages, etc.

All other dwellings without foundations(see below) must register with American National Safety First (ANSI) and NFPA.

Although most counties and cities will have slightly different codes, rules or regulations, there are some basic codes and laws that apply to the whole state.

At the time of this writing, to be a lawful dwelling, tiny houses in California must be one of the following:

  • Recreational Vehicle
  • Factory-Built Housing
  • Parked Trailer
  • Camping Cabin
  • Manufactured Home
  • Site-Built Dwelling (which conforms to Standard California Building Codes)

All site dwellings MUST be registered with the California Building Codes department and must receive one of several types of state or local government approval prior to occupancy.

Furthermore, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (issued February 4th, 2016), tiny homes sold, rented, leased or occupied within California are only legal if they are:

  • Built on a chassis with axles
  • Contain 400 sq feet or less of gross floor area
  • Are considered an RV, CC or PT
  • (if not on chassis) Is placed on a foundation or permanently affixed to real property

How to Get More Information (and what to ask for):

Before you buy land or decide to build a tiny home, you will need to get the following information:

  • Local Zoning Codes (do they allow residential use?)
  • Development Criteria (minimum size requirements, setbacks, etc)
  • Building and Safety Standards (during construction primarily)
  • Underlying Zone (residential, commercial or industrial?)
  • Permitted Use (single-family dwelling, camping, vacation home, etc)
  • Minimum Lot & Home Sizes (distances to boundaries, roads or primary dwellings)

Who to Speak To

Speaking with California local offices and departments relating to zoning and building codes is a great way to learn more about this topic!

You can also learn a lot from licensed and professional realtors, who have been dealing with laws and regulations for tiny houses for years!

Most importantly, ask tiny house owners and realtors in the California area! Asking locally, especially in the county you want to set up your house, is always the best option.

Extra Things to Check!

Off-the-grid living is not always allowed. Some rules will stipulate that you must connect to sewage lines, water lines, etc.

Make sure to check that the land you want doesn’t have more than one zone ordinance, for example, rural/environmental. This type may prohibit you from putting up a tiny dwelling after you get the land and the plans together.

You may have to stick to rules with regards to how you landscape, what building materials you use or what color paint you’re allowed – depending on the local “aesthetics” of your town or county.

They may also have certain height requirements and you may have to put the plans before a committee.

Can I park a Tiny House in my Back Yard in California?

As we’ve mentioned above, counties like Fresno allow THOWs in backyards regardless of reason-of-use. However, in almost all other counties, you must be a licensed, full-time caregiver to live on someone’s property in a tiny home.

Furthermore, there are some rules and regulations that allow tiny homeowners with disabilities to live in back yard spaces near family or friends, but those vary wildly from county to county.

Make sure you are 100% sure about your specific county’s specifications and refer back above to the California Safety codes!

Can I Change Zoning Codes in a California County, City or Town?

It is possible to apply for zoning variances, or exemptions, before building a tiny house or buying vacant land.

However, the amount of paperwork, cost of legal advice, and fees will add up – with no guarantee that you will succeed!

Ask the local planning department to explain codes to you before you make an appeal.

California Tiny House Legislation Progress and Updates!

Certain counties have made astounding progress in their efforts to make tiny house living a recognized form of housing.

Even counties and cities that follow California’s general law have been succeeding in getting the laws changed to accommodate tiny homes.

But some counties, like Sacramento, still deem tiny houses illegal dwellings and will seize rights to property or even evict people who live there.

Fresno County Rules and Regulations (as an example)

We’ve mentioned Fresno a lot in this article – and for good reason!

In Fresno county, tiny homes are considered legal, detached structures from the primary dwelling (usually in the back yard) and are independent living quarters for one household.

You don’t have to be a caregiver or have a disability to live in one, and you generally are able to use it as a primary dwelling!

We have listed a few rules and regulations here to give you an idea of California codes and laws.

For THOWs, Six Conditions Must be Met:

  1. Your home must be licensed and registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) while meeting ANSI 119.2 or 119.5 requirements.
  2. Your home must be towable by bumper hitch or frame-towing hitch and have a 5-wheel connection.
    • It can’t move of its own power
    • Wheels and Undercarriage must be skirted
  3. For movement on public highways, must meet California law standards on length and weight.
  4. Your home must have at least 100 sq.ft. of 1st-floor interior living space.
  5. Your home must be a detached, self-contained unit that includes basic functional areas that support daily routines like:
    • Cooking
    • Ablutions
    • Sleeping
  6. Your home must be designed and built to look like a conventional home

For Permanent Structures There Must be Clear:

  1. Purpose
    • Must maintain the character of single-family neighborhoods
    • Must ensure new units are in harmony with developed neighborhoods
    • Must allow dwelling units as an accessory to single-unit dwelling consistent with Government Code Section 65852.2.
  2. Architectural Compatibility
    • If the home is visible from the street it must blend with the existing structures.
    • The exterior of the primary dwelling unit/backyard cottage/accessory living quarters (ALQ) must be the same as the primary dwelling.
  3. District Standards
    • A 2nd Dwelling unit / Backyard Cottage / ALQ (Accessory Living Quarters) may be established on any lot, in any residential area where single-unit dwellings are permitted.
    • There can only be one unit per lot.
    • Any minor deviations/variances to meet minimum lot size are not permitted.
  4. Minimum Lot Sizes
    • The 2nd Dwelling must be no less than 6,200 square feet.
    • If it is a backyard cottage, the interior lot size must be no less than 6,000 sq.ft. and the corner lot size must be no less than 5,000.
    • ALQ (accessory living quarters) must be no less than 5,000 sq.ft.
  5. Types of Units
    • The 2nd Dwelling unit must be separate and independent living quarters for one household
    • It can be attached or detached and located within the living area of a private dwelling. (Subject to District Standards).

There are similar rules and restrictions in Alameda and Contra Costa counties as well. Ojai, as we mentioned before, is also following Fresno’s lead to change their rules and laws!

Final Thoughts

As with any state in the United States, rules and regulations are always going to be a little different.

Knowing the information beforehand, and allowing yourself plenty of time and energy to research, is crucial before you make any steps toward tiny living.

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