When you first get the idea to own or build a tiny home, the excitement of the decision can sometimes cloud the reality of what it takes to get one done.
Tiny homes have been contested in a lot of areas for various reasons.
Sometimes it has to do with its effect on the housing market; other times, cities can’t decide if a tiny home should legally be considered a home or a recreational vehicle, cabin, or shed.
These distinctions make it harder to live your tiny house dream, but it isn’t impossible.
Many people live the dream every single day, and you can too.
Tiny Houses and Laws Surrounding them In the United States:
Tiny houses come with a lot of zoning and safety laws, insurance questions, and specific regulations. The height, permanent foundation, trailer, wheels, and even hookups can determine whether or not your tiny home is a legal residency or simply a recreational home which you can’t live in full time.
What Aspects of Tiny Houses are Considered Illegal?
Tiny homes aren’t necessarily “illegal” on their own; rather, the trend of tiny homes out there that are so popular doesn’t usually meet all requirements and regulations.
Tiny homes enter into a legal grey area due to distinction and definition.
Basically, most local governments will change their minds from city to city, state to state, about whether or not your tiny home is a camper, a mobile home, or a permanent foundation home.
There may be minimum standards that apply to electrical installation, plumbing, and waste removal, and even how kitchens and bathrooms are built. Depending on the location and how you answer the list of questions, different regulations may apply.
This can depend on a few factors:
Tiny Houses on Wheels:
One easy example to understand is that if your tiny home is on wheels – aka a trailer with wheels and hookups – it is automatically considered by many local governments to be a recreational vehicle.
If that is the case, some areas don’t allow full-time residency in a recreational vehicle, so you couldn’t say, park your RV on a plot of land or a campsite and claim it is your house.
Note: if you decide to get your tiny home on wheels and register it legally in your state as an RV at first, you will have a difficult time claiming it is a permanent residential home later if you decide to put down roots.
Furthermore, if your tiny home is considered an RV, the insurance for it and what those insurance covers will be very different from homeowners’ insurance.
If your tiny home burned down for some reason, your settlement will be based on an RV insurance factor rather than what you would receive for the entire loss of your home, etc.
Therefore, if you are thinking of turning your tiny home into your permanent home, you might want to look into a permanent foundation tiny home instead of one on wheels.
Tiny Houses on Permanent Foundations:
As soon as you decide that your tiny home will be structured on permanent foundations, there is a lot of red tape and paperwork to get through to make sure that you can classify it as a permanent single-family home or residence.
For your tiny home to be considered “tiny,” it must be 400 square feet or less. This is important because you need to start with the basics.
Some local ordinances require that a tiny home be 1,000 square feet or more to be considered a “home.” This is frustrating for tiny house owners who want to create a small, eco-friendly residence.
While some places like Philidelphia or Sarasota County in Florida don’t have size restrictions for you to consider your tiny home a “house,” most local ordinances find it to be illegal to build a home under a certain amount of square footage.
You’ll need to check with your local ordinances to find out if you qualify.
Building Codes & Requirements:
A home needs certain things to be considered a safe and legal environment or structure.
This means having enough ventilation, safe stairs, plenty of light and windows, as well as plumbing and electrical hookups to the city grid.
If your tiny home is considered a home, you may need to meet these requirements and codes.
For example, if you are building a composting outhouse or outdoor office shed, then those would be considered separate structures from home. Then the home would be without certain amenities, such as bathroom facilities.
Furthermore, your home itself can be small in square footage, but it has to be tall enough to meet certain standards – such as being six to seven feet tall.
Most tiny homes can reach that requirement because they include loft spaces for sleeping, but if yours does not, you may need to rethink your structure.
Heating & Amenities:
Your home will require a source of heat, a place to eat, sleep, wash, and live on a day-to-day basis.
Basically, your tiny home needs to be a safe, humane place to live with plenty of living space, light, heat, and comforts. Otherwise, the county would consider your “home” to be a “shed” instead.
Heat can come in a couple of different forms for a tiny home, such as central heating or getting a wood stove.
As most rustic homeowners can tell you, having something like a wood stove in their tiny home is the ultimate dream, but those wood stoves or fireplaces always require many permits and sign-offs by inspectors before you can implement them.
Therefore it is much simpler to get central heating than go through all the trouble of trying to do something a little more creative.
However, at the end of the day, if you are willing to go to all the trouble, you can really turn your tiny home into whatever you’d like it to be – as long as it follows regulations and ordinances.
Why Do the Rules Differ so Much from State to State?
Cities want to ensure that their citizens are residing in properties that are built to certain standards.
Understanding the city you live in and their unique regulations is key if you want to avoid some of these major consequences. Each state, city, and county will have its own consequences for those who live in their tiny home illegally.
Tiny house laws can result from different housing markets, property taxes, and developers and how their needs can affect the local laws. Furthermore, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development has been known to try and consider tiny homes as strictly RVs or make regulations too specific and difficult to meet.
If you live in Philidelphia, for example, you might have grown up in a relaxed housing environment where tiny homes are allowed and even embraced.
However, you may move somewhere where tiny homes are not only difficult to build but are often even pushed back against by local ordinances that don’t want tiny house neighborhoods or villages popping up in their area.
It all depends on the local government, their distinctions of “what constitutes a house” and how tiny houses must be built.
How Do I Know if Tiny Houses are Illegal in My State?
This is one of the most important questions to ask when deciding if you will purchase or build your own tiny home and live in it full-time.
If that is the case, you should definitely look into the rules and regulations of your state.
Local county clerk offices and construction companies can tell you pretty quickly if your dream tiny home meets local standards and requirements.
This is more important than Googling whether or not your entire state finds tiny homes legal or illegal because, ultimately, your local government has a huge say in what exactly you can build and where.
Furthermore, if your state generally welcomes tiny homes, but the city you live in doesn’t, you might find that you had found inaccurate information in your research.
Therefore, it is crucial to ask local governments and offices whether or not you can indeed build what you want.
What Happens if you Live in an Illegal Tiny House?
If you have built your tiny home without getting all your requirements checked and ready to go, you may have made a mistake that will make your tiny home illegal or under required to be considered a permanent home.
If that is the case, then you might find that you may not be required to move your tiny home, but the county that you live in may have the right to evict you from the premises if it is found to be illegal according to the local codes and ordinances.
Furthermore, you could end up paying fines; you could even have your tiny house declared “uninhabitable,” which makes it illegal for you to live on the premises.
Always, always proceed with caution when you start building or buying a tiny house.
Are More States Legalizing Tiny Houses?
The tiny house movement is booming, and state governments are trying to meet the demands of a new generation of homeowners.
States like California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Oregon have been known to allow tiny homes to meet certain standards and even embrace them!
Texas is also a tiny house friendly place, but again, all these states have different local ordinances that you will need to look into before you can move there and put down roots.
Basically, tiny house living is growing bigger and bigger, but whether or not you can just put your home anywhere is a matter for local government.
How Can I Get Involved in the Fight for Tiny Houses?
If you are interested in improving tiny house laws and regulations in your local government, getting involved in local politics and town hearings is a great way to get started.
The United States is a democratic country that allows citizens to make their voices heard through petitions, requests, call for new business at local meetings, and even to write their governor or congressman.
If you are truly passionate about the tiny house movement, get involved!
Just don’t encroach upon others’ civil liberties as you do so.
Shelby Sullivan is our specialist when it comes to pontoon boats and recreational watercraft. She is often found sailing the freshwater lakes of Michigan. She is also a light-traveler who enjoys camping and traveling the world. Read more about Shelby here.