Do I Need a Building Permit to Construct a Tiny House in My Backyard?

Depending on a number of factors, including the size of the tiny house and its location, a building permit may or may not be required.

Question

I would like to construct a “tiny house” in my backyard, to rent to local college students. It will be built on a cement foundation. The local planning department told me tiny houses are a permitted land use on my property under the applicable zoning ordinance.

What remains unclear to me is whether the building code applies to the construction of tiny houses. I have been told by tiny house owners from other states not to worry about the building code, that it's not meant to cover tiny houses. Is this true?

Answer

Often defined as a house that is 80 to 400 square feet, and built either on a traditional house foundation or on a trailer bed (with or without wheels), tiny houses have grown rapidly in popularity. No uniform set of building standards or rules has been developed that applies to the construction of these miniature houses. Accordingly, in some cases, depending on a number of factors including size of the tiny house and its location, a building permit may not be required.

If the intent is for the tiny house to be occupied, though, in most all cases the local building code will apply. Building codes impose certain safety and construction standards to make sure structures are safe for occupancy.

For example, building codes impose minimum standards for the installation of electrical components in a house to make sure those components are safe and not a fire or electrocution hazard. The concern about making sure a house is safe for occupancy remains even when the house is a tiny house.

Depending on the location and type of the tiny house, a different safety standard may apply. For example, if the tiny house is built on wheels, the local jurisdiction may require that it comply with the same safety standards that apply to recreational vehicles.

In cases like yours, where it has already been determined that the tiny house is a permitted land use, a good next step is to head down to your local building department to inquire about what permits you must obtain. A building official can help determine what, if any, construction standards apply to your proposed tiny house.

Unfortunately, complying with building codes can be difficult, because of the standards imposed. For example, you may encounter a building code that requires at least one room of 120 square feet. That may be difficult to accommodate in a tiny house.

A contractor who is familiar with the applicable building code and the issues facing tiny-home builders can be a valuable resource. Tiny houses have their own complications, including how to get all that stuff into a such a small place. An expert can help avoid pitfalls with both the permitting and construction processes.

You also might seek out other tiny-house owners in your area, since they will hopefully be familiar with the applicable building code.

Some property owners may be hesitant to contact the planning or building department in fear that it will increase building costs and alert the local jurisdiction that they will be building a tiny house. Attempting to conceal one's activities is, however, a risky choice. If a neighbor complains to authorities about the tiny house, you may have to remove the tiny house and pay fines.

If you are unsure of what your legal obligations are, contact a land use attorney in your area.

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