Can I Build a Tiny House on a Vacant Land in Colorado?

Whether a tiny house will be legal in Colorado depends largely on the laws of the local jurisdiction.

Question

I want to build a tiny house in Colorado to use as a summer cabin. In case I ever want to move the tiny house or sell it, I do not want to build it on a permanent foundation. Instead, I want to build it on wheels. Is this legal in Colorado? If so, can I place it on any rural lot I find?

Answer

In Colorado, whether a tiny house on wheels (“THOW”) is legal will depend on local laws and regulations. And because of zoning, what rural lot you place it on does matter. What is legal on one lot may not be legal on a neighboring lot, perhaps due to the physical characteristics of the lot or the zoning district each lot is in.

Since every case is different, you will need to complete site-specific research before buying. Hiring local experts, like a tiny-house builder and a land use attorney, may be helpful.

Before Buying Any Land, Complete Your Due Diligence

It is critical to complete a thorough inspection of any property before you buy it to make sure you can use it in the way you want to. You want to make sure that a THOW, when used as a seasonal second home, is legal. To afford buyers time to make these determinations, most purchase agreements give time to complete  due diligence  (often referred to as the "due diligence period").

How much time and money a buyer spends on due diligence will depend in large part on the value of the subject property and the importance the buyer places on being able to use the land in a specific way (such as for a seasonal dwelling). In a case like this, where you want to buy land to put a THOW to use as a second home, due diligence should include, at a minimum:

• a thorough review of the local zoning code to confirm you can use a THOW as a seasonal dwelling on the subject property

• a detailed examination of the building and safety standards that will apply to the construction of your THOW to make sure it is feasible to build on your selected lot

• an appraisal to confirm you are paying a fair price (if you are borrowing money, the lender will require this), and

• confirmation that the property has legal access, adequate domestic water, no boundary line issues, and  clear title.

Additional due diligence may be prudent, such as a building inspection if there is an existing structure or an environmental assessment if there was prior commercial or industrial use on the property.

A Colorado real estate agent can help make sure your due diligence is thorough. Not only can a real estate agent help locate potential vacant land for you to buy, but the agent can also help with due diligence issues, and when necessary, refer you to local experts, such as surveyors, builders, and attorneys.

Local Land Use and Zoning Regulations Control Development

Land use and  zoning  regulations control how land can be used and developed. In Colorado, there is no statewide land use plan. Instead, city and county governments prepare local land use plans and regulations.

Rural land is most often located outside city limits. As a result, county regulations will most likely apply. You will want to review the county’s land use and zoning regulations to see how the vacant lot you are thinking about buying can be used.

If the land you are looking at is in a resource zone, you may find more restrictive regulations designed to protect resources uses like mining and agriculture. If the property is in a rural residential zone, residential type uses will typically be more acceptable than in a resource zone.

As you review the zoning code and map, look for:

• what the underlying zone is (for example, rural residential or resource)

• what uses are allowed in that zone (for example, look to see if RVs are a legal use) and if so, whether your will need to apply for a permit

• what development standards apply, such as minimum lot sizes, setbacks, and even minimum home size, and

• what building standards apply.

In Colorado, like in most other states, you will likely find that your THOW falls into a gray area of the law. Perhaps seasonal use of a THOW will qualify as “camping” or similar recreational use.

In some counties, like Larimer County, a THOW can meet the definition of “Recreational Vehicle” (“RV”) and be used for vacation and recreational use in certain zones. In Larimer County, several regulations apply to RV use, including:

  • no year-round use or storage of the RV on your property

  • hook-ups must comply with building, health, fire and safety codes

  • must comply with setbacks requirements

  • no short-term rental of the RV (less than 31 days), and

  • the RV must be registered and licensed.

If you do not understand the applicable zoning code, it is important to talk to the local planning department or your attorney. Before you spend money on buying a lot for your tiny house, make sure your tiny house will be legal. It would be a big disappointment to buy some land, to find out you cannot use it how you wanted to.

Your Tiny House May Need to Comply with Colorado Safety Standards

Like a tiny house on a foundation that must comply with the local building code, tiny houses on wheels in Colorado may have to meet certain safety standards. For example, if you buy a new park model recreation vehicle to use as your THOW, it must comply with American National Safety Institute standard 119.2, according to the Colorado Statutes at  CRS 24-32-904.5.

Check with your local government before buying or building your THOW to make sure it will comply with any safety standards that may apply.

Ignoring Colorado Zoning Codes and Building Standards Is a Risk

Some people think that, because they are taking a THOW out to the country where it will not bother anyone, they do not need to comply with the land use regulations. Failing to get the necessary permits, though, is taking a big risk. If someone turns you into code enforcement, you may have to pay a fine and, and if you have attached the tiny house permanently, you may even have to move your tiny house.

A Colorado land use attorney can help you identify all applicable laws and determine whether your tiny house will be lawful.

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