Can I Build a Tiny House in My Backyard in Colorado?

Learn what Colorado zoning and land use laws apply before you put a tiny house in your backyard.

Question

I own a house in Colorado. My backyard is large enough for a tiny house on wheels. I would like to make some income by renting it, but I also might use it as a home office. Do zoning regulations in Colorado allow tiny houses on wheels in residential areas?

Answer

In Colorado, as with other states, tiny houses often fall into a grey area in the law. Colorado law does not define what a “tiny house” is. For zoning purposes, depending on its characteristics, tiny houses will either meet the definition of a “dwelling” or an “RV.”

More often than not, a tiny house on wheels (“THOW”) will be classified as an RV in Colorado. Whether a THOW is legal in your backyard will depend primarily on local zoning regulations.

This article provides basic information to help stimulate your research. To fully understand how zoning regulations will impact your THOW, you need to carefully review the applicable zoning ordinance, talk to staff at your local planning department, and maybe even talk to a Colorado land use attorney.

As a First Step, Determine How the Tiny House Will Be Used

In cases like the one you describe, where it is uncertain exactly how the tiny house will be used, the answer to your question may depend on how you plan to use the THOW. For example, in Colorado, a THOW may not be legal when used as a dwelling, but the same structure may be legal if it is used as a home office. Higher development and construction standards often apply to residential uses, so determining how you will use the THOW will help focus your research.

In Colorado, Local Zoning Regulations Control What Uses Are Allowed in Your Backyard

Colorado's local governments adopt zoning regulations and development standards that control the use of land. These regulations are often codified in “land use codes” or “zoning codes.” For example, Fort Collins’s zoning ordinance is technically titled "City of Fort Collins Land Use Code.”

Zoning is the division of land into zones or districts. Each zone has different regulations that apply to and control land development. See Building on Vacant Land: Zoning Issues You Might Face for a general explanation of zoning regulations.

To determine what zone your property is in and what uses are lawful, review the appropriate land use code. The code will typically include a zoning map that identifies the different zones throughout your jurisdiction. You can use this map to identify how your property is zoned. If after reviewing the applicable land use code and zoning map you are unsure how your property is zoned or what uses are allowed on it, talk to your local planning department.

Full-Time Residential Use of Tiny Houses on Wheels Largely Illegal in Colorado

Although the tiny house movement continues to grow, in Colorado, if a THOW is used as a permanent dwelling, it is typically illegal. Although some view THOW as a means to address affordable housing problems, because they are still relatively new and novel, THOW have not gained widespread acceptance.

You may find, as you review the applicable land use code, that a tiny house built on a foundation is legal, while a THOW is not. For example, in Walsenburg, Colorado, a tiny house built on a permanent footer or foundation may be legal despite its small floor size. A THOW is more likely to meet the definition of an RV in Walsenburg.

If the applicable land use code distinguishes between a THOW and one on a foundation, building on a permanent foundation may be your best option. For a discussion on the difference between building on a foundation or wheels, see Building a Tiny Home: Should I Put It on Wheels or on Foundation?

If you are set on building a THOW, though, all hope is not lost. Some jurisdictions may allow a THOW for residential use if certain conditions are met. For example, a THOW may be treated like a “mobile home” if it is permanently affixed to the ground, hooked up to utilities, and otherwise built to the necessary safety standards. Since zoning regulations are rarely straightforward, even if a THOW might be legal where you live, you also need to confirm the THOW can be used as an ADU in your backyard. ADUs are not lawful in every zone.

If your local government does not allow THOWs for residential use, and you want to change that, inquire about the process for amending the comprehensive plan and zoning code to make them legal. The process may be costly and time-consuming, but if there is enough political pressure, your local leaders may be willing to change the land use code to allow tiny houses.

Tiny Houses on Wheels Are Subject to Safety Standards in Colorado

As you do your research, you should also learn what building and safety standards will apply to its construction. For example, if you build your own THOW, you may need to self-certify that it will meet Recreational Vehicle Industry Association standards. Or, if you buy a prebuilt THOW, it may need to meet American National Safety Institutestandard 119 or manufactured home building standards. If it is not clear to you what building and safety standards apply to your intended project, contact the local building department.

Importance of Complying With Local Colorado Zoning Codes (And Other Applicable Laws)

Given the challenges that tiny houses pose to local governments and the lack of clear policies, it may be tempting to forgo the permitting process and just put your THOW in your backyard. This is risky. If a nosy neighbor files a complaint and a code enforcer initiates a proceeding against you, your local government may force you to remove your THOW and pay a fine.

It is a good idea to talk to a Colorado land use attorney to fully understand your legal obligations and the risks before placing a tiny house in your backyard.

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