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

Whether a tiny house will be legal in Oregon depends, to a large extent, on the laws of the local jurisdiction.

Question

I would love to own a piece of property in the Oregon countryside. I also think it would be fun to build a tiny house. To accomplish both dreams, my plan is to construct a tiny house on a vacant piece of rural property.

Is it legal in Oregon to build a tiny house on a vacant lot? Does it matter whether I build a tiny house on wheels or a tiny house on a foundation?

Answer

Whether a tiny house will be legal in Oregon depends, to a large extent, on the laws of the local jurisdiction. What is legal in one county may not be legal in a neighboring county. The following answer provides some background information to help jumpstart your research into whether a tiny house is legal on your Oregon property.

Complete Your Due Diligence Before Buying Rural Oregon Property

It's important to do a lot of advance research before buying the vacant land--what lawyers like to call "due diligence." Exactly what that should involved will be guided in part by your intended use and plans for the property, but your due diligence should include, at a minimum, the following:

  • detailed review of the local zoning code to see whether the residential use of a tiny house is legal and what development standards apply (such as setbacks, minimum size requirements)
  • detailed review of the building and safety standards that apply to the construction of tiny houses for residential use, and
  • confirmation, that, among other things, you will have a legal means of access to the property, adequate domestic water, no boundary line issues, and clear title.

A real estate agent can help you not only identify vacant land for sale, but also help you navigate your due diligence. The agent can also refer you to other professionals, like attorneys or surveyors, if necessary.

Understand the Applicable Local Zoning Ordinance

In Oregon, local governments control how land is put to use, through land use regulations. Rural land usually falls under the jurisdiction of the local county government. Oregon counties often codify their land use regulation in a zoning ordinance (but the ordinance may be called a “zoning code” or “development code”). See Building on Vacant Land: Zoning Issues You Might Face for a basic explanation of zoning.

In cases like this, where you are looking to place a tiny house on undeveloped, rural land in Oregon to use as a second home, you will want to review the zoning ordinance carefully to learn:

  • what the underlying zone is (for example, rural-residential or exclusive farm use)
  • what uses are allowed in that zone (for example, if the lot is zoned EFU, under what conditions residential use is allowable)
  • minimum lot sizes, setbacks, and even minimum home size, and
  • what building standards apply.

If you do not understand the applicable zoning ordinance, do not hesitate to contact the local planning department or your attorney.

Oregon zoning laws often impose restrictions or conditions that make tiny houses difficult to develop. While the regulations vary, some common hurdles tiny house builders encounter, include:

  • prohibitions or limitations on using structures not permitted for permanent residential use, such as recreational vehicles ("RV") or mobile homes (for example, in Portland, Oregon, a tiny house on wheels will most likely be defined as an RV, and prohibited in residential zones when used as a dwelling)
  • requirements that tiny homes on wheel and RVs, when used as dwellings, be located in designated communities, like an mobile home or RV park, and
  • in some jurisdictions, a minimum size requirement for dwelling units (for example, Sutherlin, Oregon requires in some residential zones that the dwelling be no less that 1,000 square feet.

When Rural Property Is Designated for Resource Use, Development Might Be Difficult

To preserve resources, the state of Oregon and its local governments have designated large swaths of land in rural Oregon as “resource lands.” For example, land that is particularly well suited for farming may be classified as agricultural land and zoned exclusive farmland (EFU). Similarly, forest land may be in a "forest use zone."

In property searches like you are conducting, where you want to find a rural piece of property for a second home, development of the land with a tiny house will typically be easier on non-resource land, like land zoned rural-residential, than in a resource zone. Whether that is the case with your search will depend on the specifics of your situation.

Your Tiny House Must Meet Oregon Safety Standards

If a tiny house is lawful on the rural property you find, it will have to be built to meet certain building and safety standards. For example, stick-built homes must comply with the Oregon Residential Specialty Code. If you decide to build a tiny house on wheels, the tiny house will still likely have to meet safety standards, such as those promulgated by the American National Safety Institute (ANSI) for RVs.

Your tiny house may also have to be inspected and certified to meet the applicable safety standards. For stick-built houses, a building inspector will make periodic visits throughout the construction process, to inspect various components of the house, such as electrical, plumbing, and framing, in order to ensure your compliance with the code.

Certifying that a tiny house on wheels meets ANSI (or similar standards) may be a challenge. You may want to talk to a construction contractor or other person experienced in building tiny houses to learn what is required in your jurisdiction.

It Does Matter What Type of “Foundation” You Use

What foundation your tiny house is placed on may impact whether your tiny house is lawful on a vacant lot. First, as noted above, different building and safety standards apply to tiny houses on wheels and tiny houses on permanent foundations. If the tiny house is built on a permanent foundation, the Oregon Residential Specialty Code will apply.

Different standards will apply if your tiny house is built on wheels. For example, if the tiny house on wheels meets the definition of a recreational park trailer, the local government may require a permit and proof that it was built to the standards found in OAR 918-525.

You may also find that one foundation type is allowed in the underlying zone, while the other is not. For example, the local government might consider a tiny house on wheels to be lawful if the owner occupies only intermittently and for recreational purposes, because such use is “camping.” That same jurisdiction might consider a tiny house on a foundation to be unlawful because it is a permanent dwelling.

Ignoring Oregon Zoning Codes and Building Standards Is a Big Risk

Given the challenges you may encounter when looking for the perfect vacant lot to put your tiny house on, it may be tempting to ignore zoning and building codes and just sneak a tiny house onto your property. Doing so comes with significant risk, however. If the local government initiates a code enforcement proceeding against you, you may have to remove your tiny house and pay a hefty fine.

An Oregon land use attorney can help you identify applicable laws and determine whether your tiny house is lawful. If you find the local zoning ordinance prohibits tiny houses, your attorney can also help you determine whether there is a good case for seeking an amendment to the code to make tiny houses lawful in the area where you plan to build.

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