Can I Build a Tiny House on Vacant Land in New York?

Rules that govern whether and under what conditions you can put a tiny house on a bare New York State lot.

Question

I want to build a tiny house on rural land in Upstate New York. In case I ever want to move the tiny house or sell it, I want to build it on wheels (not on a permanent foundation). Is this legal in New York? If so, will any old lot in the countryside work?

Answer

Since zoning and land use regulations vary amongst cities, towns, and villages in New York, the answers to your questions will depend on where you decide to place your tiny house on wheels (“THOW”). What is legal in one jurisdiction may not be in another. Moreover, what is legal on one lot may not be legal on an adjoining lot, because of zoning. Every case is different, so you will need to complete site-specific research before buying.

What to Find Out Before Buying Any Land for a Tiny Home

It is critical to complete a thorough inspection of any property before you close the sale. It would be a big disappointment to find out after buying that your tiny house plans are not legal. Most purchase agreements provide the buyer time in which to complete their research (referred to as the "due diligence period").

How much time and money a buyer spends on due diligence will depend in part on the value of the land, as well as the importance a buyer places on being able to use the land in a specific way (such as seasonal recreational use).

In a case like yours, 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 governing zoning ordinance (see below) to confirm your planned use is lawful
  • 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 (for instance, that you won't have to drive over someone else's property to get there), adequate domestic water, no boundary line issues, and clear title.

Performing additional due diligence may be prudent, such as a building inspection if there is an existing structure or an environmental assessment. An experienced real estate agent can be a valuable resource in a situation like this. Not only can the agent help locate potential properties, but he or she can advise you on due diligence issues and, when necessary, refer you to local experts such as surveyors, builders, and attorneys.

The Applicable Zoning Code Controls Development

In the state of New York, land use is typically controlled by cities, towns, and villages. County governments also play a role in adopting countywide comprehensive plans, which serve as long-term planning documents.

Local governments use zoning to control where development occurs. A zoning ordinance is comprised of a map that identifies how property is zoned and text that provides information on what uses are allowed in each zone. For example, when looking at the zoning map, you might notice your dream lot is zoned for residential use, and that the text includes size limits and setbacks that make your desired development difficult.

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

  • what the underlying zone is (for example, residential or agricultural)
  • what uses are allowed in that zone (for example, look to see if RVs are a legal use) and 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.

Since THOWs are a relatively new development in the planning world, the odds are you will find that your THOW falls into a gray area of the law. Local governments are still struggling to find ways to ensure that tiny houses are safe for human occupancy and with how to regulate where and when they should be permitted.

In some areas, a THOWs may be permitted as a temporary recreational use that can only be on the property part of the year. In other areas, THOWs may be strictly prohibited when used as a human dwelling.

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 it will be legal.

Your Tiny House Must Meet New York State Safety Standards

Like traditional stick-built homes that must comply with building codes, a tiny house on wheels, when used to sleep in, will likely be subject to safety and building regulations. It is a good idea to contact the local building department to confirm what, if any, standards will apply to your tiny house. And since you plan to build your tiny house on a trailer, it is also a good idea to confirm whether the Department of Motor Vehicles has any safety standards that will apply.

Ignoring New York Zoning Codes and Building Standards Is a Risk

It may be tempting to think that you are just bringing a THOW out to the country and that no one will care, so it is not worth spending the time and money on the necessary permits. Failing to get the necessary permits, though, is taking a significant risk. If someone turns you into code enforcement, you may have to pay a fine and move your tiny house.

Every case is different, so hiring a New York land use attorney to help identify all applicable laws and determine whether your tiny house will be lawful is a good idea.

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