Can I Place a Tiny House on a Vacant Lot?

Learn more about the zoning and other ordinances that may impose restrictions on tiny houses.

Question

It is my dream to own a second home. To make that dream affordable, my plan is to place a tiny house on a vacant lot. I plan to buy the tiny house from a company that specializes in building tiny houses on wheels. Is it legal to put a tiny house on wheels on a vacant lot?

Answer

In a case like yours, the first question is often whether the applicable zoning ordinance permits your desired use. Zoning ordinances are laws that control how land can be used. For example, a part of your town may be dedicated to residential uses, while another area is dedicated to commercial uses. What is permitted within any given zone varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Zoning ordinances often impose restrictions that make it difficult to get approval for tiny houses, especially since tiny houses on wheels may be considered "recreational vehicles.” The restrictions vary from place to place, but some of the more common ones include:

  • minimum house-size requirements for single-family residences (in many locations, the minimum house size is 900 square feet)
  • prohibitions against residing in structures not permitted for residential use, including recreational vehicles
  • prohibitions or limitations on the number of nights an RV can be slept in (for example, you might see a prohibition against “camping” for more than five consecutive nights), and
  • requirements that tiny homes and RVs be located only in designated communities, similar to a mobile home park.

Unfortunately, due to these restrictions, tiny houses are often not lawful for residential purposes (even if they are just temporary). However, it is not uncommon for camping to be permitted on residential property. In a case like yours, where you will be using the tiny house as a second home, the local jurisdiction might consider your use “camping.”

Given the number of potential restrictions you may encounter, it is important to find out whether the applicable zoning ordinance permits your tiny house on wheels before spending money on your tiny house. In many locations, the planning department will be able to help you determine whether a tiny house on wheels is permitted on your property.

If you determine that the local zoning will permit your tiny house on wheels for your intended use, you will also need to inquire what safety standards apply to the structure. (See discussion in "Do I Need a Building Permit to Construct a Tiny House in My Backyard?")

For single-family houses, those standards are in the local building code. A local building code may apply to your tiny house, or since it is on wheels, the local zoning ordinance may require that it meet safety standards used for the construction of RVs. Or, because tiny houses are relatively new to the planning world, some other safety standard may be imposed.

There are a lot of informational websites relating to tiny houses. Some seem to encourage people to ignore local building codes and zoning ordinances. If you do this, you are taking a big risk. A cranky neighbor or inquisitive code enforcer may file a complaint or initiate code enforcement proceeding against you. If that happens, you may find yourself paying a large fine and removing your tiny house from your property. If you are inclined to forgo the permitting process, talk to an attorney to make sure you fully understand the risks involved.

If you have not already purchased a vacant lot, it is a good idea to shop around to find a location that will allow you to place your tiny house. You will likely find that from city to city, and county to county, the rules regarding tiny houses vary.

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