I live in California and want to put a tiny house on wheels in my backyard. Eventually, I plan to use it as a residential rental, but for now, while my children are living at home, it sounds fun to use it as an art studio. I am unsure what laws apply. Do California land use regulations allow me to put a tiny house in my backyard? Can I build it myself?
Whether California law will allow a tiny house on wheels ("THOW") in your backyard will depend on several factors. These include what the primary use of the tiny house is, local policies and regulations of tiny houses, and the building and safety standards that apply to the construction of a THOW.
When trying to determine whether a tiny house is compatible with local land use laws, one of the first things to look at is the THOW's primary use. Despite being called a "tiny house," people use these for a number different reasons. As your question notes, some people use THOWs for residential purposes or art studios, while others may use them for storage, home offices, or playrooms.
Identifying the primary use is important because different regulations apply to different uses. It is not necessarily the building or structure itself that determines whether a certain land use is lawful, but instead how that building or structure is put to use.
For example, a small retail jewelry store located in a tiny house, which leads to additional traffic and less parking in a residential neighborhood, will probably not be legal. Regulations also vary between uses for health and safety reasons. In California, to protect the human inhabitants, a THOW built for residential use will have to be built to higher standards than a tiny house used for storage.
If you elect to use your THOW for something that involves lower standards now, such as an art studio, but then use it for residential purposes later, you will likely need to apply for a change of use with your local planning department. Through that process, your local government will confirm that the tiny house meets the higher safety standards (see below) it imposes for residential use.
Once you settle on how you plan to use the tiny house, the next inquiry is whether your local zoning regulations will permit that use. You will need to review your local zoning code (sometimes titled a "development code" or "zoning ordinance"). This should spell out what uses are allowed in what zones.
For instance, if your property is in a typical California residential zone, lawful uses will include single-family dwellings and home occupations. The zoning code will also include development standards, like:
The zoning code may also include relevant definitions, like "tiny house" and "accessory use." It is important to review and understand the applicable zoning code as it applies to your proposal. Staff at the local planning department are usually happy to answer any questions you have about the code.
In California, cities and counties implement and adopt their own zoning codes. As long as a zoning code does not violate federal or state law, local governments are generally free to adopt reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on the use of land, including regulations concerning tiny houses.
This means THOWs are treated differently from town to town. Some leaders in California see tiny houses as a tool to tackle affordable housing mandates from the state legislature.
The City of Fresno, for instance, adopted an ordinance that allows THOWs in the backyards of single-family dwellings. As with other uses, Fresno's tiny house ordinance imposes conditions of approval. For example, the property owner must live in either the tiny house or the adjoining single-family residence, the tiny house must comply with setback and lot coverage requirements, and the THOW must meet American National Safety Institute (“ANSI”) standards.
If your community does not allow tiny houses on wheels for residential use, you can inquire about the process for amending the general plan and zoning code to allow tiny houses on wheels. The process may be costly and time-consuming, but if there is enough political pressure, your local leaders may be willing to change your community's land use regulations to allow tiny houses.
Tiny houses on wheels are not subject to the building code (like single family residences are). Instead, in California, THOWs are typically subject to safety standards adopted by the American National Standards Institute ("ANSI").
Anybody can purchase the ANSI standards online. However, merely building to ANSI standards may not be enough, as you will likely have to certify somehow that your THOW meets these standards. With a stick-built house, the local building department sends a local code inspector out throughout the construction process to confirm critical house components, like plumbing, electrical, and framing, meet code standards.
If you plan to build a THOW yourself, talk to your local government about what certification requirements will apply. Alternatively, you can buy a prebuilt or custom tiny house from a professional builder that certifies that its THOWs meet ANSI standards.
Some tiny house owners skip the land use permitting process and just put the tiny house on their property. Or there may be loopholes in the process that some try to jump through.
If you fail to get the necessary approvals up front, though, you may face fines and a code enforcement action later. Before taking any shortcuts, or skipping the permitting process entirely, talk to a land use attorney licensed in California to help make sure your THOW is lawful.