Can I Put a Tiny House in My Backyard in Florida?

What to research before adding a tiny home to your Florida property.

Question

I live in Florida and want to put a tiny house 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 a playroom or art studio. I am unsure what laws apply in Florida. Under Florida law, is it legal to put a tiny house in my backyard?

Answer

Florida is a relatively friendly state when it comes to the legality of tiny houses. For one thing, it has adopted something called "Appendix Q" within its Building Code. This sets forth basic rules for constructing houses that are 400 square feet or less. For example, it sets out required measurements for stair risers handrails, and landings, and gives instructions regarding emergency exits.

Appendix Q does not, however, say whether you're allowed to build a tiny house in a particular location in the first place. For that, you will need to check local zoning regulations, which vary between cities, towns, and villages. Not all are amenable to tiny houses; while some communities see them as a means to tackle affordable housing concerns, others see risks, including safety concerns.

Whether Florida law allows a tiny house in your backyard depends on several factors, including

  • what the primary use of the tiny house is, and
  • local policies and regulations of tiny houses.

This answer provides basic information to help start your research. To fully understand how zoning regulations and building codes will impact your tiny house plans, you need to carefully review the applicable zoning ordinance, talk to staff at your local planning department, and maybe talk to a Florida land use attorney.

Why Knowing How You Will Use the Tiny House Is Important

Different uses of land will be subject to different rules. A dwelling, for example, (even a small one) will be subject to different regulations than a greenhouse. For this reason, it might help you to identify what you plan to use your tiny house for.

If you elect to use yours for something that involves lower regulatory standards, such as an art studio, but then later decide to use it for residential purposes, 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.

Local Florida Land Use and Zoning Regulations Determine What Uses Are Allowed in Your Backyard

To figure out what uses are legally allowed in your backyard, a good place to start is with the local zoning code. Some communities call this document a "land development code" (as it is in Orlando). Zoning plays an important role in how an owner's land can be used.

Zoning codes include two components: the text and the zoning map. The map will help you identify what zoning district your property is in. You can also contact the local planning department to identify the correct zoning district. The text in the zoning code will spell out what uses are allowed in each district. In a typical single-family residential zone, single-family residential uses will be allowed, but industrial uses will not.

The zoning code will also include development standards, like setbacks (how close to front, rear, and side property lines a structure can be) and minimum lot size requirements (the minimum size the underlying lot can be). For example, in a typical single-family residential (R-2) zone, a lot might be subject to a minimum total size of 9,000 square feet, front and rear yard setbacks of 25 feet, and side yard setbacks of 7.5 feet.

When researching the appropriate rules, keep your eyes open for terms like "tiny house" and "accessory dwelling unit" ("ADU").

Consider Whether You Will Build on Wheels or a Permanent Foundation

Your question does not indicate whether you will build on a foundation or on wheels. Tiny houses are treated differently depending on whether they are built on a foundation or on wheels. While a tiny house built on a foundation might qualify as an ADU for permanent dwelling, a tiny house on wheels will likely be treated as a recreational vehicle ("RV"). Except in some RV and mobile home parks, typically counties and cities prohibit use of RVs for permanent residential use.

If You Can Build, Check Which Safety and Building Standards Apply to Your Tiny House Plan

A tiny house built on a permanent foundation will be subject to the applicable building code. In the absence of other building restrictions, Appendix Q will govern your project design.

A tiny house on wheels placed in a backyard will most likely be treated as an RV. Thus it will need to comply with safety standards imposed on RVs. It is common for the American National Standards Institute ("ANSI") rules for park trailers to apply. Also be aware, the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles might require you to register and license your tiny house on wheels, since it will be built on a trailer.

If you plan to build your tiny house yourself, be sure to talk to the planning and building departments before you begin construction. If you are building on a trailer, you should also talk to the DMV. At some point, you might have to prove that your tiny house meets all applicable building and safety standards. The last thing you will want to do is tear your new tiny house apart to show you installed the right electrical and plumbing components.

Reasons to Research and Comply With Local Zoning Codes (And Other Applicable Florida Laws)

Some tiny house owners skip the land-use permitting process and just put the tiny house on their property. Or they might find loopholes in the process that they can jump through.

If you fail to get the necessary approvals up front, however, you might face fines and a code enforcement action later. Before taking shortcuts, or skipping the permitting process entirely, talk to a land use attorney licensed in Florida to help make sure your tiny house is lawful.

If your community does not allow tiny houses or ADUs, you can ask your attorney about the process for amending the zoning code. The process might be costly and time-consuming, but if there is enough political pressure, your local leaders might be willing to change your community's land use regulations to allow tiny houses.

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