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?
Whether Florida law allows a tiny house in your backyard depends on several factors, including
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.
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 may help you to identify what you plan to use your tiny house for.
If you elect to use your THOW for something that involves lower regulatory 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.
Another preliminary consideration is what uses are legally allowed in your backyard. To figure this out, 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 Tallahassee, Florida, the single-family residential (R-2) zone, a typical lot will be subject to a minimum lot size of 9,000 square feet, front and rear yard setbacks of 25 feet, and side yard setbacks of 7.5 feet.
In Florida, tiny houses are treated differently from town to town. While some communities see tiny houses as a means to tackle affordable housing concerns, others see risks, including safety concerns.
Since every community is different, you will need to review your applicable code carefully to see whether your tiny house plan is legal. Keep your eyes open for certain terms, like “tiny house” and “accessory dwelling unit” (“ADU”). In Rockledge, Florida tiny houses are specifically referenced. This is unusual, though. In a case like yours, a backyard tiny house might meet the definition of an ADU. In 2004, the Florida legislature passed a bill promoting ADUs as way to provide affordable housing.
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.
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.
A tiny house built on a permanent foundation will be subject to the applicable building code. Among other requirements, if the tiny house will be used as a dwelling, a 120-square foot habitable room requirement may be imposed and any loft area will likely need an emergency escape.
Since a tiny house on wheels placed in a backyard will most likely be treated as an RV, 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 may 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 may 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.
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, 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 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 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. The efforts of the public led to change in Rockledge.