I live in New York state and own a house in a residential area. The rental market is good right now, so I would like to build a tiny house in my backyard to generate some rental income. My plan is to build it on a foundation. Is this legal in the state of New York?
In New York, zoning regulations vary between cities, towns, and villages, so the answer to your question will depend on where you live. It may also depend on the characteristics of your property. To determine whether a tiny house is lawful on your lot, you should carefully review local zoning and land use regulations. This article will provide you some background information to help jumpstart that research.
Land Use Regulations Will Apply to Your Tiny House
In New York, land use regulations control how land can be developed. These regulations are often codified by local governments in “zoning ordinances” or “development codes”. In Buffalo, for example, the city has adopted the “Unified Development Code.” In addition to zoning, development codes often bring together rules regarding site development, subdivision, and transportation.
As a first step, it is important to review your city's land use regulations carefully. If you do not already know, find out exactly how your property is zoned. For example, your property might be in a “single-family residential” or “light industrial” zone. Your local development code will have a zoning map that locates the different zoning districts throughout the city. If you are unsure how your property is zoned, the local planning department is normally happy to help.
Different land uses and development standards apply in different zones. So, once you know how your property is zoned, you will need to figure out what uses are allowed on it. Where you plan to use the tiny house in your backyard as a second dwelling, you will want to review the code provisions that relate to your zone (and any applicable overlay district) to see whether an “accessory dwelling unit,” “carriage house” or similar detached dwelling is legal on your property.
The Land Use Ordinance Will Also Include Development Standards That Apply to Tiny Houses
Land use ordinances in New York include development standards that guide development in each zone. Development standards often include requirements that relate to:
Some of these standards can make the construction of a tiny house as a dwelling difficult. For instance, if your backyard is small, you may not be able to comply with setback requirements or lot coverage requirements. Similarly, if your lot is small, finding room for any required off-street parking might not be possible.
In Buffalo, for instance, ancillary dwellings are referred to as “carriage houses.” In many of Buffalo's residential zones, carriage houses are lawful. Among other development standards, these structures must be built ten feet from the principal residence, be no more than two or three stories (depending on the zone), and be no more than 1,000 square feet. Buffalo UDO § 3.2.3.
Private Restrictions May Also Apply to Tiny Houses
You should also review any private land use restrictions that may apply to your property. As an example, Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs) control the development of property in many subdivisions or communities. It is common for subdivisions to have stricter development standards than local governments. If applicable, review any CC&Rs and other development restrictions carefully to see whether tiny houses are allowed in your community.
New York Building Codes Include Safety and Construction Standards
To ensure that buildings are safe for people to occupy, governments adopt and enforce building codes. Construction of a site-built tiny house will be subject to the applicable building code. The New York State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code (“Building Code”) incorporates several different uniform building, fire, and safety codes. The Building Code's specific standards apply to the construction of the foundation, walls, plumbing, electrical, and other major components of a tiny house.
Historically, building codes have created a significant hurdle to building a lawful tiny house. Building codes are slowly being updated to make it easier for tiny home builders to obtain the necessary permits. However, getting advice from a construction contractor familiar with tiny houses and the Building Code will help ensure that you design and construct a lawful tiny house.
Ask an Attorney for Help in Understanding Complex Regulations
Land use regulations can be difficult to understand if you are new to reading them. Talking to a New York land use attorney about your case will ensure that you receive advice based on the applicable zoning ordinance for your property. Failure to comply with all applicable laws could lead to a code enforcement action and a fine, so following the rules is important.