I want to build a tiny house in my backyard for my aging mother-in-law. My home is in an urban area in Texas. Are tiny houses legal in the Lone Star State? Does it matter whether I build my tiny house on wheels or a permanent foundation?
Ultimately, the answer to your questions will depend on where in Texas you live and, if applicable, how your property is zoned. Consequently, you will need to make a site-specific inquiry into whether your planned tiny house is lawful. This article provides some background information to help jump start that research.
Under Texas law, cities have the ability to adopt and implement zoning regulations. Texas Loc. Gov. Code Sec. 211. Interestingly, not all cities have done so. Houston, one of the country's largest metro areas, does not have formal zoning, although it does control some land development through other indirect means.
Most cities in Texas, though, have zoning regulations. You can usually find a city's zoning laws in a document titled "zoning ordinance" or "development code."
If your property is outside city limits, different regulations will apply unless you are in what is called an "extraterritorial jurisdiction" right outside city limits. In Texas, counties have relatively limited zoning authority but may indirectly control development through regulation of transportation, environment, water, waste treatment, and stormwater. (See discussion in Can I Build a Tiny House on Vacant Land in Texas?)
If zoning regulations apply to your property, a first step is to determine the applicable zoning district. In Texas, cities classify property into different zoning districts. Such districts include single-family, multi-family, agricultural, commercial, and industrial.
If you are not sure what type of district you are in, this information is usually available on a "zoning map" included with the development code. The local planning department can also help you figure out what zoning applies.
Once you identify the applicable zoning district, you will need to review the development code to determine what uses are permissible in that district. For instance, in a single-family residential zone, you will likely find single-family homes are lawful, but may find that multi-family dwellings are not. You may also find that accessory dwelling units ("ADUs") and home occupations are legal in single-family residential zones, but not recreational vehicles for permanent residence or retail stores.
Since the tiny house movement is relatively new, many development codes may not specifically reference "tiny houses." Instead, the tiny house might meet the definition of an ADU if built on a foundation, or a "recreational vehicle" or "mobile home" if built on a trailer with wheels.
The development code will also include development standards. (See Texas Loc. Gov. Code 211.003.) These standards regulate the:
As you review the development standards, you will need to consider how the standards apply to your property. Among other standards, you will need to contemplate whether:
If you find that it is legal to live in a tiny house on your property, you will likely need to submit a land use application.
For example, Austin, Texas, requires a Residential Plan Review for ADUs. As you plan for your tiny house, it is a good idea to get a copy of the application form early so you can see what your city requires. At that time, it is also a good idea to inquire about application and permit fees so you can budget accordingly.
The choice between building a tiny house on wheels and on a permanent foundation is important. Significantly, it is unlikely that a tiny house on wheels can be lawfully used as a permanent residence. Even Spur, Texas, which dubs itself "America's first 'tiny' house friendly town" requires tiny houses to be on a foundation (you can move them in on wheels, but you then have to take the axles off the trailer).
A tiny house on wheels is likely to be classified as a "recreational vehicle" ("RV") or something similar. Permanent dwelling in an RV is rarely permitted in single-family residential zones and is usually limited to an RV or mobile home park.
A tiny house built on a foundation for use as a dwelling is more likely to be lawful inside city limits than a tiny house on wheels. A tiny house built on a foundation may meet the definition of an ADU (also called a "mother-in-law suite," "granny flat," or "backyard cottage"). Accessory dwellings are not allowed in all zones (or even all cities), so review the applicable development code carefully.
Any accessory dwelling constructed on a foundation will need to be "built to code" to ensure it is safe to reside in. In short, this means construction will need to comply with the applicable building code and that you connect the tiny house to utilities (like electrical, water, and sewage) in accordance with any applicable rules.
Is important to comply with all laws and regulations that apply to the construction and development of a tiny house. If you fail to do so, the city may enforce its development code and issue fines. Even Spur, Texas (the self-proclaimed tiny house friendly town) will issue fines up to $500 if an owner does not comply with its tiny house ordinance.
Talking to someone in the local planning department is a good place to start if you have questions about what land use regulations apply. Hiring a Texas land use attorney is also an excellent idea, to make sure you comply with all laws and regulations.