Code Enforcement Agency Says Renting Out My Tiny House Isn't Legal: Now What?

In many areas, tiny houses are not permitted for use as a residence; learn more about the options.

Question

Last year we placed a tiny house in our backyard. We rent it out occasionally as a vacation rental. Last week, we received a letter from the local code enforcement department telling us the tiny house cannot be used as a rental. We need the income we earn from renting the tiny house. What do we do now?

Answer

Use of tiny houses for residential purposes has not gained widespread acceptance among zoning and building authorities. Many places require houses used for residential purposes, including rentals, to be a minimum size (for example, 900 square feet).

As a result, in many areas, tiny houses are not permitted for use as a residence. That said, in cases like yours, tiny house owners should not give up without looking at all options.

Code enforcement departments operate to enforce local building and land use regulations. A code enforcement officer investigates complaints of unlawful uses on private property. The cases code enforcement investigate are usually initiated when private citizens file a complaint.

In many locations, the first step taken by code enforcement after receiving a complaint is to send a notice of violation letter to the property owner. The letter likely provides some instruction to the owner on what must be done as well as information about any potential deadlines that must be met (and what happens if they are not). As you review the letter, be sure to take note of:

  • the alleged facts giving rise to the complaint (are there any inaccuracies?)
  • any code sections cited in the letter (land use codes and ordinances are available online or at the local planning department office, so review the cited sections), and
  • any deadlines that apply (be sure to put them on your calendar).

These initial letters sometimes instruct the property owner to contact the code enforcement officer. This is a good opportunity to explain any inaccuracies and provide additional relevant information. The code enforcement officer will likely want to schedule a time to visit your property. Before responding to the officer or letting the officer on your property, it may be helpful to contact a local land use attorney.

If you talk to the code enforcement officer, do not get mad. Code enforcement officers are simply doing their job by responding to a complaint filed by someone else. Since some complaints have no merit, a good code enforcement officer will make no judgment on whether you are in violation until after doing an investigation, so it is important to be cordial with the officer.

If after doing research, it looks like your tiny house is unlawful, you are not out of luck just yet. One option is to consider seeking an amendment to the local code that allows tiny houses to lawfully be used as vacation rentals. Although tiny houses have not gained widespread acceptance, they are becoming more popular. Amending a land use code can be expensive and time consuming, but if your local jurisdiction feels enough pressure from the public, it may be willing to make the change. In cases like this, it can be helpful to work with other tiny house owners who want to see the same change.

Another option is to see whether your area offers community mediation for code enforcement actions. If so, you might be able to sit down with the person who filed the complaint originally to try to reach a reasonable resolution that works for everyone. As an example, if a neighbor filed the complaint, perhaps the person just want assurances that the renter in your tiny house will not be blaring music late at night.

Code enforcement actions require attention. If you are found to be violating the code, you may end up with a big fine and have to remove your tiny house, so it is important to take the matter seriously. Having a lawyer who is familiar with the code enforcement process can be helpful.

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