Many homeowners consider constructing a "tiny house" in their backyard, perhaps for a guest house or to rent out. And more and more jurisdictions permit this, under residential zoning ordinance. The question we'll look into here is whether you will need a building permit. After all, the code itself was probably written for full-size houses. What's more, you might have read advice saying not to worry about building codes at all. What is the true legal situation?
Often defined as a house that is 80 to 400 square feet, and built either on a traditional house foundation or on a trailer bed (with or without wheels), tiny houses have grown rapidly in popularity. Although a uniform set of building standards has been developed that applies to the construction of these miniature houses, not all municipalities have adopted them. (The uniform standard is called "Appendix Q.")
Accordingly, in some cases, depending on a number of factors including size of the tiny house and its location, a building permit might not be required.
If the intent is for the tiny house to be occupied, though, in most all cases the local building code will apply. Building codes (as well as Appendix Q) impose certain safety and construction standards to make sure structures are safe for occupancy.
For example, your area's building codes might impose minimum standards for the installation of electrical components in a house to make sure those components are safe and not a fire or electrocution hazard. The concern about making sure a house is safe for occupancy remains even when the house is a tiny house.
Depending on the location and type of the tiny house, a different safety standard might apply. For example, if the tiny house is built on wheels, the local jurisdiction could require that it comply with the same safety standards that apply to recreational vehicles.
A good next step is to contact your local building department to inquire about the zoning, standards, and what permits you must obtain. A building official can help determine what, if any, construction standards apply to your proposed tiny house.
Unfortunately, complying with building codes that aren't tailored to tiny houses can be difficult. For example, you might encounter a building code that requires at least one room of 120 square feet. That can be difficult to accommodate in a tiny house.
A contractor who is familiar with the applicable building code and the issues facing tiny-home builders can be a valuable resource. Tiny houses have their own complications, including how to get all that stuff into a such a small place. An expert can help avoid pitfalls with both the permitting and construction processes.
You also might seek out other tiny-house owners in your area, since they will hopefully be familiar with the applicable building code.
Some property owners might be hesitant to contact the planning or building department in fear that it will increase building costs and alert the local jurisdiction that they will be building a tiny house. Attempting to conceal one's activities is, however, a risky choice. If a neighbor complains to authorities about the tiny house, you might have to remove the tiny house and pay fines.
If unsure of what your legal obligations are, contact a land use attorney in your area.