Thinking about building a tiny house, or wondering how you can legally use it, such as to live in, paint in, or rent out? Find out more about some common issues and considerations here.
My detached garage has fallen into disrepair and is full of junk. I'd like to either remodel it or replace it with a prefabricated tiny house on wheels. In either case, I want to rent the new space to a residential tenant. Which would be better?
Which is better will largely depend on the health of the local real estate market (including the rental market), construction costs (if you remodel), purchase price (if buying a tiny house), and what return on investment (ROI) you can expect. Additionally, local zoning ordinances and building codes govern what type of building is permitted.
Some benefits of remodeling the garage include:
Some benefits of demolishing the garage and buying a prefab tiny house include:
First, confirm what uses are lawful in your area. If you don't, you might find after you've started the project that either your garage conversion or the tiny house is illegal.
Review the building code and zoning ordinance, talk to staff in the local planning department, and if you have questions, talk to a land use or real estate attorney. A local real estate expert can help you understand what type of living space will be most popular with tenants as well as the rental rates you'll be able to charge.
I dream of owning a second home. To make that affordable, I'd like to place a tiny house on a vacant lot; preferably one that's on wheels. Is it legal to put this on on a vacant lot?
The first issue is whether the applicable zoning ordinance permits your desired use. Zoning ordinances control how land can be used. For example, a part of your town might be dedicated to residential uses, while another area could be only for commercial uses.
Zoning ordinances often make it difficult to get approval for tiny houses, especially since those on wheels might be considered "recreational vehicles." The restrictions vary from place to place, but the more common ones include:
Due to these restrictions, tiny houses are often not lawful for residential purposes (even if they're just temporary). However, it's not uncommon for camping to be permitted on residential property. If you'll be using the tiny house as a second home, it might be considered "camping."
Given the number of restrictions you might encounter, it's important to find out whether the applicable zoning ordinance permits your tiny house on wheels before spending money on your tiny house. In many locations, the planning department will be able to help you answer this.
If the local zoning rules permit a tiny house on wheels for your intended use, you'll also need to inquire what safety standards apply to the structure. (See Do I Need a Building Permit to Construct a Tiny House in My Backyard?)
For single-family houses, those safety standards are in the local building code. Your tiny house, since it's on wheels, might have to meet safety standards used for RVs. Or, because tiny houses are relatively new to the planning world, other safety standards might be imposed.
Some of the informational websites relating to tiny houses encourage people to ignore local building codes and zoning ordinances. Doing so is risky. A cranky neighbor or inquisitive code enforcer could file a complaint or initiate a code enforcement proceeding. You could find yourself paying a large fine and removing your tiny house from your property. If inclined to forgo the permitting process, talk to an attorney to make sure you fully understand the risks.
If you haven't already purchased a vacant lot, shop around to find a location that will allow a tiny house. From city to city, and county to county, the rules regarding tiny houses vary.
Last year, we placed a tiny house in our backyard. We rent it out occasionally as a vacation rental. Last week, we got a letter from the local code enforcement department telling us the tiny house cannot be used as a rental. We need the income. What do we do?
Use of tiny houses for residential purposes hasn't gained widespread acceptance among zoning and building authorities. Many codes require houses used for residential purposes, including rentals, to be a minimum size (for example, 900 square feet). In many areas, tiny houses are not permitted for use as a residence at all.
That said, tiny-house owners shouldn't give up without looking at all options.
Code enforcement officers typically initiate investigation of unlawful uses on private property after private citizens file a complaint. They usually follow up by sending a notice of violation letter to the property owner.
The letter usually provides instructions to the owner on what must be done, as well as information about deadlines (and what happens if you don't meet them). As you review the letter, take note of:
These letters sometimes instruct the property owner to contact the code enforcement officer. This is a good opportunity to explain any inaccuracies and provide additional information. The officer will likely want to schedule a visit to your property. Before responding to or letting the officer on your property, however, it might be helpful to contact a local land use attorney.
If you talk to the code enforcement officer, don't allow yourself to get mad. They're simply doing their job by responding to a complaint. A good officer will make no judgment on whether you're in violation until after investigating.
If it looks like your tiny house is indeed unlawful, you're not out of luck just yet. Consider seeking an amendment to the code allowing tiny houses to lawfully be used as vacation rentals. Amending a land use code can be expensive and time-consuming, but if your local jurisdiction feels enough public pressure, it might willingly make the change. 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 to try for a reasonable resolution. Perhaps the person just wants assurances that the renter in your tiny house won't be blaring music late at night.
After we placed a tiny house in our backyard to use as a mother-in-law suite, we learned that such use is not legal, due to a minimum 300-square-feet requirement. Our tiny house isn't that big. We don't want to move or sell the tiny house. Can we use it as an art studio, home office, or something similar?
A good place to start is with the applicable zoning ordinance (also sometimes called a "development code"). It consists of two parts: a zoning map and land use regulations. The map shows how property is zoned throughout the city or county, while the regulations control the allowable uses in each zone. Both can usually be found online.
Identify the zoning district that your property is located in on the map, which will hopefully be color coded. Or, contact the local planning department to inquire how your property is zoned.
Determine what uses are allowed in your zone by looking at the land use regulations. For example, in a high density residential zone, you might find that single-family dwellings, accessory dwelling units, multi-family dwellings, and home occupations are allowable uses.
Some uses might not be permitted outright outright, but potentially as a "conditional" or "special" use. So, in a low density residential zone, single family residences might be permitted outright, while accessory buildings and home occupations might be permitted only as conditional uses. Special uses and and conditional uses normally require a more burdensome application process and, if approved, certain conditions can be imposed. For example, you might have to add on-site parking.
In many locations, tiny houses don't meet the minimum requirements for a structure to qualify as a dwelling. One option is to consider whether a home office or art studio could qualify as an "accessory use" (or similarly defined use).
The definition of "accessory use" varies from place to place, but it is usually something like: "Accessory uses and structures are those of a nature customarily incidental and subordinate to the principal use or structure on the same lot. Typical accessory structures include detached garages, sheds, workshops, green houses and similar structures not intended for habitation by people."
Even if it looks like your desired use could be allowed, the process is not over; you might still need to get a land use permit for the specific use. Through the permitting process, the local jurisdiction may impose setback and other physical restrictions on the placement of structures. For example, the tiny house might need to be located ten feet from property lines and be no taller than 20 feet.
Land use regulations are rarely crystal clear. If you cannot discern whether an office or art studio is lawful on your property, don't hesitate to ask the local planning department. If it is not, ask what uses are permitted. Perhaps something similar is allowed. A land use attorney can also help you sift through what uses are permitted, and help address questions or concerns you have about your tiny house.