Interview with a Building Inspector

As you may know, tiny houses on wheels aren’t exactly legal to live in (in the eyes of the law, wheels = RV = not a home).  Today I met with a local building inspector to discuss how tiny houses might fit in with towns and to learn if there is any way a tiny house can be legal!

  • It is possible to build a 300 sq ft home that complies with all the zoning and building codes; however, the home must be on a foundation.  Taking the wheels off the trailer usually doesn’t qualify as a foundation, as the home could be made mobile again.  But perhaps this could change!
    • The foundation is required to guarantee a predictable tax base and community composition.  Towns need stable income to keep up public needs like roads and schools.  Officials don’t want to raise taxes more than necessary, and part of this means having a stable population.
    • Residing in a tiny house on wheels is ok in a campground or RV park, but these places usually have restrictions on length of occupancy.
  • Enforcement against mobile tiny houses is complaint-driven.  If there are no formal complaints, it’s unlikely to get a violation.  Officials can, however, use google maps to monitor land parcels and investigate unlawful structures :0
  • In most places you need a minimum lot size of 5000 sq ft per residence.
    • Some towns require less and/or allow multiple dwellings per lot, which could make it easier to have a tiny house on foundation in a suburban neighborhood, (if you are ok with never re-locating the house).
  • The codes and regulations are aimed at keeping people safe.  The building inspectors need to do their jobs, regardless of whether they personally support tiny houses.
  • There is an entire list of regulations for moveable housing (like manufactured housing) but usually it is difficult to meet all the requirements.

What does this mean for people interested in living in a tiny house legally?  Building on a foundation is a good idea, as is ensuring all building codes are met (i.e., consult with a contractor and get the appropriate permits).  It may be possible to waive some of the less-important codes due to the structure being so small (e.g., having washer hookups, having 2 doors).

…However, building on foundation and in compliance with all the codes can limit the creative design of small spaces and, most importantly, defeats the benefit of mobility, a key reason why many people want a tiny houses on wheels.  For instance, if you are in a phase of life of settling down in a place, you likely have a family and/or established career (i.e., money) that would make building a larger home much more appealing.  Since the cost difference between, say, a 1000 sq foot home and a 1500 sq ft home usually isn’t significant, most people opt for the extra space – even though building smaller would result in larger net savings, especially when energy costs are factored in over the life of the home.

 

 

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