Is Tiny House Living actually a viable solution? Part 2

Interior of a tiny house
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash

In my last post, I told you about my family’s growing interest in tiny houses. I’ve been pursuing buying or building a tiny house in our area, but I’ve run into many roadblocks. I want to provide a few clarifications: first, tiny can be defined as anything under 700 square feet. What we really want is a house under 1000 square feet, which could also be classified as a small house. Second, we are not looking to be mobile as some tiny house owners are – we are not looking to tow the house and use it for traveling. We would want to build it on a foundation. Third, we are not looking to be off the grid – we want electricity and plumbing. Last, we want to do this 100% legally, and that’s where the biggest roadblocks have been.

House at River Ridge Escapes, photo by me
House at River Ridge Escapes, photo by me

Where can you put a tiny house?

Though I’m in Tennessee, I want to share my experience because I suspect it is typical of many regions of the United States. I found it very confusing to figure out what you can build and where you can build. If you watch popular TV shows about tiny house living, they make it seem like you can just park one anywhere. But I’m afraid that that’s just not true. There are many details, ordinances, and regulations. When I started the process, I didn’t even know how to find the information. Even now I’m certainly no expert, but I wanted to share my experience in hopes that it helps others navigate the same process.

I’ve spoken to several tiny home builders and real estate agents about buying or building a tiny house. None were able to give me enough information or direction. Real estate agents especially did not seem very motivated to work with me. From a financial perspective, we were only looking to buy a small piece of land under $30,000, rather than a huge house in the hundreds of thousands, thus less of a commission for them. A couple of agents were somewhat helpful, but only to a point. One even told me that I could “plop one down anywhere I wanted,” which is completely inaccurate and misleading.

Well, kind of. I can buy a tiny house and park it in my backyard tomorrow. But I cannot legally reside in it full time.

Dining room of a tiny house, photo by me
Dining room of a tiny house, photo by me

Zoning: County, or City?

Though I thought real estate agents would be most knowledgeable in zoning laws, they often referred me to the county and city zoning offices to find out for myself. I called both zoning offices multiple times over several months and left messages and I’ve never received a return call from either. I was going to have to take a day off from work to visit the offices in person, but I never even got that far.

Eventually, I figured out that zoning is different in the county versus the city; that sections of each have their own zoning regulations; and that individual subdivisions within the city and county often have their own restrictions. Each of these has requirements about minimum square footage, lot size, foundation type, home shape (to prevent mobile homes), etc. Many of these are rules are created as safety regulations, but some were created simply to keep poor people out of certain neighborhoods.

We looked at many pieces of land in person and online. Some were in the city and some were in the county, but this isn’t always easy to determine. When I’ve asked real estate agents directly, I often did not get a clear answer. Here are some of the small, quick tricks you can use to determine which zoning to even start with:

      • Look at the garbage cans – if those are city-issued, then it is city zoning.
      • You can tell by school zone if schools are separated by city and county (where we live, it all falls under the county).
      • Check the public library system to find out if it serves the city or county.
      • Find out which utilities (water, gas, electric) service county and city separately, you can determine the zone that way.
Tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me
Tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me

Zoning Classifications

We found several pieces of land into which we made serious inquiries with real estate agents. Regarding one particular property, the agent responded: “This particular property is zoned R1 so you could build on it but I’m not sure if there is a minimum size or not and also, since it’s in a subdivision, there are probably restrictions on what can be built…If there are no subdivision restrictions, you would probably have to get a special permit for a tiny home…It is my understanding that zone R5 is the only one not required to get a special permit. If I were you, I would make a trip to the zoning office and try to get them to break down the process for what you are wanting to do.” That was a lot of information for me to understand in just one paragraph, especially since I am not versed in zoning laws.

Many areas do not have a separate classification for tiny homes. Zoning classifications are not standardized and can vary greatly. Even if a municipality follows the International Residential Code (IRC), there are usually amendments and exceptions. Generally, most indicate the type of use with a letter or combination of letters, for example, R for residential or C for commercial. There is usually a number to indicate the type of development. For example, in our area* R1 refers to lots for single-family dwellings.

R1: Residential buildings

The definition of R1: “Single-family dwellings, excluding factory manufactured homes constructed as a single self-contained unit and mounted on a single chassis.” I have been unable to find the minimum square footage for new R-1 construction in our city and county, except that they follow the standards of the 2012 International Residential Code (IRC) with many amendments and exceptions. The 2012 IRC requires a minimum of 120 habitable square feet in at least one room. Other rooms must be at least 70 square feet with 7-foot ceilings. But in some county municipalities adjacent to Chattanooga, the minimum is 1400-1500 square feet for newly constructed residential buildings.

R5: Manufactured residential homes

R5 is intended for single wide manufactured homes in specifically designated places. In other words, here R5 means trailer or mobile home park. In many places throughout the United States, tiny houses are relegated to mobile home communities. Tiny houses that are 400 square feet or above are often classified as manufactured homes. Many of the tiny house models we liked were either right at 400 square feet or just over. In the city, a manufactured home is defined as a structure, transportable in one or more sections, which is at least 8 feet wide and 32 feet long (256 square feet) “and which is built on a permanent chassis, and designed to be used as a dwelling with or without permanent foundation,” according to the Chattanooga Code of Ordinances.***

A1: Agriculture use

In our county, A1 zoning is “intended for agricultural uses and single-family dwellings at 2 units per acre maximum.” One real estate agent and one tiny house company informed me that I could “probably get away with a tiny house” on a lot with that zoning. But we don’t want to “get away with it” and hope we don’t get caught, experiencing consequences of hefty fines and a relocation later. We want to do this legally.

Travel trailer or camper

If a tiny house on wheels (THOW) is classified as a travel trailer, they are only allowed to be used for “short-term occupancy for a period not to exceed thirty (30) days, for frequent and/or extensive travel, and for recreational and vacation use.”** So you can technically own one and park it wherever an RV is allowed, but you cannot reside in them full time or permanently.
Kitchen of a tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me
Kitchen of a tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me

Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions

On top of figuring out the county zoning for areas outside of the city, many subdivisions have what is called Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs). These rules govern the use of lots in the subdivision or neighborhood and are usually enforced by a homeowners’ association. Again, many of these rules are created as safety regulations. But some were put in place to prevent the poor from moving into those neighborhoods.

Unfortunately with every single lot that we inquired about, we hit a roadblock, usually in the form of said CC&Rs. Some had a minimum square footage requirement of 1500 square feet, and two required a minimum of 2500 square feet! I honestly don’t even know what I’d do with a house that size. Another real estate agent recommended a vacant double lot zoned as R2, on which we could’ve built a small duplex and rented out half. But it also had a steep grade and would have required a double foundation or a poured wall foundation. This combination seemed too much for us to take on financially and physically.

Elevation of a tiny house on the beach
Elevation of a tiny house on the beach, image from architecturaldesigns.com

Commit with no guarantee

If we decided to build a small house on a foundation and got past any relevant CC&Rs, then we could apply for a special permit through the applicable zoning office. But we would have to buy the land first, and then to apply for the permits we would have to bring the zoning office architectural or building plans. If this order is correct, we would have to purchase the land, then work with a general contract or architect and pay them to draw up the plans. So we’d have to commit financially to the land and the plans before we’d even know if we could build the small house we desire.

Retrofitting an Older House

There are some single-family homes in our area under 1000 square feet, but most of them are older homes. When you purchase an older home, as we did, you must be prepared for the problems of an old home. Homes built before the 1980s can have asbestos, as our house did, and asbestos remediation is expensive. Homes built before 1978 often have lead paint and contractors will not perform work on your house until it has been tested. Some argue that you can “get around” testing for things like asbestos and lead by doing the work yourself. But the risk is exposing yourself and your family to known highly carcinogenic toxic materials. Older homes sometimes have mold or mildew issues. Old construction materials may have been made or treated with dangerous chemicals, such as old insulation, lead pipes, and varnishes.

I’m not against owning an older home, but I wish I had known these things before buying one so I could have been prepared financially. For our family, we want newer construction, and many tiny houses tend to either have newer building materials or be newly constructed. Additionally, the cost is often higher to retrofit or “gut” an old house and rebuild the interior with updated plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc. than it is to buy or build a new tiny or small house.

Interior of a small A-frame house
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash

Tiny House zoning issues

Tiny houses are not allowed in many places, and this is most often due to the property tax structure. Property taxes are a major income source for local governments and they often pay for a variety of services including schools, fire and police, infrastructure, libraries, garbage and recycling, and too many others to list. Property taxes are usually based on the value of your land and home. The more square footage of the home, the higher the taxes, and the more income the municipality takes in. So there is not much motivation there to allow tiny or even small houses. The system discourages small and sustainable living.

Movement on the rise

There are cities in Florida, Oregon, California, Arizona, and several other states that laws that allow full-time residency in small or tiny houses. Tiny house communities are popping up in different areas, like the ones I mentioned at River Ridge Escape in Georgia. Some argue that the tiny house movement is a trend and will be short-lived. Others claim that the movement is here to stay so that people can live the life they want by not being tied down by a huge mortgage.

Thank you for reading, I hope this information is helpful. I am not trying to discourage anyone from trying to go tiny. As for me and my family, the effort to build in our specific area has been tabled, but it is not off the table! If there are any errors or misinterpretations in this post, it is only because my understanding of building codes and ordinances is rudimentary and I’ve largely had to figure this out on my own. If you have updated information or your own experience to share, leave me a comment below!
Blue tiny house with rounded door
Image by Kool Cats Photography on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Footnotes:

*Information obtained from the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency.

**Information obtained from Chattanooga Code of Ordinances, Chapter 38, Zoning.

***Chattanooga Code of Ordinances, Section 10-8.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Are Tiny Houses Illegal in Your State?” by Maria Fredgaard

Article, “Tiny-house owners are facing evictions or living under the radar because their homes are considered illegal in most parts of the US,” Insider.com, December 14, 2020.

Article, “Where Can I Build a Tiny House?” by Maria Fredgaard

Article, “A woman who parked her tiny house on her parents’ property in New Hampshire was forced to move out after the local government said it was illegal,” Insider.com, December 30, 2020.

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