The tiny house movement is a concept about intentional living. It looks different for everyone and encompasses many sizes, types, and forms of housingThe notion of “right-sized housing” refers to housing that is the ‘right size’ for an individual or family. The tiny house movement was once believed to be “just a fad” or a quick trend. But when viewed against soaring housing costs, oversized homes, and housing shortages with environmental problems, it is easy to see why the concept of tiny home living is continually growing and here to stay. Macy Miller of minimotives.com says that this movement is highest in countries with the largest carbon footprints because it is a response to high costs and a housing shortage. Not because of a trend.
“Tiny houses solve more problems than they create,” -Macy Miller
Tiny Houses Take Many Forms
According to the International Residential Code, Appendix Q: Tiny Houses, a tiny house is a “dwelling unit with a maximum of 37 square meters (400 sq ft) of floor area, excluding lofts.”
- RVs or travel trailers
- Converted airstreams or buses
- THOWs (tiny house on wheels)
- Tiny houses or small houses on foundations
- Prefab houses (manufactured, mobile, modular)
- Houseboats, yachts, and even sailboats
- Converted carriage houses, garages, or sheds
- Converted barns and silos
- Container homes
- Barge homes or Floating homes (houses built on a barge)
- Granny Pods (actually an Accessory Dwelling Unit created for aging parents)
- Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs, aka mother-in-law apartments)
Tiny House TV shows
I enjoy watching many of the tiny house TV shows. Initially, I watched them out of curiosity, thinking, why would anyone want to live in such a small space? But then I started to understand living intentionally and sustainably, and the idea of living mortgage-free took hold. So those shows are what inspired me from the start. But they manufacture misconceptions about tiny house living and leave out a lot of details, such as zoning and building laws. For example, tiny houses are not free. They can cost significantly less than a traditional-sized home but can still be pricey. Only some are off-grid; many have electrical and plumbing systems. While there are some people who build their own tiny homes, many purchase them from tiny house building companies.
It is sometimes quite difficult to figure out how to live legally in tiny homes. Many laws disallow tiny or small houses. In some situations, municipalities only allow them for short-term rentals, not permanent or full-time residences. The laws are sometimes even discriminatory.
Generally, small houses are more affordable for lower-income families, but new subdivisions rarely allow them. Mobile homes, long associated with poor people, are not desirable in typical neighborhoods because of that stigma. Typically, most subdivisions require house sizes to be slightly larger than a mobile home. Many subdivisions, or even whole communities, require minimum square footage for new home construction on empty or open lots. These often range from 1200 square feet to 2500 square feet. Some also have a requirement for all the walls to be equal lengths to make a square, instead of a rectangle like a mobile home.
“You can’t just buy a piece of property and set a house on it; none of those things are legal. You can’t just live in your tiny house full-time; those things aren’t legal.” -Hannah Crabtree, tiny house designer
Zoning laws outline what type of structure you can put on specific land. These determine minimum square footage, property restrictions, and allowances. They vary by municipality and are often antiquated. They must allow for small structures if you want to build small.
Zoning laws are municipal or local laws that govern how property can and cannot be used in certain areas. For example, zoning laws can limit commercial or industrial use of land to prevent oil, manufacturing, or other types of businesses from building in residential neighborhoods. Examples of zoning classifications include industrial, light industrial, commercial, light commercial, agricultural, single-family residential, multiunit residential, and schools.
“It can be tricky to navigate both codes and zoning.” -Tracey Harris
Building codes dictate how a structure is built. They indicate requirements for ceiling heights, foundations, emergency escape access, sleeping lofts, loft access by stairs and ladders, etc. The most important distinction is whether you plan to travel, meaning using your house as an RV, or if you plan to live in your home full-time in one place. The laws and rules are different for both. If you plan to both live in your home full-time and travel, most of the time your house will be classified as an RV.
The International Residential Code (IRC) governs structures that you’re able to live in. Officially, it is a comprehensive code that comprises all building, plumbing, mechanical, fuel gas, and electrical requirements for one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses up to three stories.IRC sets a national standard but local jurisdictions must adopt appendices and they’re able to make their own amendments.
Appendix Q was approved for inclusion in the 2018 International Residential Code (IRC) building code to provide regulations and standards for tiny houses on foundations that are 400 square feet or less. Appendix Q relaxes various requirements in the body of the code as they apply to tiny houses, and addresses specific tiny house challenges such as compact stairs, including handrails and headroom, ladders, reduced ceiling heights in lofts, and guard and emergency egress, and rescue opening requirements of lofts.
Unfortunately, not every jurisdiction or municipality has adopted Appendix Q, so check where you want to build first.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) governs vehicles and RVs , and tiny homes on wheels (THOWs) often fall under this code. Some tiny home builders use their own version of the ANSI code (sometimes called ANSI Plus). RVIA, or the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, developed the standards. Some RVs and tiny homes have an RVIA certification, a set of safety standards specifically for RVs. Note that RVIA does not allow owner-built tiny homes. Zoning codes for where the land where RVs and THOWs are usually different than other types of homes and must also be followed.
Mobile homes must be built to certain federal construction standards determined by HUD, or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.Note that HUD does not govern tiny houses.
Even the terminology is confusing. Here is an overview of the types of tiny houses:
Prefab refers to prefabricated homes. Companies build these off-site and then place them on a piece of land and/or on a foundation. They are meant to stay in one place and not travel.
Manufactured homes: are factory built and then placed on a piece of land. “These homes are built on wheels, transported to the property site, then fitted onto a foundation.”
Mobile homes: a type of manufactured house built on a permanent chassis and transported and placed on a lot. These must be HUD compliant, and a “compliant home must display documentation known as a ‘data plate’ inside and a ‘certification label’ on the back end of the house.” Removal of these is illegal and there’s no way to replace them.
Modular houses: These are factory-built in whole, boxlike sections or ‘modules.’ Then they are installed and fitted together to complete the house. “The main difference between manufactured and modular homes is that manufactured homes are built to the national HUD code, while modular homes are built to all applicable state and local building codes. This is similar to the way traditional site-built homes are constructed.”“Because these modules must be transported by flatbed truck to the job site, they are limited to being no more than 16 feet wide – the legal ‘oversize load’ width limit for highways.”
Panel-built houses: “Panel-built houses are constructed as separate pieces – walls, floors and roofs are factory-built then shipped to the job site to be assembled.” Also called ‘flat-pack’ because the finished walls and floors are stacked for easy transport.
Homes that travel or are considered temporary:
RVs: Recreational vehicles, also called motor homes, travel trailers, or fifth wheels. They are made for traveling and are always considered vehicles. For a tiny house RV, follow ANSI (American National Standards Institute) codes 119.5 and NFPA (National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1192. Those are both more lenient than construction codes because they are not meant for primary residences.
Note: Certifications are important with tiny homes because they are regulated. ‘Inspection’ is not regulated and can mean different things in different places. Another note: Different states have different laws and building codes, so if you buy a tiny home in a different state from where you live, you can be in violation and have to move, if caught. Also, be aware of where a tiny house was built versus where you will reside in it. Was it built to withstand freezing temperatures or for a warm place like the desert?
Above is one of my favorite THOWs. It has a double staircase to a bedroom loft on each end, with a twin bed platform with built-in shelves in one of the lofts – perfect for a child’s bedroom. This home offers tons of natural light as well, with lots of windows and skylights.
Park Models: are designed and manufactured specifically to be used for temporary, seasonal, or recreational use, and are not meant to be used as permanent residences. “These are legally considered to be recreational housing and cannot be used as primary residences in most jurisdictions.”
Yurts: Circular domed tents covered with skins, felt, or fabric stretched over a collapsible lattice framework. These can be portable or permanent and are classified differently in different places. Carefully research these before purchasing and building.
Tiny Houses on foundations: Small homes under 1000 square feet. These must follow local zoning and building codes, including minimum size requirements.
Container homes: these are made from repurposed steel shipping containers that were previously cargo containers used on ships, trains, or trucks. They are often far cheaper than new house construction and are environmentally friendly. These must follow local building codes like modular and site-built homes.
Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs): Also called add-ons, built-ons, mother-in-law apartments, granny pods, detached bedrooms, backyard cottages, etc. Contractors usually build these according to IRC and local residential codes. There is a push for tiny houses to fall under this designation. See the different types of those in the following image:
For water homes, things can get a little confusing. You will need to research the local laws where you intend to keep the boat. Generally, people use the terms houseboats, boat houses, and floating houses interchangeably, but they are all different.
Houseboats: are homes built on floating platforms. “They have a fully-equipped cockpit and a high-speed motor that helps you propel and steer your boat.”
Boat Houses: Floating buildings where people store yachts and other marine vehicles, like a garage. People don’t usually live in these.
Floating Houses: Floating houses and houseboats are similar in their construction, but floating houses do not have their own propelling mechanisms. These require a tug boat to move them, so most float stationary at one location.
People do live full-time in other types of boats, such as yachts and sailboats, and either travel or have long-term leases with a marina. Try to connect with people in your area that live part or full-time on a boat, and contact local marinas to see what advice they can offer.
There are companies that offer financing for tiny homes but do your research. Some tiny house building companies offer financing, but the interest is much higher than conventional mortgage interest. It’s difficult to get a mortgage for a tiny house, especially, on wheels because there’s no property to tie the loan to. You often have to have your own money to buy a tiny house.
Financial institutions sometimes consider an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) as a remodel to an original home, and therefore may qualify for a mortgage or home improvement loan (which is essentially a second mortgage since it puts a lien on your main property).
If You Want To Go Tiny
If you want to live in a tiny home, regardless of what that looks like, you’ll need to pursue it diligently. Research online, and talk to tiny home builders, real estate agents, and the local zoning office. Look for areas that have incorporated areas, that don’t have zoning, or that already have tiny house communities and/or residents. Search “[your city] + tiny house” online to see if they are allowed. Use the Additional Resources below.
Tiny house author, dweller, and advocate Melanie Copeland says that if tiny living isn’t allowed where you live, the best thing you can do is to get involved and press for change. Collaborate with like-minded people, and attend zoning and planning meetings. Lee Pera, a tiny house expert and advocate, also says to get involved in local tiny house groups, either in person or online.
Sometimes, there aren’t laws in local jurisdictions that expressly address tiny homes. In those cases, you cannot obtain permits. I’ve heard that if you must take a risk and park or build a tiny house, establish good relationships with neighbors and most won’t report or complain. But don’t ever lie to the fire department for obvious safety reasons.
While I still reside in an area that is not friendly to the tiny house movement, the city is finally allowing ADUs as of 2022 after having banned them since 1961. That’s a big step in the right direction. In the meantime, it’s time for me to join a local tiny house group myself. Please feel free to comment and share your own tiny house journey. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
Tiny House Consultants (or those sharing their knowledge):
MiniMotives Tiny Home, Macy Miller
Niche Design Build: Lina Menard, Tiny House Consultant, Architect, and Teacher
Smaller Living Huge Life: Brenda Mason Parmelee, Tiny House speaker, best-selling author, and downsizing consultant. Learn how to declutter!
The Tiny House Concierge: Alaska Wagoner, writer and tiny house consultant.
Living Big In A Tiny House youtube channel
Fy Nyth: Ariel C. McGlothin, living in a tiny house on wheels and off-grid
Tiny House Land & Law
The Giving Tree Family: Consulting on legal living.
Tiny Home Law Book: Jenifer Levini, a housing, real estate, land use, and business attorney.
The Tiny House Zone: Lee Pera, placement and zoning for tiny homes.
Tiny House Expedition: Alexis Stephens & Christian Parsons, how to live legally
Land Stories podcast: Dave Denniston, how to buy rural land for tiny living.
Tiny House Design & Build
A Tiny Good Thing: Sells high-performance and healthy building materials, ventilation units, appliances, practical goods, etc.; offers consultations on building better and healthy in tiny homes and ADUs.
Yestermorrow Design/Build School Tiny House Design