The Tiny House Movement: The Concept

Photo of a tiny house lit up in the dark with night time sky above.
Photo by Cloris Ying on Unsplash.

The tiny house movement is a concept about intentional living. It looks different for everyone and encompasses many sizes, types, and forms of housing The 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

Small wood shingled A-frame house in the forest.
A-frame cabin, photo by Travis Grossen on Unsplash.

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
        • Yurts
        • 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)
Turquoise tiny house with red door, on wheels.
Micro-house, photo by Paul VanDerWerf on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

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.

Aqua floating container house, 5-6 storage containers with windows, doors, and stairs, stacked into a unique house on the water.
Floating container house, photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash.

Living Legally

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 

White and navy boat with red crab, on the water.
Photo by Nick Kidd on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Zoning

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

Tiny house on wheels, rounded/oval shape, beige and wood tones, solar panels on roof, and small deck with stairs.
Photo by Harry Pepelnar on Unsplash.

Building Codes

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.

Two story treehouse with spiral staircase, wooden, in a wintery forest, dog in foreground.
Treehouse, photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash.

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.

Houseboats on water, one gray and one dark turquoise, both two story.
Houseboats, photo by melystu on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Terminology

Even the terminology is confusing. Here is an overview of the types of tiny houses:

Prefab Homes

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.

RV camper with front patio with people sitting, dusk sky in background.
Photo by Blake Wisz on Unsplash.

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.

Interior of a Skoolie, or a bus that has been turned into a home. White walls and ceiling with wood floors, shows kitchen in foreground and living areas in background.
Interior of a Skoolie, or a bus that has been turned into a home. Photo by Sera Isabella Artistry on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Brown yurt with white roof, cloudy sky background.
Photo by Forest and Kim Starr on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Permanent homes:

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.

Container house, multiple containers, blue, white, red, lots of windows, stacked for two stories.
Container house, photo by Edward on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

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:

Diagram of six types of Accessory Dwelling Units.
Types of Accessory Dwelling Units. Image by Joiedevivre123321 on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Water Homes:

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.

Shanty boat on the water, ivory colored siding with windows.
Photo of Harry Bryan’s Shanty Boat design, available for purchase at harrybryan.com/products/shanty-boat.

Financing

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).

Blue house on a floating barge, with a deck and plants, windows, etc.
House on a barge, photo by richie rocket on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Contrast adjusted from original.

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!

White with blue trim tiny home over water and on stilts. Blue sky above.
Tiny house over water, image from Hippopx, Creative Commons license, (CC0 1.0)

Additional Resources:

Tiny House Consultants (or those sharing their knowledge):

Jay Shafer Tiny HousesThe Tiny House: Ethan Waldman, a tiny house builder, advocate, author, and host of the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast. Also host of the annual Tiny House Summit.

MiniMotives Tiny Home, Macy Miller

Tiny House People | Facebook

Niche Design Build: Lina Menard, Tiny House Consultant, Architect, and Teacher

Vina’s Tiny House

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

Tiny House Industry Association (THIA)

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 Alliance USA

Tiny Estates

American Tiny House Association

 

Tiny House Design & Build

Sol Haus Design

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.

3D Tiny House Designer

Liberation Tiny Homes 

Yestermorrow Design/Build School Tiny House Design

PAD Tiny Houses

Footnotes:

The Tiny House Movement: A Countercultural but Sustainable Solution

The Tiny House Movement: Challenging Our Consumer Culture book cover

I recently read The Tiny House Movement: Challenging Our Consumer Culture by Tracey Harris, a sociology professor at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia. Overall, the author argues that the tiny house movement is a countercultural social movement because it challenges many aspects of the American lifestyle and social norms. Some of these include owning a big house with furnishings and “nice” things; taking out loans and “financing” everything. Living in the right neighborhood with the right school, which often equates to a more expensive house. Staying very busy with work to make more money to pay for the house, the maintenance, repairs, and shopping to buy stuff for the house. “Keeping up with the Joneses” sounds stressful. Countercultural is starting to sound pretty good. This book was extremely well researched and well written, and I think all who are interested in tiny house living, minimalism, and sustainability should read it.

Tiny home on water
Image by Leslie Troisi from Pixabay

Tiny Houses

Generally, when I talk to people about my interest in tiny house living, many assume that I mean a 130 square foot tiny house on wheels (also known as a THOW). In fact, tiny houses can range in size from under 100 square feet up to 700 square feet, and small living is sometimes defined as up to 1000 square feet. Some are on wheels, some on concrete slabs or full foundations, and some are floating homes on water (also called houseboats). Tiny houses are versatile, customizable, and much more affordable than the average house. Some are off the grid but many are wired and plumbed for regular utilities. People are interested in tiny homes for a variety of reasons. Some want to work less in order to pursue their true interests; others seek to become and remain debt-free; some want to reduce their environmental impact; and most often, it is a combination of these.

“This transition relates not only to downsizing material goods but also requires a new understanding of what is meaningful and valuable in our lives. Leading lives based on experiences rather than acquisition is countercultural.” -Tracey Harris
Two story tiny house exterior
“Two Story Tiny House,” Park City, UT. Photo by PunkToad on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Home Ownership in the United States

We now have the biggest houses in the entire world. The average size of a new house in the US has tripled since 1950 and is now above 2,500 square feet and the average price is about $286,000. An upscale tiny house can run over $100,000 but are often less than that. There are also many other differences in cost! It costs much less to heat and cool under 500 square feet than it does for 2,500 square feet. The costs of repairs are lower because there is physically less to repair – fewer windows; a roof that is the fraction of the size of the average home; less electrical to repair, and likely only one bathroom instead of 3! “Big houses require more energy and materials to construct. Big houses hold more furniture and stuff—they are integral parts of high-consumption lifestyles. Big houses contribute to lower population densities and, thus, more sprawl and driving.”1 Overall, larger homes are not good for the environment and are not sustainable.

“It is completely out of control right now, in terms of the size of our housing. We really need to settle down and not only because of affordability but because of sustainability. We cannot sustain the level of growth that we have right now.” -Andrew Morrison, tiny house advocate 

Small house figure on a calculator
Image by Alexander Stein from Pixabay

We have too much stuff

In the United States, we have too much stuff. Our consumer habits are keeping us in debt, polluting the environment, and creating discontent. In addition to our large homes, we pay for additional storage – for stuff we probably don’t need! The self-storage industry grows annually; currently, 9.4% of households in the US, about 1 in 10, rent a storage facility. As a country, we spend $39.5 billion annually on self-storage. What else could we do with that money? There are a few situations in which self-storage is necessary, but self-storage should always be a short term solution.

 

“There are more self-storage facilities in America than there are McDonald’s restaurants.”2

Garage full of boxes and junk
Image by Maret Hosemann from Pixabay

Many people wonder how tiny house residents can fit all of their possessions in their homes. The transition to tiny house living does require significant downsizing in possessions. But as with minimalism, the focus would be on keeping the items that add value to your life and letting go of the belongings that do not. But this transition should enhance your life.

People living in tiny homes “acknowledge that a small house provides the vehicle for them to live larger lives, in part because they are no longer tied to the physicality of a conventional house and all of the baggage that comes with those ties.” -Tracey Harris

Debt

Between housing costs and the costs to heat/cool/furnish the home, general overconsumption, cars, education, and self-storage, Americans are more than $13 trillion in debt! We deserve to live better. In fact, some communities are embracing the tiny house movement as a potential way to address housing insecurity and poverty. In Detroit, Michigan, for example, programs assist people with lower incomes to become homeowners over time, which provides them with stability that snowballs into opportunities that they previously did not have.3

“The tiny house movement can help us all gain a better understanding of how we can challenge societal inequalities and environmental degradation by advocating for more choice, not less, in the ways we are able to house ourselves.” -Tracey Harris

Even if you aren’t interested in living in a tiny house, I encourage you to think about the sustainability of your spending habits and how much of your income is going to housing and caring for items you don’t use. Because the less you own, the more money you’ll have for what really matters to you. The less debt you have, the more freedom you will have to spend on travel, experiences, and giving. The benefits of buying less, downsizing, living deliberately, being debt-free are easy to see.

Environmental benefits

Consumer culture is taking a huge toll on the environment. Consuming less not only reduces expenditure but buying less stuff and having a smaller home is also environmentally friendly. Smaller homes use less energy and need considerably fewer items because of limited physical space. Production, transport, and disposal of consumer items is not sustainable at the rate of our current consumption levels. The tiny house lifestyle works counter to this culture by reducing the focus on possessions and putting it back on living a full life.

“We are heading for the proverbial rocks. It’s not just us in peril; it is our very home, planet Earth, which is being threatened by our consumptive choices and overspending.” -Tracey Harris

Photo by Nachelle Nocom on Unsplash

Community and Sharing Economy

Rather than owning and storing every type of household item or tool, minimalists and tiny homeowners embrace the notion of sharing, borrowing, even renting items they need only once in a while. Some neighborhoods have tool libraries, and there are some public libraries that lend tools and equipment just like books. People can share chainsaws, weedeaters, nail guns, and other tools. There are even kitchen libraries popping up, where you can borrow or rent kitchen gadgets that you might not need but a couple of times per year. Tiny house communities, like condos or housing associations, share large amenities such as pools, fitness rooms, and tennis courts. In addition, many also offer clubhouses for large gatherings. Others share communal sports equipment such as kayaks and bicycles.

Live Your Best Life

Though that phrase may seem cliché, living your best life is important, whatever that means to you. If the idea of living with less to achieve your best life is countercultural, so be it. Let’s just embrace it for what it is. This is your life and not for others to judge. If you are living tiny or minimalist, I’d love to know how that’s going for you. Is it helping you get the most out of life? Leave me a comment below. As always, thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

Footnote:

Is Tiny House Living actually a viable solution? Part 2

Last updated on May 23, 2024.

Interior of a tiny house, living area, very white with light wood, A-frame.
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash.

In my last article, 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 encountered many roadblocks. I want to provide a few clarifications: first, tiny can be defined as anything under 700 square feet. We want a house under 1000 square feet, which could also be classified as just a small house. Second, we are not looking to be mobile. Some tiny house owners want to tow and use their houses for traveling. We 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, green and brown, photo by Marie Cullis.
House at River Ridge Escapes, photo by Marie Cullis.

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. It is confusing to figure out what and where you are allowed to build. If you watch popular tiny house TV shows, 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. I didn’t know how to find the information at the beginning of the process. 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 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 with wood floor and ceiling and very large windows.
Dining room of a tiny house, photo by Marie Cullis.

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 planned 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 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 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 the county and city separately, you can determine the zone that way.
Brown tiny house with lots of front windows, at River Ridge Escape.
Tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by Marie Cullis.

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 via email:

“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 at 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, and connected to the required utilities, and includes plumbing, heating, air conditioning, and electrical systems contained therein.”

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 or vacation rental for less than 30 days. So you can technically own one and park it wherever an RV is allowed, but you cannot reside in it full-time or permanently.
Kitchen of a tiny house, white with stainless steel appliances, wood floor, windows with greenery behind them, at River Ridge Escape.
Kitchen of a tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by Marie Cullis.

Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions

On top of figuring out the county zoning for areas outside of the city, many subdivisions have ‘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. However, some were enacted to prevent the poor from moving into those neighborhoods.

Unfortunately with every single lot 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 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, green, yellow and white, two story, with wrap-around porch, 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 those 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 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. We would like newer construction because of our experience. Many tiny houses tend to have new 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, showing open concept living area in foreground, kitchen in background, and loft above.
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash.

Tiny House zoning issues

Tiny houses are not allowed in many places, most often due to the property tax structure. Property taxes are a major income source for local governments. They pay for a variety of services including schools, fire and police, infrastructure, libraries, garbage and recycling, etc. 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 little motivation there to allow tiny or even small houses. The system discourages small and sustainable living.

Movement on the rise

Cities in Florida, Oregon, California, Arizona, and several other states have 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. The number of people seeking smaller mortgages, no mortgages, a lower carbon footprint,  an easier lifestyle, or simply affordable housing, is growing.

Thank you for reading, I hope this information is helpful. I am not trying to discourage anyone from trying to go tiny. As for my family, we have tabled our effort to build in our area. But it is not off the table! If there are any errors or misinterpretations in this article, it is because my understanding of building codes and ordinances is rudimentary. 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! Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!
Aqua blue tiny house with rounded wood door and brown metal roof, beige windows and trim.
Image by Kool Cats Photography on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

 

Additional Resources:

Page, “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.

Page, “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.

Footnotes:

Is Tiny House Living actually a viable solution? Part 1

Last updated on May 16, 2024.

Log cabin sided tiny house on a beautiful landscape, sunset background, man standing on small porch.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.

“Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.” -Henry David Thoreau

For several years now, I’ve been on a quest to figure out if tiny house living is a viable option for my family. After being introduced to the concept through popular reality television shows about tiny houses, I wondered why anyone would want to live in such a small space.

Through a series of circumstances, finances, and soul searching, my interest in tiny living developed gradually and organically. Let’s start at the beginning.

My Experience with Homeownership

I’ve become somewhat disenchanted with homeownership, at least in our current situation. When we bought our house 5 years ago, we had so many ideas about updates that we wanted to do, like new windows, kitchen countertops, and ventilation installed in the bathroom. Maybe a pretty backsplash in the kitchen?

We bought a 1940s house that was not always well maintained and I believe we did not have a good inspection when we purchased it. We knew it would need some updates but didn’t know how much of a fixer-upper it would be. During the last five years, we’ve had multiple significant repairs. I don’t mean a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. I’m talking about several repairs between $5,000 and $10,000 each. On top of that, old houses have older, unsafe building materials such as lead and asbestos that require remediation. It often feels like we are working only to repair the house, and we struggle to keep up. We will have to make many additional repairs in the next few years.

Needless to say, none of those desired repairs or cosmetic updates have happened and are not even on the horizon.

The Pro’s

There are things we love about the house. My son has a big room and he loves the layout. It’s the house he’s grown up in. We have a large covered patio/carport and a big yard to play and garden. The mortgage is affordable, and we’ve never struggled to make our payments regardless of job loss. But most of these qualities also align with tiny house living.

My son playing in the yard of our new home in green grass, corner of brick house at top left.
My son playing in the yard of our new home several years ago. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Evolving Philosophies

Home repair expenses combined with our evolving life philosophies have led us to a place where we want to do things differently. First, we now live an environmentally conscious lifestyle and shape our behaviors around living sustainably. Second, we are inspired by minimalism, and several years ago we started downsizing and paring down our belongings. Somewhere in the middle of this, we started watching Tiny House Hunters and Tiny House Nation out of curiosity and for fun. I think we thought we could never live that way. Eventually, my interest was peaked and I wondered: could we do this?

We want to spend less time cleaning and taking care of our possessions. We want to spend less money repairing and maintaining our house. Smaller houses take less time to clean and maintain. They have less plumbing, electrical, roofing, and other physical materials and hence cost less to repair in most cases. A smaller home requires less electricity for heating and cooling, which results in a lower electric bill and is more environmentally friendly.

It would be great to spend more time pursuing interests, relaxing, and experiencing life and less time taking care of the house we live in. We would most like to focus on raising our little boy and spending time with him!

“Our homes are not containers for stuff but rather a place for love and connection. By removing clutter from our homes, we make more physical space and create less distraction, allowing us to really live the way we want to live.” -Courtney Carver, Project 333

Visit to a Tiny House Community

Finally, I felt it was time to tour tiny houses, see what they’re really like, and get a feel for their size. Last year, we toured a tiny house community called River Ridge Escape in Menlo, Georgia. We thought we’d find the sizes shockingly small like the people on the tv shows. But we didn’t, they were about what we expected. Even the smallest one at the time, around 170 square feet, did not shock us. Tiny homes are often designed with efficient use of space, so most offer everything people need. The 400-square-foot homes were lovely and featured porches, upscale finishes, full kitchens, washer/dryer, and storage. Some even have bathtubs. The largest on their site was 700 square feet which seemed almost too large!

Tiny house exterior with a man and boy on the porch. Tan sided house with dark brown accents and windowpanes. Porch at front with metal staircase.
We toured several tiny homes. This one, called the Sea Breeze, was one of my favorites. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Sea Breeze interior showing the living area, full kitchen, and stairs to the loft. White, tan, and brown colors for trim, furnishings, and walls. Celing fan at top. Vase of yellow sunflowers on counter at right.
Sea Breeze interior showing the living area, full kitchen, and stairs to the loft. Photo by River Ridge Escape.
My son in the loft of the Sea Breeze, staring out the window. Carpeted floor, double window.
My son in the loft of the Sea Breeze. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Trying one out

The tiny house community rents a few of the homes on Airbnb, so we decided to go back one weekend to try one out! We rented out a 500-square-foot model called the Hawthorn, a house with 2 bedrooms plus a loft, which my son quickly claimed as his room!

Exterior of the Hawthorn, small wood sided home with a green metal room, surrounded by trees.
Exterior of the Hawthorn.
Kitchen, light wood cabinets and walls with black appliances, stainless steel sink with window above it, and gray and black mottled countertops.
The kitchen. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Livingroom with gray sectional couch in an 'L' configuration, wood walls, small round coffee table, plant paintings on wall, and windows at right.
The living area. Photo by Marie Cullis.
The loft area, featuring low wood ceilings with two twin beds with owl face pillows, a small bear lamp on a nightstand, and owl bookends with books.
The loft. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I love the homes River Ridge Escape offers and we enjoyed our stay there. Each house has utilities, water, septic, and garbage pick-up. The community has a pool, pool house, a small fitness building, a dog park, walking trails, water access for canoeing and kayaking, a community fire pit, and many other amenities. I love the idea of these communities.

Next Steps

As much as we love the communities of River Ridge Escape, relocating there is not an option for my family. So what about putting a tiny house on a piece of land where we live now? I’ve pursued this for about a year and discovered it is extremely complicated. I’ll tell you all about it in my next article. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resource:

Article, “I spent 3 days living in a 350-square-foot house in a community of tiny homes — see what it was like,” by Frank Olito, Insider.com, October 1, 2019.