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.
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.
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.
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.
R1: Residential buildings
R5: Manufactured residential homes
A1: Agriculture use
Travel trailer or camper
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.
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.
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.
*Information obtained from the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency.
**Information obtained from Chattanooga Code of Ordinances, Chapter 38, Zoning.
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.