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Tiny Homes' Biggest Problem Is That The Law Can't Decide What They Are

The best strategy is to build one and hope no one official will notice. Just remember to be nice to your neighbors.

Tiny Homes' Biggest Problem Is That The Law Can't Decide What They Are

[Photos: Flickr user Nicolás Boullosa]

Tiny houses have a lot of appeal: price, simplicity, low running costs, and plain cuteness. But building and living in one might prove tricky, in the U.S. at least, thanks to their somewhat confused legal status.

According to Alyse Nelson of the Sightline Institute, tiny houses are "usually illegal." The problem is a combination of building codes and zoning laws. Tiny homes are often too small to meet the minimum size requirements demanded by some codes. For example, the International Residential Code, writes Nelson, rules out many tiny home designs because of requirements like 70 square feet of floor space and a minimum of 7 feet in width and height.

Adding wheels to a tiny home can further complicate things, leading to the building being classed as a recreational vehicle. "One hurdle this creates for tiny housers is the problem of parking," says Nelson, "since it’s illegal to live in an RV full-time outside of an official RV park. This is the case in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia."

Building and housing regulations, along with RV laws, vary from state to state, although that part shouldn’t bother you unless you actually do plan to use your tiny home as an RV. In practice, it’s usually best to ignore the rules and rely on the fact that these laws are rarely enforced. "THOWs (tiny homes on wheels) parked in the backyards of friends or family members, or even on property by themselves, likely stay there without official permission," writes Nelson. It also pays to be a good neighbor. "Online tiny house advocacy groups encourage prospective tenants to get to know their neighbors and make sure they’re happy, because code enforcers are unlikely to knock on the door unless they receive a complaint."

Even if you do comply with RV rules, you might still be out of luck. Because RVs are almost always built by a commercial enterprise, getting certification for a self-built home is almost impossible. That’s changing, though, with both Oregon and Washington now offering self-built RV certification.

Right now, the best place to live in a tiny home is in Fresno, California, where tiny homes can become permanent homes, albeit under strict laws (to be fair, these laws seem aimed more at stopping big developers from skirting existing building laws).

Tiny houses are a solution to several problems. They use fewer resources to build, run, and maintain. They don’t take up much space, and they’re cheap. Not only are they less environmentally harmful than a full-sized home, but they can help to solve housing crises. And because they are often prefabricated, they’re fast to deploy.

It seems that forward-thinking municipalities are catching on to the idea of tiny homes, and Nelson’s article outlines a few examples of law changes that are helping tiny-home dwellers to set up and settle down. But until specific laws are made for them, or exceptions built in to existing laws which are designed to govern much bigger structures, tiny homes will remain a niche for those enthusiastic enough to cope with the lack of security.

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