Locating Land for Tiny Houses

One of the most common questions I hear centers around where people can live in tiny houses legally. The challenge is that in many communities the definition of what qualifies as a residential home has been too tightly defined. For example, one of the things you’ll find are square footage minimums that define the smallest size a home can be, which can often be several hundred or thousand square feet.

I personally think all these rules are insanity because who in their right mind could determine a fixed minimum house size for everyone in a community. If the powers that be are trying to protect home values in the neighborhood they’ve also lost touch with reality because real estate appraisers will typically use similar properties for value comparisons. Luckily there are some ways to work within the system – to get around the system.

Photo credit Kahili Mountain Park via Tiny House Blog.

Some Loopholes

  1. Avoid building codes – Begin by finding communities that don’t have a lot of building restrictions. There’s a good ebook to start your search called No Building Codes written by Terry Herb at Containerist. The ebook outlines the building codes for each US State, at the state-level. If you are open to relocating and want to a quick reference by your side when seeking out states with few (if any) restrictions this is a good ebook to have.
  2. ‘Camp’ on your land – Trailer-based tiny houses are usually seen by most municipalities as RV trailers since they are built on wheels. So you can typlically live in a tiny house anywhere it’s legal to ‘camp’ on your own land. This is not always permitted so check the local ordinances with local law enforcement and/or the planning department. Other issues may still apply like how you’ll need to deal with waste water and drinking water.
  3. Alternate zoning – Look for multi-family zoned land. Typically there is no minimum unit size defined for multi-family zoned property which allows apartment building to have small apartments. It’s possible that with the right proposal, a planning department may approve building the first unit of a multi-unit tiny house development.
  4. Trailer park – Rent space at a trailer park. Some trailer parks have restrictive requirements like many homeowners’ associations, so avoid those. But many will be happy to have you park your custom trailer home in along side the other trailers.
  5. Build an eco-village – Consider buying an existing trailer park or campground with friends and turn it into an eco-village. This is one of my favorite tiny house community concepts because the zoning and infrastructure are already in place at these kinds of properties; although I’ve yet to see someone give it a try.
  6. Move out to the countryside – Many rural areas, even near major metropolitan areas will be more flexible with living solutions. There are many areas where migrant housing has already set precedents and paved the way for tiny house living.
  7. Backyard camping – A friends backyard might be a viable option if ‘camping’ is be allowed in your area. Setting up a tiny home in a backyard may also legally comply with the laws that support ADUs (accessory dwelling units). Even here in regulation-ridden California we have laws that permit the addition of in-law units.
  8. Hide in plain sight – I’m not advocating breaking the law but many people have found that simply setting up housekeeping in plain view works fine. The reason this works is that something so cute and in plain view is seen as a quality contribution to the neighborhood, not an eyesore. Onlookers seem to assume it’s some kind of cute shed, playhouse, or home office and just smile and continue on their way. Few would assume someone actually lives there, after all, who could live in a house so small? LOL
  9. Seek a variance – This is essentially asking the local planning department to consider an exception to the rule. If you work the green angle and diversity angle you may get more traction. There is quite a bit of risk with this approach because you have to buy the land before you can apply for building permits.

Wrapping Up

Finding a place to live in alternative housing requires thinking outside the box and looking for pre-existing loopholes. By all means try to avoid breaking the law and risking loosing your home. Building your home on a trailer can reduce the risk because you can simply move it if asked to by authorities. But it’s alwasy much nicer to find a place where you’re welcome to stay as long as you like.

32 Comments Locating Land for Tiny Houses

  1. Parrot whisperer

    “because you have to buy the land before you apply for building permits”

    Whao, I’m pretty sure that is not the case everywhere. If you work with the seller they can give you permission to apply for the zoning amendment ahead of time. Also, while I am one of the ones that posted the variance thing as a suggestion, I later found out that where I live, in order to put a non-wheeled (so either with foundation or prefab but just resting on the surface style) tinyhouse, you need a zoning amendment.

    These are usually temporary, apparently and can be for a year to 10 years before you have to reapply or renew it in some way. Unfortunately they are apparently not a very satisfactory solution because the municipality has no obligation to fork it over and they seem to be very anal about it.

    Reading the minutes of your local council meeting can give you some idea of what you’re going up against. As far as I could tell from the minutes I read, it was a stretch to get a stand alone temporary (no foundation) accessory dwelling unit approved even in a wooded rural area for you own parents, the bastards even demanded that the property owner sign a contract for various useage conditions for the unit e.g. has to be continously used and only by the owners parents.

    It’s not like this everywhere, though, apparently seattle and vancouver permit by default the construction of certain tinyhouse like things search “vancouver laneway housing” and “seattle cottage housing”, so maybe we can extend that to other cities.

    Reply
  2. Brian

    Oh boy Michael, I think this is a big can of worms. Pardon, in advance, the long post that I feel is coming. I am familiar with Oregon Building Codes (based off of IRC) and many of the greater Portland area municipalities’ zoning codes. I write from this perspective.

    States that have building codes truly are protecting folks. The code and inspections ensures that the house is being built safely. Moreover, room size minimums are to be sure that unscrupulous builders do not create 1000sf 5 bedroom (3 of which are 6’x5′ without a closet) homes akin to tenement housing. This is accountability and guides consumer expectations. I do realize that consumers have been conditioned to expect a small bedroom to be 10’x11′ and the previous example would probably not sell.

    The codes also are in place to protect firefighters in rescue situations. I recently was privileged to listen in to the Oregon State Code Board and their revisions to our next code update. Most of their structural concerns were with firefighter safety. A floor over a basement collapsed last year due to structural inadequacy, causing the death of a couple firefighters. Windows are important too. You may be able to squeeze out of a 2’x2′ opening, but if you are unconscious, you will appreciate having a 5.7sf opening that a firefighter can get into, pack and all.

    Oregon has minimum room sizes (70sf) and ceiling heights (7′ +/-) but these can be ignored if you are building the house yourself (contractor’s license not required) and will be living in it for at least two years (not selling it right away). The Carver series of homes on my website plays with this notion. All three homes are less than 300sf. Two have ‘legal’ rooms and the third ignores that standard.

    I don’t believe that any jurisdiction in Oregon regulates minimum house size. These restrictions are generally put in place by upper scale housing developments with HOAs. You probably don’t want to live there anyways. Accessory structures are allowed without a permit in most zoned areas if they are 120sf and less. Oregon has increased this maximum to 200sf.

    Camping on your land near municipalities is generally allowed but carries a rule of no more than 30 days in any 6 month period and cannot be closer than 3 miles to an established city (Clackamas County, some rural zones). I understand the idea is to keep transients from mucking up areas. Oregon apparently does not like it’s transients.

    Your idea regarding multi-family is a great idea. Some of the zones around Portland allow for separated structures, but some require attached units. City of Portland has a minimum amount of units to be built on a piece of land. For instance, a 100’x100′ parcel in R-2 zoning requires a minimum of 4 units. They must all be built at the same time or within a couple years of each other.

    Variances can be sought around here, but require several things. The first is that you must get approval from a percentage of neighboring properties within a certain radius. The second is that you must prove a hardship in order to apply for the variance. Most of the time, the use must not preclude the base zone use. For instance, trying to get a house built in an EFU (exclusive farm use) zone has several restrictions. The land is considered high quality and reserved for crops.

    Setting up as an ADU is generally encouraged by the City of Portland and most other jurisdictions. Portland has even reduced their fees to create an ADU. Clackamas County will only allow one kitchen on a piece of property.

    I like the idea of hiding in plain sight. I was recently looking at a piece of land that was 30’x1300′. This was a county owned property that was being auctioned off at a starting bid of $1048. It was zoned for farm use only, but allowed buildings that were incidental to farm use. My thought was to use the land as my own personal garden and orchard. I would build a 198sf (avoid permits) cute (neighbor appeal) ‘processing shed’ (incidental to farm use) and use that as a tiny cabin. My family of four would spend weekends there. In the fall, we truly would use the bed platforms to process bushels of apples.

    My best option for a permanent home would be to purchase one of these substandard county parcels through auction that was zoned for housing. These parcels are considered substandard because they won’t fit a 40′ wide home and are therefore sold for 4 digits as opposed to 5 or 6. Many rural properties around here want a 10′ side setback. With the previous 30′ wide property (were it zoned residential), that would allow for a 10′ wide home, plenty wide enough for me to work with (and allows for the minimum 7′ wide rooms). In fact, cantilevers are allowed that would allow some rooms to be wider than 9′ inside.

    Problem is that while I would spend $1000 for the land, I would end up spending $5000 or more for a well and $10,000 for a permit. I would install a composting toilet and avoid the septic cost. I do the building myself and after all costs are considered, I’m in a permanent legal place of 600sf for around $40k. This is acceptable to me but I know that others will be wanting to do the whole package for under $10k.

    My other option was to enact the camping clause, drag a 28′ trailer to the site, and build a tiny home on it. Maybe even with pallets!

    I hope this helps some of your readers who live in other parts of the country to explore their local codes and see what they can pull off.

    Reply
    1. Michael Janzen

      Thanks Brian… excellent points. It also nicely balances out my general disrespect for them. LOL :-)

      But seriously, I’m sure there are lots of good reasons for codes, permits, and process… and I know that the core idea is to protect people.

      By all means everyone should build safe homes and use the international building codes when it’s required and makes sense, even when building a tiny house. I hope I didn’t imply you should not; I was trying to stay focused on avoiding red tape loopholes more than building poorly.

      The catch-222 example you gave of the odd-sized lot and $10,000 permit for a water well is perfect for illustrating how a loophole can be used to provide short-term housing while ‘harvesting apples’.

      As far as Oregon is concerned, it is one of those places, like California, that is a bit strongly regulated (correct me if I’m wrong).

      In a nutshell it’s states like Missouri that offer the most flexibility in terms of building codes. In places like these the loopholes I’ve described here are not so needed because there is more freedom to build. In fact this is how places like the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage are possible. http://www.dancingrabbit.org/

      Reply
      1. Tiffany

        Hi Michael,
        I have seen this comment about Missouri in some other articles as well. I am trying to find more information in regards to my future tiny house in terms of parking. Can you give any more info as to why you list Missouri specifically?

        Thanks!

        Reply
    2. jolynne

      Can you tell me more about this camping clause? I am hoping to buy a small piece of land in oregon (welches area) and live in a travel trailer while I build a cob house. I think this will take me 1-2 years. Is there a way to do this if you have a building permit or not? Some way to get around the 30 days every 6 months limit? I am a full time student trying to find a creative way to invest my school loans so that I can live sustainable/make a smart investment. Appreciate any insight!

      Reply
  3. Tom

    Thanks Michael for addressing these important issues of finding adequate and legal land.
    Now, it’s time to do the homework!
    From Charlotte,
    Tom

    Reply
  4. Marc Tyler

    Michael, I’ve really been enjoying this blog. Learning a lot. We built the smallest house we could within our deed restrictions (1500sf) , and though the Mother-in-law house we scheme about building is smaller than we’re acually permitted to build by these deed restrictions, it seems that all of our neighbors have been flouting the restrictions anyway, so we could theoretically safely build and move into a tiny house, and simply threaten a counter-suit if the neighbors squawk.

    A caveat about the variance part of your post:

    “If you work the green angle and diversity angle you may get more traction.”

    This depends very much on where in the country you are. Here
    in Central Texas, working the green and diversity angle may actually work against you, and here’s an excellent explanation of why:

    http://pandagon.net/index.php/site/kicking_a_hippie_is_a_powerful_motivator/

    Reply
    1. Anthony Rizzo

      You might have already built since it has been 4 years since your comment but in case you haven’t, here is a thought. Squawk first! Ask for a variance for your built based upon the standard you see tour neighbors have and if they refuse the variance then you sue. It will most likely get you what you want with the blessing of the county without risking any adverse effects.

      Reply
  5. Alain

    Every jurisdiction is different so generalizations are not particularly useful however to expand a little on Brian’s thread. Keep your eyes peeled for existing non-conforming uses – they exist in almost all jurisdictions and quite often maintain non-conforming rights. This can include substandard lots, sub-standard dwelling, non-conforming uses [residential in commercial or industrial zones etc]. Certain areas have a greater percentage of these uses. The Gulf Coast post Katrina had ton of small houses built by non-profits looking to help out. Not every community is ready for sub 100 foot free standing homes, but there are plenty of permitted 400 – 800 s.f homes and multi-family zoning allows considerable more density [smaller units]

    Reply
  6. Ann

    Isn’t there enough membership on these lists to save time by learning from one another regarding zoning requirements? I ask this from the California San Francisco bay area. Given the upcoming demonstration in Sebastapol, others must have found communities that will allow a tiny house. Anywhere else in the northern California area that you are aware of?

    Reply
  7. Jim

    City codes need to be changed. Perhaps jay could collect success stories here that could be used in other communities?

    Another idea I had was a tiny house building co-operative where a group in a big city could collectively buy a parcel of land and put together a planned unit development application.

    The main issue against small houses is that the city wants to avoid shanty towns. A planned unit development could go a long way to alleviating those concerns.

    In any case finding a legal way to build a small house is difficult.

    Jim

    Reply
  8. Jim

    Another idea I had was to use a multi family building lot. Usually the units do not have to be connected to each other. There are requirements for a minimum distance apart. Someone could buy a multifamily building lot and could possibly sell the other spaces as in a condo development.

    Of course if the goal of small housing is to minimize the cost to live and impact on the planet one could always buy a fourplex and live in one of the apartments. Yet another way to find an affordable small space in the city.

    It is just an idea.

    Jim

    Reply
  9. Deal

    Someone suggested that codes, regulations, and permits were in place to protect people. Yeah, right. That’s partly true, but not even half the case. All those rules are really in place so the government, be it local state or federal, can keep it’s hand in your pocket, and in your buisiness.

    You will always deal with that garbage if you live within a municipality. The only way to live really free in your tiny house, is to build in the country. Buy enough land, in a rural enough area, and you can live in a teepee and nobody will bother you, regardless of the “zoning”. Just take a ride to the country and you’ll see all sorts of ramshackle dwellings that nobody messes with. Or like Victoria said about the Ozarks, “no restrictions”. That’s the only way to go.

    Reply
  10. JT

    There are also many campgrounds who will let you stay there for free or at a very reduced rent if you agree to work a certain amount of hours for the campground. Most have free WIFI so you can also work via the internet from your small home.

    National forest also allow free camping. Take the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming for example. You can camp anywhere on the mountain for free as long as your 1/4 mile off the road and as long as you move your camper 5 miles every 2 weeks. They also have dump stations to dump your sewer from your camper.

    I’ve also stayed in some beautiful BLM campgrounds for as little as $6.00 a night. Grap the caretaker and ask them if you go around with a trash bag and pick up some trash around the campground will they give you some free nights of camping. You would be surprised at how well you are recieved just by doing a little trash pick up.

    I don’t like the whole mobile home park idea because I lived in a mobile home park and it was awefull. People had zero respect for their neighbors and the people around them and their was always a lot of drama at the park, so I will never rent a space at a mobile home park again.

    Anyway, those are my thaughts, don’t know if they would be helpful, but I tried. :O)

    Reply
  11. melanie

    I have to agree with the comment above! This is all a bunch of crap! I even wrote congress & told them so! These building codes are NOT enforced for the safety of the communities or individuals this is all about $$$! It shouldn’t cost $40,000 to build a tiny home for safety purposes! If the hypocrites were so concerned about safety then how come that safety goes right out the window when a natural disaster occurs & people are left to fend for themselves! Via without water & power etc. If safety was such a high concern on their list there would be proper back up systems such as powerful generators in case of emergency! They can put a man on the moon but yet they can’t provide adequate safety back up systems yet like I said all rules go out the window when it comes to natural disasters all of sudden safety is NOT an issue! This is the wrong approach! What we should do is make & sign a petition against these ridiculous zoning laws! America is supposed to be land of the free! We need to go back to the ways of our fore fathers! amen!

    Reply
    1. Anthony Rizzo

      Or at the very least provide certain areas as tiny home zones or a certain amount of tiny homes per residential zone area.

      Reply
  12. melanie

    Btw I contacted the dept of building & planning here is california. Told them I was interested in building a A frame style solar cabin in a rural area with no utilities to it! Noone knew how to answer my q’s it went all the way to the supervisor b4 I received answers! I told him ppl were telling me it can’t be done he said yes it can! after he went through a list of requirements that would cost thousands of dollars! My A style cabin would be out of the question since it didn’t comply with similar structure’s built in ca. So, that explains all the ugly cookie cutter houses that ppl cannot even find their home because they all look the same! This has NOTHING to do with safety! He also told me as of jan 2011 a new zoning law was put into effect where every new structure built requires fire sprinklers & has to have proper pressure which would require a well cost about $5,000. When I told him this was all a joke! he responded safety! When I said where was the safety when we all went through the 94 quake without running water & electricity! He shut up real quick! then he told me his zoning code books went from 1 volume to 12 volumes since 2011! beyond ridiculous!

    Reply
    1. Anthony Rizzo

      What’s funny is that if you ask him about putting up a storage building then it becomes way easier but the minute someone has to live in it then there are problems. I saw a video of a guy in Hawaii who got permission to build a full size family home with a garage and bathroom setup. He then told them he would be building the garage first; which they were okay with; which he did and then never got around to building the house. He lives in his garage in a studio type setup.

      Reply
  13. Brazil Land

    It’s true, in some situations living in a tiny house can be illegal. But there are a lot of good reasons beyond civil defiance for choosing extreme downsizing. The problem is that tiny houses break many of the conventional rules for single family zoning. This is not the case in all communities. Some places have far less restrictive rules, but determining which communities would allow tiny houses is as multifaceted mystery according to the diversity.

    Reply
  14. Lori Stephens

    Following Anne’s comments, I too am interested in the Bay Area. My dream is to live in an artists colony/intentional community (a mix of literary, artsy types and techno types) in Northern California. I’ve followed many discussions about tiny houses, and the sticking point always seems to be zoning. Any thoughts or comments about Bay Area communities would be much appreciated. :-)

    Reply
    1. Anthony Rizzo

      It was mentioned buying an old mobile home park and turning it into an eco- community. Another idea along this line is buying land that is zoned for RV/mobile homes. Set up your tiny home as the office and lease spaces on your land to other tiny home enthusiasts who are into the arts.

      Reply
  15. Andrew

    I just received a building permit to build a 150 sq. ft. house on a lot in the city of Albuquerque, NM. NM is great for their lack of restrictions. I drew the plans myself on 8.5×11 paper and had no problems. There are places out there that are nice places to live and you can build your dream house legally without wheels.

    Reply
    1. Anni

      Andrew, I’d love to hear more about your 150 sq foot home in Abq. Do you have a blog or other info on what you’re doing?

      Reply
  16. Tiny Houses Hankerings

    It such a bummer that those of us wanting to live in small houses have to look for alternative places to live, and that building codes favor big houses. Who comes up with this stuff anyway? Hopefully enough (and I mean hundreds of thousands) of people will take to the Small House Movement and we will start seeing changes in city codes all over the country, but that might be a long time coming.

    Reply
  17. smallfootprint

    HI, Lori Stephens and Anne:

    I currently also live in Northern California, yeb, the beautiful Bay Area. I have been thinking and trying to figure out a way to live in a tiny house here but cannot get through the building codes of any county around here. May be we can all get together and purchase a small mobile home park so we can all have our own tiny houses, create a community garden, and keep our ground beautiful, even it is a mobile park! I really think it is doable if we gather a group of people who are interested.

    Reply
    1. Amy R

      I am another Bay Area resident interested in going small. I am just starting to investigate the legalities of the finding a site, but would rather be in a community with like minded individuals. How about starting a group of our own here in the Bay Area to investigate the possibility of acquiring land that is already zoned appropriately? I want to be under 400 feet, but to do that hoping that you won’t be ratted on by neighbors or having to purchase an appropriate house to then rent out and site your home on that same property, just does not appeal to me, nor does a mobile home park. Now if I were retired, I could travel around and stay at parks, but I’ve got another 20 years before that will happen.

      I have started a Google Group on 3/29/2014, I look forward to hearing from some of you.

      https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/tiny-house-bay-area

      Reply
  18. Anni

    and I’m with everyone – man this is brutal. I have a 50K budget plus maybe a bit more, and yet I can’t provide housing for myself. I’m stuck in a condo with horrendous neighbors. I want to pull my equity out and have a small house and lot to myself. The searching and finding and learning curve is steep. I want to build a shipping container house but the info and help isn’t there. I’ve found land various places but the permits and codes just wipe you out. I’d love to move to Oregon. Any help there (Brian maybe?) is welcome.

    Reply
  19. TMorrison

    I am about to purchase land in Nevada and am looking for individuals with tiny houses on wheels that don’t mind the rustic living. You would have your own water as there is no we’ll drilled on the property and you would need your own solar.
    Looking for individuals that are interested in leasing to own on the 40 acre plot I’m buying . We can also work together, grow crops, share them and make crafts etc to sell to help us make money off the land.
    contact me if your interested, and lets see how we can help one another..

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>