The single biggest roadblock to small living is, in my opinion, the excessive regulations that appear in the form of minimum-size requirements. Many of you that are reading this are likely looking for ways to live small yourself, and chances are that this is one of the reasons you haven’t been able to yet. But the limits of bureaucracy are not just visible in minimum size. In the county where Tyson lives, land parcels must remain a certain size with one main house on them in order to keep the area “rural.” In Portland, where Steph has her houseboat, no new houseboat slips can be created.
Finding ways to live small within a system that promotes the rapid spread of suburbia and limits or bans creative solutions is one of the biggest challenges we face, as can currently be seen in the stalled rebuilding efforts in New Orleans post-Katrina. So much red tape has kept Marianne Cusato’s Katrina Cottages from being built, despite the fact that they were hailed as lightyears better than FEMA trailers, since they could be expanded upon to create permanent dwellings. Although there is no one solution that we at SLJ have hit on, hopefully, this issue will get your wheels turning.
As we have all no doubt seen, the state seems to frown on simple living. So the simplest way to bypass the hurdles is to have a house that qualifies as a mobile dwelling, i.e., has wheels.
Of course, that puts some pretty strict constraints on your dwelling. If you can’t, or are unwilling to accommodate those constraints, you’re probably going to have to think of something else.
In an ideal situation, you live somewhere that has lenient rules about the sort of structures you can build. According to Peter King, in the part of Vermont where he lives he can basically build whatever he wants, wherever, whenever. But most of us aren’t that fortunate.
In my own situation, the county I live in has the standard strict regulations. I’ve periodically looked into working with the county to subdivide the property, or get permits and go the legal route on everything pertaining to my house. Realistically, it all comes down to money – if you have money, you can just start throwing it at problems until the problems disappear, because with enough money someone will be happy to show you how the rules will bend to accommodate you. Unfortunately for me, money is something I never seem to have much of.
So, barring a benevolent municipality or the ready cash to make the problems go away, the final option is to just go guerilla.
The feasibility of this will of course depend on your situation. One fly by night small house story I’ve heard involved building a small house out of reclaimed barn materials which wound up looking like an old shack from the outside, and then moving it into it’s location overnight. The building looked so old and wasn’t placed in a prominent location, so the county just assumed it had been sitting there forever. Now it’s a bed-and-breakfast.
In my own case, I looked into what it would take to build a tiny house by going through the proper channels, and, like I mentioned, discovered that there really was no feasible way for me to do it, so I kinda tabled the whole idea. Then a tiny building came along at a great price, and seemed to cry out to be converted into a tiny house. I sprung on it with the help of my father, and hauled it out to Aromas. Then we got down to picking out a spot for it where it wouldn’t be too obvious, and just dragged the thing into position.
Because it was already built and all we had to do was relocate the structure, there wasn’t a great deal of construction commotion associated with the genesis of the building itself. Also, in my county, the officials doesn’t get involved with these things unless somebody complains, so unless I give my neighbors reason for complaint there shouldn’t be a problem. Like they say, those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and my family has been here for thirty years, so hopefully we won’t have an issue.
Of course, when you take the guerilla path, you’ve gotta content yourself with hoping, and there are a lot of people who won’t be comfortable living like that.
If it were easy to identify locations, get loans for, and build small homes, this little web journal wouldn’t exist. It is truly a privilege to be able to put down roots somewhere, and there’s no way for most of us to forget that. The sad thing, I think, is that this crazy bureaucracy is taken as a given. In Jay Shafer’s “Viva la Tiny Revolution” that he posted last year on his site (or as I like to call it, the “tiny manifesto”), he said the following:
“As long as the law ignores justice and reason, then just and reasonable people will ignore the law. At this point civil disobedience is not only justified, for many it is the only option. The people of this purportedly free country will live in houses of any size that suits them whenever reasonable egress and land ownership or a landowner will allow. Thousands of Americans are already living beneath the radar in structures commonly regarded as too small to meet code. These folks live largely outside the system of imposed excess, and they do so within the rights granted to all of us by the Constitution of the United States. It now remains for our banks, zoning and codes to catch up.”
The question is how do we get these huge systems to embrace what we know is a more sustainable model? For the last few months of graduate school, I became involved in an urban studies research cluster. There were other grad students working in geography, sociology, history, etc., dealing with fascinating topics that I see overlapping in so many important ways. A fellow photographer is working on documenting the rise and fall of Victorville, a desert community between LA and Las Vegas, once the second fastest growing U.S. city, and now quickly becoming deserted itself due to the housing bust. Another project is looking into transition towns in England and the U.S., while still another studies how cities change or don’t change following natural disasters. One of the questions these students asked me when we talked about the Small Home Movement was, so what’s being done about it? And I was sorry that I couldn’t say much beyond, well…we’re talking about it.
Most of the people I’ve met in the Small Home Movement are creative and thoughtful people. We are problem solvers, but also tend to keep to ourselves. We engage in this little revolution quietly and for our own reasons and purposes. I’m writing this entry in my 400-square-foot apartment that I live in alone (with Leelu the Cat). In the last 2 years, I went over $30K into debt for the privilege of grad school; I spent $19K just on rent. And the thing is, I accepted this as necessary, rather than finding another way, like Elizabeth Turnbull. But to make progress, we’re going to have to do more than think outside the box. We’re going to have to go against our natures and learn to be collective in action, because, the truth is: the importance of living small is barely a blip on most people’s radar.
We can’t wait for banks, zoning, and codes to catch up to us. We have to rebuild the box.
It is common in our culture to see real estate as an investment. Most homes are a very high ticket item that commonly take half a lifetime to pay for. When that much time and money is “invested” in a house it’s understandable that such homeowners would want to protect it, at least keeping the value steady with inflation or improving the value with remodeling projects.
One factor that homeowners see as out of their control (which may be actual or perceived) is what happens to the properties surrounding their home, which can have a profound impact– if not sheer saleability– on real estate values. This fear of sliding property values is a motivating force for homeowners to attempt to control zoning laws in their neighborhood and community. And one common perception of a factor that causes property values to deteriorate is square footage of neighboring houses, ie. smaller homes are worth less and will cause larger homes they are next to be worth less also. Or, rather, that is the common perception.
But, witness those homes designed by visionary architects like Sarah Susanka and Ross Chapin. And, since meeting her at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, I have since found out about Sonya Newenhouse and her Casa Kit Homes. Their philosophy is to build small, but rich with detail. I would hardly consider these homes to be cheap and cheesy. Their beauty and quality of construction enhance, not denigrate, the value of the neighborhood.
Those people in control of zoning laws probably feel there’s no way to control the value of a property/neighborhood , and future house that’s built on it, than by controlling its size. They supposedly have no control over the quality of craftsmanship, so the only fall-back is to lock in minimum square footage. I’m sure another motivating factor in keeping house sizes larger is to make sure the tax base is kept high. They can charge more in property tax for a 3000 s.f. house than a 1000 s.f. one. More property taxes coming in help to “grease the wheels” of running a city or municipality.
In new developments the primary motivation is the bottom line of the developer and builder(s). If they can sell a 2500 s.f. house for 20% more than an 1800 s.f., yet it costs them only 10% more to add on those 700 more square feet, it becomes a no-brainer to push the sale of a larger home. I’m sure very little mention is made during the sales process of future property taxes, heating and cooling bills, and cost of upkeep. The benefits of having those extra square feet is emphasized over the long-term costs. Multiply that extra profit margin by the 30-80 homes that are in a typical new development and you end up with a very hefty profit. Business as usual, right?
Thankfully, there is an emerging paradigm shift in how to do business: the triple bottom line… looking out for people, planet, then profits. And how to run local governments: The Natural Step. I am far from being an expert in either one of these emerging philosophies, but have recently become aware of this growing trend. It’s encouraging to see there are those among the human race that still weigh their heart and soul over their pocketbook.
For the individual seeking to build a smaller house it can be an impossible battle going against the common perceptions that small equals cheap. That’s why so many in this movement to live small and light choose to live away from encumbering zoning laws and prying neighbors. Sometimes the good fight is too much. I applaud those individuals and families who are courageous to stick to their ideals in seeking simpler living both in urban and rural areas. If you’re among those who seek this path there are many others like you out there. The Internet has become a tremendous tool for connecting those people of similar philosophies. If you want to continue the conversation on the challenges of living small and light there are many groups you can join:
The Small House Society
Simple Life Connections
Shipping Container Homes
Frugal Rural Living
Seattle Small Homes
Fiddle Sticks Small Spaces
Low Cost Community Housing
Tiny Home Collective
The Small Home Design-Build Forum
And of course all the websites and blogs by the contributors here… can’t forget that one.
There is always the option of filing for a variance permit when you’re seeking to build a home of a smaller square footage than your neighborhood allows. Be prepared with extensives plans, pictures, and testimonials from other people who have built small, but high-quality, homes. You will sit before the county and city government officials in charge of hearing your case. You will feel very much like you’re on trial for thinking outside the box. Bringing all your materials together and doing a dry-run presentation before your friends and family might not be a bad idea, either. The more prepared you are the better your chances will be of having the board approve your variance. It’s definitely worth asking. And when you win make sure to tell us all about it to inspire others to do the same… well, even if you don’t win it can be a great learning experience for yourself and others.
One of the most common questions I hear asked on Tiny House Design centers around how to get tiny house projects approved by planning departments. There is no easy answer to this question because the level of difficulty really depends on what you’re trying to build and the local rules. Below are a few things to think about while your trying to make your tiny house dream a reality.
Choose an Owner-Builder Friendly Community
The best first step is to find a community that is friendly to owner-builders and alternative housing. The internet has made this much easier because many planning departments publish their requirements and policies online. You’ll find a few communities with very few requirements and others that make it virtually impossible to build.
Watch out for things like moratoriums on water and sewer hookups as well as excessive regulations. Also be wary of super low land prices. These are often lots that are unbuildable due to some kind of regulation. These properties may appear like great bargains but often end up being incredibly frustrating projects unless you plan to build completely off-the-grid and the community supports this type of lifestyle.
Not all inexpensive land is unbuildable but it often comes with some other issue like limited access, rugged terrain, challenging water access, and remote locations. Like any big purchase doing your due diligence up front pays off big in the long run.
Conduct Extensive Online Research
Once you’ve found a community that seems like a good fit for your future small home you should become as familiar as possible with the area using the internet. Connect with people in the area as you can, especially those who are like-minded. Also be sure to make yourself very familiar with the local planning department’s website and learn as much as you can about their policies, fees, and procedures.
Understand the Rules
It is usually difficult to fight city hall. It’s worth it sometimes for sure, but it’s also usually easier to fly in under the radar inconspicuously and follow the rules. To avoid accidental pitfalls learn as much as you can about the local building codes and be on the lookout for zoning definitions (loopholes) that permit smaller alternative houses.
For example you might find that a lot zoned for single family residences require homes with a minimum square footage larger than you intend to build. But you may also notice that there are no minimum size requirements for properties zoned for multi-family residences. This is because these zones allow for duplexes and apartments and different rules apply to these kinds of projects. Theoretically you could use this to your advantage by getting a permit to build one tiny house and still leave the option open for building another later.
Applying for Variances
You can also apply for variance to the rules. Getting approval for exceptions to the rules can be difficult because the people that enforce the rules often have nothing to do with the original creation of the policy. It just seems like a safer bet to make your project fit the existing rules and not risk the need to apply for a variance unless you have some kind of evidence, like expert advice, that is telling you a variance would be easy to get.
Realtors, architects, and local builders can all be great resources for navigating these confusing waters. Just remember that hired experts vary in quality and they all have less skin in the game than you do. They are also paid to do a particular job and may or may not be willing to go above and beyond in a pinch. This is why it always pays to learn as much as you can before becoming dependent on someone else.
Get to Know the Players
Each community has a different set of people who’s job it is to manage community development. Sometimes it’s a small planning department with little bureaucracy and other times it’s a multi-headed monster with many layers of process and red tape. Each community is different so try to learn about all the steps and try to get a feel for how receptive the people you’ll be working with before you begin.
Attend Planning Meetings
A great way to learn about a communities planning department, especially those with lots of red tape, is to attend planning department meetings and listen to other people’s proposals. You can also do this by reading past meeting minutes. These should be available to the public and can give you an idea of what kind of projects get approved and rejected. You may also be able to find projects similar to yours which may help set a precedent for your small house project.
Connect with Neighbors
Once you’ve purchased the property, or better yet right before you buy it, try to connect with the neighbors. Friendly neighbors make for less trouble because it’s often an irritated neighbor that calls the planning department when they suspect someone new is trying to break the rules or build without a permit. Good neighbors watch out for each other and tend to support each other. Making good connections can help you with future building efforts.
Find your Fit
Planning departments are often happy to approve projects when they understand them. If you approach the permit submission process with the intention of making it easy for the bureaucrats to understand how normal you project is, even when it isn’t, you’ll discover you’ll meet less resistance. In other words make your project fit the rule book instead of trying to change the rules.
About Breaking The Rules
People break the rules all the time but I think it’s usually a bad idea especially when you have a lot at risk. Some rules are there to keep you safe. These should be followed. Other rules seem to come from a variety of different places and if enforcement is strong be careful when you approach the line. Your home is important enough to understand the risk before you make the decision to break the rules.
Financing and Insurance
You’ll find that lenders and insurance companies like the rules created by planning departments because they make it easier to control risk. The more uncertainty you throw at these people the more difficult it will be for them to understand and support your project. You’ll find that this is common with most people, especially those who have separated from the actual policy making. If you are trying to avoid all these kinds of bureaucrats avoid buying land in communities with a lot of rules.
About Unbuildable Land
There are a few things that can make a piece of property unbuildable by most community rule books. The two most common are water and sewer. If a piece of property doesn’t have water many planning departments will require a well be drilled or a connection to municipal water before issuing a building permit. You’ll also find that some places will not issue new well permits due to too many wells and not enough water.
Explaining that you plan to have a rainwater collection system will often not meet their requirements. You can fight with them all day but because they are so disconnected with the actual policy making they will have no answer other than their canned response.
Sewer is also a key challenge because getting building permits approved also often requires first installing a septic system or approval to connect to the municipal sewer system. Just like the rainwater collection system, explaining that you plan to use composting toilets and a grey water system will fall on deaf ears for all the same reasons.
The way people like John Wells at The Field Lab are able to setup extreme off-the-grid homesteads with all the simple sustainable technologies is by choosing a community that simply doesn’t have the red tape.
One common loophole is to find a piece of property with an existing structure (like an old mobile home), water source, and sewer system (septic tank or sewer hookup). These pre-existing property features will often drive the cost of the land up but can reduce the risk of buying land you can’t build on. The trailer can then be more easily replaced because the existing utilities are in place. But be sure to understand if these will need any work, like bringing them up to code, before the building permit can be issued.
About Camping on Your Land
Camping is an often explored loophole. Some communities allow camping on your own land and others do not. Be sure to check the local ordinances but if your community allows camping for an extended period of time parking a mobile tiny house might be a viable option. Be sure to check the local rules about camping before you decide to park your house because it won’t be the planning department knocking at your door at 2AM, it will be the Sheriff.
Another loophole could be to build a shed or two. Technically sheds are not habitable living spaces so you may draw some attention if you choose to go this route. Most communities define a shed as an outbuilding of a certain size that do not require building permits to construct. Often the code will be specific about the height, setbacks, roof size, and square footage for a shed to be considered a shed. But a shed is never technically habitable even when it is perfectly habitable so be sure to check your local codes before moving in.
Benefits of Mobile Tiny Houses
The primary advantages of a mobile tiny house is that it can be moved and should never require a building permit. I’ve also never heard of anyone having trouble getting a licence plate for a tiny house either.
Depending on the community living in a mobile tiny house can give you the most functionality for the least cost because in the rule books it is just a trailer and subject to rules that govern trailers. Understanding you local ordinance around camping on your land, parking trailers, and knowing your neighbors might give you the most bang for your buck.
Benefits of Permanent Tiny Houses
Homes on permant foundations, except for sheds, must follow the local rules for dwellings and go through whatever permit process the local community has in place. The benefit will be that you will earn real equity because the house will be seen as a piece of real estate by the general public, lenders, and insurance companies. So the hassle of getting your tiny house building permit approved could turn out to be money and time well spent. Your home’s design is also not limited by the size and shape of a trailer.
By far the most important first step is to do your due diligence and choose the right community. Some communities make it impossible to build, others welcome owner-builders looking to build alternative sustainable homes.
The next most important thing to do is learn as much as you can about the rules and get a feel for the general community tone. If it’s a community hell-bent on conformity and protecting real estate values it might be a terrible place to build an alternative off-the-grid tiny house.
Lastly, consider the mobile tiny house option carefully. The advantage of mobility can reduce the red tape in most cases. It can also give you the flexibility to take your sweat quity with you when you move. Mobile small homes will most likely not earn you the real estate equity a home on a permanent foundaiton will but it might provide you with more freedom and security in the long run than any amount of equity.