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.