Issue 14: Finding Land for Living

Last month we posted a survey and asked readers what they wanted to hear about next. You told us you wanted the next issue to focus on finding land for living, so here it is!

Finding land can be one of the biggest initial challenges in building any home and in the case of a small home there are often additional challenges if the home doesn’t meet local size minimums. There are four articles in this issue:

Guest Submissions - Small Living Journal aspires to be a repository of some of the very best writing from the Small Home Movement. As such, we welcome the contributions of guest authors. If you’re interested in submitting an article for a upcoming or past issue please read about Guest Submissions.

While we’ll be publishing new issues on new topics every month; in the spirit of growing Small Living Journal as a complete knowledge base we’d like to welcome new articles on past issue topics. So if you have expertise in any of those areas we’d love to consider your submission.

Online Tools for Finding Land

Posted January 1st, 2010 by Michael Janzen and filed in Issue 14: Finding Land for Living

For many people these days the search for land begins online. Typically affordable land is not easy to find using most of the big real estate websites because they tend to focus on single family homes. But I’ve found a certain combination of methods useful for exploring new places and uncovering what appear to be good deals.

Google Maps

From the Google Maps start page begin by clicking the Show search options link that is located next to the Search Maps button at the top. This will expose a hidden drop down menu with the default value All results. Click on the drop down menu and change the selection to Real estate. Now enter the location where you want to start your search and click Search Maps. For this article I searched for Klamath Falls, Oregon and got the map result below.

Each red dot on the map is a piece of real estate for sale and an occasional rental. On this screen you can now filter out the properties that don’t match your criteria. Remember the keyword search box at the top is included in the search criteria so if you leave it blank — which seems counter intuitive at first — will allow you to search the viewable map and not constrain you to a single city.

In this next example I’ve removed Klamath Falls, Oregon from the search field, added $20,000 as a price limit, zoomed out a bit, and clicked on the Terrain button in the top right so I can see topography instead of the aerial view. On the left you’ll see the details of each property but you can also click on the red dots to get more detail too.

I chose Klamath Falls, Oregon because it’s within a day’s drive distance of of my home… but I’ve never been there. Luckily Google Maps can give me a quick tour now that I’ve identified it as a place with inexpensive land. I still don’t know if it’s an owner-builder friendly place at this point but before I dive in too deeply I want to explore it a little to see if it would be a place I’d like to build a tiny cabin.

So the next thing I’ll do is turn on the mapped photos and Wikipedia articles. Simply click the More… (1) button at the top and select the things you want.

After spending some time looking through the photos and Wikipedia articles I was ready to try to uncover if this was owner-builder friendly place. From the Wikipedia article about Klamath Falls I was able to quickly find the county website and their local building codes and ordinances.

Local Planning Department Websites

The best way to find out if a community is owner-builder friendly is to ask people who know. But it’s also fairly easy to get a basic idea of what is required to build a small home from a little online research. In this example I discovered:

  • Klamath County code enforcement officers are sworn deputies by the Klamath County Sherif (source) and can ticket you for code violations.
  • The permit fees were reasonable but not low cost.
  • The Klamath County general codes are published online.
  • I could find no published minimum size requirement for homes, which is a good thing.
  • Oregon also has a state-wide building codes division and an online quick permits tool for contractors but not owner-builders.

I may be jumping to conclusions but my general take was that Klamath County has a bit of red tape and may not be the easiest place to build without expert assistance. But it also doesn’t look terribly oppressive. The next step would be to start a more specific search for land and contact realtors to find out if these initial suspicions are true.

Lands of America

My next online search would be at Lands of America. You can also find these same property listings on Mother Earth News. I like Lands of America because they have a lot of low cost bare land listings unlike most of the big real estate websites.

When I started searching in the Klamath Falls area I found a few properties that look like great deals online and then did a little more digging.

This particular property caught my eye. The real estate listing (pdf of original here) had a lot more detail than most and the 20-acre parcel cost less than $20,000.

I then discovered that Oregon keeps all the tax plat maps online on one website, which is really handy for researching. Most of the time you’ll find plat maps on county websites if they are online at all. These maps show lot lines and general geographical features but not much more. Using Google Maps I found the property in order to get a better look at the topography and what it looked like from the air.

I was stunned when I found that this parcel appeared to be under water. Here’s a side-by-side screen shot of the Google Map and plat map. The property in question is the 20-acre parcel just to the left of the B in Bear Valley. You can visit the live Google Map here.

I emailed the realtor, who happens to be in Texas, and asked if the land was on a silted in lake or under a real lake… since Google Maps aerial view sure made it look like a lake bottom. I’ve not heard back from the realtor yet but it is the holidays after all so I’ll cut him some slack.

But this is the perfect example of why it is essential to assume nothing about buying bare land. It’s also best to work with local realtors since they will be able to answer all your questions. Even when you walk land yourself you will still have questions about legal access, property lines, water availability, and so on. When you are looking online you really have too little information to make a purchase decision and if a deal looks too good to be true there is a reason for it.

So use the internet for exploring and getting a general sense for a place, especially if it is new to you like Klamath Falls, Oregon is to me. But when you are ready to get serious about buying land, plan on spending some time on the ground in the area visiting with realtors, potential neighbors, and talking to the local planning department. Also be sure to find out if it is legal to camp on your own land while building. At the end of the day the internet is a great tool for researching but you never know what you’ll find in the real world until you get out and check it out.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, and visit my design blog, Tiny House Design. You can also read more about me at MichaelJanzen.com.

How To Avoid Excessive Bureaucracy

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.

Expert Advice

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.

Pre-Existing Homes

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.

Semi-Permanent Sheds

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.

Conclusion

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.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, and visit my design blog, Tiny House Design.