To Trailer or Not

Posted March 1st, 2010 by RyanMitchell and filed in Issue 16: How To Design & Build a Home

One of the great debates surrounding Tiny Houses is whether to have your Tiny Home on a trailer or not. I have seen several discussions on this topic and find that both sides have merit.

To get at the root of this debate, we should probably start off with discussing why it even exists. Why they heck did people start putting houses on trailers?

Originally, Tiny Houses weren’t much smaller than those in which many Americans lived, and which today, what the rest of the world lives in. The existence of building codes weren’t an issue. So long as you paid your taxes, you were fine. That said, in earlier times, there still existed some homogeneity from house to house because building a home was something the whole community would come together to do. Most people in that day had a pretty solid grasp of the general principles of home building, but by the action of coming together, there was some consistency to every home.

As society progressed, or regressed in some cases, our municipalities and tax structures become more rigid. Concurrently, we began to see an increase in home size, not because of occupancy, but because of status. Taxes of course followed and as a result, the combination of evolution of building codes and the need for baseline taxation, we find ourselves where we are today. Today you are going to be hard pressed to be able to legally build a house under 500 square feet without special permission, which is becoming harder to get.

Enter the trailer. Trailers were originally thought to be a loop hole, to be frank, whereby potential builders could get around these minimum standards for square footage. The underlying principle was that a trailer is something that doesn’t have a lot of bureaucratic red tape, that is easily purchased, that is minimally taxed if at all, and that in many states doesn’t even have to be registered. The trailer presented a solution to many of the issues that building codes presented. As a side note, there are several reasons for building codes outside of taxation; safety issues motivate many of the codes in existence.

The next big benefit of trailers is that by avoiding building codes, we have been able to take a complex system of regulation and neatly avoid it. Tiny Houses can be built by someone with very little knowledge but with some basic common sense. If you have ever taken a moment to do some digging on your local building codes you can see that they can be difficult to understand or even find. Removing these constraints from the equation makes the prospect of building a Tiny House on your own much more manageable.

Costs are yet another reason why many seek to build Tiny Houses on trailers. With the elimination of building codes, you by proxy take out contractors, inspectors, permits and certified tradesmen. The average mark up of hired help is roughly 40%. Permits can run a few bucks to several hundreds or even thousands of dollars! Finally, inspections are also removed by pursuing the trailer route. With them in the equation, construction can easily come to a screeching halt quickly and bring lots of worry to the build site.

Also, with a trailer approach the build site doesn’t have to be the same as the home site. There are obvious advantages to building a Tiny House in a warehouse or a wood shop. You can work regardless of the weather, you can heat/cool the space for comfortable work, and you can bring in power which you might not have where you will be living. All these things mean that you can build in one spot and live in another without having to make concessions.

Finally, Tiny Houses on trailers will allow you to roam. There are three distinct advantages here. The first is related to an earlier point, building code enforcement. Let’s say that you have your Tiny House and somehow your local inspector finds out, you can easily preemptively move it or say that it is there temporarily.

The second benefit it being able to move. Moving for a job or school can be a huge expense and while companies have “moving packages”, this isn’t the case for many of us. All you need to do with a trailer Tiny House is to secure a space in the new location and what once was a headache, becomes a road trip with all the comforts of home.

Finally, part of my overall life simplification plan is to get to a point where I work independent of a location, a virtual worker if you will. This means that I can live anywhere. But why stop there? Taking this to the next level, lets live wherever, whenever. What I mean by this is, you could own 5 small plots of land around the country and rotate between them. Unimproved land is very cheap (both tax wise and cost) in many places so why not have a plot of land near your favorite ski resort, one down the road from family, and another near your favorite city. You can have your cake and eat it too read about my approaches to working here.

Now what are the advantages to forgoing the trailer, to building on piers or a standard foundation? I think the two biggest advantages to this approach are size and legal acceptance.

The size of a house is greatly limited to the trailer you have to build on. In addition you have to concern yourself with road clearance heights. This isn’t the case with Tiny Houses on Trailers, you can build your home to the footprint and height that suits you. This is a very powerful aspect to non-trailer Tiny Houses because you gain flexibility. You are able to build your house around your needs, not the needs of the trailer.

Legal acceptance by municipalities is an important concern. It can be very hard to get code enforcement on board with what you are trying to do with a Tiny House on a trailer. Having a traditional foundation and a house in the 400-500 square foot range, building codes become applicable. This inherently does bring in extra costs of permits, contractors, and certified tradesmen. The outcome of this is that you are seen as a law abiding citizen, you don’t have to worry about inspectors bring down fines upon you and your house will be inherently safer.

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