Dear PAD: How can I feel safe in an “illegal” house?

People ask us all sorts of questions about houses and home, and when there are no easy answers, sometimes all we can do is share a story or a perspective – “advice column” style.  This response is from Billy, author of the Life in a Tiny House Ebook.

Dear PAD,

I am in love with tiny houses. I can’t stop thinking about them. I keep trying to forget the idea, because I don’t know anyone who would let me park in their yard, and I know it’s not even legal to put it on an empty property, even if I could buy some. But I keep reading about them, looking at them, and sketching my dream designs. My dreaming mind wants to tell my rational mind to go take a hike, and that some things are more important than being rational.

Just how irrational is it to move into an “illegal” house? Where and how can I feel at home when I’m afraid that someone will knock on my door and tell me I need to find a different one?

– Seeking Safety

Dear Seeker,

The New Yorker published an article this summer about how the Pacific Northwest is due for a big, scary, major earthquake, but almost none of our buildings and infrastructure were designed for earthquake country. It was all anyone talked about for a while.

“Did you read the earthquake article?”

“Yes, and then I felt too sad to get out of bed.”

“Yes, and I bought all my emergency kit supplies to prepare for the dark days.”

The minute before I read the article, I thought of the conventional house that I own as fixed and permanent. The minute after I read it, I felt that my home and my safety were at grave risk, and that my biggest financial investment could be lost at any moment. Over time, my terror cooled into mere anxiety, and then I gradually resumed “feeling normal.” I still think about the earthquake sometimes, and have it on a to-do list to better prepare myself and my home, but I don’t fear disaster hourly because I’m working on a two-step plan: 1. Beef up emergency kit. 2. Earthquake proof my house as well as possible.

Actually, there’s a third step, too: 3. Chill out.

Knowing that I’m doing my plan is what allows me to chill out, because that’s all I can do. I’m sure not in charge of when an earthquake comes or how big it will be. I have a limited sphere of influence, so as long as I’m doing what I can in my sphere, I’ve got to leave the rest alone. Sure, I CAN worry about it, but literally no good will come of that. The power of my worry will not stop the earth from moving, but it WILL ruin my here and now.

The people I know who live in tiny homes on wheels seem to have a similar emotional attitude about their homes. They feel safe. They feel at home. They don’t look sideways at every neighbor, fearing a call to the zoning office. But they also do what they can within their sphere of influence to make the situation work.

Are tiny houses legal? Here's how to handle the uncertainty
Erin and the house she decided to park fearlessly.

I devoted a lot of attention to this subject with the ten households I interviewed for my Life in a Tiny House Ebook, which has some really wonderful stories and quotes about the issue that have changed how I see my own impossible demands for certainty in an uncertain world. Erin’s story is a perfect one for this question, in that her essential advice was to “Be fearless.”  Aldo also summed up why he wasn’t afraid of impermanence succinctly in a blog post I wrote about the emotional strategies of tiny house parking: “It’s on wheels. I can move it.”

In practical terms, their strategies often involved:

  • Talking with their neighbors, being forthright and cooperative when they can, to develop a good relationship so that if people have issues, they call them directly, and not the city.
  • Parking their houses out of sight of the street to minimize how many people see them in the first place.
  • Learning the laws in their area about how long an RV-type vehicle can “recreate”, meaning park, in one place.
  • Having a legal-ish rationale about their situation, so in case they should wind up talking with a city zoning official, they can explain that perhaps they don’t really “live” in their tiny house “full time”, like the members of the Simply Home Community pictured below.
  • Accepting that if things should really go south in their location, and they do have to move, that they will find something, and it will be okay.
Simply Home Tiny House Community at work - photo by Billy Ulmer
The Simply Home Community, hard at work.

People write us every week asking how to make their tiny house legal, and there isn’t much we can do for those people. It’s not legal right now. We hope it will be. Tiny House Community has a great, detailed resource for the legal issues that face tiny homes on wheels and tiny homes on foundations, and I think anyone interested in tiny houses should look into those resources and others so they understand the lay of the land.

But that’s not what you asked us. You asked where and how to feel safe and at home, and there is no legal or technical guide for that. There will always be something to fear, no matter where you are or what your home is. Conventional homeowners fear natural disasters, or the housing market tanking. My friends who are renters fear giant rent hikes or evictions. Tiny home owners fear a knock on the door from City zoning.

Do you know what, though? I bet there’s something that scares you about your current, “safe” housing situation too, or else you wouldn’t be drawing tiny houses all day and dreaming of making a change. It could be earthquakes, rent hikes you can’t afford, or mortgage payments that are holding you back from doing something you’ve always dreamed. We don’t usually dream of change when everything is wonderful. In that case, this is mostly about acclimating to a new situation with different risks than your current risks.

Whether that’s worth it is a very personal decision. But it can be worth testing whether the devil you know is really any better than the devil you don’t, because there is always a devil. There is always a problem. But there’s a special satisfaction in having the problem of the life YOU want.  When you decide to walk the path that’s most important to you, you have the security of knowing that you’re fighting the right devil, and that you’re building your right life when you win.


Billy from PAD

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