By Dee Williams
There’s a lot of confusion out there among aspiring tiny house builders and buyers about whether they can work with conventional building codes to make their tiny house on wheels legal to live in full time. Are there building codes for tiny houses on wheels? What about zoning regulations? Is there any way to live in a tiny house on wheels legally?
Some of these answers are clear and some less clear. First, the bummer: In almost every city and county in America, it’s not legal to live in a tiny house on wheels full time, as your primary residence. Tiny House Community maintains a list of towns creating exceptions to this general rule and altering their code and zoning, and Curbed.com recently posted a good rundown of locations as well. Here’s our digestible take on what tiny house enthusiasts should know about the building codes that apply to tiny houses on wheels.
Building Codes for Tiny Houses on Wheels During Construction
A permit isn’t required to build a house on wheels, because the wheels mean it’s already an unconventional form of construction – either an RV, or something less clear like an “Art object bolted to a trailer.” Even so, consider the following recommendations:
- Anything moving over public roads should meet the National Highway Safety Standards. The Department of Transportation (DOT) restricts height to 13.5ft on most highways; that limit may be higher or lower, depending on road conditions so check for any local, special restrictions. Width is restricted to 8.5 feet and length to 40 feet. You can get a special trip permit for an extra wide or tall load, read more about that in our post on Tiny House Towing. Again, check with your state DOT to determine special permit restrictions.
- The trailer that you build your tiny house on must be certified for use on the road. That means the manufacturer has installed proper brakes and lights and constructed the trailer to handle the load above it. The tires, axels, and other components have been properly sized and placed to meet National Highway Safety Standards. With the trailer certification, you can get the unit licensed for the road through your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
- Some people have chosen to work through their state Department of Licensing (DOL) and DMV to have their little house certified as an RV. In those cases, the house is inspected by an official during construction and at the end is approved as a homemade RV. From what I’ve heard, it’s pretty easy to get this one-time certification, as long as you’re installing regular RV sinks, toilets and associated systems and are following the RV code while doing that (I’ll talk about the RV code in a minute). The inspection and certification process varies from state to state, so you’ll have to contact your State DOL and inquire about certifying a “home-made vehicle, or RV”. The certification process may be cumbersome and expensive, but the benefit is that you end up with greater assurance that your little house is safe and you’ll have an easier time finding insurance.
- According to the DOT and DMV, if you’re not building a certified RV, then you’re essentially building a ‘cute load’ (or an art object) secured to a utility trailer. You need to get the trailer licensed, but the load is not checked. In that case, work with your insurance provider to get additional coverage for ‘the load’ (your house), if you can. Tiny house insurance does exist and you’ll probably want it!
- Whether you’re building a certifiable RV or a ‘load on a trailer,’ you need to properly secure the house to the trailer. I’ve recommended that folks use the International Building Code and design the house to withstand a hurricane/high-wind area AND and earthquake at the same time, which is essentially what happens when you take your tiny house on the road. That means you need to address uplift, over-turning, and racking in a mindful way (e.g., tension ties in the corners, bolts along the sill plate, hurricane straps on the rafters and others across the ridgeboard, etc). You also need to secure every piece of siding, roofing and trim to resist vibration and wind. Work with a knowledgeable contractor or engineer to make sure your house is secure. At the very least, read a manual like Go House Go to build safely.
Codes for Tiny Houses on Wheels Once You’re Living In It
Cities and county municipalities usually view little house as RVs, with or without the certification. In that case, the code and zoning rules for “property maintenance”, “general planning and zoning”, and “vehicles and parking” will apply. When you boil all that down, here’s the skinny:
- You can camp in your little house (aka, RV) but cannot occupy (live in) it.
- You can park legally in a backyard indefinitely, as long as you’re abiding by certain set backs and possible height restrictions.
- You cannot park an RV on a public right-of-way, on public property, or in a front yard for any longer than 4-hours or as long as it takes to load and unload something.
Of course, this is a broad generalization, and your local codes may vary. There are also variations for parking in an RV park or in another area zoned for high density camping. Check with your local planning and building department to define the rules in your area. But if we assume the above general story, what does it mean for establishing ‘home’ in a little house in someone’s backyard? This is where things get a bit more ambiguous and where most of the discussions with city planners has focused.
First off, some tiny house residents have argued that their little houses are not RVs, and should not be addressed through codes that restrict RV use. They argue that their tiny houses are a hybrid; not an “accessory dwelling” (defined by the city on a fixed foundation), nor an RV. They explain that tiny houses actually present a viable way to meet community demand for safe, affordable housing, and therefore we need to develop new Tiny House Codes. We agree. But until that happens, be prepared for the city/county to view your tiny house as a travel trailer.
Second, you need to recognize that most municipality workloads are complaint driven. They respond only if there is a nuisance, like sewage dumped on the ground, blocked alley-ways, wood smoke, noise, unsafe living conditions, congested parking, and so on. As I’ve offered in my e-book, Go House Go, “most code enforcement offices aren’t going to bother you unless you’re throwing your poop in the alley, cooking meth in the kitchen, or are otherwise pissing off your neighbors.”
Long-term occupation of a little house only works if it is done appropriately with minimal impact to your neighbors and the environment. This is as much a mindset and daily practice as it is a strategy for avoiding a run-in with code enforcement. Living in a little house invites the chance to connect with your world in a new way – with a sense of reciprocity and humility – that allows you to do things differently. Accepting that mindset allows you to re-consider water use, electrical demand, the need for space and things so as to minimize your impact to a site.
I could go on and on about that last point, but would bore you to tears and make you feel like you’re watching a Hallmark made-for-TV movie. Suffice to say, living in a little house will likely be viewed as violating some city code if they believe you’re over-staying your welcome (which, for the record, may not be specifically defined in the code). If the city or a neighbor has a problem, then you’ll have an opportunity to try to work with them to fix the concern, or you can leave (that’ll fix it in a hurry). In any case, I’d recommend that you contact your city/county planning department to learn the rules, and plan to befriend all your neighbors and win them over with your willingess to be a good neighbor.