How to Legally Live in a Tiny House

If living in a tiny house is your dream, consider finding out how to legally live in one your waking reality!

Tiny House Certificate of Occupancy

If living in a tiny house is your dream, consider finding out how to legally live in one your waking reality!

Today's meeting with Chesterfield County left me with mixed emotions. More than anything, I am grateful to Chesterfield County's staff for taking the time to explain all the details. That said, the building process is anything but simple... and isn't simplicity THE hallmark of tiny living?

Tiny House Communities

As mentioned on the Timber Trails Facebook page, the great news is that there's good hope for tiny houses in communities. Our local administrators seem very open to the ecovillage concept, even the possibility of unique blend of mobile tiny houses and permanent dwellings. 

Green space and a community based around a common value of quality lifestyle (rather than transient campers) seemed of high interest as the values offset the lower cost lifestyle than can lead down a slippery slope right into unhealthy living environments. Nuff said. 

Single Dwelling Tiny House Living

The less than fortunate news, though understandable, is seeing how difficult it may be to legally provide for living in an individual tiny house. The Achilles heel for a tiny houses on wheels (THOW) is that they are currently classified as recreational vehicles (RVs).

Having a tiny house is great for keepin' it mobile, but not so much when it comes to habitation as many localities don't allow full-time habitation in an RV. By comparison, if you want a "ground bound" tiny house on a permanent foundation, you'll have to enter into the permitting process with all requisite inspections. 

What is a Tiny House

To help our cause, for the Tiny House Movement to help define a tiny house on wheels as different han the usual recreational vehicle. RVIA certification is great for procuring insurance and parking in campgrounds, but doesn't provide any benefit when it comes to using your RV (i.e. tiny house) as a domicile.

Most places just won't allow full-time living at all, let alone on plots of land outside of official campgrounds. That said, with RVIA certification comes a measure of standardized building methodology and the all-important sticker on the side next to all your racing decals. Good ol' jokes aside, this is the RV'ers double-edge sword of easy parking, endless camping, and less-than-legal living quarters.

Beware of Industrialized Building

If your tiny house is built on wheels for the intent of moving to an alternate location as a dwelling, especially if built by someone other than the homeowner, then it may be classified as an "industrialized building."

As with tiny houses, industrialized buildings are purpose-built for easy relocation. Consider that outdoor classrooms are trucked right in, quickly setup for students, and then -- ring the bell -- class dismissed! Same for you if your tiny house is built in one place, then hauled to another jurisdiction.

So some may say "just juris-my-diction," but here's the rub: Your home-built RV doesn't have a 3rd party stamp, seal, or certificate that qualifies the building process and the standards for habitation as a mobile office, classroom, or tiny house. And while that seems wrong, it's in the right where law enforcement is concerned. 

Your Road to Success

Before you build, consider this course:

  1. Jurisdictions - Tiny houses aren't for everyone, nor should we expect to see them everywhere. When it comes to location, rather than fuss about the system, fight city hall, or wade through years of paperwork, consider location that's already tiny house friendly. Consider this before you build most places on our planet require some form of certification or documentation. 
  2. Zoning Department - If you want to see if your area is amenable to tiny houses, start here. Your opening question may be, "Can I live in my RV," as you may otherwise hear "Well hmm... first off... what IS a 'tiny house.'" If you can live in a recreational vehicle, ask if you can live in one in a residential neighborhood (doubtful), local dedicated RV camp grounds, or private parcels of land. Some place only allow "full-time" RV living for specified periods of time (e.g. 3 weeks on, 1 week off). You may be able to get a conditional use permit, variance, or some other special allowance. It will only help to ask. 
  3. Building Permits - If you're in love with the area, and have your zoning addressed, consider leaving the wheels out of the equation. Building a tiny house on a private parcel of land is easier done from the ground-up with proper permits, and relatively impossible after-the-fact. Be prepared to provide plans for your cabin, cottage, or tiny house that meets the current residential code. Once permitted to build, you'll need to follow the usual course of action, with inspections along the way. You can still design and build your own house, but you've got to do it right!
  4. Certificate of Occupancy - Once you get your "C.O." you're done. 

BTW: Congrats... please share some pictures!

Long-Term Considerations

As we stare down the road of our tiny lives, we've got to be cognizant of the fact that not every building was made to be a home. My sincere concern for so many tiny house builders is that they'll construct something they can't inhabit in the city or town of their choosing.

Likewise, caveat emptor (buyer beware) to those snaggin' a great deal on that $5,000 tiny house. If it looks like a shed, that might be what you're getting. While nobody likes to hear "no-can-do" or willing chooses to shuffle through endless piles of paperwork, it would be much worse to build your dream home only to use it like a lavish garden shed on wheels.

Tiny House Bubble Bustin'

While tiny house living may fall under increased scrutiny, don't let this dim your tiny house dreams.

Dare to dream of living on the road on your own giant journey of discovery! Find the place where you're welcome just the way you are with your DIY tiny house! Study building codes and build to standards that work within your existing municipality! Develop team or join a meetup group of like-minded tiny house people and build a community worthy of your retirement retreat! 

While we've enjoyed a nice long honeymoon of relative tiny house freedom, it's time to get serious about this as a long-term relationship. We're in it for the long haul, and hope you are too.

Live Large -- Go Tiny!

Comments 1 Add yours below

signalfire's picture

All we should have to show 'them' is a copy of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence... I'm sick and tired of having the flag waved in my face and being told how 'free' I am, only to find that no matter where I turn I'm expected to be a wage slave, a mortgage slave, a tax slave and a slave to the 'permitting' process which is just another tax.  

Time to rebel, folks.