Tiny House Communities -- Some Concerns and Key Considerations

Parking a tiny house on private property has huge appeal, but our path to success is littered with roadblocks. -- Photo composited image courtesy of Four Lights Village

Tiny House Communities -- Mostly Hopeful Marketing

Parking a tiny house on private property has huge appeal, but our path to success is littered with roadblocks. -- Photo composited image courtesy of Four Lights Village

Parking a tiny house on private property has appeal, but consider this increasingly common tale of woe before buying into the hype about a tiny house community.

Searching for Tiny House Communities

Sadly, there are many non-tiny folks working to cash-in on the tiny house trend. The term "tiny house" has great attraction, and is heavily leveraged as an increasingly popular search term. Why should you care about "tiny house" searches? Because there are many traditional firms flocking to the fandom of tiny houses.

They say, "buyer beware," and in this case, maybe it should be "browser beware" as you may find yourself wooed by an some simply seeking to generate revenue by cashing in on the tiny house trend. Those who currently tout building a "tiny house community" may be seeking to build a base of early adopters who can help push changes through local building departments and zoning offices, and that's good. While others may be luring you into a whole heap of trouble and heartache, and that's... not so good.

There's hope for tiny house communities on the horizon, but not many -- as yet -- dotting the roadside.  

Tiny House Community Planning and Development

For real tiny house enthusiasts who start down the road to community development, many find that they'll get further with planning and zoning by going the traditional route. Unfortunately, others find the way blocked by impassable bureaucracy. 

Unfortunately, the term "tiny houses on wheels" is better known among social network followers and blog authors than bodies of municipal planners and zoning officials. Want to test the theory? Call the building department, and you'll probably hear them refer to a THOW as "a tiny house on WHAA...?"

Why? Well, "tiny houses" may be cute, cool, and our counter culture's way to provide for affordable housing, mortgage free living, and planet-saving smaller footprints. Still, "tiny homes" are not yet legitimized as a legal domicile. Take a moment to remove the rose-tinted glasses and perform a quick reality check, and you'll find that...

Without legitimization and legalization of tiny houses as a recognized type of dwelling, tiny house community development won't break ground in most municipalities. 

Let's take a moment to peer down the road to tiny house success. For tiny house living to become a reality, we need: 

  1. Legitimization -- a recognized term and formal definition for our tiny dwellings, and ​
  2. Legalization -- accepted building codes for tiny houses on wheels. 

It's that simple, and yet uncomprehendingly complex. 

Trouble Classifying a Tiny House

Many who have property and start the planning process find that taking wheels out of the tiny house equation provides immediate traction when planning to build a home with a smaller footprint.

Here's the deal. Planning departments define structures with wheels as Industrialized Buildings (IB). IBs are are typically used as mobile offices, classrooms, and job site trailers. Manufactured Housing (MH) are a form of Industrialized Building, with their manufacturing overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). If you're not a certified manufactured home builder, constructing 400+ sqft buildings in a dedicated facility, your "tiny house" isn't a real MH. Due to this classification, tiny houses aren't allowed to reside in most mobile home parks. 

Well, what about calling a tiny house a recreational vehicle (RV)? Well, RVs are typically factory-built in a similar fashion to Manufactured Homes. As such, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) certifies the facilities where their manufacturer members build RVs using a set of prescriptive building standards. Facilities that build by these standards are authorized to affix the coveted certification seal beside the doors of their units. That's an important distinction:

The manufacturer is certified, not an individual unit. 

Sooo.... for backyard builders of DIY tiny houses on wheels, roadblocks suddenly appear on the path to financial freedom. For now, taking the wheels off and building a house on a conventional foundation, is your surest path to success. 

We Been Livin' in the Wild Wild West

To date, we've been living in a relatively lawless state in our tiny house world.

But you're bound to find that there is a sheriff in town. Building officials are quickly catching up with knowledge of tiny houses, and are prepared to say, "Sorry. Not here, not now."

So before setting aside a budget and starting to build your tiny house, be sure to do some due diligence and perform a reality check.

A-Number-1, and I say it again and again:


If you don't have a dedicated place to park your tiny house, maybe you should hold off on getting started. 

What it Takes to Build a Tiny House

I tell the typical DIY tiny house newbie to set aside at least $20,000 dollars and about 1000 hours for building their own tiny house.  And now, more than ever, I suggest building to code.

For legitimate communities of tiny houses, conventional wisdom suggests that you build your tiny house by the book. If its on a foundation, you're likely to live by the International Residential Code (IRC) If you're building on wheels, consider building under the prescriptive Recreational Park Trailer Standard of the ANSI 119.5. Why?

A true community will need formalization, and any formal governing body will seek approval by the local Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). The fine folks that comprise your local building department at your desired destination for a tiny house hold the keys to your tiny house's certificate of occupancy (CO).

Since an RV park's infrastructure is attractive to tiny house community building -- at a minimum, shore power, potable water hookup, wastewater outflow -- my suspicion is that:

Investors authorized to build an RV park marketed as a tiny house community will be required to check for a 3rd party seal.

So "solve your parking first," and make certain that you're prepared to live as a full-timer in an RV park looooong before you get any official approval to live on private property.

Building for Your Tiny Future

If you're serious about moving into a tiny house full-time, go for it! Just do it with your eyes open, and your mind wrapped around the most feasible means of legally living in a tiny house.

When looking to buy a turnkey tiny house, consider purchasing your tiny house from a certified RV manufacturer. Many already carry the RVIA approval as certified RV manufacturers who can post the seal on the units they build. Customization of certified models is minimal, so you should expect to buy something a bit more stock as a model tiny home. 

For those in the planning phase for building a DIY tiny house from the ground-up, set aside the time to properly plan for building by the most accepted standard (ANSI 119.5). Solving potential issues up-front is the best way to ensure a smooth and speedy tiny house building process. Then, be sure to set aside money, time, and patience for participation in a 3rd party "self-certification" process for tiny house building.

Spending time up front on design will save untold hours of frustration once you start hammering things together. 

Bright Horizon for Tiny House Communities

When we peek down the road to the future of tiny houses, the need for certification seems obvious. And, as real tiny house communities are setup, we're likely to see their model of home will all have either permanent foundations or 3rd party verification that their tiny house RV is a certified structure. 

Again, "browser beware." Many bloggers latch onto search terms for their posts before fact checking the viability of the news they report. If you're seriously looking to move into something marketed as a tiny house community, consider asking about...

  • Official community planning and corporate structure
  • Progress with the planning department and zoning approval
  • Legal ability to park a tiny house on wheels on their facility
  • The need for certification of a tiny house meeting 3rd party verification
  • Insurance requirements for tiny house owners, and their facility
  • Safety standards and emergency protocols (especially spread of fire)
  • Covenants and restrictions that limit disruptive activities
  • Deposits, guarantees, and refunds

As with any new industry, the above list of questions about a tiny house community could go on and on.

The New Frontier

To date it's been the Wild Wild West, and now we're braving a new frontier to legitimize the space between MHs, IBs, and RVs for tiny houses on wheels (THOWs).

For those in the tiny house world for the long haul, the days of trying to keep it "off grid and under the radar" may be coming to a close. Keep an eye out for scams by those merely cashing in on the trend by touting tiny house communities without proof of a firm foundation. 

We welcome you in joining us for the legitimization and legalization of tiny houses, and are willing to advocate for change that allows their use as a full-time domicile. Here's to making our tiny house hopes a brave new reality.

Live Large -- Go Tiny!

 Image: Photo illustration used courtesy of Four Lights Village via Curbed.com


CaliforniaTinyHouse's picture

Some interesting tiny house news out of California. We are a builder located in Fresno Ca. We have been working with the city counsel for the past year. Yesterday, a bill was passed allowing tiny houses on wheels to be placed in nearly any back yard with little to no restrictions. They are catorgorized as back yard cottages. You no longer have to be a "caretaker" or pull your home out once a month. It is a VERY big deal for the tiny house movement. We will be sending information to other cities and states to finally solve the "where can I put them?" question once and for all. 

Thom Stanton's picture

Thanks for sharing the HUGE news about tiny houses in Fresno, California! We've created a page that provides information similar to what you published. We're also going to share a copy of the code with local "code keepers" and state legislators who plan to put tiny houses under the microscope in 2016. Hopefully the precedent set by Fresno we'll see bits of their code adopted into other areas of the country. Wishing you all the best! - Thom

Thom Stanton
Founder/CEO, Timber Trails LLC
Lead Organizer, RVA Tiny House Team (Meetup Group)
State Chapter Leader, American Tiny House Association