5 ways to get around minimum size standards

01/03/2009

satelliteYes, it is illegal to live in a tiny house in much of the US. Does that surprise you?

Lynne wanted me to expand on this topic, so I’ve decided to answer her question in this post.

According to designer and tiny house advocate Jay Shafer, “minimum size standards have been found to be unconstitutional in several US courts.” These standards reside in model building codes, adopted and customized at the local level for the stated purpose of protecting public health, safety and general welfare.

In his Small House Book (order it here), Shafer asserts that these standards (specific to the size of houses and the rooms within) were pushed through during the 1970s and 80s by the housing and banking industries in order to produce “more profit per structure.” The result? Ugly McMansions, sprawl, construction waste, higher co2 emissions, and, now, an unaffordable housing crisis.

To make things worse, some neighborhood groups “needlessly fearful for their property values and lifestyles” also prohibit small homes in their areas, writes Shafer.

However, there are ways to get around this.

  1. Move out of the city. Many rural areas are unregulated in this way.
  2. Negotiate. Talk with your local building officials or neighborhood associations. They might be convinced that a small house is non-threatening.
  3. Accessorize. Small dwellings are sometimes allowed to be built adjacent to a house, such as a “granny flat.”
  4. Don’t hook up. If a structure is not permanently attached and not hooked up to public utilities, it may not be considered relevant to housing codes.
  5. Apply pressure. Point out the immense housing problem and give an out for your local politicians to save the day.

Of course I’m speaking in generalities here. You must check your local building codes as they vary greatly.

the smallest house in santa clara county

Alternately, you can do what was done here — turn the chicken coop into a tiny house and make it a tourist attraction. Here is a recent photo Michael took of the smallest house in Santa Clara County. It is 514 square feet on a 956-square-foot lot. The house must have been “grandfathered in” and thus, slips under the minumum size code regulations.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Steph 01/04/2009 at 11:18 am

Thanks for the great article on this subject! As just a quick comment, in the design workshop I attended, Jay Shafer also pointed out that the better looking/charming a small structure is, the more likely the local neighbors and powers-that-be are probably going to be regarding a variance in the size restrictions. (Which isn’t to say local zoning boards are always reasonable, but making it clear you’re not intending to erect a shanty can’t hurt.)

I think the little house above is a great example of doing it right.

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thistinyhouse 01/07/2009 at 2:46 am

Hi Steph,
Yes! Of course Jay’s Epu house-on-wheels is so gorgeous he had tons of people willing to be his neighbor, or so I’m told. So there’s definitely something to be said for beauty.

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Lynne 02/19/2009 at 4:09 am

You know how it is, “I could have sworn that I’d left a comment here…” saying THANK YOU but I neglected to. Hey: Thanks! I feel that there are a great number of ways we need to change as a society to get back to realistic living – small dwellings, clothes lines, growing our own food, etc., and blogs like yours are a huge part of helping me maintain my sanity. Thanks so much, Lynne

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thistinyhouse 02/21/2009 at 7:01 pm

Aw shucks. Thanks Lynne for your kind words.

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Mo 04/02/2009 at 7:29 am

Good post.

I agree, a lot of the restrictions are revenue related – small houses don’t generate enough. Every development meeting I’ve attended focused more on maximizing the “tax base” than other issues like road capacity or environmental impact. Square footage is the basis for taxes.

This housing crisis does have an upside though, locally this hunger for more money has created an opening for small houses in the form of loosening restrictions for “accessory buildings” (mother-in-law houses) on existing properties. Two area counties and a number of municipalities have made getting a permit much easier.

Government is notorious for conflicting interests. The one universal truth is that it always comes down to the money.

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thistinyhouse 06/09/2009 at 9:01 am

Thanks Mo. That’s good news about permitting getting easier for accessory buildings — hopefully that keeps up.

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Deena Larsen 08/25/2009 at 8:21 pm

Hi,

We are trying to get into a smaller house (now have a wonderfully huge 800 square foot place that is not well configured). But I am having fun figuring out zoning restrictions. Thanks for the advice…
Also, your links to contact you and the charter do not work.

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BruceMcF 01/09/2010 at 12:23 pm

As an adjunct to the accessory structure clause, in an area without a limit on number of accessory structures, one approach is a Tiny House Village, with the main structure being a weatherproof (but not necessarily heated) structure designed to qualify as the main structure, and placed to be the in-fact-accessory structure to a number of Tiny Houses.

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Mary C. Charest 01/12/2010 at 8:49 am

Good Morning,

Saw your Blog!

I am currently writing a series of “small books”. My nitch is to write small books that people will treasure and want to read over and over again.

In an age of “rush, rush, rush…” most people do not have the time to read longer books.

The first two books will be called American Gothic Modified: Living a Disabled yet Self Sustainable Life.

My desire, for these books, is one of timeless elegance that is eco-friendly. Beautiful bounding that will last, yet recycled paper for the pages.

I am a published writer and playwright.

I have 3.5 more years trapped in NJ suburban hell (my youngest son will be 18 at that time). I can’t afford to declare disability – and now I have no insurance – but I WILL NEVER give up!

Please provide a few paragraphs, quotes or anecdotes if you feel so inclined.

Hope to hear from you soon.

Thank you!

Mary C. Charest
maryccharest@yahoo.com

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Marc Boese 03/24/2010 at 10:20 am

I’ve recently built a tiny house, and am having a bear of a time with the city of Jacksonville, Fl. You can’t live in an RV (which it really isn’t), and you can’t get permits on a small house (under 225 square feet in the latest case.) They don’t have a checkbox for it, so they want it gone.

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Kelly 02/14/2013 at 8:42 am

Marc that is upsetting to hear I am from Jacksonville but currently live about 2 hours away. What about one of the RV parks off of I-295?

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thistinyhouse 03/24/2010 at 6:56 pm

Hi Mark,
I sympathize with you. Have you considered writing a nice letter to your local officials, citing some points from what Jay Shafer and others have already put out there? This would be a great media piece… I’m sure the local news would eat it up. Best of luck and let us know how it goes!

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Creative Nerd 10/21/2010 at 10:15 am

Hey guys

i figured the way around this .. i bought a little house for 60k on a big lot but actually live in a tiny house and write off the tiny house as a business expense! My utiliy bills are like 100 bucks per month. The house i bought is EMPTY to this day!

regards
Nerd

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Adam Prince 01/23/2011 at 5:01 pm

What a shame people who want to live a humble low impact lifestyle within their means are so restricted.

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Tom B 02/06/2011 at 6:55 pm

After spending 30 years in the cab of a truck I find my 26 foot long RV trailer is still much too big for me and the Saint Bernard….so I’m in the process of converting a stepvan (as in potatoe chip) into our new 98sqft tiny home. Why tie myself to a big house in a single subdivision. The world is mine! he he he

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I'm Happy 06/09/2011 at 11:03 am

You can’t live in S. Florida in one of these things. Not only is it illegal but it also will fly away should a hurricane come. Even if you could sneak one of these things down in the Everglades or somewhere in the middle of Nowhere, Florida, one good storm and you can kiss this thing goodbye. We have very strict building codes that would make it impossible. You need a solid home should a 150 MPH hurricane come, especially inland. Tornadoes can spawn inland making the devastation much worse. I like Florida and wouldn’t want to move into one of these things just to live in a smaller home. I also like the fact that I live in a “rock-solid” house should a storm come, which I pray it never does. Nevertheless, I own a solid house and it’s pretty big. I’m happy, too!

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Patrick 09/13/2012 at 10:48 am

Big has nothing to do with solid. In fact, big provides a larger attack surface for those storms.

I would put my money on a well built permanent tiny home over a large house in Florida. I live in Florida and have seen quite a few big homes that meet code but are not solid at all.

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Jane Patterson 08/17/2011 at 6:37 pm

I have commented this before in other discussions. I believe the minimum size requirements stem from the property assessment value that many municipalities base their tax revenue on. They value larger houses higher than smaller ones and therefore expect a higher tax revenue from a bigger house. By setting a minimum house size for a given land size they are trying to maximize their revenue.

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