Tiny House Legal Issues Part 1 – Wheeled Tiny Houses
This post is the first of the more detailed posts I’ll be doing about the new direction my life has taken. It was inspired by Maysoon Zayid’s comment on that post.
Tiny houses on wheels have regulatory problems on a number of different levels which, in order to use as you want to use it, you must be aware of.
Is it a trailer or an RV?
There are two different ways that a tiny house on a trailer can be considered an RV. Most states have some process where you can submit your wheeled tiny home for inspection and, once they agree, they will consider your tiny house to be an RV instead of a loaded trailer (albeit one with an interesting load!). And some tiny home manufacturers sell RVIA (Recreational Vehicle Industry Association) certified tiny homes. One “Gotcha” on the latter route: Many tiny home manufacturers also sell plans so you can build their models yourself, and one manufacturer (at least) will sell you a partially built home – essentially the wall and roof are built and sealed against the weather so you can finish it yourself. NEITHER of these options result in an RVIA certified tiny house! RVIA certification requires that the RV be fully constructed by the certifying manufacturer.
Why might it be advantageous to officially be an RV?
It comes down to finding a place to park – and occupy – your tiny home. There are some RV parks where long term residents are allowed. The standards for what qualifies as an RV in order to use an RV park are usually in the hands of the operators of the RV park. Most require vehicle registration as an RV and some require RVIA certification. (I should have mentioned that all RVIA certified RVs are RVs in the eyes of the DMV, but not all DMV recognized RVs are RVIA certified.)
Further, as various jurisdictions (cities, towns, counties and states) begin (hopefully) to change their laws to allow more full time occupancy of RVs, those laws will incorporate some definition of an RV, most likely one of the two I’ve cited above.
Why might it be DISadvantageous to officially be an RV?
The only thing that comes to mind is that it will likely be cheaper to register with the DMV as a trailer than as an RV.
Why might being officially an RV NOT be enough for legal occupancy?
Quite simply – it’s on wheels! Disregarding (for now) size issues, for almost all jurisdictions, a wheeled tiny house can’t be an legal “dwelling” because it’s not built on a foundation – and hence can’t be inspected under current building codes since they don’t apply! Yes, I know I’m ignoring mobile homes here. Why? I’ve rarely (perhaps never) seen a mobile home that is small enough to satisfy my personal definition of a tiny home. For wheeled tiny homes to be legal for full time occupancy, jurisdictions will need to change their regulations/codes to address exactly what building/safety standards apply.
Case in point: Fire rated walls. Right now, RVs aren’t required to have beefed up walls for resistance to fire penetration. But dwelling units on foundations do! Do we want jurisdictions to allow occupied tiny homes to be parked without a minimum separation from other structures? Or do we want jurisdictions to require a fire rated wall construction when parked closer than a minimum distance from other structures (or other tiny homes)?
Another case in point: Fire egress. In dwelling units, all habitable spaces (with bathrooms often excepted) must have two routes by which an occupant can escape a fire. But most tiny homes have only 1 door. Further, many tiny homes have their sleeping space in a loft – up high – where smoke and other HOT gases of combustion gather! So should windows be required to be both present and “egress rated” where necessary to allow two escape routes? Personally, I think so. But this is another area that is simply not addressed in most (all) codes.
You aren’t living, you’re camping!
Outside of an RV park, most jurisdictions consider living in an RV to be “camping” – and hence subject to the same restrictions they place on tents! Some don’t allow it at all. Most allow it, but with severe restrictions on length of a single stay (1-2 weeks) with an upper limit on the number of days per year – even on your own property!
You’re not legally parked!
Many jurisdictions regulate the storage of RVs, especially in areas zoned Residential. Most wont let you park it between the front of your residence and the street. Other restrictions could include:
- They must be on pavement
- They must not be visible from the street
- They may not be parked within a few feet of the side lot line.
- They must not be parked within a certain distance of any structure – yours or a neighbors!
Assuming you land in a jurisdiction that allows full time occupation – outside of an RV or Mobile Home park – of wheeled tiny homes, most jurisdictions define a “dwelling unit” with either an explicit minimum size or with language that directly results in a minimum size. And most of those definitions result in a larger footprint than many consider to be truly tiny.
There is some good news on this front. Some of these definitions derive from the International Building Code (IBC) definition of a dwelling unit. While the IBC doesn’t explicitly state a minimum size, it does require certain spaces – and those spaces are defined with a minimum size – resulting in a de facto minimum size of roughly 200 square feet. And to fit into a size that small, one must be very creative with the required functions. However, this about to change! The 2015 edition of the IBC lacks the current requirement of one room that is, at minimum, 120 square feet. Since it’s been removed, a dwelling built to the new IBC standard could, conceivably, be as small as roughly 90 square feet. Beware: While the IBC code is changing in 2015, that doesn’t mean any jurisdiction will change then! Usually, jurisdictions update their codes every three years. Until they update their code to be one based on the 2015 IBC (as they choose to amend it!), you’ll still be subject to codes based on earlier versions.
Most jurisdictions ALLOW full time occupancy of RVs on any lot … while the owner is building a permanent residence. But the length of time is limited – check with your jurisdiction. And check under what circumstance that maximum duration can be extended. Some jurisdictions allow it as long as the building permit for the permanent residence is open – and there’s lots of things you can do to extend the expiration of building permits. Think “Build S L O W L Y”
Another loophole is on site security. Many jurisdictions allow essentially permanent occupancy of an RV on a commercial site where the RV is designated as the residence of a person(s) or family that provides 24/7 security for the associated business. I know of one tiny house parked in an industrial area of Oakland using this loophole. The owner/resident works for the business as his full time job, and the business was happy to register his tiny house as a security accommodation, even though he isn’t expected to stay on site outside of his normal working hours!
Towards the future:
None of these obstacles are insurmountable. However, to get the necessary law, code, and or regulation changes will require organizing. In a rural area, you can likely get away with almost anything – especially if you own the land and it’s remote enough that nobody (who might raise NIMBY objections) will see it! If you’re in a small town, all it might take to get a variance is a clear set of drawings and an artist’s conception of how your tiny house will look once built, sited on a parcel, and appropriately landscaped. Larger and more dense jurisdictions will likely require considerable organizing, lobbying, and LOTS of meetings with city staff before the necessary changes are enacted. I’m currently at the very beginning of organizing a group of people who want to do just that, but that’s another subject, which I’ll cover soon.
Have I covered all the problems? Probably not. Have I covered the ones I have covered in sufficient detail? Again, probably not. In order to have a legally parked and legally occupied tiny house on wheels will require you to get very familiar with the requirements of your intended AHD (Authority Having Jurisdiction). I trust that this is enough information to get you started.
If there are any general areas I’ve overlooked, please point them out to me in the comments!