The concept of a tiny home is revolutionary in its own right, not to mention a little rebellious. In a society that’s all about scaling up, refusing to do so, and going so far as to get a petite home that can exist on a trailer is a wild concept. So is the idea of creating a house that you can take on the road. Here's what you need to know about owning a tiny house and not getting in trouble with the law.
On a technicality, tiny houses are legal in all 50 states. However, how they are used and where they’re allowed can vary greatly. Here’s what you need to know:
- Most states leave the definition of a livable tiny home up to the county or municipality they are in. In some areas, a tiny home will be considered an RV or a shed. In other areas, the RV will be viewed as an Accessory Dwelling Unit or ADU.
- You will need a towing license if you want to move a larger tiny home across state lines. This is a roadside issue rather than a housing issue. It’s still important to understand your requirements here. Otherwise, your home may be towed.
- The majority of states consider tiny homes on wheels to be an RV and will be treated as such. In other words, your home will need to be able to comply with state RV laws and licensure.
- Every state has a minimum acceptable square footage for a home. If you do not have a tiny house that works with the minimum square footage, you cannot legally live there full time.
- Most states also require you to have a stationary address. This means that traveling on the road in your tiny home is technically not allowed if you want to do it for years on end. You will need to find a way to get a permanent mailing address somewhere and have proof of residency.
Technically, all states allow tiny homes to some extent. However, the tiny home laws by state vary greatly, with some states openly embracing them and others almost shunning them outright. The most tiny house-friendly states in the US include Florida, California, and New Mexico, where you can legally own a tiny house without much trouble.
The least friendly state in America when it comes to tiny homes, is New York. This entire state more or less outlawed tiny house living as a permanent living situation, which means that you can only live in one as temporary or emergency means. The only exception to the rule involves RVs and mobile homes, but laws can get sketchy even then. If you're planning on living in a tiny home in New York, be sure to purchase a tiny house trailer, to ensure your home is mobile and legal.
Every house that’s built in the United States has to comply with state housing laws. These laws define what a home can be, how it can be built, as well as the minimum dimensions and amenities required to be considered a “livable home.”
To find out what each state requires, it’s best to refer to your state’s HUD website. This will give you the bare minimums about your home’s features and will also walk you through the statewide process of creating a tiny house.
From there, you will need to take a look at the individual zoning laws in the municipality that you want to live in. Many counties will only allow tiny homes as an ADU on a larger primary residential property. If you live in a city, you may find that tiny homes are banned outright.
Here’s a real kicker that people need to be aware of when they choose to live in a tiny home: the definition of a tiny home varies from state to state. Some don’t even have a legal definition of a tiny home and choose to treat these houses as a shed or an RV unit instead.
In every single city, town, and village in the United States, houses have to abide by zoning laws. These are laws that are established to help define an area’s purpose, the definition of what adequate housing is, as well as the maximum occupancy of a home based on the size.
Zoning laws affect every building you find, but some laws tend to be more critical than others when you’re working on a tiny home. The ones that you may need to be most aware of involve the following issues:
- Ceiling Height- Many tiny houses live up to their name when it comes to ceiling heights, with some only standing as high as six feet. Many zoning laws will bar this, citing the International Housing Law of 2012, which defines the minimum ceiling height as seven feet.
- Usage- Along with choosing a location that’s in a residential district, it’s important to remember that the official intended use of the home as a primary residence can impact the minimums of your home’s build. If you want to use it as a secondary home on a primary property, chances are that zoning laws will be laxer.
- Mobile Home Conversion- If you’re going to convert a tiny house on wheels into a permanent residence, you have to see if that’s actually legal in your jurisdiction.
- Minimum Square Footage- Some cities actively bar tiny home living by raising the minimum square footage above the definition of a tiny home. For example, in Burleigh County in North Dakota, the minimum legal size of a home is over 900 square feet.
- Fire Safety- Many states and counties have specific fire safety regulations that can impact the legality of your tiny home. For example, New Jersey requires you to have at least two exits from every room in a home—a demanding requirement when you are planning a tiny home!
Laws are there for a reason, and it’s not because they’re suggestions. If you build a tiny home that flies in the face of local zoning laws, you can face fines and penalties. In many cases, the city will have the right to condemn your building and sue you. Some may even demand that you demolish the building altogether.
A significant concern about tiny house living is that this concept is still taking root in most parts of the country. The majority of jurisdictions do not have a definition of a tiny home and therefore leave tiny homes in a legal gray area.
As laws develop, there is a chance that the regulations may not bode well for tiny homes. What happens from there is up to the municipality, but there is some good news. Many areas will allow tiny homes to be “grandfathered in,” and therefore remain legal to reside in. However, there is a risk of having your home get condemned.
How much local laws will impact your tiny home depends on where you choose to live as well as the specifics of your home. In many parts of the country, living in a tiny house where laws are not conducive to it (or worse, being in a “grey area” municipality) can be a significant cause of anxiety for homeowners.
If you live in a tiny house, it’s quite normal to worry about having the rug pulled out beneath your feet by your local HOA. This is why many people are actively seeking out tiny home communities. These communities offer up a little more protection, simply because having a full community can help you advocate for yourself.
Homeowners Associations rarely, if ever, allow a tiny home to be built within their jurisdictions. If you buy land or want to build your tiny home in an area that is governed by a HOA, the chances of you being able to build a house on it will be slim to none. HOAs generally don’t want anything to do with tiny homes.
There is some good news, though. Most empty lots had to have been volunteered for annexation into an HOA in order for the HOA to have power over them. If they were never formally annexed and there’s no house there, chances are that the HOA won’t be able to do anything about you.
Saying that tiny homes are a legal grey area is an understatement. The laws can become incredibly nitpicky and can easily pull the rug out from underneath your feet as a tiny house owner.
Your best bet here is to do a lot of research and/or look into living in a tiny home community that has already been legally greenlit. When playing around with the idea of living in a quirky home, it’s always smart to look before you leap.