Towards a better tinyhouse

Inventing to freedom?

Trying to figure out the political/legal issues relating to tinyhouses in your area

with 7 comments

Why, it must have been in June or thereabouts when I first became interested in tinyhouses. I actually searched for the sort of thing that I was looking for, a small dwelling of sorts, having noticed that the cost of construction materials was minuscule compared to the long term cost an apartment.

Then I found out about tinyhouses and saw Jay Shafer’s video, and after some time coming to terms with the idea, decided that I was going to look seriously into doing this. and designing my own. I was merrily making my plans when I found out it’s Not Allowed.

But naturally I want to know WHY not. It’s just amazing how the people at the other end of the phone line seem to have never heard this question before, so it’s clearly something we all need to ask a lot more often (and of course a lot of the time the answer is not a reasonable one, rather just reveals how bad a job the government is doing). Both the specific laws or other documents that say so, and of course the real-world reasons. Most likely the bureaucrats are useless for the second one, as they will just cough up some rationalization they were told, or assume.

Anyway, you can also find a lot of stuff on tinyhouse blogs about minimum square footage (also called minimum floor area) requirements, how you’re supposedly able to get around them with wheels and so on, but unfortunately it is not that straightforward. The government gets in the way at many stages.

Anyway, the specific laws vary substantially between different locales, but trying to generalize so you might have an easier time finding out in your area, it seems to go like this (and there’s some stuff that I still need to find out more about):

1. Building codes

The 120 sq foot figure is thrown around quite a bit, with the factoid that if you build a stationary house smaller than this the building codes no longer apply, which means you’re all clear to build.

Certainly in my area, and most others, this is not quite how it goes. I have not been able to find anything for my province (the building codes are usually province or state wide) that says buildings under a certain size do not fall under the building code. It’s just that if it is under 10 sq meters of footprint (not habitable area), and there are not other sub-10 sq meter buildings within 20 meters you don’t need a building permit before building, which means it does not need to meet code (because your planned building normally has to meet code before you can get a permit). But you might still need something else, before you can hook up water or something. Also, zoning still applies. Also you are not allowed to live in such a structure. See “examples of people living in tinyhouses full time ” post for more info.

If a commercial builder sells a house to you that does not meet code, you can sue them, but the government does not do anything to them for instance (unless maybe what they did was dangerous or something) (although they may inspect the house before allowing it on the market or something). If you build something in your backyard that does not meet code, I gather it doesn’t really matter, the government does not *necessarily* care, the building code is a guideline for builders, plumbers, etc. to follow and which is used for various purposes like deciding whether to issue a building permit for a proposed building, or certificate of habitability after construction (which you in turn need for some other reason, like before you are allowed to hook up water).

Also, even if it doesn’t need a building permit, does it require an electrical wiring permit or something? I don’t know. If so do they charge an absurd amount of money for the permit or something? That would be something else to look into. Do they demand dedicated electrical service lines be installed or something?

Also, it says in the building code that a “dwelling” must have a certain habitable area, like 400 sq ft. (or in some cases 2400) before it meets code. Which means once you go above 10 sq meters you need a permit to build which means your dwelling has to balloon to 400 sq ft, to meet code to get a permit.

2. Zoning
Zoning throws up several barriers. You won’t find the section that says “oh, and no tinyhouses allowed” because instead of banning certain things, these people only *allow* certain things, and ban everything else by default. There’s a list “a)single family detached dwelling b)low rise multi unit dwelling” etc., with definitions elsewhere in the document. Seems at first pretty much like a dead end, unless it can be changed or the tinyhouse shimmied into one of the definitions. Even then it might say no more than one dwelling per lot, for instance.

One thing I was wondering about is this: You leave some pylons in the yard. Is it violating the zoning code? Presumably not. Now you leave a trailer in the yard. Violating? There is a section of the zoning code here that is different form the rest, which is regarding parking and vehicles, and it says you can have 2 trailers at a time on the property.

What about a plywood box just resting on the ground? An insulated one? How big would it have to be before it was violating the zoning code, and which part says it would be? As far as I can tell, there is nothing explicit that says someone could not use this as a place to sleep at night, work in the day, etc., add a microwave and a sink and a composting toilet… But there might be something that says nothing except a dwelling is allowed to be “occupied” or something. Would have to check that.

But let’s face it, that’s getting further and further from the promise tinyhouses have in the first place. Sure it’s cheap, but it’s not as nice a place to live. Also there might be some sort of health code that says if something is occupied it has to have a normal bathroom.

You can sometimes get a zoning “amendment”, to change the zoning in a particular area or something, because you want it (which is what commercial builders do all the time). Then there is another thing which is a bit different, a “variance” which allows you an exception because of unusual circumstances, *which are specific to the property of concern* and needed to make reasonable use of the property (so they are sort of useless for us, I think).

You can read up about the amendment process, I assume it’s different for different jurisdictions, but basically there is the panel of bureaucrats, and people from the community can comment and stuff, and they allow or deny it, I should look into the other requested amendments and go to one of the meetings… you can apply for one before you buy the property, though, I checked that.

Another idea I had was to make more than one separate building, one for the kitchen, one for the bathroom, but this wouldn’t work because you’re not allowed to have more than 2 of the small buildings closer than 20 meters to each other… unless you could get a permit to do so.

Anyway, the zoning law is the main problem, I think, and it pretty much ruins everything for me, as far as I can tell right now, though there seems to be a few avenues still to look down here, they will probably lead to dead ends.

Also, checking the definitions might be fruitful, tinyhouses might be x but ALSO something else which is allowed, or if X is not allowed maybe it could be argued that it is not exactly x….

Anyway, you can usually find the zoning code for a city on a website somewhere under “bylaws”, and the “Ontario/ (insert state/province here) building code”, too. I do not know what documents the permitting requirements stem from.


Written by gregor

November 10, 2010 at 00:45

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. I was researching this same thing earlier this week and spent some time reading the 68 pages of building code for my area. It’s like reading tax law and just about as good as a sleeping pill. Anyway, I ran into the 200 square foot minimum and it was extremely confusing. They didn’t actually come out and say, “you gotta have…” but it was implied and I intend to go back and re-read that section now that I have more information for your posting. Thanks for this update.

    Bill Zaspel

    November 10, 2010 at 09:11

    • Yeah, I think one of the problems with the present way of writing laws is if even a single piece is missing, the meaning that the remainder portrays is totally corrupted. You have to have read the whole thing to really understand any of it. For example for everything that says “A is true” is something that says A is not true in case of B, and there is no hyperlink or anything from the original statement “a is true”. So without reading the whole thing you don’t really know enough to depend on. This problem manifests itself in many other ways too.


      November 10, 2010 at 13:30

  2. I just started looking into having a tiny house. I looked up some building codes and boy, they sure didn’t make sense to me at all. It’s like they are made to keep the uninitiated out of the loop on purpose and let only businesses in. Getting a tiny house on wheels is the easy part evidently; finding a spot to keep it is the hard part.

    Timaree (freebird)

    November 11, 2010 at 20:46

    • finding a spot to keep it is the hard part

      Exactly. That’s something I’ve said many times. Sometimes you can find “legal guides” that help. However, it’s really the zoning codes you mostly want to look at, like I said above. You can also make a series of phone calls, with hypothetical scenarios and stuff to try to mine information out of the bureaucrats, but be careful that they might just tell you no to everything even if they are wrong, just because it is easier/covers their behinds better.


      November 11, 2010 at 22:28

  3. In our area, one must install a well/septic/electricity (only if the septic relys on eletricity to work), and have an “ADU” (accessory dwelling unit) which can be freestanding, or built into a garage/shop. It needs a permit, but does not count as a primary residence, so not a whole lot of hoopla to put one up. The maximum squarefootage is one half of the primary residence, so if don’t have one, it can be as large as you want…..but if you build a house on the property later, then it would have to be twice the size of the previous little “mother in law” that you put up.
    It works out to $1000-$1500USD for permitting and government fees, but then no one can kick you and your tiny home off the property.


    November 27, 2010 at 19:34

    • My take on it is that if you wanted to build a tinyhouse on the lot, with nothing else, it would not be considered an adu, it is only an adu if there is already another building on the lot. I don’t know if they would let you build it if there was not another building that meets the usual minimum floor area reqs. Another approach to accommodate the minimum floor area in that context might be to try to make the excess floor area as cheaply as possible.


      November 27, 2010 at 20:10

    • “but then one can kick you and your tiny home off the property”

      If only. Correction:
      “but then just banksters, the taxman, HOA, bylaw enforcement, eminent domain abusers, (and maybe a few other people?) can kick you and your tiny home off the property, potentially without warning due to rules you could hardly have practically even known about even if you had consulted a lawyer, potentially costing you everything you invested in it thereby ruining you forever, hopefully not, but it’s certainly happened before and is legal under the current regime.”


      November 27, 2010 at 20:19

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