Legalizing Your Tiny House: How To Approach Zoning/Building Departments
It’s not everyday that we hear from a Code Enforcement Officer, especially one that is interested in building tiny. So when Jaime wrote to us, I was excited and asked if he would be willing to share his “insider” perspective into the mysterious world of zoning and building departments. In this article you will learn how to go to zoning/building departments with your tiny house plans. He has been gracious enough to reveal everything he has learned during his time working for an East Bay area city in California. Though I realize not everyone will want to go the legalization route with their tiny house, for those of us that do, this information is invaluable.
My name is Jamie. I have over 20 years in the banking and finance field, 22 years as a California State Licensed General Contractor, and from 2008 until 2013, as a Certified Code Enforcement Officer for an East Bay area City. I decided to retire and come back to my home town in Upstate New York to assist my aged mother with two rental properties she owned.
With that being said, I wanted you to know that I am not an expert in any one field, but I do have some experience with being on “both sides of the table” when it comes to construction and dealing with Building Officials. Working within confines of your local code may seem daunting but if we have an open mind and a reasonable understanding of why codes are there, we can work together to fulfill our dreams of building a home that has a smaller impact on Mother Earth.
Building codes are not written intentionally to be difficult. They are there because a lot of people have died historically from poor construction practices. They cover all aspects of a building for conditions of “Life, Health and Safety”. We realize that it is virtually impossible for any one person to know all of the codes but it does help to have some knowledge about them and also an understanding of why they exist. When presenting your plans, it’s important to create a good relationship with your Building Officials. They are there to help you ensure that habitable structures are safe and energy efficient.
HERE ARE SOME ACTIONS STEPS AND TIPS FOR GETTING YOUR TINY/SMALL HOUSE PLANS PASSED:
1) It is always a good idea to discuss your plans with zoning first. Familiarize yourself with your local zoning codes (many jurisdictions have them available on their website). If that feels daunting, hire an architect or designer to help you navigate this piece of the puzzle. Better yet, hire a professional to draw up your plans (or purchase a completed set of engineered plans). Once the building officials see that someone knows what they are doing, they are more apt to be more accommodating.
If zoning says “no” to your project, ask what they would allow and try to get them to work with you. Overall, nearly all Building Officials are friendly, polite and there to help so I hate to admit that there are some that are downright rude. I have even seen some deny projects because they didn’t fit in with the Official’s vision for their jurisdiction, even though the plans complied with the zoning and municipal codes. It helps to ask local builders in your community who they recommend you work with. People in the building community will know which Officials are reasonable and which ones aren’t.
In most jurisdictions, in terms of submitting architectural plans, you must have a property already purchased and approved for the construction of a dwelling unit.
2) I would not recommend bringing in “hand drawn” plans. They are unprofessional and can be construed by officials to mean that you don’t know what you’re doing. Hand drawn plans are only acceptable for non-habitable sheds or minor remodels to existing structures.
The plans should be code compliant and to scale. Generally 3 copies are required. One for the builder (you), one for the city to archive and one for the county for taxation purposes. These plans will need to list the sizes of the rooms, the egress paths, any plumbing, electrical, mechanical and structural features. They should also list all materials being used. If one of the building materials is not approved by the local jurisdiction, the building official will need proof that the material meets or exceeds the local building codes. We don’t want someone using materials that burn easily, release toxic fumes when ignited, etc.
Your plans will need to demonstrate that you have adequate ventilation including but not limited to combustible air for fuel burning appliances, an air return to replace any vented moisture laden air, and that the venting is a minimum of 36″ away from an operable window.
The electrical system must be able to handle the demands placed on it. For example are you installing a microwave, garbage disposal, dishwasher etc., they require dedicated circuits. In a standard home, there are generally 7 dedicated circuits in the kitchen alone. The plumbing system is also something that has to be designed whether you are hooked up to a municipal network or not. Proper venting is necessary to keep sewage gasses away from the air you breathe since methane can make one very ill and is flammable.
Structures must meet the demands put on it in order to pass the review process. For example, in earthquake country, specifications must be met to prevent the house from falling over.
3) If you are building a smaller home, ie 200 sq ft., one is going to need to meet minimum size restrictions. You can look at what minimums are for “studio” set ups in your area since that allows for open floor plan that includes the sleeping space. In terms of a tiny house being on wheels, at least in the area I worked, code requires that permanent structures be “positively” fastened to a solid foundation. If it is mobile, it is classified as a “mobile home” and must be located in a “mobile home park” zoned area.
4) If you receive a “no” for your proposed project despite being courteous, working in the spirit of cooperation, and having well designed plans, I would encourage you to go to the local Council meetings and to present your issue and ask for the laws to change. For example, I had a resident who defied the local municipal code restricting the ownership of chickens in a residential area. I had to cite her for not following the law. I mentioned that she always had the right to go to council meetings to discuss her concerns. Lo and behold, she did and the local municipal code changed. It took a few months, but our city officials were open to it. They created a committee comprised of local residents and rewrote the laws with the help of zoning and building personnel.
One thing to keep in mind is that ALL cities in California must follow the State’s Building Codes. So in order to change the code in that state, the public needs to go to the Building Code Council and advocate changes.
5) Before you present your plans, I’d highly recommend you do as much research as possible so that you can be prepared and able to answer the tough questions. Go in with an open mind and really listen to what they are saying and what their concerns might be. If they knock you down, don’t get discouraged. Instead be open to suggestions and thank them for their expertise. I have noticed that, generally speaking, if Building Officials see you really want to work with them, they are more apt to help you and less inclined to be combative.
6) People should expect that if they did not do any homework, they most likely will be shot down. So with that in mind, I repeat, do some research. Look online at the city’s website. Make an appointment to meet with the planning/zoning personnel. Make sure you understand the overall land use objective for your area. Many cities are trying to redevelop land to bring in revenue through taxation. Get creative and look at other jurisdictions that are allowing tiny houses to be built.
7) People really should not be worried if the plan checker comes back with a lot of changes. This is pretty normal and fine but it does slow down the process. You can minimize the changes that the checker wants to see by knowing what your local code calls for. Make your plans as clear as possible. I have had one of my own plans rejected because I didn’t show the floor framing member sizes on a bath and kitchen remodel. In terms of timing, be aware that most building departments operate on a first in, first out position. If/when they have to kick the plans back to you and you re-submit them, you are put at the back of the line again.
FINAL THOUGHTS: If you are really passionate about building small, don’t let small bumps in the road derail you. I have found that when someone has everything in place, has done their research and can show officials the benefits of tiny house living in a community, that they are actually receptive.
I personally think going small is very important. Over the years, I have lived in big homes and really found them to be burdensome more than anything else. Not only from the standpoint of being wastful of our natural resources but to maintain them as well. I am a strong advocate for smaller and tiny homes provided they are built with “Life, Health and Safety” in mind. I wish you readers the best of luck and I hope you can get nationwide changes going!
Gabriella has had a fascination and interest in housing and how we occupy space for most of her life. A global traveler, she has lived in all types of housing from an Oceanside mansion in Rio De Janeiro, to an 80 sqft historic log cabin with no running water, plumbing and electricity in the Colorado mountains. Gabriella is happiest and most at peace when living in a tiny space in close contact with her family and nature.