Tiny homes are everywhere in popular media and the internet, and the meme has persisted for well over a decade now. With click-bait headlines like, “Man Builds Tiny Log Cabin For $500” and “You Can Turn A $2000 Shipping Container Into An Epic Off-Grid Home!” we get seduced into believing that if only we had the time, resources, and a chunk of land somewhere we could escape the daily oppression of expenses, debt and complexity with a Tiny Home. Even so, the Tiny Home idea can offer a path to the radical simplicity that Thoreau romanticized with his own tiny home on Walden Pond well over a hundred years ago. But where is the land to grow our tiny dream on, and if we had it – would it only be affordable because it’s geographically outside of our job market? Let’s not get hung up on that primary question just yet – Is it possible to build your own home that isn’t actually connected to land? Sure it is!
- How can such a thing be financed?
- What laws govern a home that is not connected to land?
DEMYSTIFYING BUILDINGS, BUILDING CODES, ZONING AND TINY HOMES
Firstly, let’s define what a conventional building on a piece of land actually is, and how these things are financed. Real Estate has a much clearer name in French – immobilier or immoveables – because this refers to things that are not portable, things that are tied to the land, as opposed to mobilier aka ‘furniture’ and other big belongings like appliances that are in fact moveable.
Typically, when it comes to financing new construction, the bank will lend you money based on the value of the immoveable land that the building will ultimately be tied to – their collateral. Ultimately this financing will convert to a mortgage on completion of the building. The building needs to be legit in terms of its quantifiable value and risk of the instrument for the bank to even consider financing. To be legit in the bank’s eyes, it will need to be built in conformance with a) the building code, and to get a building permit proving compliance with the code, it will also need to b) conform to local zoning bylaws. Now the b) zoning, and a) code, may have all kinds of clauses that will not let you actually build something as small as a tiny home.
For the sake of argument, let’s say a tiny home is anything smaller than 800 square feet. Many jurisdictions have bylaws that disallow anything under say, 1500sf to be built in a given location or there may be covenants on a particular subdivision that mandates a certain minimum size. Why? Usually to maintain the uniformity of the look of a neighbourhood, or the tax base of a given district, or put simply, to maintain the status quo.
Now the building code will also have a few things to say about minimum room sizes, from dining and living rooms, to bedrooms or sleeping areas and the like. However, these can often be interpreted with some flexibility since one room can serve multiple functions and these areas may overlap or be shared. You may find that the zoning and code in your jurisdiction will allow you to build an 800sf, 2-bedroom home – or it may not, but your process should always be to explore zoning first, and only then, unit design.
In fact even if you had the cash to build your tiny home without the bank’s help, technically, you had still better be conforming to zoning bylaws and the building code with only a very few and very specific exceptions that we’ll explore later on.
A Building is very specifically defined in the building code for every single municipality, state and province in North America, and in most other jurisdictions as well. This same code also lists things that it does not consider buildings – things that because they are not buildings, they do not require a building permit. This can include garden sheds and other DIY structures that are under 100sf in area (and one could argue 4 such sheds side-by-side may make for a suitable 400sf dwelling arrangement), tents under 600sf, and…… drumroll please, Trailers!Since trailers are basically homes not connected to land, they don’t need to conform to the building code and this gives tremendous freedom to design ecologically. The code mandates big, expensive rooms, the use of grid-connected energy systems, conventional toilets and water systems (where available) which can be contrary to the tenets of ‘small is beautiful’ and minimized environmental footprint. Localized infrastructure such as solar and composting toilets are key to ethical, responsible living and reducing our footprint. Research into the laws that govern trailer design and manufacture will lead one to the CSA Z240 and Z241 standards in Canada and ANSI and HUD standards in the USA, which are far more flexible, appropriate and convenient for tiny home design.
SO IS A TINY HOME TECHNICALLY A TRAILER?
We can see that most tiny homes are built on a trailer chassis just like an RV is. Trailers require to have brakes and turn signals and all of the things that make a Vehicle roadworthy, because in fact tiny homes that are not buildings so much as they are vehicles, but there are different classes of trailers. Travel Trailers are your typical airstream-type trailer – they have batteries and pumps and water systems all on-board, and are usually designed for limited off-grid living and frequent movement from location to location and are usually under 300sf.Park Model Trailers are like a stripped down version, they don’t have batteries or tanks – and require to be connected to infrastructure of some kind. This makes Park Model Trailers less mobile, but because of this, they can also be much larger, up to 400sf. For the sake of this article, we will exclude Campers, Motorhomes (all classes), Mobile Homes and Manufactured Homes – as these are all manufactured products that are even more strictly regulated and they are not really relevant to the ubiquitous Tiny Home genre. So A Tiny Home is indeed, often a Trailer of sorts. But this opens up a whole new can of worms.
- Who in Canada can legitimately build a CSA Z-series Travel Trailer, Park Model Trailer or Mobile Home?
- Who in the USA can legitimately build an ANSI certified Travel Trailer, Park Model Trailer or Mobile Home?
- Where can I live in such a Trailer Home?
- This is all far too complicated, can I please stop reading now?!
To answer the first two questions, only a facility that carries certification (ANSI or CSA) can construct and sell travel trailers and park model homes. Standardized propane system tests, electrical load tests, trailer chassis design, vehicle lighting design, water pressure tests, leak-proofing tests, and all subcomponent conformance (every subassembly must also be CSA certified) all require to be completed by qualified personnel before a trailer ever leaves such a certified facility for sale on the open market. That leaves an entire population of DIY builder-designers in the dark, as they certainly don’t have the resources to certify their own construction sites to these standards, and they may not have the skills or equipment to undertake construction to these standards or perform these tests.
On a related note, a prospective homeowner may build their own non-mobile-home, the kind that is attached to land and governed by a local building inspector so long as they conform to the building code. So why couldn’t a prospective tiny home owner build their own trailer or tiny home on wheels? Probably because there is no such thing as a building code specifically for tiny homes on wheels, at least not yet.
However, nobody is going to stop you from building a tiny home, that is, unless they do. And many a builder of a tiny home on wheels has run into trouble with the law for constructing vehicles that exceeded the standards of road-worthiness, or dimensionality (width/height/length), or required an escort vehicle and/or moving permit, etc. In fact, the perils can easily outweigh the benefits of the illegitimate tiny home.
All of this sounds very complicated but it need not be discouraging, we just need to clarify the right approach here. Let’s accept that there are homes out there for sale, and even trailers out there for sale and that these have been constructed to the requisite codes and standards. Do they satisfy our desires for good design at an affordable price? For something custom, tailor made to our needs and wishes? With all of the features, appliances, materials and tech (green or otherwise) that we imagine in our planet-positive and affordable future? The simple answer is no. It’s unlikely there is ANYTHING on the market that is even remotely close, even though there is significant demand for affordable, green and tiny custom homes!
This is why, back in 2005/6 I designed the off-grid, eco-travel-trailer called the miniHome SOLO Travel Trailer (270sf) and later theminiHome TRIO (400sf) Park Model Trailer – we expected to sell hundreds, even thousands of units! And from the massive media exposure these designs found – the public was indeed wildly interested in this idea of a super-space-efficient, modern, ecological and affordable home that could be easily and legally relocated, and even financed (just like a regular RV can be financed). But the sales just never materialized, for a few reasons.
HOW CAN WE GET PAST THE TRAILER PARK PROBLEM?
Then what really started to become obvious to us, was the fact that zoning in every province in Canada, jeez even in every state in the US prohibited locating trailer homes in anything but what are called Trailer Parks. The culture-clash we witnessed was more than our design-savvy customers could accept. “Are you telling me, that my $120k miniHome can only legitimately be located in a freakin’ trailer park, and not on my [insert preferred lot type here/property on the lake/urban lot/farm property, etc].” In fact, that is what we had to tell people, that you have to put it in a designated park or you could just buy the thing anyways and tuck it away on your property in knowing contravention of the zoning bylaws, but this was hardly a selling feature. The next step was to re-imagine what the Trailer Park could be if it were designed from scratch as an ecological neighbourhood, something we call the Ecological Trailer Park, and that we are actually executing here at Domaine de l’O – near Ottawa, ON on the shores of the mighty Ottawa River.
Nobody wanted to spend that much money on something they might be asked to move if ever a neighbour complained, or, as has recently occurred in the municipality of Renfrew, ON, aircraft start cataloguing RV’s illegally parked on private properties and have issued either fines or removal notices or both. I used to joke in Tiny Home workshops with Jay Shafer, founder of Tumbleweed Tiny Homes and now Four Lights Tiny Homes that, “It’s not like the zoning police are flying around in drones looking to find contraventions” – but I was shocked to learn that is exactly what they were doing last Summer and in our own backyard!
THE ULTIMATE DEFINITION OF THE 5 TYPES OF TINY HOMES
Now, this article isn’t designed to merely burst tiny bubbles. It is to point out some clear and legitimate paths to tiny home design, financing, construction and location, including a few exceptions to all that is described above. Ready? Let’s break them down by numbers, 1 thru 5.
1. The Building Permit Home on Building Permit conventional foundation. Zoning can be cottage or residential, dwelling can be a primary or secondary unit on the property, permanent, and able to be conventionally financed on land that is owned or leased. Not mobile. Can be professionally built or DIY. Can be bank financed.
2. The Building Permit Home on a professionally engineered and manufactured Steel Chassis. No permanent foundation necessary. Temporary (cottage style) foundation under building permit allowed. Zoned cottage/residential, primary or secondary, semi-permanent, and able to be conventionally financed on land that is owned or leased. Mobile (not tied to location), such a tiny home can actually be relocated at a later date, provided the appropriate standards governing dimensionality and road-worthiness are observed and executed in the design and construction. Can be professionally built or DIY.
3. The Commercially Manufactured Park Model Trailer or Travel Trailer as defined by CSA or ANSI/HUD standards. On steel chassis. Zoned trailer park only. Some exemptions may apply (check municipal zoning i.e., temporary residence during execution of permanent residence on residential zoned site or as a secondary dwelling). Can be financed with letter of credit just as any RV/Boat purchase. $0 residual valuation after 10yrs (depreciates to zero, unlike #1&2). Cannot be owner-built or DIY. We cannot advise illegal placement on owned or leased land.
4. The DIY renovation of #3. This approach allows MANY legal modifications to insulation, cladding, systems etc. for year-round living. Zoning stipulations same as #3. Owner can DIY or have professionally renovated. In fact, there is nothing preventing the complete gutting of an existing trailer right down to the bare steel and rebuilding a tiny home on this skeleton – however it is essential that the weight of the new structure NOT INCREASE beyond what the original chassis was designed to carry – this cannot be over-emphasized. Letter of credit financing possible. Renovated trailers have a VIN# and can be easily plated and insured using this VIN#. This is without question the most viable approach for any serious DIY builder.
5. The Home Made or Owner-Built Trailer Home. Unfortunately, this is what most tiny-homers have in mind. They do not comply* with the building code or the trailer codes and are as such neither fish nor fowl and they probably contravene zoning bylaws also. They are not eligible for any kind of financing or insurance. Typically best located in unorganized townships, bush-lots, squats, or large properties with little oversight by neighbours or municipal officials. Not recommended. *To be clear, parts of the #5 approach can be built to the respective codes, but the unit as a whole cannot simultaneously meet both – unless it is designed as #2.
In conclusion, and from extensive and expensive personal experience, it IS possible to renovate existing RV’s and Trailers and even shipping containers for under $10k, and for $30k you can actually do a really nice job, but if you want something custom built from scratch, and not from found materials for year-round living in colder climates, you really need to budget at least $50 to $100k – and to have it professionally designed so that you don’t find yourself living in a sieve or a mold-farm, add at least another $5k for good plans, details, or design services by a licensed and insured professional. And if you want to have it professionally built by others, you can double those prices to account for labour. Don’t believe the hype, there is no such thing as a $500 – or even a $2000 tiny home, yet properly designed and constructed Tiny Homes can be a great way to simplify your life and embrace the many advantages of tiny home living, from getting outside more, to engaging community resources, to learning new skills, reducing your expenses, and getting out of debt, if you can manage to find work where land is still affordable.
If you are still interested in designing and building your own tiny home, there are a few innovative property developments cropping up here and there, where #3 & #4 above can be located for year-round living (please contact the author for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org), and I wish you good luck and every success in pursuing your tiny home dream with full knowledge of the right approach!