Tiny House Legalities: The Devil is in the Details.

I’m now 3 days into my due diligence period with the new lot, and with just one swift phrase uttered from the lady at zoning and planning, my entire tiny house venture came crashing down around me.

Happy Friday the 13th everyone. This could truly be defined as my family’s infamous ‘Fowinkle luck’. I dedicated a good chunk of my morning making calls to zoning and utilities to gather details about the lot and its amenities. One of the first problems I ran into a few days ago was that the lot had illegal split parcels on record and therefore the zoning office could not give me details on the zoning until those flags were rectified. After I worked with the ‘split parcel’ guy – as he’s called – to get those flags removed, the lot was now free to be deemed as an R-1 Zoned lot.

I called the zoning department again to retrieve the setback details on the lot which are as follows:

– R-1 Residential build must be no higher than two stories and 35ft high
– R-1 Residential builds must be set back from the front of the property at least 25 feet
– R-1 Residential builds must be set back from the back of the property at least 25 feet
– R-1 Residential builds must be set back from the sides of the property at least 6 feet on either side
– R-1 Residential builds must be a minimum square footage of 1000 sq ft living space.


1000 square feet. I about dropped my phone when I heard that. Knowing my plans were at most only 635 sq ft of walkable living space, I immediately asked if a separate dwelling unit (such as a grandma suite) could be included in that requirement. Nope. It all had to be the same main building, and not even a car port or garage would count.

I was in despair for at least 23 minutes, if I counted right.

Months of planning, designing and money already spent on drafting came to a screeching halt. I could easily blame my lack of planning ahead and finding these details before hand, but what I lacked was the knowledge to ask in the first place. You don’t know what you don’t know! This entire journey has just been a series of ‘firsts’ for me and I’ve benefited from experiencing some of those ‘firsts’, while suffering from a state of shock by others. This takes the cake ladies and gentlemen.

I think I called the zoning office about three more times posing as a new person each time to ask more questions. It was pretty rock solid that they would not accept my plans for the 1000 sq ft minimum requirement, but the lady offered a suggestion of applying for a variance from the zoning and planning commission. A variance would constitute a hearing that would involve the zoning and planning authorities, as well as neighbors of the lot in question, to decide if I could use the smaller build. It would cost me $1500 out of pocket to apply and there would be no guarantee it would be approved, but it was the only chance I had at this point. The only problem is that the variance could take up to 2- 4 months to go through the entire process, and I had less than 3 months to close on this lot without a guarantee I could build on it.

I boded over this for another hour and studied the plans, pondering how to stretch it, twerk it, and twist it to make an additional 400 sq ft magically appear.

But I hated this.

It was the exact thing I was trying to avoid in the first place: Paying for space I didn’t need. This is exactly what the tiny house movement scorns against today’s housing restrictions and one of the reasons why they turned to building on trailers to avoid rules like these. I calculated I would pay at least 50% more in construction and labor just by adhering to this one simple and stupid rule.

But at this point, I was quickly approaching a closing date for a Construction-to-perm loan, now with no legal house plans to build from. I had to come up with a compromise and think about the option for the variance at a later point. I needed a legal version of the house so the builder could draft a contract for the build and maybe he could switch to the smaller build once it was approved and refund the excess money to bank at the end??

Regardless, with the prospect of adding an additional 400 sq ft to my tiny house design, I wanted to avoid at all costs to change the spirit of the design.

I didn’t want to extend the bend, nor add additional space to the 2nd floor that would eat into the high ceilings of the living room. But most of all, I didn’t want to make this difficult for my architect who had literally just begun work on the engineered drawings of the plans. With that in mind, I immediately called him up and explained to him the situation. I felt worse that he had to literally start from scratch on a new design, but I offered a solution that could potentially rehash the initial designs.

I had asked him to just take each of the 10 ft walls of the perimeter of the house and extend them out by 3 ft. So instead of 10ft, they would be 13 ft. The kitchen, bathrooms, and staircase would all remain in place with the same integrity in relation to the layout, but just be extended to match the length walls. He was very generous with my ruthless request and quipped that he doesn’t want to design something I don’t want in the end (very true) but overall I just felt like I unloaded this burden onto everyone involved with this one simple oversight.

For now, the plans have shifted a bit, and I’m very adamant to NOT have to pay for a larger house I don’t need – but I have to stay on course with this and hope that I can get that variance to go through before my time for this lot runs out. My tiny house quest continues on, with a little less tiny…

2 thoughts on “Tiny House Legalities: The Devil is in the Details.

  1. Forgive me if my earlier comments to your later blog post seemed a bit harsh. (I know they did). As I mentioned I have considered a small house at 550-650 sq ft (or there about). But came to the conclusion that if it was just me alone a true Tiny House would be enough and a small house that size would be excess. Since I am not alone I am continuing in my current home in spite of how large it is. It is unfortunate your building department won’t consider embracing the new IRC that will be coming out in 2018, but I suppose that would be asking too much of them. Good for you to press on with what you can to shrink your foot print. As I did mention before, you can still at least live the tiny life regardless the size of the house. Even though the cost of the build will be more a tiny lifestyle will still cost less and be better for the environment and also for those who live it. :)

    1. Hi Bob! Thank you for your comment! I can very much agree that my 631 sq ft build can be referred to as a small house rather than the standard tiny house – it’s actually the same size of an average 1 bedroom apartment! But, if we’re just focusing on numbers, I can point out that it is possible that the ranges of tiny house dimensions were standardized due to the limitations of the trailer sizes they were built on. And while my plans are obviously outside of that range, they were inspired and designed with the philosophies of the tiny house movement – with just a little bit more flex room. ( as you pointed out – tiny house living! ).

      I hope I can call it a tiny house in that regard, but I do make a point that it is larger than the average tiny house when I discuss it with others.

      Thank you for reading! :)

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