The definition of a tiny house is subjective, but for me, it's a home of 400 square feet or less, either on wheels or a foundation. I consider a home of between 400 and 1000 square feet to be small. Due to size specifications for rooms, clearances and distances between fixtures, building codes are a little more difficult for tiny houses to meet. (However, it is possible. Please see "Navigating Minimum Square Footage".) Small homes can easily meet building codes. Zoning is a challenge for both tiny and small homes, as many communities require houses to be 1,000 square feet or more.
- Research online: blogs, forums, books.
- Join meet-up groups and talk with people in person.
- Consider attending a workshop.
- Book a weekend visit in a tiny house.
- Contact builders and designers with specific questions.
- When you've narrowed down your list of designers & builders to just a few, read reviews and check with the Better Business Bureau in your local area.
- Develop a budget. Here's a spreadsheet you can download.
- If you like to write, start a blog or a journal. Writing can help you organize your thoughts and keep you focused.
- Decide whether insurance is essential - if you need it, and if your tiny house will be on wheels, it's best to buy a tiny house from a builder who is a certified RVIA manufacturer.
- Decide where you want to live: on your own land, someone's backyard or an RV park? If you think you'd like to live in an RV park, it's best to buy a tiny house from a builder who is a certified RVIA manufacturer.
- Find a place to park your tiny house.
- Decide whether to build or buy.
- Choose a design and/or builder.
- If building, create a project plan timeline: allow at least three months if working on the tiny house fulltime, and a year if only working weekends. Decide where you'll build and create your bill of materials.
3. Go for it!
- If buying, sign your contract with the builder. If building, buy your materials and get to work!
- Start to downsize while building your tiny house or waiting for it to be built.
- Keep calm, patient, and determined amidst delays and aggravations. Commiserate with friends; ask for advice if needed.
- Complete your build or take delivery of your home.
- Begin living your tiny dream!
Stalled or have cold feet?
- Consider buying a used tiny house. Like an RV, tiny houses on wheels depreciate. Sometimes you can get a great bargain from someone who tried tiny living and decided it wasn't right or ran into trouble with zoning. You can find used tiny houses on Craigslist, eBay and Tiny House Listings. (Note: if you find a house you like on Tiny House Listings, it's best to search the web for another source for responding. From my own experience and that reported by others, the contact form on this site may never reach the recipient. Try searching Craigslist or use Google image search instead.) Be sure to inspect the house before buying (some are very poorly built) and find out the status of the title and registration before you commit. Prices often drop from the first listing, so unless you really love the house, you might do well to wait a couple of weeks and watch it.
- Skill: Building a safe, durable tiny house takes skill. Do you currently have construction knowledge and experience? If not, do you have the patience and commitment needed to acquire the skill? If you've never built anything, consider building something simple, like a set of shelves or a table, to test your skill and gain confidence before beginning your tiny house.
- Insurance: Insurance can be obtained fairly easily for tiny houses built by certified RV manufacturers. For other tiny homes, finding insurance can be challenging. See the more detailed insurance info below.
- Build space: Do you have, or can you find, a place to build your tiny house?
- Time: For the average non-professional DIYer, building a tiny house takes about 3 months of fulltime work (about 480 hours). Do you have this much free time, or can you be comfortable extending your build timeline as necessary to fit it into your existing work and family commitments?
- Money: If you have savings and know where you'll park your tiny house, buying one that's already complete may be the best path. If money is tight and/or you're not sure where you'll live, take it slow and work through your options.
- Can you afford to buy a new, completed tiny house (about $45,000 to $80,000)? Some companies build to RV standards and can offer financing, but it would be RV-type financing, which means shorter terms and higher interest than a conventional 30 year mortgage.
- Can you afford a used or partially built tiny house? These can offer cost-savings, but be careful. If the house is used, get as much information as possible on how it was built (construction methods and materials). If new but partially built, ask why the owner decided not to finish it. Were there issues with the construction? Also, be aware that finishing a tiny house is expensive. Adding walls, flooring, cabinets and shelves can cost as much or more than the house shell.
- Can you afford to buy tiny house plans, materials and tools? If the answer to these is no, proceed only with caution.
- Scavenged materials are of variable quality and can be hard to find. If you're going to rely on free materials, you'll want to double or triple your timeline.
- Do you already own tools? If not, add those to your budget. While a tiny house can be constructed with hand tools, power tools will make the job quicker and easier.
- handy budget spreadsheet you can download.
- spreadsheet of material costs from another tiny house do-it-yourselfer.
- labor hours and materials costs from a couple.
Still unsure? Look over these build tips for more useful info. Whether you decide to build or buy, be sure to review the design and detailed plans. A great tiny house begins with a great plan!
$25,000 in materials and an additional $20,000+ in labor. Be sure to create a budget.
American Tiny House Association.
Places to consider:
- Your own land - very difficult to achieve, due to zoning regulations.
- Backyard - possible either as camping (tiny house on wheels) or an accessory dwelling unit (see below).
- RV Park - tiny houses are gaining acceptance in RV parks.
- Tiny house community or ecovillage.
- Cities where there are already small homes - if you're having trouble finding a legal place to put a tiny house, you may want to consider buying an older, small home. There are many across the USA. Here's how to find them.
Let's get into the details
Legally, a tiny house on wheels is considered an RV, and a tiny house on a foundation is considered an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). We tiny housers need a new legal definition for a tiny house, separate from an RV or ADU, but that will take time. For now, we need to work within this framework.
Tiny house on wheels
If you're building your own tiny house on wheels and plan on getting it registered as an RV with your state, then research the DMV regulations ahead of time. In most states, a self-built RV will need to be inspected before the DMV will issue a license plate. Have detailed plans drawn up and take photos at each step of building, so that you can show electrical and plumbing work without having to cut into the walls at the DMV! Some folks avoid this step by purchasing a flat bed trailer manufactured by a company that provides a Vehicle Identification Number. They register the trailer but then don't go the extra step of re-registering it as an RV when finished building the tiny house. This isn't strictly legal, as many states charge fees based on weight or re-sale value. If you're planning to live remotely off-grid, you might consider it, but if you want to stay in an RV park or obtain RV insurance, you'll want to make the extra effort and get your tiny house registered as an RV.
RVIA (Recreational Vehicle Industry Association):
If you purchase a finished tiny house from a builder, he or she should provide you with a Vehicle Identification Number and a title so that you can register your tiny house. The DMV will still likely need to inspect it. If your builder is a member of the RVIA, your tiny house should have a RVIA decal. This will make it easier to be accepted by RV parks and obtain RV insurance, but is not essential.
THOW Documentation and Inspection
We have created construction guidelines for tiny houses on wheels (THOWs) and suggest that builders document how their houses are constructed, including plans, materials and methods. Included on the guidelines page is a link to a third party inspection service which can provide an alternative to RVIA certification for the DIYer or small builder.
Once registered, where will your house stay? Choices include someone's backyard, an RV park, your own land, or a tiny house community-ecovillage. Tiny houses on wheels are allowed as caregiver dwellings in the backyard of a person who needs assistance in Sonoma County, CA, as well as Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Alameda, Contra Costa & Sacramento, according to Sonya Tafejian of Tiny House Consulting Sonoma County. And on Nov. 20, 2015, Fresno city zoning approved tiny houses on wheels as backyard cottages without the requirement for the tiny house dweller to be a caregiver.
If not in a caregiver cottage, you'll be considered to be camping and regulations in some areas limit camping to a particular number of days; check with your local zoning office. Backyards and RV parks have the advantage of offering utility hook ups. It may be possible to camp on your own land, particularly if your land is classified as recreational rather than residential, but it's rare to be able to get utilities. North Yarmouth, Maine is exceptionally friendly to private camping.
Tiny house on a foundation
In most towns, a building permit isn't required for a structure of 120 square feet or less. However, these small structures are considered sheds or workshops. Full-time living in a tiny building is generally not allowed. Some people live successfully "under the radar" but it's risky. A grumpy neighbor or diligent official could make your tiny life untenable.
To be a legal residence, a structure must be built in accordance with local building codes. Most states have adopted the International Residential Code for One- and Two- Family Dwellings. However, there is great diversity in the specific versions. Scroll down to see the US map. In addition to the IRC, a state, county or city may have additional codes that must be followed. Rare exceptions do exist. This book, No Building Codes, written in 2010 by Terry Herb, provides information on areas where building codes are absent or rarely enforced.
While the 2015 IRC has eliminated the requirement for a house to have at least one room of 120 square feet or more, states will need to adopt the new code in order for it to be effective. In addition, the IRC still contains other minimum size specifications that prove challenging: rooms (except for bathrooms and kitchens) must be 70 square feet, ceiling height must be 7 feet, etc. (additional code discussion). Accordingly, while it is possible for a tiny house to meet building codes, a house built on a foundation on its own land is more likely to be small (more than 400 square feet) rather than tiny. In addition, a building permit will probably be required.
Zoning regulations pose more of a challenge than building codes. Many cities and counties have minimum size requirements of 1,000 square feet or more for construction of a new home on its own land. The specific minimum will be determined by your zone. For example, in Manatee County, Florida, new houses in zone R1 must be at least 1500 square feet, but in zones R2 & R3 only 800 square feet. In contrast, in Sarasota County, Florida, there is no minimum house size. Call your local Zoning or Planning Department to find out what the minimum is for your land.
If a tiny home on its own land isn't possible, explore building your tiny house as an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) or granny flat in the backyard of an existing home. Here's a handy guide on How to Build a Tiny House (ADU), written by The United Way in Brevard, NC. While the information is specific to Brevard, much of it would also be applicable to other states. Be sure to check zoning in your neighborhood as only some areas allow ADUs.
Tiny houses on foundations are also welcomed in tiny house communities and ecovillages.
You may also want to consider purchasing a older, small home.
Some people recommend the book, Cracking the Code, but it's not a complete reference. The author himself has experienced quite a few challenges. It's important to do your own research. My tiny house has successfully been situated in backyards (with friendly neighbors) and an RV park (with a welcoming attitude).
Frustrated with regulations in your area? Here are some alternative paths:
- Ask for a conditional use permit.
- Work toward an exception for the whole neighborhood (example: overlay district).
- Develop a pocket neighborhood of tiny houses.
- Join the nonprofit American Tiny House Association and participate in tiny house advocacy.
For more help with where to keep a tiny house, see places to stay.
If your tiny house will be on wheels, then in order to be able to live legally on your own land, zoning regulations must allow year round camping. This is rare. Most towns restrict camping on one's own land to 30 days; some towns prohibit it altogether. Even where it is possible to camp on your own land, it's rare to be able to get utilities.
If your tiny house will be on a slab or foundation, then to be a legal residence, it must conform to building codes and most likely, go through the permitting process. If you follow this path and build in accordance with zoning & building regulations, I recommend using a realtor to help find your land. It can be tempting to try to save money by searching for cheap land from eBay or another auction site, but buyer beware! Without a professional involved, you'll need to be extra diligent in researching for issues like back taxes, liens, hazardous waste, former meth labs (especially with burned out buildings), mineral rights, water rights, moratoriums on building due to water scarcity (mostly in CA), depth of well needed to get water (mostly in the desert), minimum lot size required to build, whether there are wetlands on the property, whether there are endangered species there that prevent building (scrub jays in Florida), whether the property is landlocked or otherwise inaccessible, whether the photos are of the actual property or just the area, zoning, what the HOA rules are, etc. This information is rarely disclosed on eBay or Craigslist.
If your tiny house will be so small that it won't need a building permit, then it will likely be considered an auxillary building by your town. An auxillary building is usually not permitted unless there is already a legal residence on the property. It may be possible to get a variance for a shed or other outbuilding, but it will not be considered a residence and you won't be able to get a street address for the property.
Excerpted from BA Norrgard's blog, A Bed Over My Head, "My criteria for choosing what to keep and what to sell":
- Clothing: Does it fit? Does it look good on me? Do I wear it? If I couldn’t say yes to all three questions, it went.
- Household items: Does it have a real purpose? Or, do I really love it? If I couldn’t answer at least one of these questions, without hesitation, it went.
- Living Large in our Little House by Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
- The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life by Francine Jay
- You Can Buy Happiness (and It's Cheap) by tiny house dweller, Tammy Strobel
Looking for more personalized help with downsizing? Lora Higgins offers coaching at the Tiny House Teacher.
If your tiny house will be on a foundation and meet building codes, you may be able to obtain a construction loan or mortgage. However, some banks won't loan money for a house that is under a certain square footage (often 600 square feet) or a certain price (for example, $50,000).
If your tiny house will be on wheels and you are buying it from a certified RV builder, you can get an RV loan. Terms are generally shorter and interest rates higher than for a conventional mortgage.
Some tiny house builders offer loans on their houses.
Unsecured bank loans are also an option if your income is sufficient. The Lightstream division of Suntrust Bank offers tiny house loans for well qualified owners.
Insurance can be obtained fairly easily for tiny houses built by certified RV manufacturers. For other tiny homes, finding insurance can be challenging. If you're going to build your own tiny house, contact potential companies before you start, as they may want to do inspections or see pictures of your tiny house as it's being built.
- In the western USA, Lloyds of London provides limited insurance (for residents of AZ, CA, CO, NV, OR and UT) and is considering expanding to other states. Contact Darrell Grenz of Grenz Insurance at www.insuremytinyhome.com. Grenz Insurance also offers policies that cover your tiny house while it is under construction.
- In Florida, Blackadar Insurance Agency can provide insurance for tiny houses on wheels or foundations, even those that are owner-built. Contact Stephanis Lewis at 407-571-6421 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Stephanie estimates that the rate to insure a $30,000 home in an RV park in Orange County, FL would be about $800 a year.
- Shelter Insurance has expressed an interest in insuring tiny homes in central states (Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee).
- In the United Kingdom, insurance is available through Love Your Hut
- TinyHouseBuild.com - Composting Toilet Options
- Logan Smith of Smalltopia - Composting Commode Questions Answered
- Tumbleweed - Composting Toilets 101
Ready to shop? Here are links to incinerating, dry-flush, and composting toilets.
About 120 hours for a professional. For the average DIYer, building a tiny house takes about 480 hours, either concentrated (3 months of fulltime work) or spread out over a year or more, fitting construction into spare hours on weekends. Here's a more detailed discussion from a professional.
The registration process varies state-to-state and also varies depending upon the way in which your tiny house was built and purchased. If your tiny house was purchased from an RVIA member, you can register your tiny house as any other RV. If your tiny house was purchased from a non-RVIA member, ask the builder whether he or she will register the house before transferring the title to you. If yes, your registration should be straight forward. If you built your own tiny home, registration may take several steps. Please check with your local DMV to find out the rules that will apply for you.
To begin the registration process, bring with you to the DMV, proof of identity (driver's license, passport, etc.) and proof of ownership (receipts and/or title).
* An MSO is a Manufacturer's Statement of Origin: a receipt for a component such as an engine, frame, etc. MSOs are required by state DMVs as part of the inspection process for home-made vehicles to ensure that components were not stolen. Frame and engine manufacturers usually stamp serial numbers into their components. Even if filed off, the serial numbers can be revealed via special techniques.
An MCO (Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin) is similar to an MSO, but a more formalized document. Some states require MCOs; some are fine with MSOs.
Again, state regulations vary - please check with your local DMV to find out the rules that will apply for you.
The typical 8' X 20' tiny house weighs 7,000 to 9,000, but larger tiny houses and those that are "decked out" can weigh closer to 15,000. Towing goes best with a truck that has extra power, since wind drag often hampers performance. A 3/4 or 1 ton diesel truck often works well. Here's a handy calculator.
- Be sure you know the laws of the state(s) you'll be traveling through. Depending on the height, width, and weight of your tiny house, you might need special permits and/or a commercial driver's license.
Here's are a couple of handy but unofficial guides on height and width limits and towing laws.
Generally, a commercial driver's (CDL) license or other special license will not be required if you are towing your own tiny home, even if it weighs more than 10,000 pounds. In most states, a motor home or recreational trailer operated solely for personal use is exempt. However, this is not true everywhere. (For example, California requires a special Class A license for towing heavy RVs.)
Here's a handy but unofficial summary of driver's license types.
Who must have a commercial driver's license? Anyone who drives a commercial motor vehicle. In most (but not all states), the definition of a commercial motor vehicle is:
- a) a combination of vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 or more pounds, provided the vehicle being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds (So, for example, if your truck weighs 9,000 pounds and your tiny house weighs 13,000 pounds, the combined weight is 24,000 pounds and a CDL would not be required in most states, even though the tiny house weighs over 10,000 pounds.)
- b) a single vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 or more pounds;
- c) a vehicle designed to transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver;
- d) a school bus; or
- e) any vehicle that is transporting hazardous materials and is required to be placarded in accordance with State and Federal regulations.
In most states, commercial motor vehicles do not include: a) implements of husbandry; b) any motor home or recreational trailer operated solely for personal use; or c) motorized construction equipment, including, but not limited to, backhoes, compactors, excavators, tractors, trenchers and bulldozers. But even where RVs towed for personal use are exempt from CDL requirements, state troopers are not always aware of it. Research and print out the state laws before you go.
- As mentioned above, be sure your truck is powerful enough for your tiny house.
- Make sure the weight is properly distributed. Tongue weight should be between 10-15% of the total tiny house weight. To determine your tongue weight, purchase a
trailer tongue weight scale.
Many tiny homes have a heavy tongue weight because of the loft. You can counter balance your tongue weight by placing some of your heavier items in the back of the trailer (like water tanks or solar batteries). You may also want to use a weight distribution system.
If you don't have enough weight on the trailer tongue, the tiny house may sway from side to side, making it difficult to control. If you have too much weight on the trailer tongue, it can overload the rear tires and push the rear of the vehicle around. You might not be able to go around corners and curves properly, and your truck might not stop fast enough when you press the brake pedal.
- To avoid bridges and overpasses with low clearance, make a detailed plan of your route in advance. Also purchase and use either an RV GPS (Rand McNally RV GPS) or an add-in set of maps (like Low Clearances) for your regular GPS.
- When considering how much space you need for parking, include the trailer tongue. For example, if you have a trailer that is marketed as 20 feet long, that 20 feet is just the bed. Add another 5 feet or so for your total length.
- For exceptionally good and detailed advice, read Tiny House Moving Tips from professional haulers. If that link doesn't work, try this one.
- Level your tiny house when you're parked: For front to back leveling, use the tongue jack; for left to right leveling, use Anderson levelers.
To make it easy to see when you're properly leveled, attach two small bubble levels to your tiny house: one at the back center of your tiny house (for left/right leveling) and another one on the left or right side of the tiny house (for front/back leveling).
The life of tires is about 4 years, less if in direct sunlight. Some folks think tires wear out only through usage, but tires degrade over time even when not used. To get the longest life from your times, you can jack the tiny house up, level it and secure it, remove the tires, and store them somewhere cool, dark and dry. Alternatively, you can cover the tires.
There have been a few instances of tiny houses on wheels being stolen. The risk is greater during a build, when the house is left unattended for long periods, but there's still some risk even when you're living in your tiny house. Here are tips for securing your tiny house.