How to Use A Variance To Legalize Your Tiny House
Legalizing tiny houses for full time occupancy is becoming easier as more and more intrepid tiny house lovers are mustering the courage to walk through the doors of their local building and zoning departments. There is a popcorn effect happening in consequence and we are hearing almost weekly about another legalization victory. The success stories all have common themes: be polite and respectful of the authorities, approach with a cooperative attitude, do your research before taking up their time, be patient, be optimistic. The most successful approach we have heard of is to ask for a variance (a deviation from the current code) from city council to allow for full time occupancy for a tiny house. In this article we interview Alex and Nicole who are building their customized version of hOMe and who recently went through the legalization process. They now have legal permission to occupy the tiny house they are building and their advice is invaluable so we wanted to share it. Thanks Alex and Nicole for paving the way for so many of us!
Hi Alex and Nicole! Tell us a little about yourselves.
Our names are Alex and Nicole and we are 29 and 30 years old, respectively. We are currently living in the cold state of Minnesota. Nicole and I met at college while obtaining our degrees in the sciences. After it was all said and done, Alex received his master’s degree in civil engineering (soil/earth) and Nicole received her master’s degree in environmental science. Currently, Nicole is working at an engineering firm in Minnesota as an environmental scientist. Alex decided to follow his passion of teaching and is currently enrolled and attending a 1 year accelerated master’s program in education for science.
What motivated you to build a tiny house?
The tiny house idea was mostly Alex’s. He has a passion for building perhaps because he was deprived of building tree forts when he was younger?! We have a dear friend whom Alex met in high school. Her family built a cabin in the woods near the Boundary Waters in Minnesota. We usually make it a point to spend time there each summer (and a few winters) with their family. The cabin is completely off-grid and is only accessible by boat but holds all the comforts of a fully functional house (including a sauna). Spending time at this wonderful place inspired Alex to want to build his own home someday.
The idea of living a simple life is so intriguing and inspiring. We both feel that the pace of life is often too fast, which is one of the reasons the tiny house movement captured our attention. Below are the“Top 5” reasons we want to live tiny:
1. A sense of financial “freedom”
2. Living in a rural area (slower pace and closer to family)
3. Move towards being more self-sufficient
4. Building and designing a house to fit our needs
5. Move towards sustainable living and determining what we truly need in life for material goods.
What was life like before you decided to take the plunge?
Life was pretty complicated before we actually decided to go tiny. It really was not an easy decision. We looked into buying a small home in a rural area, but prices were very high. It’s not that we couldn’t afford it, but that we didn’t want to be tied down to a high monthly payment. One of our personal goals is to pay off student loans and become debt free so having a mortgage just didn’t fit the bill for us.
After a while of not finding viable solutions for our needs, we got fed up and decided to build our own house. To be clear, we do not have any experience building houses. Alex has done a lot of research and enjoys woodworking, but we have never built a house. So we decided – let’s go for it! We are both students of life and there is nothing that can’t be learned if you just ask Google!
What is your tiny house design like?
Our tiny house is based on the hOMe design. We purchased the building videos and the SketchUp plans. Our trailer is 28’ long and 8’6” wide – the same as the hOMe plans with the exception that we put 2×4 floor joists within the trailer itself to minimize any cold spots from the steel, which is beneficial for Minnesota’s winter climate.
We modified the layout to accommodate our priorities. Nicole and I spend most of our time in our living room so we wanted to have a nice spot to relax after work and for me to play guitar. We have about 10’ of our trailer dedicated to our living room which transitions into the kitchen, leaving 5-6’ for the bathroom.
Like the hOMe design, we have 2 lofts. Our main sleeping loft is about 10’ deep and our secondary one (spare bedroom) about 6’. At some point in the future, the secondary loft will become a bedroom for when we decide to have a child. We’re not quite sure how that is going to work out but it’s alright! We don’t need to know all the answers right now as I’m sure the tiny house will evolve with time.
We chose to sacrifice a few amenities in the interest of saving space. I gave Nicole the option of having a washer/dryer combo or a bathtub and after a lot of thought, she chose the washer/dryer option (Splendide 2100XC – vented). We will have a 20” gas range and an apartment sized refrigerator. As for heat, we purchased the beautiful Regency H27 gas stove (in enamel brown!). For hot water, we purchased a Takagi on-demand water heater. For our toilet, we chose to go with the Seperatt composting toilet. We can’t wait to start using these wonderful appliances!
You decided to go the legalization route. What motivated you to go that way? Were you worried about approaching building department?
Before we even began thinking about floor plans, we wanted to make sure that we could live in the tiny house legally and not worry about being run out of town. It was also a requirement by the landowner (Nicole’s grandmother) who’s property we are going to be living on. We had some mixed feelings about taking this project to the city council and were worried about them asking tough questions that perhaps we wouldn’t have the “right” answers to. Since the area we want to live in is rural though, we were optimistic that at least we had a chance at legalization.
What was the process like? Did you run into any opposition and if so, how did you resolve it?
At the first meeting with the zoning committee we described our project and within 5 minutes were told, “According to our city regulations, you can not do this”. To be honest, this was a huge blow. All of the preparations and decisions we had made were instantly shot down. Fortunately, the mayor quickly followed up saying, “You can certainly file for a variance” and explained that the city code is there more as a guideline rather than as a hard and fast book of rules.
Variances exist because there are always going to be unique circumstances that require a deviation from the code. After the meeting was over, the mayor briefly talked to us about our project. She mentioned she was very interested in it and hoped that it would go through! Unfortunately, in our town at least, the mayor doesn’t have the authority to give the green light for this type of thing but it certainly was a huge boost to our morale.
In filling out the variance application, we quickly realized that we were going to have to classify our tiny house as something because there was nothing in the code for tiny houses. We decided to categorize it as a “travel trailer” for the purpose of the application. The challenge though was that code states that one cannot live in a travel trailer for more than 14 days so the challenge became to prove to council that we had a legitimate reason for deviating from the code.
We also had to request for a variance from two other codes which dealt with city utilities. The first mandated that any new construction project must connect to city utilities and the second stated that a substantial connection fee must be paid. In any situation in which you are asking for a variance, you can’t just say that you want one simply “Because”. Instead you have to create a convincing case. You have to provide sound reasoning as to WHY. We had 6-7 questions that we had to answer on our variance request form.
We talked to a lot of people in our community to determine how to best answer the questions on our form. This was a very important step. Our mayor became a great ally and suggested that we state that we are caregivers to Nicole’s grandmother (which is true). Since we are a married couple, we deserve a sense of privacy in our own home while still being close enough to help Grandma with her day to day tasks. In terms of the utility codes, we stated in our argument that our structure is not permanent (since it’s on wheels), so we should not have to connect to city utilities or to pay the same fees as permanent homes.
After we submitted the forms, we had to participate in a public hearing with zoning, council members and community members in attendance. Not very many people showed up – but we did have a former mayor there to support our cause. The zoning committee then had a closed door meeting and arrived with a recommendation for the city council. The zoning committee did recommend our project, but with specific stipulations:
1. We have to pay a $500 dollar utility hookup fee to the city (normally over 3K)
2. We have to have our own garbage can.
3. We have to have a yearly check-in with the city to explain how things are going.
4. We have to keep the trailer registration up to date.
5. We can only stay at the residence for 4 years, after which we can reapply for the variance.
6. We can not dispose of composting materials within city limits.
After the zoning committee made the recommendation to the city council, the council members still had to vote and I am pleased to say that it was approved with a vote of 5-1!! We were pumped.
How long did your process take? Where do things stand now?
This process took about 3-4 months. It was held up primarily because we didn’t really have any idea of what we were doing. We had never dealt with variances before, so we had a bit of homework to do and a lot of conversations to have before we could apply. We were in close contact with the water commissioner throughout the whole process. He approved the two variances that dealt with the city utilities. His approval and recommendation was just as important as the zoning committee’s recommendation. City council members can be a huge asset in a project like this. The moral of this story is: be diplomatic and friendly and experts will likely be very willing to offer advice.
Were there fees? Were there any unexpected costs in the legalization process?
Ha – this is a funny question. I still have not paid a dime for any part of the variance process. No one has asked yet. I am sure we will have to pay something down the line – especially the $500 hookup fee. But we’re not quite at that stage yet. We are hoping to move in this summer – so we will probably ask questions about that then. I will probably be proactive and ask them what they need me to pay before they ask me. I want to be on good terms with everything. Honesty is key here – the council needs to trust you. Then, and only then, will they allow you to vary from the rules.
What would you recommend to others following in your footsteps?
When you approach the city council, make sure you are very professional and diplomatic. Have all your ducks in a row – having a set of plans in your hand would be really beneficial. To be honest, we didn’t have that. We didn’t want to invest in the time or money if there was a chance that it wouldn’t go through. Probably not the best strategy, but it worked for us. We went into the meeting knowing the overall details of the tiny house though.
You need to know what you are going to be doing for utilities. It’s a big deal – where will your water go, where will you dispose of your compost? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, ask for the council’s recommendation! Let them know from day 1 that you are a rule follower. You’re standing here today because you want to respect their rules and do it the right way. You want to seek their advice and recommendations. This is probably the biggest piece of advice I can give.
Tiny living, even though it’s advertised as a simple approach to life, can be a nightmarishly complex situation when it comes to legalities. The committee members recognize this and may get frustrated with you. Keep your cool and figure out a way to move forward. Different members are going to respond differently. You need to recognize their concerns and address them. If they are worried about the overall safety of the structure, say that you will have it inspected along the way. You need to be positive and offer constructive and safe ideas to get past any hurdles.
Finally, if I can do it, you can too. Is it more difficult and stressful to go the legalization route? Yes, of course. But if everything goes accordingly, there will be peace of mind and no worries that we will have to move our tiny house before we want to. For us personally, the legal route has been totally worth it so far!
Join the conversation! How about you? Would you go the legal route if you had the option? What is your strategy for where to park your tiny house?