Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tiny Housing and Where to Stick it.

As you may know, we have been more and more interested in designing tiny houses.  Michael Janzen at the Tiny House Blog recently posted a good article detailing how to find land to build your tiny house.  Though many places have restrictions, there are more that do not.  Michael is from California and writes from that perspective.  Istockhouseplans gave an Oregon perspective.  The main points of the article are:

1. Avoid building codes
2. Camp on your land
3. Alternate Zoning
4. Trailer Park
5. Build an Ecovillage
6. Move to the countryside
7. Camp in a friend's backyard
8. Hide in plain sight
9. Seek a variance

Our reply and additional information for Oregon:

Oh boy Michael, I think this is a big can of worms. Pardon, in advance, the long post that I feel is coming. I am familiar with Oregon Building Codes (based off of IRC) and many of the greater Portland area municipalities’ zoning codes. I write from this perspective.

States that have building codes truly are protecting folks. The code and inspections ensures that the house is being built safely. Moreover, room size minimums are to be sure that unscrupulous builders do not create 1000sf 5 bedroom (3 of which are 6′x5′ without a closet) homes akin to tenement housing. This is accountability and guides consumer expectations. I do realize that consumers have been conditioned to expect a small bedroom to be 10′x11′ and the previous example would probably not sell.

The codes also are in place to protect firefighters in rescue situations. I recently was privileged to listen in to the Oregon State Code Board and their revisions to our next code update. Most of their structural concerns were with firefighter safety. A floor over a basement collapsed last year due to structural inadequacy, causing the death of a couple firefighters. Windows are important too. You may be able to squeeze out of a 2′x2′ opening, but if you are unconscious, you will appreciate having a 5.7sf opening that a firefighter can get into, pack and all.

Oregon has minimum room sizes (70sf) and ceiling heights (7′ +/-) but these can be ignored if you are building the house yourself (contractor’s license not required) and will be living in it for at least two years (not selling it right away). The Carver series of homes on my website plays with this notion. All three homes are less than 300sf. Two have ‘legal’ rooms and the third ignores that standard.

I don’t believe that any jurisdiction in Oregon regulates minimum house size. These restrictions are generally put in place by upper scale housing developments with HOAs. You probably don’t want to live there anyways. Accessory structures are allowed without a permit in most zoned areas if they are 120sf and less. Oregon has increased this maximum to 200sf.

Camping on your land near municipalities is generally allowed but carries a rule of no more than 30 days in any 6 month period and cannot be closer than 3 miles to an established city (Clackamas County, some rural zones). I understand the idea is to keep transients from mucking up areas. Oregon apparently does not like it’s transients.

Your idea regarding multi-family is a great idea. Some of the zones around Portland allow for separated structures, but some require attached units. City of Portland has a minimum amount of units to be built on a piece of land. For instance, a 100′x100′ parcel in R-2 zoning requires a minimum of 4 units. They must all be built at the same time or within a couple years of each other.

Variances can be sought around here, but require several things. The first is that you must get approval from a percentage of neighboring properties within a certain radius. The second is that you must prove a hardship in order to apply for the variance. Most of the time, the use must not preclude the base zone use. For instance, trying to get a house built in an EFU (exclusive farm use) zone has several restrictions. The land is considered high quality and reserved for crops.

Setting up as an ADU is generally encouraged by the City of Portland and most other jurisdictions. Portland has even reduced their fees to create an ADU. Clackamas County will only allow one kitchen on a piece of property.

I like the idea of hiding in plain sight. I was recently looking at a piece of land that was 30′x1300′. This was a county owned property that was being auctioned off at a starting bid of $1048. It was zoned for farm use only, but allowed buildings that were incidental to farm use. My thought was to use the land as my own personal garden and orchard. I would build a 198sf (avoid permits) cute (neighbor appeal) ‘processing shed’ (incidental to farm use) and use that as a tiny cabin. My family of four would spend weekends there. In the fall, we truly would use the bed platforms to process bushels of apples.

My best option for a permanent home would be to purchase one of these substandard county parcels through auction that was zoned for housing. These parcels are considered substandard because they won’t fit a 40′ wide home and are therefore sold for 4 digits as opposed to 5 or 6. Many rural properties around here want a 10′ side setback. With the previous 30′ wide property (were it zoned residential), that would allow for a 10′ wide home, plenty wide enough for me to work with (and allows for the minimum 7′ wide rooms). In fact, cantilevers are allowed that would allow some rooms to be wider than 9′ inside.

Problem is that while I would spend $1000 for the land, I would end up spending $5000 or more for a well and $10,000 for a permit. I would install a composting toilet and avoid the septic cost. I do the building myself and after all costs are considered, I’m in a permanent legal place of 600sf for around $40k. This is acceptable to me but I know that others will be wanting to do the whole package for under $10k.
My other option was to enact the camping clause, drag a 28′ trailer to the site, and build a tiny home on it. Maybe even with pallets!

I hope this helps some of your readers who live in other parts of the country to explore their local codes and see what they can pull off.

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