How to deal with building codes and zoning laws as they apply to tiny homes and trailers

Minimum square footage.

Composting toilets and solar showers. 

RV and trailer by-laws.

NIMBY (not in my back yard!).

Living “off the grid”. 

These are just a handful of the things we need to talk about when we talk about “building codes” and “zoning laws” as they apply to living in a tiny home or trailer. 

I literally get emails and questions about this every day, but until now I have been very hesitant to write a full response on this blog.


Building codes and zoning laws are such a hard topic to talk about because they literally differ from town to town. There is no one rule I could say that would be true for all (or even a handful) of places.

I wish it were easier, but it all comes down to talking with your local building inspector and talking through the process with them. Ultimately, that person will decide. It's good to form a relationship with them and be upfront about your plans and ideas. If you go about it in an open and honest way, they are much more likely to say yes and approve your home. 

I get this question a lot, so I've done my best to put together some guidelines. That being said, it's the one thing that is nearly impossible to answer! (Figures!). 

I haven't explicitly dealt with this myself because in a camper no one bothers me (I’m lucky!), but this is my advice based on speaking with hundreds of people over the last few years.

1. TALK to your building inspector - don’t hide from the building inspector.

This is my number one piece of advice. So many people want to fly under the radar, but if you do  you live in constant fear of getting caught or being asked to leave. That’s no way to live. (Trust me - living in the van parked “stealthy” you never fully fall asleep and you always have one eye open, you’re never really completely relaxed).

You want to have open and honest conversations with your building inspector and local authorities. Seek them out and talk to them about your idea! Get them excited about it! Don’t yell at them or annoy them (after all, they have the power to say yes or no in this case), just answer their questions and explain why you want to build a tiny home. 

2. Have a backup plan - whether this is a friends back yard, a rented parking space, or some other plan B, you don't want to be homeless!

It’s important to realize that as much as living however you want SHOULD be legal, it isn’t at this point, and you aren’t entitled to live freely in your tiny home or camper (not yet). And if you are asked to move, no amount of haggling and pleading is going to make a difference. Is it fair? No. But you need to have a back up plan so you don’t end up in a bad situation. Even if it’s just temporary, make sure you have a friend’s driveway, backyard, campground, RV park or storage option. 

3. Be NICE to your neighbors

Include them in your plans and let them know that you want to address any concerns they might have from the get go. Many counties only enforce the zoning laws and codes on a complaint basis. You want to avoid complaints at all costs.

So be nice to your neighbors, invite them over, explain to them what a tiny home is and why you want to live in one, bake them a pie and make them feel at ease. After speaking with dozens of people living “alternative” lifestyles, the most important thing they all said was that it is imperative to be a good neighbor and get them on “your side”. You’re much less likely to run into trouble this way. And if the town or city asks you to leave or move, you might have a leg to stand on if your neighbors will stand up for you. 

4. Get a permit for SOMETHING, then Build a Fence:

I know a few people that have done this. They get a building permit for a shed, a greenhouse, SOMETHING, then build the tiny house. 

It’s a little risky! So I don’t “recommend” it but I have seen it quite a few times. If you like to live dangerously or you have lax zoning laws, you might want to try this out.

5. Some places are tiny friendly.

Austin, Portland, Slab City (for now), some areas of California. My favorite: Vermont. Obviously this requires that you relocate in order to live in your house, which is not ideal. But a growing number of cities and towns are declaring themselves "tiny friendly" which is a good start!

6. Alternatives: 

The hard truth is that there will be some places that simply will not allow you to live in a tiny home or camper as your full time residence.

I have personally seen hundreds of exceptions: people living in tiny homes in Boston proper, living in LA in a camper, parking a tiny home and living in it while telling the authorities it’s just a guest house, etc. But if you can’t make it work, there are plenty ways to live tiny without living in the tiny house.

Tiny, affordable apartments are becoming more and more common in major cities. Renting a guest cottage or ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) is a comparable option. Living in a campground with larger individual plots.

There are so many ways to compromise and live your life, if there’s one thing I’ve learned through living in my camper for years it’s the importance of compromise. Do I get to live on my dream homestead of sprawling permaculture gardens with little vintage campers sprinkled around the property? No, not yet. But I still found a way to live in my tiny home on wheels that works. It may not be what I had in mind in my dream scenario, but it’s great for now. 

I know quite a few people living on their own land in their tiny home and they all got there by having open and honest discussions with the building department / inspector in their town or area. It's SO individual - all of this varies from town to town, there is literally no "one size fits all " answer here. The rules in one place might be completely different 10 miles away. At this point it all depends on who you talk to and what they allow you to do. 

So pick a few places you may want to live and talk to the building inspector and the people in charge. Tell them what you want to do. Answer their questions. Be open and kind and keep an open mind. I think all of this will get easier in the coming years.

Or move to Vermont. No building codes. Wonderful cheese and maple syrup. Creemees and beautiful summers - sounds pretty dreamy!