So You Want a Tiny House?

Tiny House

By Chuck Braxton, REALTOR® GRI, Roche Realty Group, Inc.

People are choosing to downsize the space they live in.  The typical American home has over 2,000 square feet of living area, whereas as a tiny house has between 100 and about 400 square feet of living space.  Some people come to the conclusion that they want to downsize, but have to have a “small house” of 400 to 1,000 square feet to meet their needs.  This discussion applies to “small” as well as “tiny” houses.  In this article the term “tiny house” encompasses any dwelling under 1,000 sq. ft.

If you embrace this idea, key considerations for your project are what type of structure you want and where you intend to locate it.

For “What” the choices are (1) park model mobile homes on wheels, (2) tiny house kits on post-and-pier foundations, and (3) stick-built structures on concrete foundations.

Here are examples of each type of tiny house here in New Hampshire:

Tiny Home NH
Typical park model mobile home tiny house en route to site.
Tiny Home NH
Park model mobile home on post & pier foundation with addition on 6+ acres in Danbury. One room sleeping cottage separate. Composting toilet located in another building. Dug well 300 ft. down hill.
Tiny Home NH
Custom 480 sq. ft. tiny house on 10+ acres in Alexandria on full foundation with dug well and state-approved septic system. Dramatic circular window.
Tiny Home NH
Another view of the 480 sq. ft. tiny house in Alexandria

“Where” you want to build brings the following concerns: (1) Building Codes, (2) Zoning Ordinances, and (3) Restrictive Covenants.

Building Codes are defined at the state or federal level and may be adopted by towns as well.  Towns may amend codes through language in their zoning ordinance to address local conditions.

Here in New Hampshire, there is a state code and the local level is the city or town.  Most New Hampshire counties do not get involved with building codes.  The exception is Coos County where the Coos County Planning Board addresses zoning for the unincorporated towns.

Towns that adopt the state building code may not have a code enforcement officer, relying instead on either the town fire chief or a state fire marshal to inspect dwellings to the code.  Towns often require that the fire chief inspect any wood and fossil fuel burning installation such as stoves, fireplace inserts, water heaters, boilers and furnaces.

An important topic for tiny houses is anchoring—an issue that recent severe hurricanes underscores.  Mobile homes require anchoring to certifiable standards in order to qualify for financing under federal programs.  Lenders may require similar standards for tiny home kits on posts-and-piers.

Zoning Ordinances:  Outside of Coos County in the North Country, there are thirteen towns that do not have zoning (other than flood plain and telecommunication facilities) including:

  • Grafton County: Alexandria, Canaan, Ellsworth, Grafton, Haverhill, Orford, Rumney, Warren, Wentworth and Woodstock.
  • Carroll County: Chatham and Tamworth.
  • Sullivan County: Lempster.

Cities and towns that adopt a Zoning Ordinance generally have a code enforcement officer.  In rural towns this may be a part-time position.  However, rural towns may not issue a Certificate of Occupancy which can create an issue for financing of the initial construction or resale.

Zoning Ordinances may have requirements that affect various aspects of a tiny house project and this requires a deep dive into the town’s documents that you will often find on-line at the town’s website.  If you are considering a tiny house, you should have your plans clearly defined BEFORE contacting a code enforcement officer with your questions.

The state regulates waste water disposal so regardless of whether a town has zoning or not, any dwelling that has running water inside that is not connected to public sewer must have a state-approved waste water disposal system.  New installations of holding tanks (no return of water to the ground) are not authorized and outhouses, if allowed, are governed locally.

Restrictive Covenants are rules and limitations defined by the developer when a subdivision is created.  These covenants are referenced in each deed issued by the developer and then apply to all subsequent owners.  Restrictive Covenants may be a separate document with amendments or simply a list in the deeds.

Typical provisions in restrictive covenants address mobile homes (manufactured homes), unregistered vehicles, temporary structures, camping, minimum square footage, livestock, and non-residential activity.

Once the developer sells all of the lots in a subdivision, the covenants may be governed by a home owners’ association or a building committee.  However, in the absence of formal governance, each owner whose deed references the covenants has the right to enforce them individually or collectively with other property owners in the subdivision.

Under the legal doctrine of Laches any rule in the restrictive covenants that is not enforced may become unenforceable in the future.  If you come across a non-conforming use in a subdivision and want to use that as the basis for doing the same thing on your project, you should seek legal advice as to how to proceed.

Without a careful examination of the deed and chain of title it can be difficult to know whether a property is affected by restrictive covenants.  Do not rely upon the disclosures in on-line listings or sellers’ disclosures as the information may be incomplete.

If you plan to seek financing for your property be sure to engage local savings banks that serve the area where you want to locate early in the project.

The cost of site work is often underestimated in a tiny house project.  First of all, if a lot is inexpensive, it is usually cheap for a reason!!  That may result in higher total costs than a parcel 2-4 times more expensive.  Clearing a site and establishing a permitted driveway are only a start.  Anchoring requires a concrete pad to certain specifications and the site may require grading and fill in order to ensure proper drainage.  Finally, there is the matter of designing installing a septic system, providing a water supply and extending electric service and other utilities to the site.

 

Regulation Park Model Mobile Home Tiny House Kit
on Post & Piers
Stick-built Tiny House
on a foundation
Building Code Yes: anchoring Yes: anchoring Yes
Zoning Ordinance Maybe Maybe Yes
Restrictive Covenant Maybe: Manufactured Housing and Size Maybe: Size,  type of foundation Maybe: Size

 

By Chuck Braxton, REALTOR®, GRI, Roche Realty Group Inc.Chuck Braxton, Lakes Region NH Realtor

If you have questions about buying or selling real estate in NH, you can reach Chuck at:

(603) 677-2157 (cell) or (603) 279-7046 (office), or by email at: cbraxton@rocherealty.com

 

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