by Jo-Anne Peck, President of Historic Shed Custom Outbuildings
There comes a time when anyone who dreams of living in a small house has to ask the question, “Where will I put my tiny house?” When choosing to site build a little house, this becomes an ever bigger question since zoning codes and neighborhood association rules are often at odds with small house goals. As a result, many tiny house people look to rural areas where restrictions may be less stringent. However, not everyone prefers country living, and site development costs for utilities can be prohibitive on undeveloped land.
For those that would rather live within more established areas, close to walkable stores and with sociable neighbors, older and historic neighborhoods may be a good choice for building a new small home. The average size of an American single-family home has grown exponentially over the years, but most of our ancestors managed to live in much less square footage, often with much larger families. Therefore, there are many established neighborhoods with precedent for small homes. Historically laid out with small lots (for example, much of the historic core of Lake Worth, FL was platted with 25′ wide lots), local zoning in designated historic districts is often tailored so that new construction within the district remains in scale with the historically smaller homes in the neighborhood. In addition, many historic neighborhoods also allow accessory structures behind the main home that can be even tinier than the main home.
Some historic neighborhoods have few available empty lots, while others have many vacant lots available due to fires, demolitions, or never having been fully developed. It may take some diligence on your part to find the right spot, but with careful consideration you will likely find an affordable lot in an up-and-coming older neighborhood that suits you perfectly.
Benefits of building a small house within a historic district:
- Site utilities are already in place, saving on development costs
- Established neighborhoods have sidewalks and mature trees
- Zoning laws are commonly adapted to lot sizes and the scale of surrounding properties, allowing for smaller footprints
- Historic neighborhoods are often within walking distance to stores and restaurants reducing or eliminating the need for a car
- Neighbors to look out for you and socialize with; many historic preservation proponents have similar mindsets to tiny house people
- Historic District design standards direct the area’s future development which often helps to maintain economic stability
- Many historic districts allow for accessory dwellings behind the main residence that can be even smaller than the main house, allowing for rental income or a co-op living arrangement
- Property values are based on livability, aesthetics and historic character rather than a “bigger is better” mentality
- When looking for a lot for your small house, you may find the perfect little house already in existence waiting for your loving touch – historic preservation is the ultimate recycling project
When looking for an appropriate historic neighborhood to build in consider the following:
- Look for a neighborhood of predominantly smaller homes; neighborhoods with shotgun style or bungalows are generally suitable
- Neighborhoods platted from the 1890s to 1930s developed for working class residents often have small lots suited for smaller homes
- Irregular or previously subdivided lots, often called “non-conforming” by zoning standards, may be perfect for construction of a small house and very affordable
- Look for an “up and coming” neighborhood, preferably with an active neighborhood association for more affordable property
- Avoid neighborhoods where the trend has been to demolish the older small homes and replace them with “McMansions”
- Avoid neighborhoods where new additions to existing homes are equal to or bigger than the original historic home
- Look at the architectural style of surrounding homes; you will likely be required to build a home with similar scale and shape (i.e. if most of the homes have gable roofs, yours will more likely meet design requirements if it also has a gable roof)
- Talk to local Zoning officials to find out minimum and maximum lot coverage, setbacks, parking requirements and other site development regulations before you buy
- Talk to the local Historic Preservation office to learn about design guidelines for infill construction within the neighborhood before you design your small home
- Consider buying a lot with an existing home and build a tiny house behind to provide rental income if zoning allows
For those interested in living more economically in a smaller footprint without having to build from scratch, looking for a house in a historic district may be a great opportunity to both live in an attractive home and neighborhood and to recycle an entire house. If the perfect house doesn’t already exist, or is not within budget, building a new small house within a historic district may be just the right combination.
Visit Historic Shed’s website http://historicshed.com/