Locating Your Micro Home

Guest Post by Walt Barrett

We need to tackle this land, and location problem head on because next to raising the money for the building materials it seems to be the most difficult problem based upon the feedback that I am getting. There are two separate paths to choose from here, and then some sub paths. Are you working, or are you retired? If you are working and fully intend to stay in your current area you have a different path to follow as opposed to a retired person. You have to locate within a reasonable distance from your work. You also have to meet the codes. The land that you like has to be affordable. The property taxes have to be reasonable, and you have to meet the minimum housing standard size for a residence. I believe that it is imperative in the long run to follow the rules of the town, or county right to the letter, believe me, do not try to get cute with the building officials because it is going to come back and bite you really hard in the long run. The building officials can make you move, or even tear down a building for flagrant violations to the building codes.

Let’s take the retired people first. Most retired people have the option to relocate unless they are penniless. Let’s assume you are not penniless but have limited funds. You could move to one of the states, or to a place like Costa Rica that does not place so many restrictions on home size. Maine for instance, has many unorganized areas the are only interested in having a proper septic system, and will even accept composting toilets as long as the waste is properly disposed of. Whether you take this route, or not depends upon things like leaving the rest of the family behind, and the lack of the family support system etc. I’m sure you follow my drift. Admittedly though, most retired folks have the easiest path when it comes to retiring in a micro home. One more thing for the old timers like me. You can always go on Craigslist.org, and purchase a medium size older camping trailer for as low as $1000.00 and refurbish it. I see them all the time when filming in the Everglades. They move from camp ground to camp ground. I’m thinking about it seriously myself.

Next we have the working people that are stuck in one place for a given number of years due to employment considerations. This can be a problem because finding a place where you can get a permit to build could be over one hundred miles away. The commute can be dangerous, and expensive.

Sometimes, however, you can get lucky by doing relentless searches for property. For example, In 1981 our son Dave found a job first in New Hampshire, and started off by renting a small apartment there. Eventually after a great deal of searching he found a small cabin on a lake within a couple of miles from his job. It was dirt cheap. He can easily walk to work, and is very happy there. The savings allow him to have a like new car and a like new Harley. None of us every buy brand new vehicles. It’s a huge waste of money. If you keep looking hard enough you can find a reasonable place because things are always changing. People retire, or they die, or are forced to move away. I have seen this a great deal in Florida. There are lots of old retired people, and unfortunately, many of them die, or are forced to move in with their children, or a retirement home every day. There are many small homes for sale, and every day the Good Will stores have loads of practically new furniture and household goods coming in. A lot of the furniture is in practically new condition. Many smart people with money patronize these stores, believe me! So that’s a good way to furnish your micro home. There are no set rules for changing your life, or life style. It’s whatever works for you.

I have found many great pieces of land by using www.realtor.com. You can lock in a description of what you are looking to purchase in a given area, and they will email you weekly with properties for sale that will fit the description right down to the price desired. So basically, as I see it. The biggest obstacle to owning a smaller home, preferably in the country, is for many of us, finding decent employment. By the way, my advice to anyone that lives in the north east that is not super rich is to get the hell out while you still can. There is no future here, especially in Rhode Island.

There is another route to explore no matter where you live. The micro apartment route can actually put extra money in your pocket. Although it involves working closely with the building and zoning officials to get started, It is a good route to follow if you do not mind living in an urban area. I have been considering it myself as an investment. I’m speaking of the micro apartment concept. Our area is loaded with abandoned homes and many of them are already multi-family which means no rezoning is required. If you are considering this method you first must have a discussion with the building and zoning people to be sure not to buy a home that is not eligible for micro apartments. Here’s a thought. You may already own a home that is now too large for you now so why not investigate converting it to micro apartments. The one thing I strongly advise is you look into the section 8 housing requirements first because if your apartments are eligible for section 8 the government will guarantee that your rent is paid and also that any damages caused by the tenant are covered too.

Well I don’t know what else I can say right now on the subject, but I’m sure someone will read this and offer some additional ideas. I certainly hope so.

Thanks for reading
Walt

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verplanck - November 21, 2010 Reply

Good post on a fundamental topic. I especially like the fact that Walt emphasized about following the rules with respect to the building inspector. I took Peter King’s class, and the one thing I did not agree with was his cavalier attitude towards permitting. Towns/counties can quickly make your life VERY difficult if you don’t follow the rules.

I disagree about the car thing, though. Brand new cars are quickly becoming more affordable than used. I’ve tried to go the ‘beater’ route – pay $1500 for a cheapie, and ended up paying about the same in periodic repair bills, not to mention the added hassle of having a car in the shop so often. Of course, I’m talking about compact cars, not large sedans/pickups/SUVs.

I also disagree about getting out of the NE. Why? Moving to up-and-coming areas have all the trappings of fast-paced American life – sprawling suburbs, disappearing traditional culture, and people focused on material wealth. In northern NY/NE, where the world passes us by, there are fewer jobs, but there’s still a connection to the traditions of the past, and life proceeds a bit slower. You will never be able to find a place that offers a great career/salary and has the slower paced life many of us are looking for. They are diametrically opposed to each other. Choose one way of life and become absorbed in it.

fh - November 21, 2010 Reply

A tiny house might help me adjust to the new economy in which young people only have temporary contract jobs interspersed with frequent periods of unemployment. By the time I lose my current job I’ll be able to use my savings to build a tiny house in the middle-of-nowhere with no expectations that I will ever find a job out in the woods. I’ll sit in my house and apply for temporary contract jobs distant cities. I’ll expect to get one of these jobs occasionally-during which time I’ll move to the city and rent a crappy bedroom somewhere just for the time I’m employed. As soon as I’m unemployed again, I’ll move back to my tiny house in the wilderness and use my unemployed time to make it nice and try to meet as many needs as possible through gardening, ebaying etc.

Anybody else living this kind of double-life (urban-rural) in this new economy?

    Anne - November 21, 2010 Reply

    I think I remember a couple people saying they have done this or something similar…

    Sounds a common sense approach to me. And has the bonus of entirely leaving out the bane of American exisitence, suburbs. I have always loved the country, wilderness… and (almost) equally cities. It is that hell of a no-mans land I have always detested…

    Brook - November 21, 2010 Reply

    Here’s my version.
    I bought a ‘cheap acre’ in the mountains where I would live all the time if i could. I have built a micro-cabin. I have a shipping-container which I will convert to a kitchen/bath. I am a professional builder and I am weaving through code restrictions. The ‘shed’ is for storage and the container is portable. If anyone asks, I am doing Sustainability Research and Design or Product development , whatever. I am camping on my property which is legal. I am also working toward building my dream house. Once I have the permit I can hookup and live legally for years. I know people who have done this succesfully in Santa Cruz and Lake Tahoe.
    Learn your rights and you can make the rules work for you. In my area the septic system requires no building permit. I will do that first.
    I am enjoying my land, paying as i go and earning equity with everything I invest in the property. It is working for me.
    The rest of the time I live and work in a ‘real’ size house with my wife,kid,dog,woodshop,office, etc. etc.

      gregor - November 22, 2010 Reply

      I wish you the best of luck with that sort of thing, but you have to appreciate there is a world of difference between having a vacation camp and the issues involved with trying to deal with regulations etc. to actually live in a tinyhouse. Especially in a location that is practical.

Ryan Mitchell - November 21, 2010 Reply

I couldn’t agree more with Walt, two huge things are access to land and balancing the need to be close to your job.

I have a hard time making any headway with local building code enforcement division. I do see working remotely / work from home as a huge advantage when it comes to living this way, because you can be where ever.

    gregor - November 21, 2010 Reply

    Ryan, what exactly happens? Maybe you could share it on your blog or something. We need to start sharing information with each other more effectively, and I think leaving footprints, a paper trail of what you tried, would help.

Aaron - November 21, 2010 Reply

I’m currently considering remodeling a 13′ fiberglass or aluminum trailer and living in one of my metro area’s mobile home or RV parks. I need to keep it small if I want my compact car to be able to pull it. However, I’m having trouble researching lot costs. For all I know I might be better off in a studio apartment. Still, I’m attracted to the idea of using a trailer shell to build a high quality tiny home.

    Dee Dee - November 21, 2010 Reply

    We are selling our big Diesel truck, thought about keeping it to pull our little house that we will begin building next spring, but decided it would be more economical to just rent a U’haul or Ryder truck to pull our little house to the location we desire and then drop the truck off. it would be more expensive to keep the truck over the long run. and we want to build what we want – my husband is a carpenter and man of many trades. looking forward to the whole simple experience once the kids are off to college.

    Elizabeth Goertz - November 21, 2010 Reply

    Beware of tornado prone areas. Tornados are attracted to trailer parks!

      gregor - November 22, 2010 Reply

      That is a myth. It is also a myth that is was ever a substantive problem. Trailers have attachment points nowadays so you can strap them down.

      Plus that is a trivial problem to solve, from a technical standpoint, so if it was a substantive problem it would have been solved in the HUD or industry codes, or by consumer pressure or by regulation. It’s really just another excuse to justify the irrational dislike on trailers so many people have.

Jason - November 21, 2010 Reply

What a great post.

Did you keep track of costs Walt? I’d love to know what you guys spent.

Thanks

Jason

Lia - November 21, 2010 Reply

right now in rural northern California i own a 1200 sq.ft 3bed 2bath $235K new construction home i bought last year with a usda direct home loan (for low income people). my payment per month including tax and insurance is just $930. I consider it just a stepping stone, but so far it has really built up my credit score. And we are actually saving money we have 3 people splitting bills and houses like this for rent in our area go for $1500 per month! My fiance and i are planning to sell it in a few years after we have saved up some $ for land, but land is waaay too expensive overall in CA!
One thing i noticed was near portland, oregon which is a very fun/progressive city with everything you could need (& also only 2 hrs from Seattle) are many rural areas not too far away where the land is relatively cheap. I think that would be a nice balance beautiful land not too far from the vibrant city(and jobs). We will probably live there in our toyota mini motorhome for a while, while we build a little house.
I personally love the west coast and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the US, but besides oregon everything else as far as i know is ridiculously over priced.

    Elizabeth Goertz - November 21, 2010 Reply

    West Virginia is beautiful, cheep, and easy to get away with fudging on codes, In fact We have only basic codes for safety here. One problem, not much work.

      Walt Barrett - November 22, 2010 Reply

      That would be a great area for retired people to look into. I believe I have also mentioned northern Maine, but it’s not for everyone.

gregor - November 21, 2010 Reply

Exactly!

I have said this sort of thing a number of time. I even have a note in the sidebar of my blog on the zoning problem (zoning is the mechanism the gov. uses to really ban tinyhouses) to the effect that it is the most important problem tinyhouses face right now. I should make it a big bolder.

Soon after I first got interested in tinyhouses Kent Griswold also invited me to do a blog post on the subject. It is not really practical to give general advice, which I had found elsewhere and pretty useless, so I gave the example of my own city, Ottawa, search this blog for “the hard questions”.

I have quite a number of posts on this issue on my blog : towardsabettertinyhouse.wordpress.com

After having though about it quite a bit, it is clear that there is no way that I can think of to accommodate these laws in a reasonable way.

We really nee to change them. I have already said that before, including in my guest post on this blog. No one listened. I suggested people start or join facebook groups to start with, and as far as tell by searching facebook groups, not a single – not one – group has been started. Only 2 people joined my group.

I started the VirtualTinyHouseCon in hopes allowing conversation about this sort of thing, and put a lot of effort into improving things and trying to get feedback from people as to why they do not come.

And no one comes.

These things are not going to change for us. Decisions are made by those who show up.

If people insist on being inert lumps, then don’t be surprised when the laws are turned against you by people who are more motivated. I did, and am doing my part, my share.

    Brook - November 21, 2010 Reply

    Have you tried to apply for a variance. Usually each building department has authority to give variances. Be smart and professional and keep appealing and they frequently see the light. Right now is a good time, especially with so few new homes being built.

      gregor - November 21, 2010 Reply

      Yes I have looked into all that stuff, no dice there, unfortunately, but you’re right that is the mechanism by which unreasonable zoning is supposed to be accommodated. Apply for a variance and get one. Unfortunately the city tends to have issues with their part of the game, actually forking it over. I have read a number of examples in which an amendment for a “garden suite” which is essentially like a tinyhouse but bigger, was requested but it was(in the minutes of the city council meetings, the equivalent of a tinyhouse would be a “garden suite”, but extra small).

      Chances are very slim there, in this city anyway.

      Plus you have to do that, go through the process and so on, every time you move. No, we need to change the law.

alice - November 21, 2010 Reply

In Vancouver BC laneway houses have been approved as infill on existing lots. One of the complaints from neighbours has been that some of the houses are too big, so what could be more logical than tiny houses? I didn’t see a minimum size, but there seem to be some in the 500 sq ft range on various builder’s websites. Link to the city guidelines http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/guidelines/L007.pdf
It’s a start.

    gregor - November 21, 2010 Reply

    I’ve mentioned that a number of times on my blog, there are other examples too, seattle cottage housing, and there is a page on the tinyhousewiki of the names by which the zoning people call tinyhouse-like things.

    The city of santa cruz is also trying to support them, they call them accessory dwelling units. I have a post up about that. (click my name)

alice - November 21, 2010 Reply

A fancier promo http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/developmentservices/general/pdf/communitylaneway.pdf

Looks like 500 to 750 sq ft is ‘normal’.

    gregor - November 21, 2010 Reply

    Exactly, but the prices I have seen quoted that the homeowners are being charged for is in the $350,000 range, though I don’t know how that is possible. Still, in terms of floor area, it is a start towards allowing tinyhouses. The santa cruz ones are ` 100,000.

    I don’t know if this is because of permitting frivolous regulation burdens or what.

Al Mollitor - November 21, 2010 Reply

I live between Boston and Rhode Island and I can understand why Walt would say there is no future here because of high land costs, taxes, regulations and building costs. But I agree with Verplanck and wouldn’t rule out the Northeast. In fact, one favorite author of the doomers, James Howard Kunstler, says small cities and towns of the Northeast is exactly where you want to be when TSHTF. We have water, forests, agriculture, infrastructure and distance from hellholes-to-be like Mexico, Nevada and Georgia. I’m sure there are affordable places once you get away from the big cities on the coast. There are lots of cool old places just begging to be rediscovered and resettled by a new generation building a new, sustainable future.

To young people thinking about the future I suggest this: First, find a community of like-minded individuals. If you want a city job, live there. Get a small apartment or house in town near your job. If you want to live in the country, work there by working the land. Automobile transportation will not be an option in the future. Build a life where you want to live, then build your little home.

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Roger - November 21, 2010 Reply

Maybe people should only buy land without restrictions but included mineral and timber rights. If there are restrictions, move on to the next property. The best way to effect change is with your ca$h. Complaining about codes is a waste of time IMHO. The tiny house movement may have grown enough now to have a collective voice that can have bargaining power if enough people stop buying restricted land and trying to fight the rules after the fact and insist on unrestricted land only instead. Eventually, value will be added to the unrestricted land buyer that cannot be ignored in a difficult market.

    gregor - November 21, 2010 Reply

    In other words, keep looking for land until you find something with suitable rules. But the truth is that means out in the boondocks nowadays, I don’t know why, but even rural areas very often have restrictions. It really really boxes you in for your options for location.

    Just look what happens on almost all the blogs you have seen and read on tinyhouses. Have you seen any that are coming form somewhere with not building codes?

    Even Laptop and a rifle guy is boxed in by the 120 sq foot limit, and he deliberately was looking for something as far away from humans as possible. It’s what, a 6 hour drive from where he usually works (when he is).

    Tinyhousetalk had a post up for people for whom living in remote areas is an option, though, that book of no-codes areas. I assume they are implying zoning is not a problem either.

    Lastly, I would just put this question to you: how do you think zoning got put in place in the first place?

    People put it there. Saying it is a waste of time to change it seems silly unless you assume that you are a second class citizen compared with those people.

      Tammy - November 23, 2010 Reply

      I agree with what have you said thus far; you have made some great points. I work full time and need to be within a reasonable range to drive back and forth to work. I am in Michigan and am not having any luck finding any areas that would allow a micro home. Most want over 1,000 square feet. It is really frustrating and I am about to give up on it until the idea becomes more accepted and common place.

wyndwalkr - November 22, 2010 Reply

Work on getting the codes changed? Nice dream. First you go to the township…then the county…then the state. Maybe a bunch of people together can work on it to succeed for their children’s lifetimes.

Variances? What you want may seem neat and logical, but officials don’t want to go there because they perceive a slippery slope to tar-paper shacks.

A place without codes and min.sq.ft. restrictions? They are out there, but expect to drive a long way for a job or supplies. There might be a few exceptopns.

I managed to get a permit for a 360 sq. ft. cabin with sealed tank privy for “weekending”. Official looked me straight in the eye and said “I better not get a report that you are EVER living there full time!” That was 10 years ago and I no longer own it. Wish I did sometimes, because in the interim, the state has stepped in with MORE regulations. I’m sure I wouldn’t get it for even weekending, now.

I am sorry if this statement makes other readers mad, but I am tired of micro houses on a trailer. If you are not looking to move around, either by choice or by officials chasing you off of friend’s backyards, etc. try to find a place with the least minimum, say 500 sq. ft. and build a 500 sq. ft. home. Make your plans that can accomodate insulating an interior wall so that you don’t have to live in (heat/cool)the whole thing if you don’t want to. Part of that 500 can be cold storage. (Not on original plan, of course.) Just needs a 500 footprint and roof-print. Costs too much? Not for what I see the tiny-homes-on-wheels going for, if not totally DIY.

In my opinion, just getting more people off the 2000-3000 sq. ft. mindset would be a great thing.
500–750–1000 = nice little livable homes.

Sometimes the sq. ft. regulation counts both floors, if you’re lucky. Something like “Kathi’s Doll House” (see archives here) would be a great little place for such a situation, and legal.

    gregor - November 22, 2010 Reply

    You see, my issue with that sort of attitude is that you don’t even want to know why the rules are the way they are. You are not interested in what is going on behind the scenes.

    And it all matters. The rules even in rural areas are nuts for probably >90% of people, requiring more than $100,000 or something before you can have anything for full time use. What kind of democracy is that???

    It’s just like the class warfare the US has going on so starkly right now with tax cuts for the rich. The upper 2% want their way, and are throwing their weight around to get it, and that’s really the long and the short of it.

    And yet if the 98% weren’t such numbskulls it would be trivial for them to stand up to this sort of thing. But they are just too lazy or gullible or something.

    It reminds me of the “proles” in 1984. They greatly outnumber the ruling class and could easily return the country to a democracy if they got organized, but….they don’t. It doesn’t matter why. They just don’t. So the ruling class do not consider them a threat, and ignore them completely.

Walt Barrett - November 22, 2010 Reply

I keep talking about micro apartments which can pass most zoning requirements anywhere, but no one seems to be listening. They are also a great source of income if managed properly. Check out the Federal section 8 housing. I’ll look into it it as soon as I can myself, as I have had to slow down my work schedule.

    Aaron - November 22, 2010 Reply

    I like the idea of micro apartments, because I personally don’t need a lot space and would like to reduce my rent. However, I don’t see them as a tiny home alternative because the occupant doesn’t own it and never will.

      gregor - November 22, 2010 Reply

      Ditto. Sounds like a good idea to the business provider, but for the user, the price will still be totally out of whack in the end. I just finished some apartment hunting, and I saw some very tiny bachelor apts. – still totally out of whack, and they were not actually available for rent. Concept fail. Plus there are issues like noisy neighbors (yes there are neighbors everywhere bit it a different ball game in an apt, though there are some ways around that with effective soundproofing, which is used in luxury buildings and condos).

      There is the problem of being more or less at the mercy of the landlord too, lease and supposed legal protection be damned, which is a real hit on your quality of life imo. In a way it seems to stem largely from the ownership ideas people have in this country – no matter how much you pay in rent, the “owner” has control over everything, you don’t really have any security of tenure or anything. You don’t really get a home per se.

      It’s a shame that it is this way, because I agree that hypothetically there is some promise there; make tinyhouses, but stack them so they are super high density, and do the financing for the occupant – sounds great!

      But in practice it has been distorted by short sighted greed and literally centuries of politicking.

      Maybe micro condos, with smart building, good ventilation, included laundry, bulletproof soundproofing between units, you know, all the stuff that you get in a real house, just stack them. And don’t fool yourself about what your customers do and do not need in a house – that leads to the whittling away of quality that leads us to crappy bachelor apts, I think.

Lia - November 22, 2010 Reply

there is one county in CA i know of where you can get beautiful forested land on the cheaps with few restrictions as far as i know, but it is very much in the boondocks if that sounds interesting here is a website for trinity county mls
http://www.listingpreview.com/results.htm

Sandy - November 22, 2010 Reply

I agree that the small houses I have looked on this site and other blogs are still way overpriced and some fall right into the category of being so overpriced that they need to be discounted. While Dee Williams has come to the forefront hyping her house on wheels and providing us with the inspiration that you can survive in very small house, she is after all pulling it with a big truck and living in a back yard of someone elses land. Somehow that seems contradictory to my way of thinking. I think small houses in the 500-600 sq.ft would be feasible not only in cost but appeal as well. That’s what I see as a really viable way to be economical, build within the codes, and have it still be a very DIY kinda of project. I have plans to hopefully start mine in the spring. My biggest motivation is no payments, smaller utility bills, less to clean and more time to work less and have fun. You know the important things in life, or my in my life anyway.

    gregor - November 22, 2010 Reply

    Well no one approach is for everyone.

    You have to respect that there is a lot of variability in what people want and need. I think that is one of the main strengths of tinyhouses.

    But I think there are certain peaks in the cost/benefit ratio here for the different concepts for different people. If you built a tinyhouse for $8000 and start saving money over renting an apt in a year and half without problems with locating it and stuff, while having a better place to live, that is a very different than spending $60,000 for a tinyhouse whose siting and financing is a continual problem. At that point I start to eyeball traditional homeownership.

    There is an order of magnitude difference in the advantages here, but each to their own.

Roger - November 23, 2010 Reply

Tiny apartments could be a good idea. Except insurance, permits, and good tenants might be more trouble and expense than it’s worth. Many folks don’t take care of an apartment they’re renting like they would a house they owned. So, maintenance and upkeep would also take away from the complex owner’s simplicity of life. You’d end up having to price them so high the appeal would be a difficult sell. A tiny house community might work if it were set up as a rent to own concept though.

Anne - January 24, 2011 Reply

Bumpity bump ūüėČ

Seriously. Deek has started a new blog on the issue and this seemed a good way to re-address it here…

Partly because I am also curious about one of Kent’s sales associates sites, the ‘No Building Codes’ book… Has anyone any info on it?

Bob Nat - June 10, 2012 Reply

I think in the end our American society built and designed based on the concept of homesteading which when land was vast and laws weren’t needed was fine

A higher level of thinking and a larger group of thinkers is needed to design and build what we tiny homers are dreaming of lowest cost, safety , peace and green self sustenance.

We need a micro – venus project plan.
http://www.thevenusproject.com

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