Maybe you bought a piece of property but don’t have the money to start building your home. You think that rather than rent while you try to save, you could live in a shed. After all, you’d save money a lot faster than if you had to put out $1,200 a month for rent. Or, maybe you’re tired of the weight that material things bring to your life and decide to downsize. You think the tiny house movement is for you. But wait, are there laws about turning a shed into a tiny house?
What does city hall have to say?
“Funny you should ask,” said Kelly Getz, code compliance officer with Rockingham County, Virginia. “I am sitting at my desk preparing a court case about someone living in a shed.”
You’ve probably heard the stories in the news. Every week someone fights city hall for the right to live as they please—in a shed, tiny house, or tent, even—and lose. They don’t lose because of the size of their house, necessarily. They lose because they don’t meet the relevant codes.
“The real question is ‘does my structure meet the Virginia State Uniform Residential Building Code (including obtaining proper permits)?’” said Getz. “If it does not, then the answer is no, you can’t live in the structure.”
According to Joe Shifflett, building specialist with Rockingham County, “Any structure intended to be used as a habitable living structure or dwelling will be viewed by Rockingham County as a single family home, this means all applicable building and zoning codes and regulations will apply.”
So, what’s the difference between a “single family home” and a shed?
Actually, there are many. Primarily, construction based on engineering parameters which make the building able to withstand the elements is paramount. For instance, the siding on sheds built with studs spaced 24-inches on center rather than 16-inches will begin to buckle, exposing the structure to wind, water, and pests. Also, some shed manufacturers fail to use treated lumber for the entire floor structure, which shortens the life of the floor and makes it less strong.
A single-family dwelling has other requirements that sheds do not, like points of egress, wiring and plumbing standards, roof strength, and insulation. A shed is built and approved for storing things, not people. The Building Code is meant to keep people safe.
What are the zoning and permitting regulations?
Don’t forget to consider zoning and permitting regulations. The Virginia Residential Code states that structures less than 256 square feet built to be used as storage or garden sheds, playhouses, or something similar do not require a building permit.
“This code section is often misconstrued,” said Shifflett. “This exception does not include habitable structures or single-family dwellings.” So, while you may build a shed under 256 square feet without a permit, that doesn’t mean you can build a residence under that size without a permit. Also, you may not change the legal use of a building without a permit. If you obtain a permit for a shed, the building only can be used as a shed.
Another thing often misunderstood is zoning. According to Shifflett, “Although the building code presently exempts storage buildings and similar uses under 256 square feet in size, zoning regulations do apply to all structures regardless of their size.” In other words, even the placement of sheds must meet some regulations.
But I want to live in a tiny house!
If there is no talking you out of living in a tiny home, make your dream come true, and hassle-free, with careful planning. Turning a shed into a tiny house is possible when done properly.
You may not be able to purchase a pre-built shed. You may need to order it to comply with your specifications. Discuss your ideas with the manufacturer before they begin the work. Knowing that you want your structure built to comply with the Building Code for single-family dwellings will guarantee you get details like stud spacing, treated flooring, and framed openings right from the beginning.
Don’t consider the shed company as a “One-Stop Shop.” Realize you may have to finish your shed or hire someone else to do it. Not every shed company offers customization like electrical or plumbing packages. You may come away from them with just a tiny home shell. But if they do offer customization packages, you want to make sure that the work they do complies with the Building Code.
Your tiny home also needs set up properly on your lot. Do you have electric and sewer service hooked up? Do you need a septic installed? What about your foundation? Many folks like the concept of a tiny house on wheels but if you don’t want mobility, you need to consider the foundation of your structure.
Get your paperwork in order. As we already discussed, you will need permits and inspections to set up your tiny home. You also need to comply with all zoning or HOA regulations. It’s a good idea to begin your journey by discussing your plans with local officials. Ask specifically if any tiny house zoning laws apply to your situation.
Asking the right questions of the folks that make the decisions, making your expectations clear with your shed builder, and arming yourself with the correct information gives you a vantage point in your journey to tiny house living. Start off on the right foot and, hopefully, you won’t be the one fighting city hall.