WHAT IS TINY?
I have to admit that I find it very difficult to put a finger on exactly what a “Tiny House” is. If you run a search, you will doubtless get plenty of examples of mini homes built on trailers, with nice little sleeping lofts, and assorted familiar cottage like features. And I think is is safe to say that a good many people searching for tiny houses are looking for specifically that. That’s good! It is much of what we build and these marvelous little homes have many features to endear them to their advocates. Cost effective living, off grid capability, minimizing environmental impact, mobility, all good reasons to like the little cottage on wheels format.
But I always find myself thinking about a customer from many years ago. A nice lady, who had just lost her husband, and who wanted to “Downsize into something more economical and manageable”. We built her a 3500 square foot log home!! To her this was a major jog down in size. And frankly I think she felt a great deal of trepidation as she first walked about the roughed in house.
And this is the thing about tiny homes. I feel like they are being pigeon-holed into a certain mold and that we are overlooking many good options in scaled back, economical, and eco-friendly dwelling options. I’m not here to preach a doctrine of this idea is better than that idea. In fact, I am hoping to get a lot of feed back on the concept from people as we go forward in evolving the tiny house movement.
I mention in the about us section that my brother built a number of 400 square foot rental cottages. ANY of these would have made a fine home for a single couple or young family. I have built a couple of log homes at just over 800 square feet that were considered quite tiny by their owners. To each their own on this topic. A small framed or log style home of 600 – 1000 sq feet can be built quite economically. They can be made VERY efficient. They can be made off-grid to a great extent. AND surprisingly to many people they can often be built for less per square foot than the house-on-wheels units! This is all a matter of what a customer wants and what your ultimate goals are. If you want to go with 96 square feet and are comfortable in that then kudos!!!! I have several folks living happily in 8×16 foot units. And I know of a family of four that has a very nice 8×32 fifth wheel unit that they call “The Mobile Mansion”. It is a beauty and i wish I had built it!!!!!!
In the end tiny is just a matter of suiting your needs and goals as efficiently and as economically over the long term as possible. Do you want mobility? Do you need mobility? Are you more interested in putting down roots in one local for the long term? There is a lot to consider with a home. Further down this page we are going to talk some specifics about putting in homes. Some do’s and don’ts cans and can’ts. Much of this first piece will pertain to Michigan. We will add other states and details with time. I will also post these up on our blog. Please visit and comment or question as you will.
HOW DO I BUILD A TINY HOME?
This is a question we get all the time. Sometimes of course it is literal in that the questioner is looking for advice on construction. No problem there, we are glad to help newbies! But most often the proper phrasing would have been, “HOW DO I GET AWAY WITH BUILDING A TINY HOME?”
Sadly, the what,where,when and how of tiny houses is murky arena. And the internet is filled with no information, misinformation, and downright nonsense! No offense to many out there writing about these fine little houses, but I read the same answers to the same questions over and over again. And often the answers are wrong, and just being repeated and repeated.
Let me focus on my home state of Michigan and a couple of recent contacts I have had with customers. A young lady contacted me and said that although she really wanted one of the tiny houses on wheels, there was just no way to legally put one in in Michigan. She then related a number of the responses affirming this that she had gotten from a number of websites. THEN, she told me that as final proof of the impossibility of a tiny house in Michigan, she had contacted the building inspector in the county she wanted to settle in and that he had told her in no uncertain terms that they were COMPLETELY illegal.
AHHH! I listened patiently even though I had heard this one many times before. Finally when she finished, I asked her exactly what she asked the inspector? She explained that she told him she was buying ten acres and that she wanted to put in a tiny house and wondered if it was legal. When asked “How tiny?” She had told him about 140 sq ft. And of course in most of Michigan we have a minimum sq footage of around 840 sq ft, so of course he told he no way!
This seems to follow the typical path! The fact is she just asked the wrong questions. If, you wanted to buy a piece of land, put in improvements and a foundation, and build a tiny house on it, then the inspectors answer would be technically correct (Although one can always look into variances – but that is another topic). But this is NOT what she wanted, nor is it what she should have asked. In most cases the tiny house on wheels is just a travel trailer or RV and can be treated accordingly here in Michigan. In most areas this means you can set it and connect it to services at least on a temporary basis.
Before i expand on that let me explain that calling the inspector and telling him you want to put in a “Trailer” of this small size will get you the same runaround. In their mind you are talking about a manufactured home when you say trailer and there are minimums here too. Also, telling them you want to “permanently” set a travel trailer will get you plenty of guff. In most cases providing the least amount of info possible is the best practice.
In most cases, in a rural setting around my home state of Michigan, you can legally install an RV connection anywhere you like. And THIS IS WHAT YOU SHOULD BE ASKING ABOUT. There are some zones and local regs. But for the most part it is allowed. In our case we typically recommend that the customer put in some sort of concrete runners or slab to firmly set and level their house. But this is completely up to them. From a legal standpoint, you are going to need an RV electrical service. These are easy to build, and reasonably inexpensive to have installed. They will come in 100 or more commonly 200 amp for the incoming service and can be rigged with any amp RV plugs you like. In fact we often install 2-15amp 120, a 30 amp 120, and a 60 amp 220, right off the get go. These outdoor service boxes are most often a feed thru design, and allow for easy connection later on to out buildings if desired.
Then you will need to address well and septic. The permit for these comes from the same place and is governed by the same folks. A well guy is going to know perfectly well how to set you up an RV connection and you have a number of options here. Exterior to connect with a common hose, between the runners, through the slab (To connect under the house for more sheltered feed in colder weather.) The septic too is pretty straight forward as is the sanitary connection.
Now the above is for what we would call a standard hook up. Electric, water, septic. You DO NOT have to do all this if you choose not to in Michigan. You certainly can set up solar, and in most cases if you NOT going to tie back into the grid at all no permitting is needed. Composting toilets may preclude the septic, but gray water will still need addressing. This can often be simple drywell. And there is no law that says you HAVE to put in a well for your RV. Potable water can be bought or delivered.
So the bottom line is here in Michigan you CAN indeed set your tiny house, as long as you can consider it an RV or travel trailer. (This normally means 8 feet wide or less, and less than 13’6″ tall. There is a gray area here in that 8ft6in may be alright in width – but you are more than safe with 8′ so why push it) and it must have a trailer title and permanent plate. In most cases as long as it can be reasonably considered mobile no one will give you guff. I know a number of people who have travel trailers set beside their homes where they stay connected and unmoved for decades without a single complaint or issue. There are plenty of hunting camps in the area that have trailers that have sat in one spot for decades on end. Even in the most militantly oppressive communities it is generally only required that you move the unit in some way every six months or so. And it is pretty RARE to hear of this being actually enforced. If you own a piece of rural land, and you bring in a tiny house on wheels and set in on a slab or some runners and jack it up and block it in solidly, you are not likely to face ANY SORT OF ISSUES, as long as you keep those wheels on the bottom!!!! As long as you use RV style connections you will have no issues with legalities.
Hopefully this helps. We all need to work on the Michigan government and all state governments for that matter, on legalizing the installation of tiny homes on permanent foundations. Things are changing and changing for the better. Just keep at it.