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For building regulations, tiny houses exist in an undefined ‘gray area’

Last modified: 1/3/2016 10:29:44 PM
The most difficult fit when it comes to moving into a tiny house? It may be fitting your plans into the established building regulations.

For local building inspectors, the movement of people paring down to houses smaller than 500 square feet – some of which are built permanently on top of trailers – exists only on TV and hypothetical office banter.

Tedd Evans, the chief building inspector in Concord, said he’s fielded questions on the subject but never a formal proposal. Superficially, the answer is simple: Living quarters that need a certificate of occupancy all go through the same pre-established channels, he said.

His wife, however is “addicted to watching those shows,” and other building inspectors can’t help but wonder how the varied tiny houses out there would match up against building and residency codes.

“We all kind of look at each other and chuckle a little bit, (saying), ‘Have you done this yet? Have you looked at this yet?’ ” he said.

A few possible hang-ups present themselves from the outset, he said. For instance, every dwelling unit must have one habitable room not less than 120 square feet of gross floor area. That’s nearly the total size of some tiny houses – ones that delineate a bathroom, kitchen and even a second bedroom.

Another is the prevalence of sleeping areas accessible only by ladders, which “are not really acceptable for what we call vertical egress, getting from one floor to another,” he said

Then he’d wonder about how the thing could be anchored down not to blow away in a hurricane, how the services are fed to it, and “mechanical, plumbing, heating, gas. These are all the questions we would normally ask on a single-family dwelling. A tiny house, just because it’s a small house, doesn’t really get by with exemptions,” he said.

Jesse Pacheco, the building inspector in Pittsfield, said he sat down and started to think about how his town’s ordinance matches up with tiny houses when a resident came to him to ask, specifically for those that exist on wheels.

He said it’s a struggle to answer even the most basic questions, how to classify it in the zoning that has different rules for manufactured homes and recreational vehicles, for instance.

“They act as recreation vehicles more so than a home. It’s kind of a hard answer to give you because of the fact that I don’t know how to regulate it,” he said.

Putting tiny houses on wheels into a category with recreational vehicles and campers seems correct, he said, but those can’t be used as a year-round residence. So that makes him think it must be treated as a modular or manufactured home – but those typically come to him with a certification, having been inspected against federal standards at various steps throughout the process. That’s protection against real dangers like electrical fires and methane gas exposure, he said.

“Who did those inspections?” he asked of the process for self-built tiny houses. “They have to be done by somebody. . . . It’s kind of a gray area, and the thing is that I really haven’t had too many of these cases that I’ve had to deal with.”

When he looks at the online forums where building inspectors chat, he said, there’s been some discussion but no concrete examples to work from.

“There’s a lot of inspectors buzzing about it, but the thing is, I haven’t run into anyone saying, ‘They put one in my town and this is what we had to do,’ ” he said.

Pacheco wondered what effect the wheeled nature of a specific brand of tiny houses would have on the tax process, too.

“What’s the next thing? I’m going to go live in an air balloon. I’m going to live off the ground. You can’t get me for taxes,” he laughed.

Steve Hamilton, the director of the municipal and property division at the Department of Revenue Administration, said the Supreme Court has offered guidance as to what’s taxable as a building. It includes a four-part test, he said, that mostly has to do with the use of the property.

The factors the court examined are: one, if it’s intended to be more or less a permanent structure, not temporary; two, if it’s more or less completely enclosed; three, if it’s used as a dwelling, storehouse or shelter; and four, if it’s intended to remain stationary.

“If it’s not registered as a trailer to travel over the road, if they don’t move it from time to time, I think it would lead you more to the direction of it being taxable as a building,” he said.

Last year, Hamilton noted, the Legislature provided an exemption for recreational vehicles that are parked in a campground or RV park and have a valid motor vehicle registration, a current license plate and a width of less than 8 feet 6 inches.

But if it’s on private property and it’s registered, the court’s four-part test will help determine if it’s taxable, he said.

“Property tax is all about the value of the property,” he said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)


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