Meeting with the County

This past Thursday I had a meeting at my local zoning office to talk about the tiny house. I printed off my plans, made notes about the trailer and insulation values, and compiled my drawings. What I expected was a little office with the person who got me the meeting (my dad’s friend, Albert) and someone who knows all about the building codes. Instead, it was a big board room with two men with a giant book on the National Building Code, a woman who knew about different zones within the county, and Albert.

All of them were familiar with the idea of tiny houses. They took a look at a couple of pages of plans and drawings. I was saying that tiny houses are built on wheels to avoid minimum size restrictions when they interrupted me and said, “There are no minimum size restrictions. They took them out.” Apparently, as long as you have a functioning space for different tasks like cooking, eating, etc., it doesn’t matter if you have collapsible furniture and tiny rooms. I was too shocked to ask more. That seems too easy.

As far as the building code experts were concerned, my house is an RV and therefore the National Building Code completely does not apply. Also, as far as they know, there’s no national standard for custom RVs. I told them I still want to meet the building code as much as I can for safety reasons. They brought up having an egress exit in the loft since I’ll be sleeping up there, and I told them I plan to have an opening skylight. They said that works, as long as there aren’t any special tools required to open it. The guys mentioned that it is a good idea to build with 2×3 or 2x4s because the structure is small enough to be supported by smaller boards. They suggested using spray-in insulation because it offers structural support. Other than that, they didn’t have much to tell me concerning the building code. However, they did tell me that I probably won’t be allowed to live in a mobile home park, because those do have their own standards. To be allowed in, a mobile home has to have a CSA (Canadian Standards Association) sticker and a serial number. My tiny house won’t have those.

They talked to me about eventually putting the house on a permanent foundation, because that’s when the building code would apply. Normally, when a house is built, it’s inspected at seven different points. Without those inspections throughout the build, it’s up to an inspector to decide if my tiny house is acceptable or not. An inspector might want to cut a hole in the wall to take a look at what’s inside. The men recommended to me two things: 1 – get an engineer’s stamp of approval, as in work with an engineer to create detailed plans and then follow those plans, and 2 – keep records of the build; keep a big binder full of notes, information, and include lots and lots of pictures. Then the men and their giant book of codes left.

Working with an engineer could help me improve on the plans that I already have and would save me from having to do all the altering myself (my windows are different sizes and in different places than the plans and my trailer is wider and longer). I already plan to keep track of the build for other tiny housers to learn from.

I talked with the woman about what different zones allow. Basically, the more people that live in an area, the more restrictions there are. In subdivisions, you can’t really do much other than have a garage. In areas with large properties, farm animals are allowed, for example. So not only is every county different, there are different zones within a county that have different rules. In the zone my parents live in, you are only allowed to live in a travel trailer/camper/RV for 90 days in a calendar year. I’ve read about codes that talk about consecutive days and people just sleep at a friend’s every 30 days or whatever the restriction is, and codes that people get around by moving their tiny home slightly on the property, but neither of those work for my area. However, she did tell me this: certain areas aren’t zoned at all. Outside of towns, where there’s more land than people, the zoning office doesn’t restrict or even really pay attention to what people do. You’d think you’d have to live pretty far out of town to be in an un-zoned area, but where I live, if you drive 5 minutes out of town, you’re free and clear. There’s lots of farmland.

Next the woman left and I talked with Albert about RV parks. They’re zoned differently, so the 90 days in a calendar year rule doesn’t apply. I could stay in an RV park all year if the owners let me, but I live in Canada and RV parks are seasonal. There are three around here, and all of them are only open May-October. I thought of talking to owners about letting me stay, but Albert told me that at least one of the parks drains their water system for the winter, so even if they let me stay, I wouldn’t have water.

Then we talked about grey water. He was thinking I’d have on-board tanks and would drive the house to a dumping station every two weeks. I’m not going to own a 1 ton truck and unhook my whole house every couple of weeks! I can attach tanks to the bottom of the trailer for when I do move it, but tanks aren’t realistic for me or for Canadian winter. Hopefully I’ll be able to hook up to an existing septic system on the land I’ll rent. Albert wrote down who to call to get the okay for that, but they weren’t in when I called so I’m going to try again another day. Albert’s parting advice was to never get rid of any certification I get from an engineer, and he warned me that zoning codes could be completely different and more restrictive in Ontario.

My conclusions: it would be really hard to legally park a tiny house in a big, populated city. The bad news: mobile home and RV parks are out, as is parking in or near town. The good news: I know a few people in the un-zoned area, and I could even live by the water! I think I’ll stay in Nova Scotia for a while, and my best bet is to rent land from someone in an un-zoned area and hook up to their septic system. I’ll also be contacting engineers in the near future, but they are ridiculously hard to find.

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January Update

Today I talked to the structural consultant I didn’t get a hold of on Friday. Other tiny house blogs have advised prospective tiny housers to use language the code people can understand, like “custom RV”, but the man I talked to said, “Oh, you’re building a micro home? You’re not the first one.” He asked me to email him my trailer plans and said I shouldn’t have too much trouble, he just has to make sure the trailer’s safe and that what I build on it won’t have pieces flying off on the highway.

I also looked up what inspectors look for at a “motor vehicle inspection station” and read, on an official Nova Scotia RMV site, that mobile homes on their way to a permanent location are exempt from inspection. I’m not sure what it takes to be called a mobile home, but if we’re being literal, tiny houses count. Considering how rarely I’m going to be moving the house, I shouldn’t have any problems. Besides, it’s not building it and moving it that can get you into trouble, it’s living in it.

In other news, I bought build plans! I waited until after Christmas to see if they would do a Christmas sale again like they did in 2013, but no luck. Regardless, the ones I bought are much cheaper than Tumbleweed’s $600+ plans. I chose the Tropical Tiny House plans. Canadian weather isn’t tropical, but these are the only plans I’ve found with the roof line I want. Plus, the Tiny Tack House was my original inspiration. The interior of my house will be entirely different and I’ll have a corner porch (which I have framing plans for already), but I wanted to have some plans to start with. I’ve never built the frame of a house before. I was hoping for more information – the plans include a lot of images and not a lot of text – but they do look like they’ll be a good base.

I bought the plans on the 8th and would’ve posted earlier about them, but that night on my way home from work I was in an accident. Slippery roads on a snowy night ended with my mum’s van in the opposite ditch, facing the other direction after a 180 spin. Luckily, there was no oncoming traffic at the time and I wasn’t hurt at all. One of my co-workers said afterwards, “You’re surrounded by guardian angels.” My parents and I ended up splitting the cost of a newer, replacement van. My tiny house savings dropped by $1000, but the whole thing could’ve been way worse, so I’m just grateful I wasn’t hurt.

I bought more books as well, the last ones on my to-buy list: Cracking the Code and Shockingly Simple Electrical by Ryan Mitchell from The Tiny Life, and Go House Go by Dee Williams.

I have several books now that I still haven’t read, but I have so much to do before I order the trailer in February. I’m gonna hold off on reading the plumbing, electrical, and composting books until I get to those points in the build. However, I’ve read part of The Humanure Handbook so far, and I highly recommend it!

I finished Cracking the Code today, and I think it’s definitely worth buying if you’re planning your own build. It seems to me that a lot of tiny housers are intimidated by laws, codes, and zoning rules, which is understandable, but it’s always good to be informed on the options and the fact that often, tiny houses are illegal. I can’t think of anything the book left out and the glossary is extensive. I encourage you to buy it and read it earlier in your planning, rather than wait until the last minute like I did.

My (not so) tiny to-do list for the rest of January:

– Get my stuff together for my meeting on Thursday (pictures, plans, etc.).

– Estimate material weights. I need to figure out how easy or difficult it will be to keep my house below 10 000lbs before I can order my trailer. The man I talked to today suggested I build my framing with 2x4s or even 2x3s to keep the weight down. I told him I was planning on 2x6s because I need a certain R-value in the walls and therefore need space for thick insulation. He replied that I’m insulating a very small space. I’ll be asking about R-value at my National Building Code meeting. He also suggested looking at travel trailers that are for sale to get an idea of weights.

– Start a steps list. I’m going to break down the build into steps, and collect information on each step. I’ll be referring to other blogs, Tumbleweed’s construction video, Tiny House Build’s construction video, Dee Williams’ Go House Go, and Dan Louche’s Design and Construction Guide.

– Finish my end table. Cabinetry will be taking a backseat until it comes time to do the interior of the house.

Asking Permission First

Before I spend thousands of dollars on a trailer, I want to make sure I’ll be able to register and tow what I’m going to build on top of it.

So, I printed a picture of a tiny house that resembles what I want and took a trip to the local RMV (Registry of Motor Vehicles).

Questions and Answers:

Q: Do I need a special license to tow a 23 foot trailer?

A: It goes by weight, not length. 4501kg (9923lbs) and up requires condition 15 on your license, which means you’d have to do a road test with the trailer to prove you can safely tow it.

Q: What will it cost to register the trailer?

A: There are different prices for different weights. 1500kg (3306lbs) or less is $44.75 per year.

Q: I want to build on top of the trailer, what would it cost then?

A: $162.10 per year is the most it would cost before you get into commercial weights, prices, and time periods. Anything above 5100kg (11243lbs) is considered commercial.

Q: Do I need a special certification to build on top of the trailer?

A: If you’re altering the trailer – no, I’m not – then for building on top, that’s not my department. Contact our office and ask for Vehicle Compliance.

Q: What about a license plate? I’m picking up the trailer from New Brunswick.

A: You’d have to get a temporary plate from the RMV in New Brunswick. Also, since you’re getting it from New Brunswick, you need to find out if they’re charging you tax or if you’ll pay tax when you bring it back here.

I didn’t even need the picture, in the end. I’m crossing my fingers that the estimate the trailer company gave me included tax, because I can’t afford for this trailer to be any more expensive than it already is.

I went home and called the toll free number on the business card I was given. I was transferred to Vehicle Compliance, and she gave me the number of someone who should be able to tell me if I’m allowed to build what I want or not.

I called him, and he gave me the phone number of the office who should be able to answer my questions.

I called the number and got the woman I had just talked to. She transferred me to someone else, who gave me the phone numbers of someone to tell me about passing inspection and someone to tell me about getting it registered for the road.

I called the former first, and he told me that they don’t care what I put on top of the trailer as long as the trailer passes inspection with the correct brakes, chains, etc. But then he said that after I build on top of the trailer, I’ll need to get it inspected at a motor vehicle inspection station, and take the paperwork from that to the RMV to register it. The main thing I’ll need is lights because apparently campers need lights on the front, back, and top. Also, since I’m getting a custom trailer, he said that the trailer company should give me a NVIS, a New Vehicle Information Statement, so I’ll have to make sure I get that.

I called the last guy, but he won’t be back in the office until Monday, so I left my name and number with the person who answered the phone and he’ll be calling me back.

Several people I talked to emphasized two things: the trailer needs to have the correct brakes, and if I was altering the trailer it’d be a whole different thing. I’ve already researched the brakes the law requires, and the trailer company has already told me that they automatically come with every trailer. As for altering the trailer itself, I guess it’s a good thing I’m having the trailer company do every bit of the welding. I suppose it makes sense that they don’t want people changing trailers and potentially making them unsafe.

I need to figure out how much everything is going to weigh, because if I can, I want to keep the weight low enough that I can tow it without a condition on my license, and I definitely don’t want it to be high enough to be considered commercial.

Ultimately, I’m still not sure what the inspectors look for or if I need to do paperwork beforehand. I just don’t want to fail the inspection when it’s too late to change anything.

I also made an appointment with the local guy who knows all about the National Building Code, so look for a post about that next week!

Land, Loans, and Laws

These are three major issues when it comes to building a tiny house.

For land, I will be building on my parents’ property and maybe living here in my tiny house for a while until I decide where I want to go. When I do pick a university or a place, then I’ll put the word out there looking for someone’s property to park on. I’ll pay for my utilities and probably some rent. I’m counting on the fact that having me park on otherwise unused land is just going to be free money for the property owner.

Money is another concern. Loans aren’t really possible at this point for tiny houses because the bank can’t easily make their money back if you don’t pay. So far the only advice I’ve seen is to save all the money beforehand and be able to pay with cash. That was my original plan, but I haven’t been able to save as much as I’d hoped, and I haven’t been able to get more hours at work. So now my plan is to save as much as I possibly can, get a line of credit, and pay as I go. The build will take longer and I might even have to stop building for a while to save up more money, but I don’t want to delay another year. I’m lucky in a way because I don’t have any debt to begin with like I might if I had discovered tiny houses later in my life, and I do have some savings, but I also don’t have a house or any belongings and extra furniture to sell like I would if I was older.

Laws are a big question mark for me right now. I don’t know where to go or who to ask about local codes. I do plan on researching these for sure, but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. The first thing I want to find out is if there’s a law about how close I can build to the property line since the structure is on wheels and therefore temporary. I’m looking at building in our side yard, so it’s only a few feet away from the greenhouse and flower shop business next door. I also plan on building to code as much as possible, although from looking online I haven’t found any code resources that aren’t hundreds of dollars. Building codes do exist for a reason and usually that reason is safety, but some codes I won’t be able to follow, like size requirements. Size minimums, however, are most likely for the gain of banks and the construction industry, but they do have their place in preventing apartments from being too small. One difficulty though is that since every county has different codes, I might not meet certain codes when I move.

This post was inspired by: http://thetinylife.com/top-5-biggest-barriers-to-the-tiny-house-movement/

As for the other two barriers they mention – social pressures make me a little mad and I’m happy to defy them, especially since this is what I really want to do. And as for fear, maybe it’s because I’m young and not even officially out of high school yet, but I’m kind of fearless about this. They say you can do anything you put your mind to, and I’ve put my mind to building my own tiny house. I’m educating myself as best I can, and when there’s a problem, I’ll find a solution. This is my lovely little dream, and I’m going to make it real.

Quotes

"It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan." - Eleanor Roosevelt

"It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare. It is because we do not dare that they are difficult." - Seneca

"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." - William Morris