Tiny Houses Create Big Questions for Building Codes, Zoning and Banks

Aug 9, 2019

 

34 year-old Chelsea Boyd and her dog Leila on the porch of Boyd's tiny house on wheels, "Big Tex"
Credit Alli Fam / NHPR

Tiny homes--homes that are smaller than 400 square feet--present both an opportunity and a challenge. For people looking to own something relatively inexpensive, tiny homes may be an affordable choice. But most New Hampshire cities and towns don’t have the housing codes or zoning ordinances in place to accommodate them. NHPR’s Peter Biello and Alli Fam went out to learn more.

 


Chelsea Boyd calls her tiny home Big Tex. It’s on wheels. She started building it after her landlord decided to sell the house she was renting.  

“At the time,” Boyd tells us, “it seemed like it was all I could afford.”

Being a homeowner has long been a dream of Boyd’s, and as she showed us around Big Tex, it’s clear she’s proud of the work she’s done. She leads us through the living room that doubles as a kitchen; the bathroom; and a cozy loft bedroom with a surprisingly spacious closet. 

 

 

As the tour wraps up, Boyd kneels down to show us her favorite feature. 

“So these stairs pull out,” Boyd explains as she pulls them open. “So there’s storage in each of these stairs.” 

Like many aspects of a tiny house, the stairs are, well, tiny. And that’s a problem, because the stairs may not comply with New Hampshire housing codes. 

“I think the stairs need to be 3 feet wide,” Boyd says “They need to be so tall and so deep.”

And therein lies the rub: things small enough for a tiny home may be too small for the New Hampshire building codes. Boyd could request a code variance for her stairs, but most city and town officials we spoke to are hesitant to make such exceptions for tiny homes.  

 

Robert Houseman is the zoning administrator of Hanover. He says housing codes as written promote safety.

For example, he says windows need to be a certain size in case of a fire. 

“It’s not necessary for you to get out, but for the firefighter to get in.” Houseman explains. “You can’t shrink that window.”

But there is a market for these tiny houses, one that Joe Mendola, a real estate broker from Warner, sees opportunity in. He says when it comes to safety, tiny homes are as safe as anything else. Plus you’re always pretty close to the exit.

“You’re living in 320 square feet,” he says. “You can practically touch the doors by going just a few steps.”

In fact, 320 square feet is too small to comply with the majority of town zoning ordinances. Most towns require that homes be at least 750 square feet, although that does vary. In Jefferson, for example, a house can be any size, while in Warner houses must be at least 500 square feet. Joe Mendola calls those houses “tiny mansions” and he says they sell very well - particularly among millennials. He built a tiny mansion in Warner last year.

Mendola's tiny mansion in Warner
Credit Joe Mendola

“I put my sign in the ground, put it on MLS. The next day two 23-year-olds graduated from UNH last year.” Mendola recalls “They came to the house. They looked at the framing and they said, ‘Mr. Mendola, please take the house off the market. We were paying full price for it.’”

The kitchen in Mendola's tiny mansion
Credit Joe Mendola

Mendola has written legislation that would address wastewater treatment, safety, and other areas that town officials have flagged as concerns. 

A version of Mendola's legislation passed in Washington state, but New Hampshire lawmakers tabled it, opting instead for a study committee

If passed, the legislation would require cities and towns to recognize tiny homes as legitimate dwellings and adopt a tiny house amendment to the state housing code. 

 

“What I hope is the towns across the state can agree with me that this is a state issue,” Mendola says. “And that we could see our way clear to making this an RSA that is mandatory, not enabling.”

Housing codes and zoning aren’t the only issues tiny home owners face. Chelsea Boyd struggled for months to get the loans she needed to finish "Big Tex," her tiny home on wheels.

“The banks weren’t big fans of giving loans to people who were gonna have mobile housing,” Boyd says. “For some reason they thought I was gonna hook her up to my crosstrek and go across the country. 

So Boyd promised the banks she would take Big Tex off her wheels and put her on a foundation. The promise did get Boyd the loan, but she soon realized the move from wheels to foundation was easier said than done.

“Trailers like this, they’re not level, they’re kind of bowed either way,” she explains “So that would be tough to build a foundation for.”  

But Boyd is not easily deterred. With the help of her contracter, she came up with a new plan. Buy a small parcel of land, build a new tiny house on it and then sell Big Tex. 

Boyd's new tiny house on foundation in Plymouth
Credit Alli Fam / NHPR

The land she bought is in an agricultural zone in Plymouth that allows smaller dwellings.

She hopes to move into her new tiny home there next month--which is when the legislative study of tiny homes is scheduled to begin.

 

You can follow Boyd and her tiny house journey on her blog.