How-To Start the Tiny House Legal Process

HouseFirst of all, we had a wonderful 5 weeks in our future town of residence. It was great to be able to “redneck house camp” on the tiny house and really start to feel (and see) it turn into our home. Granted we only have “walking water” right now (meaning we have to walk to get water) we have heat/air, a coffee pot, our wonderful SleepNumber bed, and a number of other amenities including a mobile hotspot for Internet, and Netflix for those quiet nights! But now perhaps the real work begins.

During the last month we were able to have a perc test administered on our land with positive results. The land percs. What does this mean though? For those who live in the city, it is common that folks who live in the county or in more rural surroundings do not have access to city sewage. So we have to get septic tanks. Quite simply put, septic tanks are part of a small scale sewage treatment system. (Other components, typically mandated and/or restricted by local governments, optionally include pumps, alarms, sand filters, and clarified liquid effluent disposal means such as a septic drain field, ponds, natural stone fiber filter plants or peat moss beds.) To be more specific though the term “septic” refers to the anaerobic bacterial environment that develops in the tank which decomposes or mineralizes the waste discharged into the tank. (READ: it is a poop holding tank). In theory this is an awesome thing. It allowed us to then receive our address and be registered with the 911 emergency system. So what is the downside you may ask? The downside is that the septic system required on our land is quite complex and therefore, quite costly! We are required to have a septic system that includes a pump system in order to achieve gravity flow. Because our land grades downward we do not have gravity on our side and therefore have to have a pump system that will pump the sewage uphill to the actual septic tank. This requires a 750 gallown septic tank, 60′ of 1.5″ PVC pipe, a septic pump, a pump tank, underground wiring harnesses, a simplex control panel, an alarm, and a system of 3 distribution boxes that are attached to nitrification lines. it is fair to say this falls well outside of the DIY arena. In fact, we have to have a licensed septic company and electrician complete the work that then has to receive a passing mark from a North Carolina Electrical Inspector.

After thinking about the system, the cost (and how it related to our overall goal of living off-grid, being debt free, etc) we now feel that we want to have a composting system instead. The catch? There is no current code for composting and in fact some counties require that you install the septic system approved for your land or suffer a FAIL on the Certificate of Occupancy. That thought alone is quite jarring. Compounded with Hari’s recent post on her worst tiny house fear things got very real, if you will.

Since the very beginning of our adventure we have wanted to live legally; to be accepted as a legal, tax-paying family, in our county. Simple enough, right? Wrong. There is no cut and dried way for a tiny house to yet achieve such. In fact, we are finding out that it takes numerous phone calls, repetitive explanations, uncomfortable conversation, scads of questions and uncertain answers, and more patience than I have ever prayed for! As a family we have also started the conversation of how much fight do we have in us? Are we willing to fight to the bitter end to be accepted? Is it even a fight we are passionate enough about? Can we afford to fight if we have to? All of these and more have permeated our conversations. We have no answer though.

But this morning I began the process of trying to unravel it all. I contacted our counties Planning & Inspection Department to ask where we begin. The conversation started out something like this:

ME: Hi. My name is Andrew Odom. How are you today?

HIM: Good. Thank you.

ME: I have several questions – unorthodox ones – that I would like to ask you about my family living in a non-standard home. Do you have a few minutes to talk or is there a better time to call?

HIM: Now is fine.

ME: My wife and I just finished building our tiny house. You may or may not have heard of such. It is a 240 sq.ft. home build on a trailer. It measure 30′ wide and 8′ long. It weighs just at 6100 pounds and is custom built.

…….long pause…….

As the 15-minute conversation progressed I told him a bit more about our home and even invited him to look at our website. He was more than happy to. His demeanor lightened and we were talking much more easily. I told him we had a VIN number and a registration for our custom trailer. I told him about some of the construction details and spoke emphatically about our desire to work with the zoning department to be legal and to live in our version of a “dream house.” After we hung up I followed with a personal email and a photo of our tiny house – as it is today – attached.

All in all I think things went well for the beginning of our conversation. I don’t expect it to be easy. I don’t expect everyone to understand. I don’t expect it to even be cheap, per se. But I do expect the county to be welcoming and amicable and so far I have no reason not to think such. So how do you start the legal process for your tiny house? I don’t know.

You just pick up the phone and start!

How-To Start the Tiny House Legal Process (part 2)
How-To Start the Tiny House Legal Process (part 3)



  1. says

    Good for you Andrew. I am going to go the “flying under the radar” route first and see how peoples reactions are. The last thing I’d want is to find a great place to park only to get turned down when I asked permission.

    • says

      We are legally “camping” right now while we go through all of this. We just don’t feel right being under the radar. We want to raise our daughter knowing that sometimes you have to stand up for your dreams and show others that some molds are made to be broken.

      • Kath says

        The “mold” that you refer to here is MUCH GREATER than most of us actually have the capacity to grasp at this juncture. The “mold to be broken” is an entire system….an economic one, a political one….it encompasses an entire mythological belief system in this country in which it is IMPERATIVE that everyone OUTSIDE WashingtonWallstreet adheres. There’s a subtle shift occurring in We The People at this juncture…one in which the formerly accepted constraining paradigms are being questioned and frankly EXPOSED. Wallstreet OWNS Washington…and the States are merely a microcosm…a smaller mirror image of the split between government being in place TO SERVE AND DO THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE AND IMPLEMENT THE PRIORITIES OF THE PEOPLE and/or a massive self-serving bureaucracy in place for on other reason other than to be its OWN ECHO-CHAMBER and perpetuate itself. It is no small thing to make attempts, even small ones like “trying to comply” and “be a good citizen” (of which I’m sure you both are), to work within THE SYSTEM. Perhaps you and your wife will make a dent in helping your state and county SYSTEM actually work for the people (of which they are HIRED to do…because their paychecks are paid for BY THE CITIZENRY). With all that said…I trust that you WILL MAKE IT WORK regardless.

        • says

          Great thoughts. You are exactly right Kath. We are not trying to hide in the system and accept it with complacency. We want to work within the system to change it. We want to hold a place of citizenry that will allow us to vote (with ballot and dollar), voice ourselves, and create a sustainable future for our daughter.

          Thank you for the encouragement!

  2. Stephen Bontekoe says

    Good for you Drew. I went to our county but as we are not grid tied we have no inspections. I specifically asked about a composting toilet ( to which they liken an outhouse idea) they had no issue so long as we did not have running water in the house. As of the completion of the house there is not indoor water but there are also no restrictions to later upgrades. Its a combo of under the radar and legal.

  3. A Thomas Hawkins says

    Good for you Drew I hope it all goes to plan. I have a couple of questions though;

    1.) The pumping the sewage uphill to the tank; Is that because the tank has to be uphill from where the house is positioned by code or could you have placed the house in a different location and dispensed with the need for a pump?

    2.) Are you prepared for that moment when the reaction you receive from the individual on the other end of the phone, is embedded in their opinion and not in the actual guidelines?

    Keep us posted and keep up the pioneering work, we will all benefit from your stellar efforts.

    • says

      And the answers:

      1) Our land degrades from bad to worse. If we have put the house on a spot that wouldn’t require a pump then we would have been in violation of living too close to the property line (yep, there is a code for that too!)

      2) Actually, yes, we are. And we are seeking the patience and wisdom of God to help us move through that and see what opportunities await us should we get a less than positive response.

      You better believe I’ll keep everyone posted. One day at a time we’ll ALL make it work.

  4. says

    Just remembering all this is exhausting. I tried to go this route. I live
    in the land of McMansions, Walmart headquarters (the great creator of
    STUFF) being just 8 miles from our original desired landing place. The
    county gave us such a hard time, I almost gave up the dream. Thankfully
    we were able to find a nice, almost empty, mobile home park to land for
    a slight reprieve. It is not illegal to park it in a MH park, and no
    inspections were needed, other than what the city requires to connect
    for the utilities (we passed with flying colors). The county just about
    succeeded in closing down all the parks in our area, we were fortunate
    to have found this tiny one.

    They did question our sleeping loft…….we made light of it and moved on.

    I just did not have it in me to fight any more :) Go for it, Andrew! You are young, you can change things.

    • says

      And there you are Deb. Welcome! HAHAHAHA.

      I don’t expect the county to give us such a hard time actually. The co. is actually quite filled with mobile homes, RV living situations, etc. I am not sure if they are grandfathered in or if they fall in ordinance. My biggest concern is that we are a custom home (as opposed to manufactured) and we don’t have a bathroom in the tiny house trailer (that is in the ANNEX building plan.) We thought it would be easier because the land is privately owned and in the county, not city. I haven’t heard anything back today so I am hoping that the inspector is just enjoying reading through our site and learning about Tiny r(E)volution and trying to figure out how to help us achieve our dreams.

      • says

        I don’t know if this will work…..but in another time, on a different planet, far, far from here, we found someone who actually put them in for a living. We asked him if WE could do it to his (the county’s also) specs, and have him sign off on it, as if he had done it. He was ok with it as he personally inspected it to make sure it would fly, and then we paid him a ‘consultant’s fee’. Everyone was happy, everyone got their fees, we saved money.

  5. zachpetry says

    Andrew, thank you for this post. I am building in my backyard in Oakland, CA. I look to move back to the East Coast, but have not identified my land yet. You confirmed what has been shown to me thus far, such as when interacting with the DMV, and that is to be open, honest, and let the reason why come out if they so care to hear. I will certainly start contacting the county planning and inspection department for each county in which I may desire to live. The septic tank issue was one I did not think of. Thank you, and may you and yours be blessed.


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