They’re cozy, efficient, economical — and, in Maine, the subject of much haggling over zoning and building codes. Here’s how to prevent your tiny house from becoming a big headache.
Photo by Irvin Serrano
Sometime around 1847, at a tiny desk in a tiny house beside Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote what could be the mission statement of today’s tiny house movement: “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.”
If only it were that simple.
While the drive to live with less has indeed streamlined domestic life to an astounding degree — it is, apparently, possible to coexist with loved ones in a structure the size of a tool shed and not be incited to murderous thoughts — antiquated zoning and building code laws nationwide and here in Maine threaten to complicate the kumbaya. People are constructing their tiny houses and then discovering they’ve no place legally to park them, or that their local code enforcement officer won’t give them a certificate of occupancy. Couple that with a design process that requires anti-materialism of an almost religious potency and it’s clear: Being happy in a bitty abode means getting real about the potential challenges. To help you navigate them, we reached out to experts in the field of bantam building to compile this list of five questions to discuss before you downsize.
Which is right for me — a tiny home or an RV?
In Maine, tiny houses are typically defined as dwellings less than 400 square feet that are moveable or set on a slab or foundation. If you’re interested in a wheeled version and plan on relocating your house more than once every few years, an aerodynamic RV might make more sense. That’s because an RV is more fuel-efficient to tow than a tiny house, and you can drive it into any RV park. (Because of safety concerns about DIY structures, some RV parks require documentation that your tiny house was manufactured by a member of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. You can solve this problem by going with a builder, such as Windham’s Tiny Homes of Maine, that has this certification.)
On the other hand, tiny dwellings are often custom designed and constructed, giving them a personalized utility and homey aesthetic. Tiny house builders also maintain that their insulation and craftsmanship are superior to that of manufactured RVs. The custom touch costs, of course — a built-from-scratch tiny house on a trailer will run you anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 depending on size and amenities, while a manufactured trailer RV is typically priced between $15,000 and $50,000.
Where will I put my tiny house?
Tiny house contractors agree — before you build your petite paradise, make sure you have a place to park it. In Maine, “you’ll have little pockets that are going to allow tiny homes and some towns that are just going to be sticklers about it” says Corinne Watson, owner of Tiny Homes of Maine. Watson does not live in a tiny house herself, she says, because her family doesn’t want to downsize that much. Still, she calls herself an “advocate for people wanting to live this lifestyle.” As such, she has worked with state officials to adopt clearer rules governing tiny home zoning. She is also compiling a list of municipalities that are amenable to the structures. These include towns smaller than 4,000 residents, which typically do not have regulations prohibiting tiny homes. Even so, Watson advises checking with the town before wheeling in your house and/or digging a foundation.
Some members of the movement have chosen to avoid the red tape altogether, holing up on secluded pieces of land where they’re unlikely to be discovered. Alan Plummer, Maine representative of the American Tiny House Association, says his 180-square-foot home is in “an undisclosed location” somewhere in Maine. “It’s just easier,” he says, “to be under the radar.” This may be changing, however, as new building code standards make it easier to follow the rules; see below.
How do I make sure it’s up to code?
“Find the place that’s going to allow your tiny house and go through the building process just as you would with a regular house,” says Plummer. “Then your code enforcement officer can come out and inspect your plumbing, electricity, studs, and so on.” A recent victory for tiny house advocates should help streamline things: On January 25 of this year, the state added a tiny house building code, Appendix Q, to the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code (known as MUBEC) that covers houses of 400 square feet or less on foundations. Whereas municipalities could previously deny building permits for tiny homes based on codes that were not designed with those dwellings in mind, now there are statewide construction standards for things like sleeping lofts with ladder access and skylights that serve as a means of emergency egress. “It’s putting restrictions on how people can build a tiny house, but without those restrictions code enforcement officers and towns have nothing to go by for saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a tiny house,” says Plummer. Still, obstacles remain, particularly for wheeled structures, which are not covered under the new code.
How will I use my tiny house today?
When it comes to designing a pint-size dwelling, Watson suggests picking your favorite room and working with your builder to conceive a layout in which that room dominates the space. “Some people want a bigger kitchen because they like cooking,” she says. “Some want a tiny kitchen and more living space. Others want a bathtub in their bathroom. You just have to prioritize.” And plan to think outside the (tiny) box: Most things in a mini house must serve more than one purpose, says Luke Lucier, co-owner of South Portland’s Tiny Houses of Maine, who lives with his girlfriend in a 160-square-foot home on a foundation in Richmond. His company uses storage ottomans that slide under a cushioned bench and can be configured with the bench to create a guest bed. A single, sliding ladder that services sleeping and storage lofts is another common feature.
How will I use it tomorrow?
A tiny house that made sense when you were young and dependent-less may be too much of a squeeze if you add a pet and/or kids. And that efficient ladder to your loft might not be so practical if you become pregnant or arthritic. Point being: it’s important to think about how you intend to age in your little home and design accordingly. “Most of our people want one-level living so they’re not climbing up into a loft for anything,” says Watson, who serves a lot of retirees and clients building tiny homes on their land for aging parents — structures technically known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs.
On the fence? Lucier recommends renting a teensy apartment for a while to see how you like it. (Or book a stay in a tiny house on Airbnb.) “This is something you just kind of have a feel for,” he says. “You’ve just got to be determined to live in a small home.”
Cover Photo: Architect Alex Scott Porter designed this 550-square-foot, off-the-grid getaway on a remote Maine island for her father.