Tiny houses are the latest real estate fad in America. Drawn to a minimalistic lifestyle and reducing one’s carbon footprint, more homeowners are opting to downsize to a 500- or less-square-foot living space.
There are two types of tiny homes currently on the market: tiny houses on wheels, legally considered recreational vehicles, and tiny houses on foundations, sometimes considered accessory dwelling units.
Zoning laws and building codes across America make it difficult to construct a livable, code-compliant tiny house, and many homeowners are flying under the radar and ignoring these codes – or lack thereof.
“Our code is complaint-based and we don’t have the manpower to look in everyone’s backyard. I think in the near future, we will try to look at ordinances and building codes to allow more flexibility,” said Nicol Killian, Durango’s assistant director of community development.
Tiny homes on wheels must meet the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association standards and pass inspection. If your intention is to travel with your tiny home, all you need is a place to park it.
If you plan to live in your tiny home, things get a bit trickier. You will need a permanent foundation because most states prohibit living full time in an RV.
The city allows only tiny homes on trailers as permanent fixtures in mobile home parks. Both tiny houses on wheels and on permanent foundations must be fully plumbed, Killian said, despite the popularity of composting toilets.
Additionally, the city and La Plata County will recognize tiny houses as primary residences, standing independently on a piece of property, if they meet the appropriate codes.
Some builders in La Plata County have eagerly joined the tiny house movement after recognizing the community’s growing interest in these pint-sized homes.
“I’ve built homes for a long time and I love creating tiny houses. I thought this would be a cool thing to do three or four times a year,” said Larry Mongelli of Larry Mongelli Construction.
Hermosa Iron Works and Larry Mongelli Construction partnered last fall to begin constructing code-compliant tiny houses. Working alongside the county to ensure the homes will pass inspection, the first house was completed this spring.
“Our target consumer is someone purchasing this house to be a guest home or rental. It is not designed to be hooked on a truck and hauled all over the country. It is a true house,” said Hermosa Iron Works owner Andy Pierce.
The house is 384 square feet with a living room, kitchen, full bathroom and separate bedroom. It passed inspection and is on the market for $79,900.
“They are compliant with the energy code, plumbed and electrified like a regular house. The construction is the same as with a million-dollar home,” Pierce said.
There were hurdles to clear while building the tiny house because the county doesn’t have set standards for tiny homes, he said, but they plan to construct similar homes in the future.
County Building Department Director Butch Knowlton said the county is in the process of updating building codes to directly address the construction of tiny homes.
“Tiny houses are seen as residential structures. The difficulty is that the building codes do not consider them. We are trying to incorporate these new standards in the 2018 code,” Knowlton said.
One issue facing tiny home construction is loft and stairwell standards typical of other homes. Building codes are currently set on a drastically different scale than that of a tiny house. Knowlton said these will be updated and scaled down.
The Building Department is in the final stages of constructing a draft to present to the public. Knowlton expects it to be finished by mid-July, and he encourages public input once it is complete.
The lack of clear codes has not stopped Durango residents from owning tiny homes, however.
Five tiny homes on wheels are currently parked at Island Cove Park, a mobile home park off Florida Road. The owners are required to sign a year lease and they are all fully-plumbed, according to the Island Cove Park manager who declined to give his name.