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5 Rules of Well-Designed Tiny Homes Along the California Coast

Tiny homes aren't just a passing fad. Follow these rules to make your California tiny house a rewarding and legal experience.

We all know the demand for living "small" is getting bigger. According to CNN, many Americans are exploring the idea of trading in their homes to try something new and go tiny. Even though this fascination spans all generations, it seems to particularly popular with millennials with 63% of surveyed millennials have shown interest in tiny homes. California is leading this trend with 15.5% of tiny homes United States, according to iProperty Management.  

If you're curious about going tiny in California, here are five rules to creating a well-designed tiny house. All of this info and more comes from the Design Your Dream Tiny House DesignClass.

Source: Design Your Dream Tiny House

1. Know What Standards You're Aiming For

The first step in going tiny in California is determining what building and regulation standards your tiny house will be under.

Terminology (Provided by Sonoma County)

  • Stick-built/site-constructed homes: A small home constructed entirely at the building site
  • Manufactured houses (commonly referred to as mobile homes): Homes built in a factory mounted on a non-removable steel chassis or frame
  • Factory-built houses (commonly referred to as modular homes): Factory-constructed homes that are transported to a permanent location for installation on a foundation
  • Recreation Vehicles: Travel trailers, motor homes, park model homes, truck campers, camping trailers, or any other housing on wheels

Stick-built/site-constructed Houses

Since this is the traditional method to build a home, your tiny house will be reviewed through the traditional building permit process at the city or county level. As expected, certain jurisdictions will be more or less friendly to tiny houses. Don't be surprised if your local city only allows tiny houses to be built on permanent foundations.

Manufactured Houses

Because manufactured houses are typically built by factories and shipped around the country, they are regulated on the federal level by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and installed on a State-approved foundation. While a manufacture house may comply with federal regulations, it is still subject to minimum sizing and other requirements on the local level.

Factory-built Houses

These are similar to manufactured houses but only for builders within California. They are regulated by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and inspected in the factory to ensure compliance. A shipping container tiny house would fall into this category.

Recreational Vehicles (RVs)

Here is what most people would consider a tiny house. Most tiny houses on wheels must be built to national standards; such as ANSI 119.5 and NFPA 1192. They must also be be registered and licensed through our good friends over at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The good news is that most tiny house builders intentionally construct according to these standards.

The challenge is that RVs and other housing on wheels are typically only allowed for temporary housing for homeowners. They do not qualify as permeant dwellings; enter the biggest challenge facing tiny houses in California. You may build your tiny house and have land ready to go but you are technically not allowed to "dwell" in it.

2. Know the Size Requirements

Within California, tiny houses that are built as permanent residences must comply with the 2018 International Residential Code (IRC 2018). This applies to tiny houses built on a foundation and a tiny house on wheels. Within the IRC 2018, Appendix Q directly applies to Tiny Houses.

According to the IRC 2018 Appendix Q a tiny house is defined as, "a dwelling that is 400 square feet (37 m²) or less in floor area excluding lofts."

I suggest that you take a moment to familiarize yourself with Appendix Q, it will form the basis for everything you do with your tiny house.

Important: The IRC 2018 is only going to provide the framework for getting a tiny house approved for a dwelling unit by the state. It does not have any impact on the ability for you to transport your tiny house. This is controlled by the DMV.

It also doesn't influence what your city may allow as a dwelling unit. This is completely controlled by the Planning Department.

3. Know your Local Zoning Regulations

What is zoning?

Zoning is essentially a collection of laws that determines what types of structures can be built in certain parts of a city. For example, R1 is a typical zoning designation. R1 is for single-family homes. Nothing else can be built within a R1 zone without special approval. This prevents things like industrial plants being built besides homes.

Who Controls Zoning?

Zoning is controlled by the Planning Department of your local government. They have the power to zone, rezone, and allow for variances or special circumstance exclusions. My advice is to become friends with someone in the planning department before you go out and buy or build a tiny house in California.

Ok, so what do I need to know?

As you may have guessed, California zoning laws prohibit you from haphazardly buying a piece of land and parking your tiny home. Let's go back to the R1 zoning designation. Most cities will have a minimum sized home that can be built within an R1 zone. Commonly, this is 800 square feet.

Ok, what are the options.

Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer. It will largely depend on your local city. Some cities, like Los Angeles, have begun to make tiny house friendly laws like the Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance.

The most straightforward advice I can give you is to contact your city's Planning Department and these simple questions.

  1. I'm hoping to build/purchase a tiny house and park it on a property I own/rent. Does the city have any regulations on the books for dwellings under 400 square feet?
  2. I'm considering building/purchasing a tiny house as an accessory dwelling unit. Does the city have any regulations on the books for ADUs?

4. Know your Finances

Financing a tiny house can be an adventure. Until very recently most lenders had never heard of a tiny house and this created a situation where getting any kind of money for your project meant super high interest rates or leaning on credit cards. Fortunately, some progress has been made and the tiny house community has found some support amongst some forward-thinking companies. Here is an introduction to how you can finance your tiny house.

If you want a more complete picture of how to finance your tiny house, take a look at our Tiny House Mortgage and Loan Calculator

Personal Loans

One of the most obvious ways to fund your tiny house build is through a personal loan. This is not a mortgage, it is simply a loan that is taken out against your personal credit and income. These can be available from your local bank, credit union, or online lenders. Heads up, these loans typically require collateral against the amount. This could be your existing home, car, or other assets.

Credit Cards

Credit cards are easy to get with mid-good credit and can be used for all kinds of expenses. They are flexible and can come in handy to fill in the gaps from other sources of funding. Unfortunately, they can also be a trap that is easy to fall in and hard to get out. Their interest rates are extremely high in comparison to other types of debt and their ease of use can quickly lead to abuse. They also do not typically have high enough spending limits to cover the full cost of a tiny house anyway.

FHA Loans

An FHA loan is a mortgage issued by an FHA-approved lender and insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Designed for low-to-moderate income borrowers, FHA loans require a lower minimum down payments and credit scores than many conventional loans. (Source: Investopedia)

Peer-To-Peer Lending

Peer-to-Peer Lending allows individuals to come together and loan money to someone else. These loans are facilitate by a platform that acts as the trustworthy middle-man who vets the borrower and gathers the investors. LendingClub is a prime example of a P2P network. While P2P loans are similar to personal loans, the money is not coming from a bank., it is coming from individuals who have invested their own money into your loan.


Mortgages are typically not given from any amount under $50,000 and even this can be difficult depending on where you live. If you want to buy a tiny house on wheels, a mortgage simply won't work. This is because, with a traditional mortgage, the bank collateralizes the home itself as insurance against the loan. A tiny house on wheels isn't grounded and therefore not eligible.

Recently, the idea of a tiny house mortgage has started to gain some traction. LightStream from SunTrust Bank appears to be leading the way. They offer payment terms from 24-84 months. These "tiny house mortgages" are essentially personal loans but marketed towards the tiny house community.

RV Loans

An RV loan is essentially a personal loan but with the added requirement that you must purchase a qualified Recreational Vehicle (NFPA 1192 travel trailer code). This grants you slightly lower interest rates.

Buy Direct from Manufacturer

As tiny houses become more popular, some tiny house manufacturers have started offering direct financing to purchasers, these loans often come in the form of an integrated RV loan.

5. Design for the Weather!

It goes without saying that California weather is one of the main reasons people relocate to the state. There are a few challenges to be aware of however, especially along the coast. When you are selecting materials for your exterior, be aware of the maintenance requirements materials have when placed in hot climates with fluctuations in humidity and high winds.

One of the easiest things you can do is select exterior siding and roofing materials that are designed specifically for construction. Materials like untreated wood or stone shingle roofing are simply not going to hold up and even risk falling off during transport. Think ahead to the time you'll need to spend throughout the years to upkeep your home.

If you do decide to proceed with natural woods, research what types of wood siding will best serve your tiny house. A standard Pine wood siding may be inexpensive but will certainly have rot issues without extensive chemical treatments. Recycled Cedar, Redwood, or Cypress will all perform better along the coast.

Looking for a tiny house in California?

We created the Tiny House Builders Master Directory to help people find local builders in their state or country.

Not ready to buy but interested in learning more?

All of this info and more can be found in the Design Your Dream Tiny House DesignClass.

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