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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 designing high-quality tiny homes in California profitable, sustainable, and rewarding.

January 2020

Blue tiny home with a porch deck

The demand for living "small" is getting bigger. According to this CNN article, many Americans are willing to downgrade from their current home to a space that's under 600 square feet. In fact, more than 60% of surveyed millennials have shown interest in tiny homes. The idea of living smaller is gaining popularity, and that's good news for interested architects. Read these five rules of well-designed tiny homes on the California coast that you should know.

1. Follow California Safety Standards

The California Department of Housing and Commercial Development (DHCD) is responsible for setting the rules, policies, and laws for building tiny homes on the coast. To avoid delays on tiny home construction or fines, consult with the California Safety Standard Commission before you start a tiny home building project.

All tiny home construction (foundation-type) must be registered with the California Building Code (CBC) according to DHCD regulations.

2. Stay on Top of Size Requirements

A single-family home in California must be at least 800 square feet. However, to be qualified as a tiny home, the dwelling must be less than 400 square feet. There are two types of tiny homes in California: a tiny home on wheels that's considered a recreational vehicle (RV) and a tiny home on a foundation.

A tiny home on wheels must be registered as an RV, and an accessory dwelling takes on more complicated rules for construction. Also, tiny homes on wheels are not subject to traditional building codes. Size requirements fall under building codes that regulate how you build your home.

3. Be Aware of Zoning Regulations

California zoning laws prohibit you from buying your own land and building a tiny home just anywhere. Zoning regulations dictate where you can build a tiny home.

In California, tiny homes built on the coast should be included in a tiny home community. This is to say, tiny home construction must take place in a community with other tiny homes. You may want to construct the home away from traffic, noise, nosy neighbors — or maybe you want to be on the oceanfront. But before you start building, it's best to contact the planning and zoning department of California for clarification. Generally, tiny homes must be on the side or backyard of an owner-occupied residence.

4. Make Safety the Foundation of Your Design

For safety reasons, all tiny homes must be built on a foundation. A tiny home permit is good for five years. To recertify a tiny home permit after five years, your electricity, water, and sewer must have remained compliant.

Is your tiny home a mobile design? A tiny home on wheels must be attached to a trailer and registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

5. Design!

A tiny home must resemble a traditional home in roofing, siding, and general appearance. However, your tiny home design can include an upper-level and a deck or loft.

Other rules mandate:

  • There may only be one tiny home per occupied residence.
  • A tiny home on wheels must be on a concrete slab (paved or compacted) to supports its weight.
  • Size requirements of no more than 400 square feet include the loft area.
  • Mechanical equipment must be incorporated into the structure.
  • The tiny home must have adequate connections to utilities and services.

California is one of the friendliest states in the United States to tiny homes, so it's a great time to build one on the California coast. If you want to avoid breaking the law, contact the DHCD for more details on zoning, safety, and design laws.

Once you know the rules, it's time to take charge of your unique tiny home building goals! Get started with our Design Class course, "Learn to Lead with Matthew Rosenberg," to learn core leadership principles for your architectural and real estate profession.

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