The legal landscape of tiny homes is one of the most frustrating and confusing parts of the tiny house movement. In fact, “tiny home” isn’t even a legal term, so municipalities have had to figure out what form of existing law they fit into. My guest Jenifer Levini is a housing and land use lawyer, and author of Building, Occupying & Selling Tiny Homes Legally. I would consider this episode a must-listen: Jenifer walks us through the 6 types of tiny homes (from a legal perspective), why codes are critical for safety, RV vs. residential code, and her take on avoiding bad players. I hope you stick around!
In This Episode:
- Tiny house isn't a legal term: here's an overview of the law
- What are the different categories of tiny homes?
- Is it worth paying to have your tiny home certified?
- The ins and outs of egress windows
- How to ask if you can live legally in your tiny home
- Mythology about registering your THOW
- What a good builder looks like
- Are you getting a great deal or being ripped off?
Links and Resources:
- NFPA 1192 code
- ANSI A119.5
- Building, Occupying & Selling Tiny Homes Legally
Tiny Home Law is confusing because there are so many types of tiny homes and so many variations on the laws governing them. Jenifer Levini, a housing and land-use lawyer, created a simplified hierarchy to help navigate and understand the relationships. Understanding the big picture will help you buy, get a bank loan, insurance, and make practical decisions about your tiny home. She’ll also help you avoid buying an unsafe, illegal, unlivable tiny home. There are a lot of bad players out there building tiny homes who aren’t following the laws. Knowing the basics of what is and isn’t legal will save you a lot of heartache and money. She put all the necessary information into the #1 Best Selling book “Building, Occupying & Selling Tiny Homes Legally,” available on Amazon as a paperback or e-book.
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Jenifer attends as many tiny home festivals as she can
There are 6 categories of tiny homes, according to the State of California
Does your tiny house have wheels? You need to register it!
Jenifer loves tiny homes and is an advocate for their legality
Ethan Waldman 0:00
You know, Jay Schafer said that he put his house on wheels not because he wanted to be able to travel or move it a lot, simply because the town that he was in didn't allow dwellings under a certain square footage and putting it on that trailer put it into a different category.
The legal landscape of tiny homes is one of the most frustrating and confusing parts of the tiny house movement. In fact, 'tiny home' isn't even a legal term so municipalities have had to figure out what form of existing law they fit into. My guest Jenifer Levini is a housing and land use lawyer and author of Building, Occupying and Selling Tiny Homes Legally.
I would consider this episode a must-listen. Jenifer walks us through the six types of tiny homes from a legal perspective. Why codes are critical for safety, RV versus residential code and her take on avoiding bad players. I really hope you stick around.
But before we get started, did you know that I personally send a tiny house newsletter every week on Tuesdays? It's called Tiny Tuesdays and it's a weekly email with tiny house news, interviews, photos and resources. It's free to subscribe and I even share sneak peeks of things that are coming up, ask for feedback about upcoming podcast guests and more. It's really the best place to keep a pulse on what I'm doing in the tiny house space and also stay informed of what's going on in the tiny house movement. To sign up, go to thetinyhouse.net/newsletter where you can sign up for the Tiny Tuesday's newsletter. And of course you can unsubscribe at any time I will never send you spam. And if you ever don't want to receive emails, it's easy to unsubscribe. So again, that's thetinyhouse.net/newsletter. Thanks and I hope you enjoy next week's Tiny Tuesday's newsletter.
All right, I am here with Jenifer Levini. Tiny Home law is confusing because there are so many types of Tiny Homes and so many variations on the laws governing Jenifer Lavine, housing and land use lawyer created a simplified hierarchy to help navigate and understand the relationships. Understanding the big picture will help you buy get a bank loan insurance and make the practical decisions about your tiny home. She'll also help you avoid buying an unsafe illegal or unlivable tiny home. There are a lot of bad players out there building Tiny Homes who aren't following the laws. Knowing the basics of what is and isn't legal will save you a lot of heartache and money. She put all the necessary information into her number one best selling book building, occupying and selling Tiny Homes legally available on Amazon. Jenifer Levini, welcome to the show.
Jenifer Levini 2:58
Thanks, Ethan. It's great to be here.
Ethan Waldman 3:00
Yeah, it's great to have you. And thank you so much for doing this work. Because I cannot tell you how often I get that question. You know, can I live in a tiny house in fill in the blank? Do you find you get a lot of those kinds of questions.
Jenifer Levini 3:16
I get so many questions. It is so confusing. It's confusing at every level, because it's people ask can I live in a state? Can I live in a particular city? Can I live in a particular neighborhood? Can I live in a particular block and then even within that block? Can I live in one specific property and the rules are different at every level? I've heard so many horror stories where someone is allowed to live in a tiny house on one piece of property and then just across the three. They're not allowed to live in it because you can't hook up an additional water meter or electrical because they've crossed over some zoning line or some neighborhoods DCNR. So it's really really difficult to figure out where Tiny Homes to be placed. And I do my best as I can to help people with every specific piece of property.
Ethan Waldman 4:16
Yeah, well and I just I so want to dig into the nitty gritty but I want to back up because I think I I initially saw your name on the roster for the global Tiny House Conference. And you know, click through, grabbed your book on Kindle and started reading it and I think I just stopped reading and emailed you when you talked about how tiny house or Tiny Home is not a legal term. And so it doesn't, you know, legally It doesn't mean anything. And so I was hoping you could kind of kind of rewind us back to the start and and address that and start start there.
Jenifer Levini 4:55
It's so true, Ethan like when you say the word tiny home, you probably have one picture in your mind. And when someone else uses the word tiny home, they have a different picture in their mind. Some people are thinking of things that are on wheels. And some people are thinking of Gypsy caravans and some people are thinking about schoolies, which are bus conversions. Some people are thinking about buildings that are on foundations. Some people are thinking about mobile homes, and it's just like, there is no legal, any homes are not a legal term. And so one of the first things that I did was just try to figure out what does Tiny Home mean. And luckily, like right about the time that we were all trying to, like, tease this apart, the state of California Department of Housing stepped in, and they wrote a document that broke Tiny Homes down into different categories that follow the laws that we already have in the state of California and across the United States. And they, they broke Tiny Homes down into basically six categories.
Ethan Waldman 6:09
Okay, so this is this, is California specific here, or is this the kind of, I've heard, you know, as California goes, so goes the country?
Jenifer Levini 6:20
Yeah, this is, well, it's some housing laws are state specific. And then some housing laws are nationwide, like HUD laws. And then some laws are actually vehicle laws, which are nationwide. And some aren't even laws, they're industry regulations that have to do with the RV industry. So I think it makes the most sense for me to kind of go through different categories and explain what they are, and then explain where the source of the law,
Ethan Waldman 6:56
let's do it,
Jenifer Levini 6:57
let's do it. So, like, there's, in the hierarchy, there's three big categories, okay. And then those are sort of broken down into smaller categories. And so the three big categories did kind of do with what's underneath the tiny home, like, is it on a foundation? Is it on wheels? Or is it just like something that's not attached in any way, like something's standing up on pillars. So once we have something that's on a foundation, it's, it's, that is further broken down into two categories. And this is going to be familiar, like it's either built in a factory, or it's built in the place where it's gonna set. Okay? Like, if you think about something that's built, where it's gonna live, this is like a stick built house, or all just the regular buildings that we're used to seeing, like a bunch of carpenters show up with hammers and nails, and they build it. And if it's built that way, in this specific place, the laws that govern it are the local building codes wherever, regardless of size, as well, right. So the local building codes will govern the size, like in some places in the United States, there are no lower limits, like you could literally be living in something the size of a shed - 20, 40, 80 square feet. And then a lot of places in the United States, but especially California, where we love lots of rules. There are lower building limits in places so that the size you can have the smallest size you can have is whatever the limit, and this is actually what's been so unfair that a lot of places like the smallest limit would be like 1000 square feet, or 1200 square feet. So that's why Tiny Homes were illegal, because there were these lower limits. And that part of the tiny home movement is just just getting rid of these lower limits. Like what if people are willing to live in a building? That's 500 square feet? Why is that illegal?
Ethan Waldman 9:11
Right. And that's, that's kind of the the almost the folklore of the of the tiny house movement. And I think it's true that you know, Jay Shafer said that he put his house on wheels, not because he wanted to be able to travel or move it a lot, simply because the town that he was in didn't allow dwellings under a certain square footage and putting it on that trailer, put it into a different category. It wasn't really seen as a dwelling at all.
Jenifer Levini 9:39
Exactly. Yeah, that's exactly right. And so that kind of propels us into our next category so that underneath that Tiny Homes, on Saturday foundations, then there were two types of types that you build in place and the types that are built in fact, And that are later transported to a foundation. Then there's another category, which are the Tiny Homes on wheels. And that kind of word Jay was the innovator, like he thought, okay, you know, what if you're not gonna let me put this on a foundation, I'm gonna put it on this chassis that is for a truck. And then it's not a it's not a building, it's a vehicle. And you listen, you builders that want to have minimum size, this is just off limits you, you can't you can't come and regulate people who builders don't get to regulate vehicles, it's a completely different category of things that are once it's on wheels, it's a vehicle or it used to be a vehicle. And so it basically meant that the the building inspectors couldn't come in and inspect. Okay. So then once we're talking, now we're talking about Tiny Homes on wheels, then there's three different categories that come underneath that. And that's kind of the three categories sort of have to do with the size of the Tiny Homes, the smallest ones are going to be called our RV like recreational vehicles. And these are, I mean, they're basically built like recreational vehicles. Except for the fact that if they're tiny, like when you have a recreational vehicle, those are usually built out of very light composite materials like plastics, and maybe aluminum, because they're meant to be towed behind cars. So they want to be really aerodynamic, they want to be very light, and they're meant to be lived in very lightly like for a weekend or a week, you're in there while you go on vacation. And that's the big difference between Tiny Homes, they're, they're built that same size as our V's but they're built out of materials, right? Like wood, granite tiles, they're, they're sustainable materials, they're meant to be lived in 24/7, 365. And so they're built much more solidly then. But they still, the way that the laws have worked out is that they, the state of California, and most every other state that allows them in the United States want them to be built using the same RV laws. And the RV laws are NF called NFP A 1192. And that stands for National Fire Protection Agency. And that's a really important code because it means that it's built in a way where all the pieces are tested. And so they can't, they don't catch on fire and they're not dangerous. They don't blow up, you know, put the propane lines too close to the electrical lines or the water lines, they don't fall apart when you drive them down the street. These are just safe minimum safety laws. They're not maximum laws, you can build a lot stronger than these codes. But okay, codes make it so that the minimum that you have to do to make sure that they're safe. Right.
Ethan Waldman 13:26
And then to confuse things we should probably maybe save for later in the interview is just that. Now there are a lot of professional tiny homes that are being built and certified as our V's enable people to get loans on them and also to park in certain places.
Jenifer Levini 13:47
Yes. And the big controversy is who's allowed to see the certification company. Because certification companies have to be they have to be certified by somebody has to be a legal certification company. And there's companies that have been in existence for like 50 years that are legal certification companies. And then in the tiny home space, there's companies that are just kind of self proclaimed certification companies, and it's not really clear that their certification actually means anything. So then they're charging people like you know, 5000 bucks to certify their Tiny Homes and we don't even know where they got their certification from. Right.
Ethan Waldman 14:39
Yeah, and I've always personally just been a little skeptical of the certifiers. You know, if it's worth the $5,000 to you for the support and the the knowledge then maybe, but, you know, it's proven not to be difficult to insure a tiny house on wheels. And that's one of the that was one of the really selling points that I saw a lot like, oh, you're not going to be able to get it insured if it's not certified?
Jenifer Levini 15:06
There's right. Well, the way that insurance companies and banks work is that they already have systems set up for RVs. Right, like, you know, people have been buying RVs and certifying them or what, like 100 years? Yeah. Oh, wait, sorry, I guess since the 1950s. So, almost 100 years, yeah, it's hard to get banks and insurance companies to change really quickly, they're sort of very slow moving. And so in order to get loans, you really need to make sure that the vehicle that you're buying is built according to the laws. Otherwise, and if it is, then the bank or credit union shouldn't have any problem lending on it and don't have any problem at all. But if it's not built to any code, than it, honestly, it shouldn't be insured. It shouldn't be insurable. Because it's dangerous. People shouldn't want to live in them. I mean, I, I honestly fear. I know what's going to happen one of these days that some family is going to move in, you know, buy a tiny home from somebody, they're going to move in, they're going to be like one of these tiny homes with two lofts. They're going to put like their kid in one loss. And that last is not going to have the required egress windows. And some something's going to catch on fire and their kids not going to be able to get into that loft, because it's going to have some ladder. Yeah, the tiny kids not going to be able to get out of that ladder because of the fire, there's going to be some, it's not going to be able to get out of the egress window. Because it's not an egress window. I've seen Tiny Homes, like these tiny little windows and they're lost. They're completely illegal. There's no way someone could escape out of that window in an emergency and someone's gonna die. It's only a matter of time. And the more I think about it, that's kind of why I wrote this book. Yeah, I mean, I hope,
Ethan Waldman 17:12
I hope you're wrong. But I fear that you're right.
Jenifer Levini 17:16
I mean, the more i just i, where i live in Santa Cruz, and in California, in general, there's just lots of Tiny Homes all over the place. You see him driving down the road, you see him parked out in lot light in different places, and fields. And, I mean, I've seen ones where the windows about six feet, six inches, I'm sorry, six inches high by about one foot long. I don't know who you know, is climbing in and out of those windows. Right, but not a person. Yeah.
Ethan Waldman 17:51
I was fortunate to have a family friend who is an architectural designer help helped me with my build. And, you know, we very, you know, the window in my loft is not an egress window size to code. But we that was like, something that I was aware of, and he was aware of, and we made it as big as we could. And you know, he told me, it's not about you being able to get out of this window. It's about, you know, somebody an emergency personnel wearing full gear, oxygen tanks, everything to get through that window to get you.
Jenifer Levini 18:28
Well, no, I don't actually agree with that. It's about you getting out. And there's already laws that have I mean, it's already been tested. This isn't like a make it up as you go along. How big does a window have to be for someone to get out? Right? I mean, this is a known answer. I don't know the numbers right off the top of my head, but it's like, you know, I mean, the opening part of the window has to be a couple of feet, like two feet. So if there's like an open and a not opening part, then it's it's much bigger than two feet. It can't be like a transom style. And yeah, this is these are known things. And if you're sleeping in somewhere where you can't get out if there's a fire than it's dangerous. Yeah, and I don't want you to sleep there, then stop it. Like what do we have to do to get you into a safe place to sleep? Because I mean, in the end, it really comes down to like, the reason laws exist is so people don't die in their sleep.
Ethan Waldman 19:35
Right? But so I will say the agenda to my story is that it's it's not big enough to meet code, but it is quite big enough for me and my wife to get out of because we're both fairly small people. I don't I know that that's not as good as the proper egress sighs but these are the kind of trade offs that people make when they're building tiny houses. And I think that you bring up a really good point that you We we think of these houses as so affordable and inexpensive. And part of the reason why they're so affordable is that by building them this way, you're skirting a lot of the laws that make them more expensive. But you're pointing out that that is coming out a major trade off, which is the safety of the house.
Jenifer Levini 20:18
Yeah. I mean, I think there's like one thing that's like, Okay, if you're going to build your own tiny home, and you are going to live in the tiny home you built, but that's one situation. But then there's the other situation where there's people who are building tiny homes that are illegal, they're not safe, and then they're selling them to other people. Yeah. And that the people who buy them don't know that the thing that they're buying is not built up to any codes or any laws, and they're assuming that this person might have a contractor's license might not have a contractor's license knows what they're doing. Right. And then at that point, there's money being exchanged for this illegal home. Yeah. Yeah. And it's really crossed another line. Yeah. where someone trusting another person with their life. Yeah, and that housing authorities and vehicle authorities just can't allow that to go on. Because what the state of California has done is that they've said that they're gonna prosecute people who are building illegal Tiny Homes, and selling them. Right. Um, so you know, I mean, they haven't done it yet. Everybody wants to solve the housing crisis. And it's really severe in California, there's just homeless people. All over the place, housing is not affordable for just regular working people. And so it's very difficult. And the state housing department doesn't want to be out prosecuting people who are building Tiny Homes and because there's generally a belief that Tiny Homes are an important part of the solution, or housing. But those people who are building illegal Tiny Homes are endangering people and other people trust them. Yeah. So so my, my solution to this was, Well, why don't we just tell everybody what the laws are? Like, the state doesn't have money to educate people, what is illegal, tiny home, so I thought, I'll just write a book all describe in it, what illegal Tiny Home is, how to find out where the laws are. And then people spend like 20 bucks or whatever the book cost 10 bucks on Amazon or something. They can get the book and then read what a legal Tiny Home is and protect themselves. Yeah. Yeah. And
Ethan Waldman 22:59
I appreciate this. It's not a tangent, because it's very important. But we were, I think we were on number four, on our list of six occupiable types of Tiny Homes before, right.
I steered us into into safety, which I'm definitely want to get back to. And actually, before we get back to it. I think that, you know, if somebody listened to only the first 20 minutes of this conversation, they might say, Oh, you know, Jenifer Levini, she's, she's anti tiny house, she's a tiny, gentle, she's a scold. She's trying to, like, shut down the party and be the adult in the room.
Jenifer Levini 23:41
If you knew me, you'd laugh. You know,
Ethan Waldman 23:44
from, from your book, you know, it's clear that you, you love Tiny Homes, you actually I, my takeaway is that you are a supporter of the tiny home movement, and so that you put this work into this resource because you you want to help it change.
Jenifer Levini 24:03
Right? I mean, originally, how I got into this whole thing was that I wanted to help build Tiny Home villages. And because I really saw Tiny Homes as a solution for housing. And I was so frustrated by all the legal roadblocks that I bumped up against. And then I started trying to see what do I have to do to help exchange the laws and make Tiny Homes legal and make them affordable. And the more I learned about the laws, the more I realized that I alone would not be able to build Tiny Home villages until the laws changed. And the best way to change them was just to educate people. Okay. And so I just took everything that I was learning and put it into a book and to try to like bring Everybody up to like if we all understand like how the processes work and where the roadblocks are that we can change that. And it's working. Like even here in Santa Cruz, where I live. I've been working with the county supervisors, and I've got new codes, we're developing new ordinances here. Just legalize Tiny Homes on foundations. And now we're writing the ordinances for Tiny Homes on wheels, and we should have them in place by the end of August. Fantastic. Fantastic. Well,
Ethan Waldman 25:33
thank you for being an advocate for the movement in the legal world. Because I think that the roots of this movement are almost, as I said before, just like almost a little counterculture, a little bit like skeptical of the law and regulations. And so bringing, bringing Tiny Homes back into the fold, is something that's going to be important for the health and long term survival of the of the movement.
Jenifer Levini 26:01
I also like to say like the laws, you know, it took me a while to figure this out about building codes and stuff like, people look at Tiny Homes, they go Look, I can build a tiny home for like, 2000 bucks, why should I use these parts that have been tested? And why should I put in like windows that are regress when I can go to like the flea market, right and buy a used window? for like, 10 bucks? Why should I use one that is open wide? or Why should I use propane tanks that meet a certain? You know, they're not 20 years old? Yeah. Or why should I use like, any sort of materials, when I could do it for really cheap using just recycled materials? And the answer is, like, the reason the building codes exist, and that vehicle codes and RV codes exist is that all these guys who are builders, and I don't mean that in a step this way, it usually is guys. They just sat down in groups, and they went, Okay, they just tested it, like, yeah, if the wind blows really hard, or if it's knows, we don't want the roof to cave in, we don't want the walls to cave. And so how, like how close you have to put the pieces of wood together. So that if the wind blows 40 miles an hour on it, or it no sticks, inches, that the walls don't cave in, or the roof, and they just tested these things, and they test them over and over again. And they come up with the minimum code. And it's not that they're trying to be you know, jerks about it, it's like, the minimum code is just to keep people alive. Yeah. To make it so that you don't die in your house. So anyway, getting back to what we were started talking about, like the different types of Tiny Homes on wheels. So I just talked about the first type, which are the very smallest types are called RVs under the law, and the next type, which is bigger are called Park models. And they're like a type of RV, except that they're bigger. And being bigger means that you they generally are built or built in a factory and they're towed to one location and then they stay in that location for their whole life.
Ethan Waldman 28:32
Okay, and so while recreational vehicles are usually used for recreation, so part time summer use our park models designed usually for for year round dwelling.
Jenifer Levini 28:46
If that is like an under the law, something that is a park model is not supposed to be year round. Okay, dwelling. But what's happened is as housing has become more and more expensive, and then Park models have become built sturdier and sturdier and sturdier. Like originally I feel like they were built on people would buy them and they would put them like in national parks. And they would have it like their summer cabin, or their ski lodge or something that they would go to that day in it, you know, for like a week or weekend and they'd use it for their ski house. And then they but they wouldn't live in a full time but as housing has become more and more expensive and park models have really become full time. How's it okay? And the thing that's different about them is that they're they're big, they can be up to 14 feet wide, which is if you think about it that's a wider than a lane that you drive your car in. Right. You can't just drive it down the road any old time you want to you have to get a semi truck to pull it and you have to get special permits from DMV, you have to notify them in advance, and then they set up a special route that you're going to take, take it from point A to point B, like you can't go underneath wires that are low or bridges or things like that, because depending on how tall your park model is, it has to be able to get there and it only gets there once. Right? Then often, usually people have their Park model, and they take off the wheels and the axles. And they set it up on some kind of different anchors to anchor it in place. Basically attach it to the ground, but it's not a foundation. It's just anchor. Okay. And so apart model has different rules that it's built to. And those rules are called ancy, 119. point five. Okay, and those rules, you know, talk about how the, how the plumbing has to be built, if it has propane tanks, how those are hooked up and where they're located, if it has, you know, like waste storage tanks and how they're attached and everything about the way it's built, these standards are tested over and over again. And they're really safe. And they're updated every two years, I think. And so the latest set of codes just came out in January 2020. So they've just spent the last year implementing all the new Anthony codes. And there's actually our VI, a the recreational vehicle Institute, have put together really good videos about anti codes. And you can, if you're built on anyone who's building their own doing their home own build of a tiny home, I recommend that they just go on to YouTube, and search for these anti code videos about how to build an RV and watch them because they'll really like rock your world. Okay, about like how to how to connect, you know how to test your toilet to make sure that it's not going to backflow and poop isn't going to fill up your tiny home.
Ethan Waldman 32:19
Yeah. So this is just to repeat that this is ANSI A 119.5. Yes, that that governs and that's RVs. And Park models are covered under that.
Jenifer Levini 32:32
Well, under? That's a hard question. So what's going on now is that originally, that was for Park models and the nspa 1192 was for RV. Okay. But then a bunch of different Tiny Home Builders said that they wanted to use the ancy standards for the tiny homes where the RV sighs Tiny Homes. So then the lines kind of started getting blurred about which standards apply to Tiny Homes. And then so what happens is, as each state and different municipality across the United States started developing their own rules, like, you know, we're some city and we want to, we want to legalize Tiny Homes, what they've been doing is in their local code, saying that tiny homes have to be one to one of those two. Okay. Does that make sense?
Ethan Waldman 33:32
Yeah, yeah. No, it's it's, this is a dense topic. And you are so patient in answering my questions. And you're really good at explaining it. So thank you. There's there's a sixth type on the list that I will admit that I literally never heard of this is new to
Jenifer Levini 33:51
me. Well, the last one underneath Tiny Homes on wheels are mobile home. Okay. And it's interesting because people think, well, a mobile home is a tiny home because it's big, like mobile homes generally start at 1000 square feet, and they go up to like 3000 square feet. And so the question is, are those tiny homes and this is where it gets into the idea that there's no such thing as a tiny home, like it's not a legal term. Someone can be building something that's 2000 square feet and calling it a tiny home. And that's happening, like and there's a big park of in Palm Springs, in the desert in Southern California where there's a developer and they're building mobile homes and they're calling them Tiny Homes. And their reason they're calling them Tiny Homes is that they're building them all out of their mobile homes. So they're originally built on wheels and then they're brought to the location. The wheels and the axles are taken off and they're anchored to the ground. They're either single wide, or they're double wide. So they're like 1000 square feet, or 2000 square feet. But they're building them all out of really sustainable materials, like tile and the say, you know, really sustainable until they're saying that they're Tiny Homes, because they're sort of using the philosophy of building sustainable housing. And their idea is that tiny home isn't just a size, but it is a philosophy. And so again, nobody knows what a tiny home means. And you'd go there and the park, they built a beautiful park, and they're really cute mobile homes. And they have a nice swimming pool. And if you want to live in a beautiful, tiny home in the desert, but it's kind of big, then you buy one of these sounds lovely.
Ethan Waldman 35:57
So I was referring to the one on the list that I hadn't heard of is camping cabins,
Jenifer Levini 36:02
camping cabins, right? I love cabins. And and most of us have an idea what a cabin is right? Like the cover
Ethan Waldman 36:09
amps in Vermont,
Jenifer Levini 36:10
I think. Yeah, so you go someplace, there's like a building. There. It's got a couple of beds in it. And there's a barbecue outside, usually. And so and they're usually like under, you know, they might be 400 square feet. And so under the law, that is another category of Tiny Homes, because of the size like 400 square feet, or less and something as a camping cabin under the law when you're allowed to sleep in it, but it doesn't, what makes it different is it might have a foundation and might not have a foundation, but it doesn't have any plumbing does have they usually have electricity like you go in, you flip a switch on and the lights go on. So it might have a heater in it. And other electrical things. It might even have outlets, like your laptop in and watch Netflix. But it does typically when something is a camping cabin in the state of California, it doesn't have plumbing in it. Different states have different definitions of what this building is like they're really complicated in Florida. Yeah. I remember because they have them on all kinds of islands and stuff, where people use them for hunting. But yeah, it's also these also fall under the definition of some people's definition of what's a tiny home. There's there's also other things that people call Tiny Homes, like sheds, like people buy those Home Depot sheds, and turn them into buildings. And those also would might be a type of camping cabin, because they don't apply. I mean, they they live in tree houses. They call them Tiny Homes, they I mean, there's so many different things. There's just the Yurt Yurt kind of fall under the category of camping cabins that they they're not supposed to plumbing and depending on if you put try to put plumbing or not. Right in California, you cannot legally live in a Yurt. But in other states you can.
Ethan Waldman 38:18
Jenifer Levini 38:19
So. And that's just partly because it makes so much sense here because they're not fire resistant. They're not fireproof. And, you know, we have these massive fires in California now all over the place. Right? And so there's not sometimes there's not eat, eat grass, there's not fire resistant materials. And they just Yeah, those wooden frames are like a bunch of matchsticks. Yeah. Scary. So it sounds like
Ethan Waldman 38:51
the the first paradigm shift of that you're presenting here is like, when you ask the question, you know, can I live legally in a tiny house in California? The first the paradigm shift is to say, get way more specific about what you're saying? Don't say tiny house, say, you know, can I live legally in an RV that I built to RV code or that I didn't build to the code? And I struggle to come up with good examples. But is that is that kind of correct? Am I right in saying that?
Jenifer Levini 39:27
Yes, you have to ask about it in a specific spot to like if you say yes, can I live in this tiny home on wheels built to RV standards? in this in this particular lot in the city of San Luis Obispo? The answer might be yes. Okay. If you say can I live in this exact same tiny home on wheels built to RV standards in the city of San Francisco? Then the answer There's going to be now. So you have to be like really specific about how it's built and where you want to live in it. Yeah. And then and then a really is, like, even more confusing example is like the city of Los Angeles because Los Angeles is both a city and a county. And so, there's different laws in the city of Los Angeles than in the county of Los Angeles. The city of Los Angeles has passed some ordinance an ordinance that allows living on tiny home on wheels in the county of Los Angeles has not passed a similar ordinance though. When someone says can I live in a tiny home on wheels in Los Angeles and kind of have to break it down to what what street? are you on?
Ethan Waldman 40:49
Right? Are you in the city or the county?
Jenifer Levini 40:51
Yeah, what property in there because then also, they're big get into like which zoning you know which type of resin most single family or multi families zoning piece of property zoned property. It's, it's very specific. And it's not something it's not like going into a Ford dealership and saying, like, oh, buy it like to buy a fiesta Ford Fiesta, taking it home, parking it in your garage, and you're good to go. Yeah. And you just register it
Ethan Waldman 41:22
through the DMV, you get your, you know, you get your license and registration and insurance and you're good to go.
Jenifer Levini 41:29
Right. And that is another really good point is that when you buy a tiny home on wheels, you are supposed to register it within DMV, and RV style. You're supposed to register it with the DMV, before you can transport it on the street, because it's a vehicle
Ethan Waldman 41:47
fight. And that's again, like that's another kind of I'm coming I'm struggling to come up with the right words, tiny, tiny house on wheels mythology is like, okay, so register your trailer first, before you start building the house. You know, that way? It's just a trailer, and then then build your tiny house on it. And, you know, that's just a thing on the trailer. But, you know, in the eyes of the DMV, you just have a trailer.
Jenifer Levini 42:16
Yeah. And the thing about that mythology is that it was true. Like when Jay Shafer built his first tiny home on wheels, that's literally was okay. Because he said, it's just, and Jay asked me this question. He said, yeah, it's just a load, it's like a load on your trailer, you know, and that was before 2018 when the state of California stepped in and said, we're not going to allow people to die in Tiny Homes, there's we want them to follow the laws. And here's what the laws are that you're building an RV sighs the laws and FDA 1192 if you're building a park model size, the laws, NCAA 119, point five, if you're building a mobile home, the laws are the headlines. Right? You're building on a foundation, the laws are your local building code. Right, like so. That was true for for quite a while, you know, I'm trying to remember what your j first built. It was like 1015 or 16. So I mean, that was right for a few years before the sort of really became popular.
Ethan Waldman 43:31
I think j built in like 2004 or five.
Unknown Speaker 43:35
Was that really that long ago? Oh, yeah, a
Ethan Waldman 43:37
really long time ago, because I built mine in 2012. And I was kind of early. But you know, Dee Williams and Jay Shafer had already been around the block for years. At that point.
Jenifer Levini 43:47
Wow. Yeah, you're really an early adopter, too.
Ethan Waldman 43:51
Yeah, to some extent, I know that. I'm sure there were a lot more people doing it that weren't writing about it. But I was one of the early people to start, you know, a blog about it and to post about it and that kind of stuff.
Jenifer Levini 44:07
So do you move yours around very much. Like do you drive around a toe at different places? No,
Ethan Waldman 44:13
no, it's actually, it has been kind of, let's say, a second tiny home for for me for a while now. Mainly because I like living in the City of Burlington, and they're not really allowed here and there's not a great there's not much of a chance that they will be. So we were renting land out kind of in the mountains and the tiny house was on that land for almost seven years, I think six and a half years. And then the land changed hands and the new owners said hey, we can't get liability insurance with your tiny house here and they're pretty risk averse and they ask Just to move the house. So, right now, so that was the first time that it had moved since being built, or it moved after it was built to this spot. And then that was the first time it had moved since. And you know, I would I tell people all the time, like if you don't plan on moving your tiny house ever or only so often, you know, to consider not building one on a trailer, because the trailer is very expensive, and imposes some real limitations on what you can do from a design standpoint.
Jenifer Levini 45:32
Right? So how did you find the second place where you where you moved your tiny, tiny home to? So
Ethan Waldman 45:40
your I'll give you the short answer first, which is that it's my parents backyard, or it's behind their barn. So and that's actually where I built it built it. Vermont is kind of other than the cities is very rudimentary in terms of its zoning laws. So the city where my tiny house, or I guess, it's not a city, the town where my tiny houses, does not enforce building code, right there, they're not rudimentary with their zoning laws, they're rudimentary in terms of the building code, they don't, they don't do home inspections, they don't enforce building codes. So it's like, if you want to live in something so lucky, if you want to live in something that falls down on your head, like, we don't have the resources to stop you, but but zoning is really the only thing that that we have to worry about in a lot of places here.
Jenifer Levini 46:29
Anyway, what I was saying is in California, we're jealous of people who can build without going through, you know, so many hoops to get buildings.
Ethan Waldman 46:39
But the problem is, though, as you pointed out, that that, you know, that does enable people to build structures that are not necessarily safe. And then also that, that don't really meet any codes. So if they, you know, down the road, want to sell that building, then as you mentioned, that is that is something serious, you're you're selling something that is you built for yourself and maybe assumed those risks, knowingly or unknowingly, but you assumed them. And now you're passing that on to someone else.
Jenifer Levini 47:14
Yeah, that's a problem. I kind of feel like the ones that people just build for themselves shouldn't necessarily go into the secondary market, they should, you know, like, if you're not going to use that. And you you don't know if it's built, you didn't know about the codes at the times you built that. And so there's no record that anything is built to any codes. It doesn't really have any value. Right? And we shouldn't I mean, it's, I don't if you can take that risk of selling it, because what if someone dies? And they're like, yeah. I mean, how could you ever live with yourself? or? Yeah, for sure. You know, worse? I mean, if you spend the rest of your life in jail for murder or manslaughter?
Ethan Waldman 47:58
Yeah, I mean, would you?
Jenifer Levini 48:01
Ethan Waldman 48:02
Jenifer Levini 48:06
That hasn't happened yet. But I mean,
Ethan Waldman 48:10
right, I suppose one could sell their house and make it very clear that, hey, this thing was not built to code. And, you know, it's been safe up until now. But, you know, that's kind of say, there's a risk here. And just make sure that that the person buying your house understands that I think what you've been pointing out is that many builders who are even, you know, quote, unquote, professional, tiny house builders are are not building to code, and they're not. And the people who are their customers assume that because it was professionally built, that it is somehow safe, or that it was built to code, etc. I
Jenifer Levini 48:56
guess that's true. I don't know how you could even give someone Someone could say like they accept the rest, because they don't really wouldn't really know. It wouldn't really know that like electrical lines too close to the waterline until you create sparks inside the walls. They don't really understand the risk that they're taking. I think like when you accept a risk to go ski down a mountain and you buy a lift ticket, you understand what the risk is that you're taking, right when you buy a home that's built illegally. I don't know if you really understand the risk that you're taking. Yeah,
Ethan Waldman 49:35
yeah, you're probably right. I want to ask you about are there so zooming in on a movable tiny house or a tiny house on wheels, that is kind of in that RV size, RV park model size. So what you're seeing is very popular in In the tiny house movement today, which is like a 28 foot ish house, on a trailer that is, you know, eight and a half feet wide and 13 and a half feet tall, are there and you don't have to make any endorsements. So feel free to pass on this question. But are there any builders that you do you think are doing it? Well,
Jenifer Levini 50:20
yes. And I go to a lot of tiny home shows. And I go through as many Tiny Homes, I just love Tiny Homes. And I definitely look at the way they're built. And there's some like, you can just tell after you've gone through enough of them. There's just some builders that are really they're just doing a good job they have. And they honestly, they usually have some kind of certification. Like they're either going through our VA certification, or rad, or some sort of certification or another. And they're more expensive. Because they're building using more expensive parts. They're, you know, usually using, they're paying their employees, well, to build them, they have just getting these certifications is super expensive. And they're they're also one of the big clues is that they're building them in actual factories. They're not like a bunch of guys out in the field yielding them. They have a factory space where they have an assembly line. And they're building them like a real business. Yep. And I've visited some of the fat, some factories, and I've watched them being built to try to understand this. And I've seen like the gamut. I've seen like guys who just like are building them out in the field, or like one guy with a hammer is like building Tiny Homes with like, the cheapest parts. And then I've just, I've seen so many illegal things. And then I've seen, like, factories that are just really professional assembly lines and their union wages are being paid. And they're taking care of their workers, and they're more expensive. And they're safe.
Ethan Waldman 52:27
Yeah, yeah. And then do you do you have any any names to name? Or do you want to just kind of leave it at that?
Jenifer Levini 52:35
I'm not gonna name any names right now. But I've seen some really good ones that are coming out of Canada.
Ethan Waldman 52:42
Yes, me too.
Jenifer Levini 52:44
So you probably know what I'm thinking who I'm thinking of. And there's also you know, like, there's some things like you go in, and first thing you notice is like there's a loft with no safety railing. Yeah. And there's, there's like a stairway with no handrails. There's no egus windows, there's just like these things that honestly, it's not that expensive to put up some kind of railing next to on a stairway or on a loft so that people don't roll out in the middle of the night. Yeah, you know, or fall down the stairs. I haven't. I mean, I've tripped and fell downstairs, even when I'm not in a tiny.
Ethan Waldman 53:24
Yeah. Well, I mean, on that conversation, I just, you know, I built my tiny house at the time. You know, everyone was doing loft access or ladder access lofts. And that's what my tiny house has and man climbing up and down that ladder sucks. Frankly. I wish it didn't have a ladder. Do
Jenifer Levini 53:45
you ever have to go to bathroom in the middle of the night?
Ethan Waldman 53:47
It's terrible. Yeah. Well, so I actually have a follow up question regarding the builders that you think are doing well. And that is are there you know, so if if somebody is going to DIY build their tiny house, and they're interested in getting it certified? What you now what certifier should they go to? Again, I guess I'm asking you to name names, if you can, or if, you know, maybe if you're not willing to name names. Just you know. Can you tell us how to evaluate that certifier?
Jenifer Levini 54:22
Well, the state of California has put together a list of, of companies that can certify Tiny Homes and our our mobile home, okay. So I'm kind of what I'm doing now is I'm kind of going through that list and looking at which one of those companies will certify Tiny Homes. And it's really hard because the companies that are saying that they want to certify Tiny Homes for do it yourselfers are not certified by anybody else. And so it's a real like, catch 22. And so I'm just, I'm just gonna do like a little moment of shameless self promotion. Okay, go for it. I've written a second edition of my book. Okay. And it's almost completely done. But this exactly question of what companies do I mentioned for certification is one of the last stumbling blocks for the book. And I'm changing the title of the book from like building, occupying and selling Tiny Homes legally, which is too much of a mouthful to Tiny Home lock. Yeah. You know what I mean? Like, a lot easier to like, remember, like, what was that book called? Again?
Ethan Waldman 55:47
Yeah. Tiny Home law
Jenifer Levini 55:49
and tiny home law. It's like, you know, what is this book about, like, directly to the point. But that idea of like, describing that certification companies, it's, it's, the weird thing about Tiny Homes is that there's a lot of infighting in this industry. Like, it should be, like all peace and love and sustainability. And, you know, white dogs and unicorns. There's a lot of people who are fighting among themselves in this business. And I've been trying, I tried to like rise above that. And I consider myself the Eco. Like, I don't make the laws, I just echo,
Ethan Waldman 56:33
you're just telling you how it is.
Jenifer Levini 56:36
Yeah, this is what the laws are. And I'm just echoing them. And then there's a lot of people who are really angry at me. Because it just turns out, like, whenever they're angry at me, it turns out that they're doing things only going off. Okay. I tell people about the law. And some of those people are these inspectors.
Ethan Waldman 56:56
Yeah, okay. The inspectors who are trying to basically make a business and say, Hey, we'll certify your tiny house house, just give us $3,000. And, you know, you get your certification. You go through the checklist, and you get the certifications.
Jenifer Levini 57:13
So Well, I mean, my feeling about the inspectors is that I think that if you're building a tiny house on your own, it's worthwhile paying a couple 1000 bucks to have somebody provide the law to you and interpret it, and to make sure that you don't build something that's so far from the law that you could die in it, right? I think it's worth it. Now, also, because if you build it, according to some set of rules, then you can resell it, just like we were talking about it like after you live in it for a few years, and you decide, you know what, I'm ready to go back to my mountain, then you can sell your tiny home and say that it was certified by some company. So there's a lot of value. Yeah. And working with a certification company.
Ethan Waldman 58:05
Yeah, that's a good point. And then it kind of gives you peace of mind for yourself and for future inhabitants.
Jenifer Levini 58:14
Also, people, some people move their tiny home quite a bit, yes. And that when you move it from place to place, some of the parks where you put Tiny Homes, they want to see the certification, so you can if you have the certification, and there's a lot more places you can put it.
Ethan Waldman 58:32
Well, what I want to say is, I'm not angry at you, I'm grateful for you. Because again, this is like it's dance, you've done a really, really great job of making it clear. And also, you know, as you mentioned, you've kind of by being that echo by being that kind of truth teller, you you end up having people mad at you, because you're basically pointing out that what they're doing is illegal.
Jenifer Levini 58:59
And the other thing is, is that there's, there's this idea that I want to just level the playing field, that if there's some people who are building legal, Tiny Homes, and it costs them a lot more money to build it that way. And then there's some people who are building illegal Tiny Homes, and they do it really for a lot cheaper. And then the consumers come along, and they think, you know, why can I buy one tiny home for 25,000 and someone else is charging 125,000. And they don't understand that there's a big difference. Yeah, between those Tiny Homes, it might just seem like some companies ripping them off for 100,000 bucks, you know, like, yeah, those guys are a big rip off. And that it's, there's got to be a level playing field here that like, if everybody followed the laws, then then people would be able to cost compare Tiny Homes and see like if they're really getting a good deal or not. If it's if it's like a sale price, or if it's an illegal price, because they use, like, parts that weren't the right parts to build up. Yeah, yeah. And so by, by doing this, I actually feel like I'm not just protecting the consumers, but I'm protecting the tiny home builders, I'm helping them level their playing field so that they're competing against each other fairly. Yeah. And that the ones who are doing a really good job, aren't just losing market share. You know, they're, I really want to protect them, I want their businesses to thrive, because they're the ones who are following the law, and the consumers will understand that. And then the ones who are illegal building illegal have the opportunity to rise up to the where the playing field should be a relief, and at some point there are going to have to leave the industry. Yeah. You know, I mean, the industry is going to be legalized sort of like cannabis. Right? You know, like, there are all these illegal grows going on out there. And now, like states are legalizing cannabis and the growers and dispensaries and all these places have to start following the laws. And if not, they're gonna get shut down. Yeah.
Ethan Waldman 1:01:19
Well, I like that feels like a really positive way to leave it just that, you know, this is ultimately going to help the tiny house movement. These are growing pains. And that, you know, hopefully, we're going to shed the shed the skin of kind of illegal buildings and unsafe practices, and as the laws catch up to Tiny Homes will actually help to make the movement safer, and also more widely available to people.
Jenifer Levini 1:01:53
Definitely, it's going on all across the United States, all 50 states have, you know, stepped up and decided whether or not they're going to have Tiny Homes legal. And then within every state, all the cities and counties are talking about it and their Tiny Homes are legal of one sort or another in different parts of every state. So yeah, it's happening. And it's happening in a way to make people legal and to make the industry legal and to solve the housing challenge. And I'm really happy to be a part of it. Nice.
Ethan Waldman 1:02:32
Well, Jennifer Lavine, I think I might have to have you back on for a part two, because we're already quite longer than a usual episode of the tiny house lifestyle podcast, but I think that I could keep talking to you for twice as long. So thank you so much for your time. And why don't you save the name of your book one more time, the link will be in the show notes for today's episode, but just so people know how to find it.
Jenifer Levini 1:02:58
The book is called Building, Occupying and Selling Tiny Homes Legally. It's information as at building Tiny Homes legally.com. Or you can just look up Levini on amazon.com and get the book. It's available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and walmart.com and other places, but I think Amazon seems to be like the best source. Great, thank you so much for talking to me, then it was really a pleasure.
Ethan Waldman 1:03:37
Thank you so much to Jennifer Levini for being a guest on the show today. You can find the show notes including a full transcript, links to Jenifer's book and website and more at thetinyhouse.net/161. Again, that's thetinyhouse.net/161. Well, that's all for this week. I am your host, Ethan Waldman, and I'll be back next week with another episode of the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast.
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