Mountain law: Four things I’ve learned about tiny houses in Colorado (column)
November 14, 2017
I'm working to understand the developing area of Colorado law as it relates to "tiny houses." Here are four things that I've learned so far.
First, tiny houses come in various designs and are basically house-like structures that are built on a trailer. They are like a recreational vehicle but usually look and feel more like a house and, unlike a recreational vehicle, are intended to be occupied full time. A tiny house could be used as a residence or office. The attraction is that tiny houses take up little space, are relatively inexpensive compared to construction on a pad, and are mobile. As an example of an application, one client bought a tiny house to live in from time to time at her property while her ex-husband visited their daughter.
Second, tiny houses seem to fall into the gray area between "manufactured home" and "recreational vehicle" as those terms are defined in Colorado statutes. In general terms, a "manufactured home" must include electro-mechanical systems that are built off-site, be designed for residential occupancy, be constructed according to federal standards, not have motor power and not be licensed as a recreational vehicle. Many tiny houses do not meet these requirements because they either do not fall under the federal standards (which typically apply to structures 8 body feet or more in width, 40 body feet or more in length, or that are more than 320 square feet), are not designed for residential occupancy (e.g. when intended to be used as an office), or are registered as recreational vehicles. Colorado closely regulates the manufactured home industry by imposing registration, escrow and bonding, contractual disclosure and other requirements. Many builders of tiny houses actively (and understandably) try to avoid their houses being classified as manufactured homes to avoid these regulations.
Third, a "recreational vehicle" means a vehicle designed to be used primarily as temporary living quarters for recreational, camping, travel or seasonal use that either has its own motor power or is mounted on or towed by another vehicle. Like many states, Colorado law makes it illegal to manufacture or sell any new recreational vehicle that does not comply with a national technical standard known as ANSI 119.2 (which is the same as CFPA 1192). A vehicle that complies with ANSI 119.2 should have a badge stating as such. Some builders of tiny houses embrace ANSI 119.2, perhaps because it may make the houses more financeable and insurable. However, some builders take the position that tiny houses are not recreational vehicles (because they are intended for full-time use), therefore ANSI 119.2 arguably does not apply. Some such builders just don't want to be constrained by standards while others feel that standards stricter than ANSI 119.2 should apply. Until there are clear industry standards, buyers of tiny houses should be sure to specify the applicable standards in the contract.
Fourth, tiny houses are often not clearly addressed by applicable land use regulations. Therefore, obtaining approval for a tiny house requires careful review of the regulations and working closely with the planning and building departments at the local government. Buyers should beware that, in many cases, permanent occupation of a tiny house will not be allowed.
In sum, the laws that apply to tiny houses are not well-defined. As tiny houses grow in popularity and the industry matures, I expect to see construction standards and regulations develop. Local governments should develop policy concerning where tiny houses will be allowed (perhaps with an eye to addressing affordable housing issues). For the time being, anyone purchasing a tiny house should ensure that the contract provides adequate protection and the local government will allow the intended use.
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Noah Klug is owner of The Klug Law Firm, LLC, in Summit County, Colorado. He may be reached at 970-468-4953 or Noah@TheKlugLawFirm.com.
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