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How to Build a House in California?

Simple House Building / September 28, 2020

My dream is to own a second house. I cannot afford much, so I am thinking about buying a vacant lot and building a tiny house. The land will likely be in California. Can you build a tiny house on a vacant lot California? Does it matter whether I build the tiny house on a permanent foundation or put it on a trailer with wheels?


In California, whether a tiny house is legal and if so, what conditions apply, can vary significantly between jurisdictions. What is legal in one city may not be legal in another city just down the highway. Determining whether you can build on any given piece of property will require some site-specific research.

The following answer provides some background information to help you jumpstart your research.

Do Your Due Diligence Before Buying a Vacant Lot in California

You will need to complete what lawyers like to call "due diligence" on each lot you are thinking about buying-in other words, do your research. Your due diligence will include at a bare minimum asking:

  • Does the local zoning code allow residential use of a tiny house?
  • What development standards will apply (such as setbacks and minimum size requirements)?
  • What building and safety standards will apply to construction of the tiny house?

Hiring a local real estate agent to help with the vacant-lot purchase is a good idea. An agent can help you identify other areas of research that you need to complete and can refer you to other professionals, like attorneys or surveyors, when necessary.

Understand the Applicable Zoning Ordinance

In California, local governments control how land is put to use, through land use regulations. These regulations are codified in zoning codes (also known as “zoning ordinances” and “development codes”.) See Building on Vacant Land: Zoning Issues You Might Face for a basic explanation of zoning.

You will want to review the zoning code to learn:

  • what the underlying zone is (for example, residential, commercial, or industrial)
  • what uses are allowed in that zone (for example, single family dwelling, camping, or vacation rentals)
  • minimum lot sizes, setbacks, and even minimum home size, and
  • what building standards apply (more on this below.)

Zoning codes are not always easy to understand. If after reviewing the applicable code, you remain confused or unsure about how your property is zoned and what uses are allowed on it, do not be afraid to contact the local planning department.

Unfortunately, zoning codes in California often impose restrictions that make it difficult to get approval for tiny houses. While the regulations vary, some common hurdles tiny house developers encounter include:

  • prohibitions or limitations on using structures not permitted for residential use, such recreational vehicles ("RVs"), and
  • requirements that tiny homes and RVs be placed in designated communities, like a tiny-house village.

Tiny Houses Must Meet Safety Standards

  • recreational vehicle
  • park trailer
  • manufactured home
  • factory-built housing
  • camping cabin, or
  • site-built dwelling built in conformance with the California Building Standards Code.