Legal Requirements for Building a House
I own a vacant lot in rural Texas. It is ideal for a small hunting cabin. Does the law in Texas allow me to build a tiny house and put it on my land? Does it matter whether I build it on a permanent foundation as opposed to bringing in a trailer with wheels?
In comparison to most other states, it is relatively easy to place a tiny house on rural land in Texas. This is due in large part to the fact that counties in Texas tend not to have the authority to enforce zoning regulations.
That said, there are still regulations you must comply with when building a tiny house in Texas. Since every county and every parcel of land is different, you need to do some site-specific research to make sure your tiny house is lawful on your lot.
Texas Counties Typically Have Limited Zoning Authority
Rural parts of Texas typically fall under the control of the local county, not a city. This is important because land that is outside city limits or an extraterritorial jurisdiction will typically not be subject to zoning.
Unlike cities, counties in Texas have limited zoning authority. There are some exceptions to that rule. For example, counties in certain special use areas, such as Padre Island (Cameron and Willacy counties) or Lake Granbury and the Brazos River (Hood County), have special zoning authority. (See Tex. Loc. Gov. Code § 231.)
Generally, though, a Texas county's authority to regulate land development is limited to indirect controls through subdivision regulations, transportation standards, and regulation of water supply, wastewater treatment, and stormwater. In some areas, there may also be wildlife protections that apply to habitat conservation plans. (See Tex. Parks & Wild. Code § 83.)
Most Texas counties will not expressly prohibit tiny houses. However, the house owner will still need to comply with other regulations that indirectly impact land use.
For example, transportation standards may require an access permit and may impose setbacks from nearby public roads to make sure your use does not interfere with any existing right of way. Similarly, any installed septic system will (or other wastewater treatment system), will need to comply with county rules.
A good first step is to contact the local planning or permit department to inquire about what, if any, development permits you will need. And if you are in a special use area with zoning, you will need to review the applicable zoning ordinance to determine what uses are legal on your lot and what development standards apply.
Taxes and Safety Standards Vary Depending on Foundation Type
In addition to any zoning regulations (whether applied directly or indirectly), a tiny house may also be subject to building and safety standards. A tiny house on wheels that meets the definition of a park trailer (recreational, seasonal, or temporary use, and less than 400 square feet) must be titled as a house trailer.
Additionally, a tiny house that is certified by the American National Safety Institute ("ANSI") to meet standard A119.5 is exempt from personal property tax. This creates an incentive for owners to make sure a tiny house on wheels at least meets ANSI safety standards. If you plan to buy your tiny house on wheels prebuilt, it is common for manufacturers to make these ANSI compliant, but double check. If you construct your tiny house on wheels yourself and cannot show it is ANSI certified, you may not qualify for that tax exemption. If this tax exemption is important to you, talk to a tax expert before buying or building a tiny house on wheels.
A tiny house built on a foundation will likely be taxed as part of the real property it is on. Also, Texas counties have the ability to require new residential structures to comply with the local building code (although not all do). If your tiny house meets the definition of a new residential structure, you may have to get a building permit and comply with the building code. This will mean, among other requirements, that the tiny house meets minimum room size requirements, its electrical components are up to code, and the plumbing fixtures are installed correctly. This can add expense to the construction project.
Before deciding on whether to build a tiny house on wheels on a foundation, talk to the local permitting authority about what exactly is allowed on your property and what expenses may apply. When deciding whether to build on a trailer with wheels or a foundation, also consider other important factors, such as whether your property is in tornado country (a permanent foundation may be best), and whether your will ever want to relocate the tiny house.
Hiring a Texas Land Use Attorney Is a Good Idea
Although much of rural Texas may be accepting of tiny houses (perhaps by default due to a lack of zoning regulations), it is important to comply with all applicable laws. Counties in Texas can enforce applicable regulations. If, for example, you build a tiny house on a foundation and install a septic system without regard to setbacks from a public highway or septic system rules, you may be forced to move the tiny house and septic system. That will likely be expensive.