Out Buildings as Dwellings

This post continues the discussion about Counties with Few or No Building Codes, which has become our number one most popular blog post. Obviously this is something a lot of people want to know more about.

As mentioned before, one approach to building alternative housing is to buy rural property with an existing structure, septic, power and water supply already in place. To keep costs to a minimum, you could buy an old run-down farmhouse or trailer that’s technically livable, but undesirable by most potential buyers. I can only speak for the Western states, where I lived and traveled extensively. There are countless thousands of run-down buildings that fit this description. Many are inhabited, many are for sale. It shouldn’t be hard at all to find dozens to choose from if you’re willing to live in a remote area.

Okay, now you have a legal residence that’s below the radar, so to speak. Now you can start planning some ‘out buildings’ – accessory structures such as sheds, stables and chicken coops – that are not enforced by codes and do not draw attention to themselves in rural areas where literally everyone has tool sheds, chickens and other livestock. Some people choose to build small structures for dwelling. This may include one building or multiple small structures, each with a specific purpose – kitchen, bedroom, main living area and so on. While it’s not legal to live in out buildings, people do what they have to do to provide a roof over their heads. Proceed with caution and keep a low profile.

12 thoughts on “Out Buildings as Dwellings”

  1. In Austin TX out buildings under 100 sq ft don’t need a permit. I think that the limit is 2 out buildings per property. I’m considering building sleeping pods under a 100 sq ft behind a home with a studio floor plan that would consist of a kitchen, bathroom, and living/dining area in one with floor cushions as furniture. It would basically be a common house for those that sleep in the pods.

  2. The map is not really reflecting the real on the ground requirements. In Navajo County, Az for example any structure larger the 10×10 requires a permit. That means sheds too. Also all housing requires perc tests if using conventional septic. In Navajo county that means $$$. Grey water systems/ composting toilets are allowed, but dealing with the county is time consuming. Legally you cannot even live on your property in a tent without a septic system in place. Alternative building is allowed, but not without an engineer’s $tamp. Fortunately the county is strapped for money and doesn’t have the resources to check on the out lying areas. Usually a nosy neighbor complaint is what gets their attention. Also be aware that many counties are now using Google Earth to look for new structures.

    What is contradictory is what happens on the large ranches. Many of the older ranches have considerable political power and pull. They pretty much build what they want, when they want and often without permits. If your going for vacant land, buy out in the boonies. Just be aware that there are no services, the roads are almost non existent and getting to the grocery store is an hour ride. Weather is a big factor too, making a long trip to town even longer.

  3. I have been told by a friend who lives there that Floyd, VA has no building codes. Here is a map of earthbuilding friendly counties from the earthship folks: http://earthship.com/pockets-of-freedom

    I think Owen is right that building one as an “outbuilding” makes a lot of sense. I wouldn’t want my house to turn into a coded nightmare. In lots of places, outbuildings under a certain size don’t even require a permit. Good luck all.

  4. Or have the mobile home on property listed as the residence, but live in an underground earthbag home, with a few out buildings to dispell suspicion?

    • An underground home could draw unwanted attention because it looks like a dwelling. Eventually some government official (tax, census…) or electrical power worker, etc. will likely come to your home. Small structures that look like out buildings might be ignored. It’s hiding in plain sight.

  5. To help stay under the radar too, maybe try to get a permitted very tall fence around the perimeter of the property so that prying eyes never know what goes on inside the fence line…….

  6. I love you man!

    Around here, anything uninhabited ends up falling to the ground pretty fast. Forget trailers. There are two near me that went uninhabited for a few years, and are now not even fit to burn. They are falling down. About the only value is the VIN on the frame. The humidity, storms, and mold/fungus are unrelenting.

    However, your notion could be expounded upon by building an Engineer Stamped Studio/Efficiency earthbag structure, then proceeding with the same.

    It could even be engineered with internal ‘deconstruction’ in mind, to make it fit the true intended function after the Code Nazis are gone…

    I wish I had the ability to draw this up. I’m slick on SolidWorks and Mechanical Design/Metalurgy, but not buildings.

    • I didn’t realize trailers decomposed so quickly in rainy climates. In the arid west, they last a long time.

      You propose getting stamped plans, but again that route takes far more money for engineering fees, permits, insurance, etc. Tiny out buildings like I’m describing would not be allowed. You’d be back to square one if you try to follow all the codes and regulations. (But also be legal and not worry about fines.)

      • I realize it is far from ideal, but I’m trying to practice The Art of the Possible.

        You can’t build ANY structure in FL without a permit. Nothing at all. Even those small garden sheds at Home Improvement Stores require a permit. It usually isn’t enforced tho.

        But, the permits for sheds, detached garage, etc., and other outbuildings are far less expensive.

        I realize it sucks. I hate it, too. Fretting over the impossible until I die of old age isn’t useful.

        Why would tiny outbuildings not be allowed? They are explicitly described in code, with permitting fees, etc. I realize it’s stupidly extortive, but when my choice is that, or be homeless…

        The Art of the Possible. If I can get a stamp for an Efficiency and a Permit, sure, it’ll cost me way too much. But, I’m willing to bet it’s cheaper than a $250,000 McMansion plus perpetual maintenance, energy, tax rate, insurance, etc…

        Possibly re-build on one of these trailer frames? I’m looking for options that I can actually do. If I could move to Thailand, I would! But I can’t.

        I’m also puzzled by the idea that I can’t build an earthbag dome in FL. Engineering Stamp = win, right? Monolithic Domes finished in mesh and stucco are invincible here. Why not do that to an earthbag dome? When combatting wind; dodge > block/resist. I realize stucco isn’t ideal from a sustainability perspective. But, again, The Art of the Possible…

        • I’ve never heard of states requiring permits for garden sheds. Geez, time to move to a building friendlier place.

          I wouldn’t bother trying to fix a totally dilapidated trailer. They’re full of products like plastic and pressed board that off gas VOCs. And they’re highly flammable, have poor wiring, mold problems…

          Domes are probably the most wind resistant shape. But earthbag domes are susceptible to moisture problems if/when the plaster cracks (which it always does). You could build a roofed dome or apply very thick plaster that’s essentially a concrete shell. You could also apply tile on the outside of plaster as an extra moisture barrier. Stay tuned for a blog post about this very soon.


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