I’ve been back in Wisconsin for two weeks now not fully sure on what crazy idea to do next. I spent most of that time looking for a new vehicle, and now that I have one I’ve turned my mind towards other things. Specifically, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, I have decided to build a tiny house. As most of my ideas go, I have done little thinking about all the details and instead I’m just taking the idea and running with it, because I think that’s the best way to experience life. It could be my best choice yet or a terrible and miserable failure. Only time will tell!
The idea of building a tiny house is not something that’s actually new to me. In fact, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for awhile now for three main reasons:
- I live a pretty simplistic lifestyle.
- I’m cheap (or “poor,” if you prefer) and don’t wanna pay rent or buy a real house.
- It’s on wheels, so I could travel with it, if I wanted to.
On top of that, living in a tiny house comes with the advantages of having lower property taxes than a regular house would (if you own the property) and the building codes are completely different since it’s built on a trailer and can be registered and insured as an RV, if you do things properly. I’m still looking into the DMV regulations, but what I’ve read so far is the house will have to be inspected and document everything, including pictures of every stage of building. Although I plan on doing the work myself, I do plan on having the electrical, plumbing, and any gas lines professionally inspected and certified to make sure I didn’t mess anything up and to hopefully make getting it registered as an RV a lot easier.
In the 17 hours that I have been committed to this idea, I have already purchased an old camper trailer for $350 to start building upon. It’s not in perfect condition, as it’s from a nearly 30 year-old trailer, but it needs minimal work to bring it up to par. I chose to go with an old, used trailer because three hundred and fifty dollars, that’s why. Seriously, it’s pretty hard to beat that price.
UPDATE: I decided not to use this trailer for my tiny house and instead bought a brand new, heavier duty trailer that I’ll be using instead.
The trailer I bought currently has two axles that appear to be rated for 3,500 lbs each. I say “appear to be” because there are no markings anywhere that I’ve seen yet indicating the actual weight rating, but their diameters are both 2-3/8″ and according to the internet (which never lies), that should mean they’re rated for 3,500 lbs. The tires are crap and will definitely need to be replaced. Both axles look like they have brakes, but all the electrical will need to be redone and possibly other stuff, I honestly don’t know yet. I’ve never messed with trailer brakes before, so it’ll be a fun learning experience. If I can’t salvage what’s there or decide I don’t trust the axles to support the entire weight of the house, I’ve already priced out new 5,200 lb axles with brakes. There’s a good chance I’ll upgrade the axles just to be on the safe side, as I’d prefer not to come close to exceeding the axles limits.
Enough yammering, here’s some pictures of the junker I bought. I’m gonna try to get it sand blasted, some welding needs to be done, and then a fresh coat of black paint should get it looking like a million bucks. Well, maybe not a million bucks, but definitely more than $350 I paid for it. Its rough dimensions are 24’x8′, including the tongue.
As you can see, the rear, right of the trailer is gonna need some work to get the support brackets straightened out or new ones made and welded on (most likely the latter). The support beam going across the trailer right before the bumper will also have to be replaced, as it’s too rusty and bent to trust. I’m debating on keeping the side step and trying to design the house so that I can have a door above it. The only thing I know for sure right now is that I want the rear “wall” of the house to fold down to become a small porch and there will be another wall about one foot inside the trailer that will have a double glass door to let in lots of light.
The only thing I’ve looked up so far are the basic legal requirements and restrictions to haul this thing down the road. There are both federal and state regulations limiting the length and width of a trailer/RV/motorhome. In order to be in compliance with all states, I’m opting to go with the most restrictive of the regulations, that way it can be taken anywhere… even though it’ll probably never leave Wisconsin. Better safe than sorry. RV Trip Wizard has an awesome breakdown of each state’s restrictions, with the caveat that it *may* not be 100% accurate (I’m sure it’s close enough). You can also check out the DOT’s commercial restrictions, which are basically the same limitations. Again, I’m going with the most restrictive limits so I should meet all of the standards regardless of who looks at it.
Note: These dimensions are the restrictions for trailers, since that’s what I’m starting with.
Max Height: 13’6″. This means the tippy-top of the roof, or anything coming out of the roof (like the chimney for the wood burning stove I want) has to be under that height from ground level. Flat-out, I plan to push this limit to maximize space inside the house.
Max Width: 8′. Blame Arizona, DC, and New Jersey for that. Almost every other state is 8’6″, except Alaska at 8’5″ and Hawaii at a gracious 9′. The trailer I bought is only about 91″ wide, so I will easily be under the 8′ limit.
Max Length: 35′. For this one you can blame North Carolina, as most states are 40′ or more. My 24′ trailer doesn’t come close to this, so I’m good.
Lighting: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has regulations for lighting equipment (brake lights, turn signals, reflectors, etc). It’s pretty easy stuff to follow, but since the trailer I bought has none of it currently on it, it’s all stuff I’m gonna have to buy and add during the design.
Safety: The following safety devices are required. If any state required something, I added it to the list. Again, most restrictive. I want to be in compliance with every state.
- Safety chains.
- Breakaway switch on towed vehicles/trailers weighing over 3,000 pounds.
- Brakes required on towed vehicles/trailers weighing over 1,500 pounds (Nevada specifies brakes must be on all wheels, not just one of the axles).
- Brakes required that stops the combined vehicles within 40 feet at 20 mph (this is in Kansas and Wyoming).
- Flares or reflective signs. Not sure if they mean for roadside emergencies or what.
- Fire extinguisher in RV (aka tiny house).
Rear Impact Guards: Trailers with a gross weight of 10,000 lbs or more are required to have rear impact guards installed, according to NHTSA Standard Numbers 223 and 224. The trailer I bought does have a bumper on it, but I shouldn’t come close to exceeding the 10,000 lb limit… especially since the axles can only support 7,000 lbs.
Tires: NHTSA again. According to Standard Numbers 119 and 120, the tires must be of sufficient size, have the appropriate load rating, and the rims must be of a particular size, type, and identification. Honestly, I would think this is a given. I don’t want tires on the trailer that aren’t gonna be able to hold the load.
Building Codes: The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has building codes designed for RVs, which need to be followed if you want to register your tiny house with the DMV – which I plan on doing.
Misc: I found this Tiny House Community website to be pretty informative for basic questions. They also have a guideline that I’ll probably get a lot of information from. Here’s another good site about codes and whatnot.
I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to build this project, as I don’t want to rush it. I’ve looked up nothing in the design process, construction, appliances, etc. I’m honestly more focused on making sure the trailer itself is sound before doing anything else. This will include cleaning it up, replacing the tongue jack, getting the welding done, buying some jack stands, and getting the brakes fixed or replacing the axles altogether. Once all that is done, I can start construction. I’d like to have the shell completed, roofed, and sided by the end of October, but that’s assuming things go to plan (which I have none).