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Colorado Community Media journalists spent months digging into the factors that caused — and solutions to — the affordable housing crisis. Find all stories in the project at our overview here.
For some Coloradans, the American dream is a spacious home. It might have four bedrooms, several bathrooms, high ceilings, a two-car garage and a yard with a vegetable garden. For others, the dream looks different — and the house, smaller. Much smaller.
A “tiny home” is a fraction of the dream, often a single room with a loft. And it can be had at a fraction of the price of a traditional home.
Tiny homes are a reality after Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 1242 last year. The law recognizes tiny homes as a new option amid skyrocketing home values. Prices have risen so fast in recent years that many Coloradans are simply priced out of the market.
The Polis administration, in an announcement, said the law is meant to “preserve and protect housing affordability and expand access to affordable housing.”
While tiny home builders have applauded the bill, it wasn’t always that way. Builder Byron Fears said the legislation in its current form almost did not come together.
“They didn’t have the realistic side of what a tiny home is about and what it takes to build a tiny home,” Fears said.
Fears is the owner of SimBlissity Tiny Homes in Longmont. He is also on the executive committee of the nonprofit Tiny Home Industry Association, which launched in Colorado under the leadership of former Gov. John Hickenlooper and has expanded across the country.
But Fears said the original draft of the bill had the potential to put tiny home builders out of business.
He turned to state Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Larimer County, one of the bill’s sponsors.
“We did a Zoom call the next day and then another Zoom call the following day with more people involved,” Fears said.
Boon to the industry
Eventually, changes to the bill came and the industry got on board.
The industry looks at tiny homes as a boon to the state’s tight housing market. And they’re supported by a movement: tiny-house advocates who emphasize the environmental and personal benefits of living in smaller spaces.
The dwellings can be as large as 400 square feet but many are much smaller. Some cost around $50,000, with prices ranging up to $200,000, depending on size and amenities — affordable, especially when compared to median Colorado home prices that are well above $500,000.
Like regular homes, they must pass a code inspection to hook up to water, sewage and utilities. The new law also addresses manufactured homes, also known as mobile homes, simplifying contract and disclosure requirements and establishing a raft of standards from escrow to inspections meant to protect homeowners.
Fears said legislators and others worked closely with builders, too.
The new law relies on the 2018 International Residential Code model, building codes written by builders around the world and adopted by individual counties, cities and towns. The IRC’s Appendix Q specifically addresses tiny homes and spells out the size and shape of the buildings, stairway standards, lofts and doors.
From industry to county
It all may sound dull, but those residential codes are the bread and butter of the business because they standardize tiny homes, giving builders, local communities and buyers an idea of what they can expect.
But writing the codes for national industry standards is one thing, getting counties to change zoning laws is another. The new state law simply makes it possible for county officials to adopt tiny home rules of their own, Fears said.
“It still going to take a lot of work to get the different counties to adopt the Appendix Q IRC, which is what most of the building requirements will be based around,” he said.
Fears’ group met with officials in Adams County and said they were not interested. Adams County officials provided no comment when contacted by Colorado Community Media.
But Fears said other counties are amenable to the idea.
“Some counties are already starting to talk with us,” Fears said.
Weld County began allowing tiny homes even before the state law passed. Tom Parko, director of the Department of Planning Services, said the county created its own policy a couple of years ago allowing people to buy a parcel of land to park a tiny home.
“We wanted to make sure the tiny home was hooked up to either a well or a public water system for potable water and then also a septic system,” Parko said. “We still do require a permanent foundation. So, the tiny home cannot be on wheels. That would be considered more of an RV and a temporary situation.”
Requirements like that can be a sticking point for some buyers. Some tiny homeowners want to have semi-permanent foundations that keep the homes secure but allow them to be moved. The state is working on clarification about the foundations, Fears said.
“It is one of our most significant sticking points and that clarification will become guidelines counties can adopt or not adopt,” Fears said.
Weld County has more to explore, Parko said. The current rules treat a potential tiny home community like a mobile home park.
“It would allow somebody to buy 40 acres, and then allow 20 tiny homes to park on one parcel very similar to what you might find in a mobile home park,” Parko said.
Parko said it gets a little more complicated when considering utilities. Weld County is not a water and sewer provider in unincorporated areas and in communities like Fort Lupton.
Special districts and utilities need to provide those services.
“Also sewerage and septic also have to be addressed,” Parko said. “It’s those types of things we’re kind of batting around a little bit to accommodate more of a tiny home community. But we certainly allow tiny homes in Weld County, if it’s just one per parcel.”
With tiny home living an option, Parko recommended contacting the local planning and zoning departments in the county where you are interested in living before making a purchase to ensure they’re allowed.
Home, sweet tiny home
But for residents and buyers of tiny homes, all the regulatory wrangling is worth it. Sandy Brooks is one of those people. She was 75 years old when she purchased her tiny home in 2019.
“I’m older than most, and tiny homes are wonderful for older people,” she said. “I would rather buy a tiny home and live in it for many years than pay a lot for independent living. I feel like I’m living independently now.”
Brooks describes her tiny home as akin to a small apartment. It has a bedroom, closet, living room, and office space. It even has a kitchen with a dishwasher and a bathroom with a washer and dryer.
“It has all the amenities, Brooks said. “I love it, don’t regret it, and am grateful. I love my location. I live in Durango on the side of a mountain. It’s beautiful.”
Brooks said her place is perched alongside 24 other tiny homes.
“An engineer, therapists, and retired people live here, and our community helps each other,” Brooks said. “We all communicate and respect each other, and it is a wonderful place to live.”