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September 20, 2017

Fauquier open to growing tiny house movement

Contributed Photos
A local tiny house sits peacefully in the woods, where its owner lives full-time.
The efficient interior of the local owner's tiny home.
A small bathroom with high-quality finish and fixtures.
As far as zoning is concerned, tiny houses are absolutely permissible. They would basically take the place of a typical single-family, detached dwelling.
— Rob Walton, county’s acting zoning chief
By Erin McCarty
Contributing Writer

It’s hard to surf TV channels without finding at least one show about tiny houses. Programs such as “Tiny House Nation,” “Tiny House Hunting” and “Tiny House, Big Living” frequent home and garden networks.

Small homes have grown popular, especially among young people seeking to live affordably while cutting back to bare necessities. But are they a viable option in Fauquier County?

According to a local builder, living tiny might be easier in Fauquier than in many other Virginia communities. Robin Hayes’ company, Build Tiny, has constructed itty-bitty houses for clients all over the United States. Based in Berryville, she has sold eight tiny houses to clients in Virginia since starting five years ago, Ms. Hayes said.

“Fauquier was one of the first counties that started their answer as yes,” she said. “I feel like they are looking for a way to make them legal, whereas other jurisdictions are looking for a way to make them illegal.”

In Fauquier, planning, building and environmental health regulations make no distinction between tiny houses and other dwellings.

“As far as zoning is concerned, tiny houses are absolutely permissible,” said Rob Walton, Fauquier’s acting chief of zoning and development services. “They would basically take the place of a typical single-family, detached dwelling.”

Tiny houses also may be placed legally as accessory dwellings, Mr. Walton said.

Standard building requirements for traditional dwellings, based on the International Regulatory Code, apply.

While those regulations may allow for tiny houses, others do not. No house in the county can be on wheels, requiring an owner to build a foundation and make his or her tiny house a permanent structure. Fauquier’s zoning ordinance defines any house on wheels as a recreational vehicle. One can’t legally live full-time in an RV here.

Potential owners also must consider environmental health regulations. The state requires an approved treatment system for all sewage, including “gray water.” Some tiny houses have holding tanks, which get pumped regularly. But, Fauquier doesn’t allow that option for homeowners. Composting toilets are allowed, however, and installing one in a tiny house could significantly reduce the necessary drainfield size.

One tiny house owner in the area (who wishes to remain anonymous), cites many of those obstacles to owning and living legally in a very small home.

“I would love for more people to be aware of the legal difficulties tiny house owners face,” the homeowner said. “I understand that the current zoning laws are reasonable for traditional forms of housing, but it seems to me that counties and cities should consider tiny houses separately and decide whether or not they are in line with the values and priorities of the the community.”

Ms. Hayes believes the interest in tiny houses has exceeded that of a fad. Advocates have begun to make headway toward regulations more accommodating to this type of home, and the International Regulatory Code will address tiny house building codes in its upcoming revision.

“It’s a good start,” she said.

The median list price for a single-family home in Fauquier stands at $465,000, according to Zillow.com. “Entry-level” properties, listed for $250,000 or less, remain scarce.

Tiny houses provide an affordable path to homeownership for many people just starting out. While costs vary, one can buy a new, unfurnished tiny house of at least 400 square feet for less than $80,000. Do-it-yourselfers can find additional ways to cut expenses.

However, with the requirements for a foundation, septic system and well, the affordability of a tiny house grows more complex. Finding inexpensive land also presents a financial hurdle.

But, the allure can go beyond costs. The local owner enjoyed the process of cutting back on belongings, calling it a liberating experience.

“It's definitely not for everyone, but for many people, myself included, it feels great to shed 80 percent of the stuff you've been accumulating all your life and just focus on what’s most important to you.”

Many tiny house owners also regard their dwellings as a responsible environmental choice. Living small has the advantage of reducing the demands on energy resources.

“This is great for my wallet, but also great for the environment,” the local owner says.

Her clients find the charm and financial freedom appealing, with tiny houses offering quality that RV living does not, Ms. Hayes said. Owners choose tiny houses because they are built to last.

While some regulations may make it difficult and expensive for tiny houses to exist legally in Fauquier and surrounding counties, the local owner hopes Virginia jurisdictions will create more opportunities.

“If one of these counties made it legal to live in a small space, I would almost certainly move there.”
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BJ · September 21, 2017 at 8:00 pm
Love the idea! Affordable housing without a big footprint. Less stuff means less waste for the landfill, and the kids won't have a big headache when you pass on to the great beyond. Who needs a big house when most people spend their time in the kitchen, the living room, bedroom, or like me the garage (I'd have to have a garage!!!).
Jim Griffin · September 21, 2017 at 12:13 pm
Might someone explain the compelling govt interest in preventing people from living in a structure with wheels versus their living in a structure without wheels?

Why should the county govt substitute its judgment for that of the land owner in this particular circumstance? Does it protect us from the presence of RVs? (Of course not.) Does it protect people from living in them? (Of course not, they can and do, but apparently ought not do so "permanently.")

The local tiny house depicted with this article clearly has wheels, is in violation if a permanent residence, and yet is seemingly innocuous and inoffensive. Perhaps it is time for a change.
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