Buildig a tiny house in a big city?
July 21, 2006 11:28 AM   Subscribe

Perhaps a ridiculous question: is it possible in a major city (I'm in Toronto) to buy a small piece of land and build a tiny house (like the B-52 on this page) on it? What's involved? If possible, what are the pros and cons? Is it pointless, financially?

So, the houses in my city have ridiculous prices on them that I'll never be able to afford without getting a real job. Plus, I don't need tons of space.

I'm curious if it's legal, feasable (financially), "simple" (I know that's relative) to buy a small piece of land and build something like the tiny house linked.

As someone who knows absolutely nothing about real estate, what do I have to know to do this? Where can I go to find out? How does one find a small piece of land that can be built on? Is there someone that can be hired to do everything (but build the house)--ie, a lawyer specializing in real estate, a real estate agent?

If buying a piece of land is out of the question, what about buying a condemned house and tearing it down to put a tiny house in its place? I assume this eliminates the cost savings, but thought I'd throw it out there.

If you know anything about real estate or building homes, I'd appreciate any info.
posted by dobbs to Law & Government (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You can probably buy empty land outside the city limits; inside the city limits it might be tricky to find stuff that is zoned for residential use and is empty. Anyway, I think the important thing is letting the cities planning office know what you want to do, as I think they are in charge of deciding if what you want to do is allowed or not.

Also, those houses are cool.
posted by chunking express at 11:36 AM on July 21, 2006

Urban houses are expensive in large part because urban land is expensive.

I'd think your only hope would probably be to find a tiny underdeveloped parcel in an area that already had expensive releatively high-rise development surrounding it it.
posted by Good Brain at 11:42 AM on July 21, 2006

Sometimes neighborhoods are zoned for buildings with a minimum square footage. I don't live in Canada, but here in Buffalo, NY I remember a situation where a house was going to be built on a tiny corner lot, and they needed all sorts of variances and hearings to build a house that was smaller then the zoning limits. You'll also run into trouble with architectural or historical commissions depending on the neighborhood.
posted by voidcontext at 11:42 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'd think your only hope would probably be to find a tiny underdeveloped parcel in an area that already had expensive releatively high-rise development surrounding it it.

That's what I imagined, though not necessarily high-rise development. I'm thinking of... if someone has a large yard, buying a chunk of their yard off them and building there. However, I've never seen a yard for sale before. (However, a few years ago in Toronto, a garage in a major yuppie neighborhood sold for $135k--dunno what the buyers planned to do with the garage. And yes, it was a regular garage. Nothing sepcial about it except a desireable 'hood.)
posted by dobbs at 11:56 AM on July 21, 2006

Those houses are awesome. FPP perhaps?
posted by unknowncommand at 12:05 PM on July 21, 2006

Response by poster: They've been FPP'd before.
posted by dobbs at 12:06 PM on July 21, 2006

Response by poster: Here.
posted by dobbs at 12:07 PM on July 21, 2006

posted by unknowncommand at 12:11 PM on July 21, 2006

The house itself could be made National Building code legal though it is not clear how much of the upper floor area could be included for the minimum bedroom size calculations because of the sloping roof. Easiest way to get around those concerns is to have a basement that is bedroom legal.

Check the zoning bylaws[pdf] in your target community. The minimum requirement can vary by neighbourhood and street. Obviously stuff like minimum side yards and maximum lot coverage won't be a problem.

Besides minimum square metre requirements there can be other subtle gotchas in zoning codes. For example the B-52 would not be a legal redevelopment house in Calgary's established communities. The reason is a requirement for a minimum percentage and length of the front of the house to be either set back or forward of the the rest of the house. Because the a B-52 sized house is so narrow there is no way to meet both the percentage and length requirements (you need a minimum of 20' IIRC).

Having said that you can always attempt to secure a variance to allow your specific property to violate the by-law in a specific way. Be ready for the neighbours to block such a small house because they think it will depress property values.
posted by Mitheral at 12:14 PM on July 21, 2006

The thing is, you can't just decide to subdivide property and sell off a piece of it, as I understand it. So someone can't just let you buy half their yard. They'd have to get city planning permission to subdivide the lot, and the city isn't likely to allow them to do that. Plus, selling you a piece of land would make the remaining piece of land vastly less valuable (likely far out of proportion to the actual percentage of land lost), and thus not be nearly the cost savings you might imaging.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:18 PM on July 21, 2006

This would rock. Municipal services could be a problem; How do yuo hook up water, electricity and everything else that you need?

Also, as an afterthought, a lot of these tiny houses are transportable and therefore could fit into 1-2 parking spots. Buy a monthly spot on top of a parkade somewhere and live there. Probably won't fly but an amusing idea nonetheless.
posted by aeighty at 12:19 PM on July 21, 2006

Dobbs, my thinking was that any area with single family homes and large enough lots to subdivide would probably be attractive for either McMansions or multi-story multi-unit development and therefore the land prices would have a lot of upward pressure.

On the other hand, a small parcel of land in an area that had already gone multi-story/multi-unit might be kind of an unwanted orphan. It might be too small to support a new project, and any parcels it might be aggregated with would already be developed.

Good luck. I think it would be cool to find a way to swing a house like that in an urban area.
posted by Good Brain at 12:23 PM on July 21, 2006

Here's the funny part: the B-52 listed is 20 feet wide.

I own a house worth over half a million dollars in central Toronto. It's 16 feet wide.

I imagine you'd have to jump through a lot of hoops with city planners. Plus, you'd have to find empty land to build on, which is actually pretty hard in Toronto these days.

But who knows. People certainly build houses on empty lots. Assuming you have an empty lot (which is not really much cheaper than buying a lot with a house) then the house has to meet the provincial building code. These houses may not meet code. Check for yourself I guess.
posted by GuyZero at 12:29 PM on July 21, 2006

Subdividing an existing lot often results in a "flag lot" illustrated here, and these are quite common here in Portland. Sorry, I don't know anything about Canadian zoning laws, but I thought the term might help you search for more info specific to your situation.
posted by peep at 12:34 PM on July 21, 2006

I think the only difficulties would be with code and zoning regulations and you just have to check into those. You would also probably have to buy the land outright and build from cash as it is hard to finance undeveloped land and I'm guessing no-one on earth would under-write a mortgage on one of these places. That could also be an issue on resale. However the underlying value of the land should be maintained and I think the novelty value would probably make it sell.

Like GuyZero I have a 17' wide house in T.O. which is worth more than half a mill. About 1700 s.f. I think if you bought a small vacant lot and built your cost p.s.f would end up being about the same as mine.
posted by unSane at 12:35 PM on July 21, 2006

Also, the B-52 is listed as about 500 square feet, which is only slightly smaller than the smallest condos on the market. At $265-$400 per square foot, a 500 sq ft home would have an approximate market price of $132,000-$200,000.
posted by GuyZero at 12:39 PM on July 21, 2006

And, in a case of multiplepostitis, no, banks do not provide mortgages for bare land, urban or rural. This issue is often asked in regards to buying cottage property that hasn't had a cottage built yet. No house, no loan.
posted by GuyZero at 12:44 PM on July 21, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers thus far. Much appreciated.

GuyZero, yeah, the B-52 is bigger than I think I would need but I figured anything much smaller would have problems being zoned (if that's the right term) as a house in the city.
posted by dobbs at 12:50 PM on July 21, 2006

Most of the cost of a house in Toronto is the land. 3/4 of the cost, at least.

There are, interestingly enough, a fair number of very small bungalows here and there throughout the city. They have been left behind - often they appear to be the oldest houses in a neighborhood, and not match at all with the neighboring houses. There are also plenty of poorer areas in the city - look around Woodbine and Kingston, south of the train tracks on the east side, for a start. I've definitely seen a number of houses there that are no larger than your bungalow and not expensive.

The only undeveloped land in Toronto is near the waterfront and near the train tracks. You may have noticed that most of that land is slated to get condominium towers within the next few years. So you're a little late. This doesn't mean there isn't land available... just that, well, you'd better get moving.

Another avenue, much used in places like Manhattan, NYC, is the squeeze: buy two adjacent lots with cruddy houses on them. Tear them down, rezone the two plots of land into three plots of land, and build three smaller houses on them. Sell each of them for more than you paid for either of the two cruddy houses you started with. In a few extreme cases, they've even done it with one plot of land, turning a 25-foot brownstone lot into two 12.5 foot wide brownstones. But it works better with 2 lots.

I believe mortgage companies will consider mortgages for undeveloped land. What they want to know is whether it will hold its value (and what you plan to do with it). Undeveloped land in downtown Toronto can be assumed to hold its value and be readily sellable - liquid. Undeveloped land in Nowhere, Northwest Territories isn't liquid, so it might be trickier.
posted by jellicle at 12:59 PM on July 21, 2006

GuyZero writes "And, in a case of multiplepostitis, no, banks do not provide mortgages for bare land, urban or rural. This issue is often asked in regards to buying cottage property that hasn't had a cottage built yet. No house, no loan."

While banks generally don't provide mortgages on bare land if you've got 25% down there are lots of private sources of finacing available. Also banks provide building loans that are convertable to mortgages as building progresses. These are no more difficult to get than a mortgage as long as you aren't building your house yourself.
posted by Mitheral at 1:05 PM on July 21, 2006

I know that the man who started Tumbleweed Homes had a lot of guff from the Iowa City zoning folks when he wanted to live in one of his tiny homes. He ended up getting around things by putting the thing on wheels and declaring it a mobile home. Perhaps you might look into renting land such as they do in a mobile home park. Not incredibly glamorous nor probably prevelent in your area but it is an alternative.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:43 PM on July 21, 2006

I'm not sure its financially viable because the price of land is a huge part of the price of buying a house. Around here (Los Angeles) an empty lot, or a lot with a teardown on it, is usually priced at only about 90% than the same size lot with a viable house on it. Once you add the costs of buying the house, permits, hookups to utilities, employing a contractor etc, it usually doesn't work out to be any cost saving at all. I looked into this a bit recently, and came to the conclusion that even cheap modular custom homes are for the rich.
posted by Joh at 3:00 PM on July 21, 2006

I recall a few years back a teeny-tiny house that was built in Del Mar, CA, just north of San Diego. It was on an oddly shaped lot created sort of by accident when the main street was rebuilt and rerouted. The land was considered surplus, but no one would buy it because it seemed too small and oddly shaped (triangular...? Memory fails.) to do anything with it.

Someone -- an architect -- saw the lot and visiualized what he could do with it. He ended up buying the lot and building a really cool tiny house on it. I've just spent 15 minutes Googling for this, and I'm coming up empty.

Anyhow, the idea is that you might be able to find an unusual lot that would be less expensive, and where the city authorities might bend some rules for you to see it developed. Just an idle thought...
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:20 PM on July 21, 2006

It seems to me that you might be just as well off to just buy an existing tiny house.

But why don't you talk to a realtor and get his or her perspective? And if you're looking for a realtor, I recommend mine. I've worked with them twice now. Email me if you want contact info.
posted by orange swan at 6:57 PM on July 21, 2006

i want one of those houses so badly. maybe we could split a plot of land and each have our own.
posted by amethysts at 7:07 PM on July 21, 2006

orange swan writes "It seems to me that you might be just as well off to just buy an existing tiny house."

Not too many 500 sq ft houses built since the post war period. The state of the housing art has progressed quite a bit since then.
posted by Mitheral at 7:45 PM on July 21, 2006

Robert Angelo - I know that house; it's on the way to the beach. It's on a triangular lot and it stands because it's done so well. Only after I noticed it, did I realize it was tiny and on a wierd bit of land.
posted by princelyfox at 7:54 PM on July 21, 2006

The NYT recently ran an article about this guy who built his traditional front porch and garden on a rooftop. ah here it is
posted by hortense at 8:14 PM on July 21, 2006

I agree with orange swan: your best bet is to find an existing tiny house. I live in a tiny house in Toronto -- an 11-foot wide, 100-year old row house. What we paid for it is less than what you'd pay for property plus one of those homes. In fact, I think our property might be worth more without the house on it.
posted by winston at 12:02 AM on July 22, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for their answers. Much to consider and investigate. If I find out anything intriguing or make progress, I'll report back here.
posted by dobbs at 7:45 AM on July 22, 2006

I was under the impression the value of the house needs to support the cost of the property, or vice versa. That's why, in the Seattle and surround 'burbs, you see zero lot line homes with fancy roof lines (bigger houses with more material used = more value!!!).
posted by grefo at 11:32 AM on July 22, 2006

dobbs, I sent you an e-mail with more details on our tiny house.
posted by winston at 5:08 PM on July 23, 2006

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