Tiny home living and camper life are everywhere right now. Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are chocked full of photos and hashtags documenting life lived on a smaller scale than the split-level home with a traditional yard from the Brady Bunch days.
Living in a travel trailer full-time requires compliance with zoning laws and regulations that vary widely from city to city and from state to state. There are no set national zoning laws that dictate where or how one can live in a travel trailer, but many cities across the US are beginning to regulate this highly mobile lifestyle.
Some places are also starting to differentiate between tiny homes and travel trailers, creating legislation that dictates where you can park and for how long, even on a property that you already own.
Because these regulations are so diverse and depend on a huge number of factors dictated by the city, county, and state of residence, it’s hard to give generalizations that would apply to everyone across the board.
Read on to learn a little more about why living in a travel trailer is so appealing and what zoning laws regarding living in a travel trailer look like in different areas across the US.
Why Live in a Travel Trailer?
To answer why travel trailer life is appealing, it helps to look at who would want to live in a travel trailer full-time. As it turns out, a lot of people do.
If you look on Instagram, you might find single people who spend a lot of time in outdoor recreation. For them, living in a travel trailer is a great way to stay close to nature and be in their preferred habitat.
The Instagram world is also replete with young couples in their twenties who want to travel together living a hipster-style minimalist life.
And the old stereotype of retired couples who downsize into a travel trailer and live in campgrounds across the country or dock at their children’s homes to rotate time with their grandkids is alive and well.
There is a thriving community of full-time RVers who either travel full-time or simply park their travel trailer in a more permanent location and live out of it full-time.
While living this lifestyle may not be for everyone, there are lots of people who love the freedom of RV life. Here are just a few reasons why this way of life is an attractive option.
An April 2019 episode of the popular podcast “How To Money” featured Chris and Cristi from the Life Opted Out website in a discussion of how living in a travel trailer, camper, or van can help people pare down living expenses.
Chris and Cristi Moody are a journalist and attorney, respectively, who left a life in Manhattan to travel the country in a modified cargo van. Doing so drastically cut their living expenses, and they now live on less than the previous rent on their NYC apartment while traveling the country.
Other people choose to live in RVs to cut back on expenses while saving up for a home, getting out of debt, or trying out new places before settling down.
Especially for couples, living in tight quarters can be a great way to build a relationship. When there’s nowhere to go, conflicts have to be dealt with, and it’s a lot harder to run to a parent, sibling, or friend when they’re all thousands of miles away.
It’s also hard to avoid your significant other (or close friend) when there aren’t many separate spaces. Being forced into close physical proximity can help to foster emotional connections that might not develop otherwise.
But relationships can also be formed with people you meet on the road. Travel trailer owners love to show off and talk about their mobile homes, and being in a unique or unusual home is often a fun and easy way to meet new friends.
Simplify Modern Life
Everyone likes to talk about how complicated modern life is, especially how technology compounds that complication. But living in a travel trailer means that space and luxuries are often limited.
Living in a travel trailer with limited access to electricity can force you to reevaluate your electronic time and in particular, your entertainment consumption.
Going right along with RV life is spending time in the outdoors. Of course, it’s completely possible to live in a travel trailer and never take advantage of the plethora of nature around you, but with so much out there to explore, why wouldn’t you?
Zoning Laws Matter
There are tons of other reasons people live in RVs full-time. But once you’ve decided to take the leap, there’s a lot you need to know about zoning laws to make sure you stay on the right side of the law.
The first thing to note is that zoning laws and regulations vary widely and are different for different areas.
For those who are new to the idea of zoning, this is the way that cities and counties break up their space into areas approved for different usages.
One example is zoning a particular lot for residential or business purposes. It would be really strange to drive into a residential cul-de-sac and find a dermatology office in the middle of a neighborhood.
Having zoning regulations takes land use into consideration for the impact it will have on the surrounding area. Having a doctor’s office in the middle of a neighborhood would likely lead to major issues with parking, safety, and noise.
It is up to individual areas how they choose to zone land and what activities they will and won’t permit. Zoning laws can also change over time as needed to accommodate a community’s changing needs.
Tiny Homes and RVs
Some areas lump tiny homes and RVs into the same category when it comes to zoning regulations, but these types of dwellings can be very different.
The biggest point of legal separation between the two is whether or not the tiny home has a foundation. If the home is on wheels, it is often considered an RV and should be registered as one.
Similarly, if your travel trailer or RV is self-built, it may be subject to inspection before you can register that RV and get a license plate.
When looking at zoning regulations, you may see the abbreviation ADU. An ADU is an “accessory dwelling unit” which usually applies to a tiny home built on a permanent foundation (like a shed, pool house, or guesthouse might be).
However, some municipalities do not make clear distinctions between the two and a travel trailer permanently parked in a backyard or on a property with an existing home may qualify as an ADU as well.
Zoning Law Violations
Why does it matter whether your travel trailer is considered an RV or an ADU? Why do you need to bother with zoning laws at all? What if you’re only planning to stay in one spot for a day or two? Is it really that big a deal?
In short, it is a big deal, and it is your responsibility to inform yourself so that you know, understand and can abide by local and state laws.
Just like zoning laws can vary widely, the consequences of violating those zoning laws can vary widely as well. A violation may result in something as simple as you having to move your travel trailer elsewhere.
Or a violation can result in a large fine, civil penalties, or even a criminal proceeding and possible imprisonment.
Chances are, most cities aren’t sending out cops on patrol to find and arrest travel trailers parked inappropriately, but to avoid any potential problems and frustrations, it’s best to know who to contact to make sure that your travel trailer is parked legally.
Finding Zoning Information
In some areas, living in a travel trailer full-time just isn’t permitted unless it’s in a dedicated RV park or campground, but as the trend grows, more and more places are creating rules and regulations to accommodate those who prefer a non-standard living arrangement.
The first place to go is the county or city office (whether online, over the phone, or in-person). Usually, there is a department that deals specifically with zoning and land use, but in some areas that may be incorporated into another department.
Be upfront and clear about your questions and intentions. Local governments aren’t in the business of making your life harder (even though it might feel that way sometimes), and they can’t help you if they don’t understand what you need.
Explain what you want to do, whether to set up an RV permanently on your own property, park for an extended stay at a relative or friend’s house, or rent a plot of land for a short- or long-term stay in your travel trailer.
Letting local authorities know what your goals are helps them to be able to accurately approve your plans or offer suggestions and solutions for problems you may face.
Get Down to Specifics
Since every city/county or state has its own individual rules and regulations regarding travel trailers and RVs, it may be helpful to go over some specifics in a few different places.
Even if these areas aren’t on your list, this could give you an idea of what different communities allow and what kinds of rules you can expect.
Las Vegas, Nevada
A flyer released from the City of Las Vegas’s department of planning lists 20 of their most commonly asked questions about city code enforcements, several of which deal with RVs and travel trailers.
When asked, “Can a person live in a motor home or trailer parked on my property or on the street?” the city responds that under no circumstances can RVs be either connected to residential utilities or lived in unless in a designated RV park.
The city of Las Vegas also has strict guidelines about storing RVs in residential areas inside the city limits.
If the RV is stored outside of an enclosed building, there are several regulations that vary according to how the residential property is zoned, what part of the yard the RV is stored on, and the size of the lot as well as the size of the RV.
Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City makes clear distinctions between mobile homes and travel trailers. A mobile home is any moveable structure more than 8 feet wide and 32 feet long. A portable vehicle with a living area of less than 220 square feet is considered a travel trailer.
By these definitions, some larger travel trailers may be considered mobile homes under Kansas City laws, and subject to different regulations.
Section 72-2 of the city’s zoning code says that travel trailers are only allowed within authorized travel trailer camps. Section 72-9 goes further to say that parking travel trailers on streets or other public places is also prohibited.
In other areas of the state, like Franklin County, Missouri, it was legal to live in a tent, camper, or motor home for up to 90 days in any land zoned “agricultural non-urban” prior to 2014.
The law was changed, however, after police received noise complaints in regard to people living in campers.
Franklin county noted that they do not typically cite campers for violations unless a complaint is received, which makes a good case for having a good-neighbor policy wherever you decide to camp.
The town of Hubbardton, Vermont says that travel trailers can be parked and occupied for up to one month in a 12-month period within a residential district.
It also stipulates that unoccupied travel trailers less than 30 feet long may be parked for longer as long as the occupied period is less than one month.
The city code also designates travel trailers under the term “manufactured home” when it is placed on any site for more than 180 consecutive days.
In Naples, Florida, the city code (section 56-42) states that travel trailers can get approved by the city manager for an overnight parking permit to park on private property for two consecutive nights.
It further says that the city manager can approve a travel trailer or motor home for a longer period of time if the RV has handicapped facilities that are needed for the occupant.
Naples also has residential areas that are specifically zoned for mobile home, modular home, and RV usage. If a plot of land that you purchase is zoned for RV use, then it is acceptable to set up your travel trailer as a residence.
Purpose Grants Permission
When looking for a place to park your travel trailer, whether to set up for a night, a week, or more, be sure that you comply with local laws.
There are lots of places across the country that are RV friendly and letting local authorities know your intentions can make a huge difference in your travel trailer plans.
While some areas may prohibit parking on private land, they may be willing to make an exception if you want to live in your travel trailer while you build or renovate a permanent home.
They may also grant permission or rezone a parcel of land in a rural area that can be serviced by a well and septic system. You might be successful in a bid to live in an off-grid capable travel trailer equipped with a composting toilet and solar panels.
These laws are developed for safety, and that includes yours. While it may be annoying at times to go through governmental red tape to secure a permit or get approval, doing so is worth it because it saves you a hassle in the long run.
The bottom line is that abiding by regulations makes your experience more positive and working with local officials shows your good faith and allows both sides to more easily help one another.