If you try to figure out whether or not it’s legal to live in an RV in your backyard, or on someone else’s property, you’ll run into the same consideration everywhere:
You’ll be told to “check the zoning laws.”
Each state, county, and city has its own regulations and rules on what kind of structures you can live in. It’s generally fine to park an RV on your land. Living out of it is usually another matter entirely.
You’ll have a few different options for permanent RV living.
- A place to park a recreational vehicle permanently. In this case, your RV is registered with the state as a “recreational vehicle.”
- A place for your RV where it is considered an “accessory dwelling unit.” In this case, your RV is registered with the city and county as an accessory dwelling unit and not a recreational vehicle.
- Finally, the traditional route, parking in mobile home parks and campgrounds. Let’s look at this option just so all the bases are covered!
The first two options are the focus because both might allow you to park your RV in your own backyard or your friend’s backyard, either living there permanently or renting the space out. Let’s take a look at both options, and see how state by state cases will affect you. States generally have laws that allow counties and cities to make final decisions, so you’ll probably have to check those more carefully.
Alternatively, we’ll compare the permanent recreational vehicle in the backyard and ADU setups to a more traditional RV camping and moving. You’ll need to weigh your options, costs, and considerations to decide what the best move is for your situation.
RV’s as Permanent Dwellings
The general answer to the RV as a permanent dwelling question is a “soft no.” Usually, you won’t technically be allowed to live permanently out of your RV on your property or friend’s property, and you probably won’t be able to rent it out to others.
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It’s really going to matter what type of “backyard” you’re talking about. Some states, as a rule, are going to be friendlier toward the idea than others. As you’ll see, there are also some exceptions and loopholes. If you own the property and hold building permits, live outside of zones, or have an especially generous homeowners association, you might get a bit of wiggle room here.
So for the most part, no you can’t stick an RV on your property and have people live in it permanently. But here are some considerations that might get you around that “soft no.”
State Laws Against Recreational Vehicle “Use as a dwelling”
RV’s aren’t generally considered permanent dwellings by the federal government. They can be used for travel, camping, and “recreation,” but usually not permanent housing. The use of recreational vehicles as permanent dwellings is generally prohibited except in certain specially designated properties and zones.
Most states and counties have restrictions against using a recreational vehicle as a dwelling within certain zones. If there’s any indication that the recreational vehicle is being used as a permanent dwelling, you might be subject to legal action. Some land, like parks and campgrounds, is specifically zoned for recreational vehicle dwelling.
Figure Out The Zoning Laws
This is going to be the lynchpin in setting up that permanent residence RV. State and county laws against using an RV as a permanent dwelling only apply within certain government regulated zones. Zoning laws don’t just vary by state, they vary by city and specific plot of land.
- Check for a city handbook with recreational vehicle laws and zoning laws. It will tell you where you can park your recreation vehicles, and give specific rules on what counts as a permanent dwelling.
- Call the city zoning office to check on your particular property. It might fall outside of the zoning laws that prevent recreational vehicle permanent living situations.
- http://www.city-data.com is also a great resource. They have answers to questions about RV’s that have already been answered by other people.
When in doubt, ask! It can’t hurt to make a couple of phone calls to city offices to get some leads on parking your RV. If you explain to the clerks what it is that you want to do, they may even help you figure out where to go!
The Spread of Zoning
In a sense, permanent RV living is becoming more difficult to attain in cities because unincorporated land is becoming smaller and smaller nationwide. Local zoning is becoming more widespread and will continue to legislate larger portions of land.
On unincorporated land or land without local zoning, there are still state and county laws that will apply to RV living. Just because you’ve fallen outside of posted zoning laws doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still check with your county office.
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Some places in the midwest still have significantly fewer zoning laws. Setting up in San Diego or San Francisco might not work, but moving to mid-America offers more freedom with permanent RV living. For instance, Pulaski County in Kentucky still has no zoning laws!
In addition to the state, county, and city laws in play, there are also homeowner associations and property owner associations with their own rules about how you can and can’t use your property. So even if you aren’t in violation of state, county, and city laws, you still might not be able to live in your RV.
Get Land out in the Country!
If moving is an option, you might be able to purchase some land in the country, outside zoning laws to set up shop for your RV. Alternatively, find people who live outside of zoning laws. If you get a map of the zoning laws for your state or county, you might be able to find some connections with people who would charge only minimal rent for you to live in your RV out of their way and sight.
Intent to do Something Else
Many states and cities have laws that say you can live in your RV on your property if you are in the process of building a house, restoring a house, or doing some other construction project. Most of these laws put restrictions on how you are allowed to do this for–usually six months to a year. While not the permanent solution you might be hoping for, it does buy you some time while you try to figure out zoning and homeowners regulations, or even while you try to qualify your RV as an ADU somewhere else.
Check your county and city laws on intent to do something else laws, and the temporary dwelling requirements for RV’s.
Getting a Building Permit
If you have land that doesn’t have anything on it, you can try to get a building permit, which will qualify you to live in an RV on the land while the permanent residence is being built. If you have no intention to build, you can get extensions on the permit. It’s not illegal, but it is a bit shifty!
The national average for a building permit is $1,000, which isn’t cheap but does allow the peace of mind to live legally in your RV on your own property. Some cities will be extremely restrictive on building permits, or might even be willing to take you to court for acquiring a permit without building, so be careful with this! Always check with your city office and ask around to see how strict the building permit laws.
The Loophole: The RV as an “Accessory Dwelling Unit”
While you might not be able to live in an RV on your own property, you might be able to put an RV on your property and rent it out to others. Zoning laws might prohibit permanent dwelling in a recreational vehicle, but they might allow the creation of accessory dwelling units. An accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, is a secondary housing structure on a primary lot which can be rented out.
California code defines the ADU as “an attached or a detached residential dwelling unit that provides complete independent living facilities for one or more persons. It shall include permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking, and sanitation on the same parcel as the single-family dwelling is situated” (65852.2. (a) (1)). As long as the RV allows living, sleeping, eating, cooking, and sanitation, and is situated on the same land as the permanent residence, it should be able to count as an ADU.
California law doesn’t say anything specifically prohibiting RV’s from being ADU’s, but it gets complicated quickly. RV’s, in some cases, might be considered ADU’s, depending on such considerations as:
- Is the lot big enough for an ADU?
- Is it less than 1,200 feet?
- Does it need separate utility metering?
- Is it taking up more than one parking space? (no, really. California ADU law states that an ADU can’t require more than one parking space, which gets complicated when the ADU is an RV which is parked).
California state law allows cities and counties to grant ordinances for “accessory dwelling units” in residential areas for single-family or multifamily use. If you have a property with a house, you might be able to build or set up an RV as an accessory dwelling unit, which can’t be sold, but can be rented out.
It’s important to know, while we’re using California as an example, that most state ADU laws are going to give themselves a lot of runway for making case by case decisions. California’s law includes the clause: “A local agency may establish minimum and maximum unit size requirements for both attached and detached accessory dwelling units” (65852.2. (a) (1)). This allows individual counties and cities in California to, if they want, raise the minimum size beyond the typical RV to prevent RV’s from counting as ADU’s.
Norwalk, Connecticut has done something like this by establishing the minimum size of an ADU at 400 square feet–which is also the maximum size of an RV per national law. Without making it explicit, they’ve prevented RV’s from being ADU’s.
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Some counties will also have specified regulations that RV’s cannot count as ADU’s, wheels or no wheels. The county of San Diego, CA, states that RV’s and park model trailers “shall not be used as an Accessory Dwelling Unit.”
In general, assume the vagueness of most government regulations involving ADU’s was intentional so that they can make a case by case exception. With the right people skills and the right connections, you might be able to slide your RV in as an ADU!
Moving Might be a Problem
The ability to move might prohibit your RV from being an ADU, so you might have to show that the RV isn’t able to move, going to move, or won’t be used to move around. You definitely can’t park an RV for a few months at a house and call it an ADU. Sometimes, you might need a permanent foundation. You can’t live out of a “recreational vehicle” on residentially zoned property, so you’ll have to make the case that your RV isn’t really being used as a recreational vehicle.
Oregon’s building laws, for example, prohibit any structure on wheels from counting as a permanent dwelling or ADU. Washington also won’t let anything with wheels be an ADU.
Don’t take the wheels off too quick. Some places make it easier for you to set up shop in a tiny house once it is registered as a recreational vehicle (though this won’t solve the problem of parking in a backyard). Some counties in California and Massachusetts place fewer restrictions on RV’s than on other tiny dwellings!
State ADU Laws
State’s don’t generally provide too much direction for ADU’s, but they do set some standards for counties and cities to follow. The bulk of ADU legislation is happening at the city level and is happening fast. Many updates to ADU legislation have been made over the last 5 years. California and Vermont allow local governments to permit ADU’s under certain conditions. In other states, ADU’s are actively encouraged. There’s a helpful list of state and county ADU laws that you can access here.
- Chicago, Illinois currently isn’t allowing new ADU’s to go up. RV or not, you’re out of luck.
- Minneapolis has inserted a seemingly clever way of heading off RV’s as ADU’s, saying in their code that “the primary exterior materials of the detached accessory structure shall be durable, including but not limited to masonry, brick, stone, wood, cement-based siding, or glass.” RV’s usually aren’t constructed from wood or stone but from lighter materials more suited to travel.
- Oregon recently was looking into relaxing both ADU and RV laws, allowing both ADU’s and RV’s on land zoned rural residential (different than single-family or multi-family) and land zoned for agriculture.
- Portland currently won’t allow you to use “anything with wheels” as a permanent housing structure, so RV’s definitely won’t count as ADU’s there (of course, again, it’s more complicated if you take the wheels off!).
- Unsurprisingly, crowded New York City won’t allow ADU’s at all.
- The city of Bozeman in Montana has a colorful pdf about ADU’s–but makes no mention of wheels or RV’s.
Many places won’t mention whether or not RV’s will count as ADU’s, leaving themselves the freedom of taking it case by case. Always check the state and county websites for the most updated information, because tiny housing is a hot topic right now and many local and state governments are currently in the process of revising and passing new legislation on the topic.
Just like recreational vehicle laws, many homeowners associations also have additional regulations about the maintenance and renting of ADU’s. Even if state, city, and county ordinances all greenlight your RV as ADU situation, you still might be in violation of homeowner laws!
You can either accept these rules or petition to the association to make an exception in your case. You might be able to gain leeway if you’re attempting to rent the ADU to a family member.
Alternatives to Parking RV or ADU on Property
Mobile home parks and campgrounds allow you to live in your RV on a different property. There are a few different types of land that are specifically zoned for RV living.
- Vacation parks often have rules and restrictions on how often you can stay and how many days in a row you can be there, to keep a certain standard of living.
- Residential parks are designed for you to live at them full time.
- Campgrounds that have extended stays.
- Driving Around! Stay in parking lots, on streets, and under the stars.
- Some RV parks will allow you to live there for a cost.
Whichever you choose, take advantage of the fact that RV’s have wheels, and can move from location to location.
Some States are Friendly, Some Aren’t!
Texas, Florida or South Dakota are all friendly to RV living. You might not still be able to get the zoning laws you want, but at least there is no income tax and its relatively easy to get domicile status.
A number of Colorado counties have recently made some waves for passing laws that are tiny house friendly. Such laws may also allow greater access for permanent RV living.
Nevada has a lot of open space but comes with a huge price tag on vehicle registration, around $2,000 for an RV.
Going for Domicile Status
When considering becoming a permanent RV resident, remember that domicile and residency status are different. Residency is where you live–you can have a few different residences. Domicile is your intended permanent location and is based on your state. It affects your legal paperwork and taxes. If you can, try to domicile in a state without an income tax.
You have three primary ways of permanently dwelling in your RV. If you’re headed to your backyard or your neighbors’ backyard, you can either try to get the RV considered an ADU, or you can attempt to legally live in the RV permanently on their property with the RV considered a “recreational vehicle.” Of course, you can always keep it moving and stay in RV parks and campsites as well. Here are some considerations when picking your option:
ADU’s and permanent RV dwelling will have different costs and fees associated with them. Different cities and counties will require different certifications for your ADU or RV, which you should familiarize yourself before deciding between your options. Building permits and land can be expensive. Renting at parks might cost you more in the long run! ADU’s require a lot of inspection and certification to be eligible. If you’re trying to set up your RV as an ADU on your friend’s property, you may have to help them with the fees and permit process.
Your Long Game
Going for ADU might require you remove the wheels from your RV, which won’t let you move! Buying land and building permits can be expensive, preventing you from moving. If you got the RV to travel, the ADU might not be your best option, but if it’s primarily for housing and living, the ADU might be just fine!
Your Neighbors and Your City
In the end, residency in a mobile home is going to come down to who cares and who makes phone calls. Laws about zoning and ADU’s don’t count for much unless there are people to enforce them. If your neighbors are chill and your city officials aren’t running out of there way to move RV’s, you might be good even bending the rules a little bit.
Conclusion: Check, Double-Check!
RV’s allow freedom of movement! While finding a permanent residence in an RV is tricky, you can always move. The national opinion is certainly swinging toward smaller, more affordable housing, so expect RV residencies and RV’s as ADU’s to become even more commonplace in the coming years.
Remember, every state, county, and city official is different! When in doubt, make the phone call to check. Also keep in mind that most states are currently in the process of revising and changing legislation on recreational vehicles, ADU’s, and small housing. It is a national issue right now, and cities are revising their stances to try to make housing more affordable while maintaining certain standards.