There is a lot of confusion about what approvals are required for a tiny home. This post might help to clarify why there isn’t a simple answer to the question, “What approvals do I need for my tiny home?”
Cabin or caravan?
Understanding the distinction between cabins and caravans is good place to start. Cabins are small buildings on foundations that are connected to land. They can be prefabricated and transported to their location of use, but they are definitely classified as buildings and therefore require certain mandatory approvals before they can be lawfully occupied. Caravans are vehicles, so they are not connected to land and so do not need any “building approval”. Caravans just need to comply with certain codes and standards as a prerequisite to being registered for use on public roads.
If a tiny house permanently attached to land is what you want, then there is an established pathway for obtaining all the approvals you need, as a cabin or even as a secondary dwelling. Required approvals are the same as those for any house or secondary dwelling. If you need a short-term accommodation boost, don’t own land, or want the flexibility to move your dwelling from time to time, then you might be attracted to a mobile tiny home on wheels, which brings us back to caravans.
Caravan “approval” amounts to having registration issued by the department of transport (DoT) in your state. The DoT needs to be satisfied that the caravan meets the necessary compliance standards before issuing registration. The caravan dealer normally arranges the first registration. The dealer relies on the manufacturer to supply the necessary evidence of compliance. Subsequent registration is the owner’s responsibility and further evidence of compliance is usually necessary, such as a current gas installation safety certificate and road worthiness check.
The fact is, most tiny homes on wheels are not actually caravans!
If built on a registered trailer base and complying with Vehicle Standards Bulletin 1 (VSB1) for dimensions and weight, only the trailer has any compliance requirement, which means it must have a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and a placard with basic information about manufacture (for the trailer only) and loads. Nothing else needs to be checked or approved! This is a massive loop-hole that has some jumping for joy and others walking away shaking their head.
Australian consumer law requires that goods marketed for sale in Australia must be fit for purpose. Reputable tiny home builders take this seriously, particularly if they have a trade background and a building licence, which means they have expertise in building safe and sound places for people to live. But because mobile tiny homes are not “buildings” and the only approval actually needed is for the trailer alone, there are no additional consumer protections in place for buyers of tiny homes on wheels. On the other hand, registered caravans and cabins with building approval have well-established consumer protections over and above basic consumer law.
The current situation in Australia, and pretty much around the world, is that mobile tiny homes on wheels can be built and sold by anyone. Other than trailer registration, there is no further requirement for building qualifications or compliance with standards or codes.
Why do we even need to bother with building qualifications, standards and codes anyway? Quite simply, it could be a matter of life or death for you, your loved ones, or even innocent bystanders. Yes, it is potentially that serious. Towing a trailer with several tonnes of un-checked and un-certified materials loaded onto it at speed on a public road will have serious consequences if something goes wrong. Living and sleeping in a confined space that has not been checked for adequate ventilation, gas, electrical, fire or sanitary plumbing safety, with the potential for toxic gas build up, is to risk illness or even potentially, death. Reputable builders understand these risks and can design and build tiny homes that are “as safe as houses”, but they do this because they are acting ethically, not because they are being checked by an independent body for approval.
So, you’ve found a reputable builder who is going to do the right thing by you, do you still need any local government approval?
This is where it gets complicated. There are over 550 local government areas around Australia and each have unique local laws and planning provisions, so there is no single consistent answer to the question of approvals for mobile tiny homes.
If you go down the path of a tiny home on a trailer base, then it is not a building, therefore local government needs to find another category to assess it under. The default category is a caravan. Living permanently in a caravan, in one location, in most local government areas is not legal. Caravans are limited to occasional use. The definition of occasional use varies, but the effect is the same, you probably can’t lawfully live permanently in your mobile tiny home if it is classified as a caravan by the local government authority.
So how come there are apparently so many people living in mobile tiny homes right now? Some will have found a way to gain approval. Some are in caravan parks, but not permanently. There is a temporary exemption in NSW for flood recovery, but that is only for two years currently. Others are in the don’t ask, don’t tell category, hoping they can stay “off the radar”, but at constant risk of being served notice to quit and facing penalties for non-compliance.
Some local government areas are more flexible than others. Several are currently in the process of reviewing their local laws and planning schemes with an open mind on mobile tiny homes. Positive change may be coming, but as a nation we are still a long way from clearing the path for living tiny with consistent requirements, rights and obligations. You can play your part by contacting your local council and elected representatives to let them know your views on living tiny and asking for their support to remove barriers to that.
The Australian Tiny House Association https://tinyhouse.org.au/ is working hard lobbying for reform to get tiny homes the recognition they need to become a new housing typology in Australia, with all of the consumer protections and rights of conventional fixed dwellings. Their website has a wealth of useful information.
The bottom line is, do your homework. Never rely on a sales pitch that claims, “no local government approval required” because that does not necessarily mean you will be legally allowed to live in your mobile tiny home. Local governments don’t “approve” trailers or caravans, but they will have a policy on how, when and for how long they can be lived in and by whom.
John Cameron is the director of John Cameron Architects and Vice-President of the Australian Tiny House Association. This information is provided for general interest. Always seek independent professional advice tailored to your specific circumstances and needs.