Q. Can I build, on my land, a 120 square foot (10’ x ’12 or 8’ x 15’) storage shed without a permit, and use it sort of as a ‘cabin’?
A. Yes and No. It depends.
Assuming the county building department and zoning restrictions for the area (including any ‘addition’ or ‘homeowners association’ rules) allow a shed of 120 square feet or less to be built without a permit:
‘Yes’ if the shed is located in a remote area, and no one will know or care anyway; or, by being discreet if it is located in a more residential (or lake / recreational) area where ‘nosy neighbors’ will pull back the curtains and watch your every move.
‘No’ if the shed is located where there are nosy neighbors and you brag to them that you found a loop hole, you can live and sleep in it and there’s nothing they can do about it (yes, they can); or, you are actually living in it for extended periods of time and/or have no other house or apartment or mailing address (let’s face it, what ARE you doing with the sewage?)
It’s not wrong to modify a small shed to be a ‘day use’ swimming, hunting or fishing cabin, an art / photo ‘studio’, or weekend ‘retreat’. The difference is not a matter of ethics; it’s a matter of interpretation and compliance with the applicable codes.
The Building Department and Codes
No one is arguing that these don’t exist for good reason. We all want to know that if we enter a commercial building, that it was built to code and if it catches fire we can get out – flame retardant materials, proper exits, etc. If we buy a house, the hidden infrastructure – wiring, plumbing, is up to snuff and we don’t find out later it all needs replaced. We don’t want neighbors putting up trashy stuff, living in sub-standard housing and driving down our property values, putting in outhouses that stink or are too near to our wells, etc. As the population grows and we get more crowded, we need rules to keep each other from infringing too much on one another. But most of the absolute safety and necessary rules seem to have been covered a long time ago. A lot of new rules appear to be just made up to give the building department people something to do, to feel important.
I don’t like having someone tell me what I can or can’t do on my own property when my shed is on skids, has no environmental impact (and a small self-contained camp toilet and contents are carted away from the property after use – more on that later), and it isn’t hurting anybody. It’s simply un-American.
The building department is a lot like the bureau of motor vehicles. These are low paid (really low paid) county jobs. Some (certainly not all) of the people who work there get their kicks from the power – to give you a hard time, to make or break your dreams at their whim! If you are nice, they may give you a permit for something that they just denied another guy 5 minutes before. And vice versa. The rules are not always cut-and-dried. You must tread carefully here.
In many areas (but maybe not housing / lake additions where there may be homeowners association restrictions), the building department may allow an ‘accessory structure’ for ‘customary’ use (i.e., tool / garden / storage shed) of 120 square feet or less without a permit as long as it meets the guidelines for:
They also may allow more than one such building if you ask (e.g., you could have a separate screened gazebo a few feet away, unattached.) Best to ask general questions, reveal little in the way of plans, and get it in writing, and copies of pertinent information.
In addition, most places require a ‘residence’ (e.g., defined as a minimum, say, 1,000 sq. ft. with foundation, plumbing, minimum number of bedrooms, bath, windows, ceiling height, etc. – as defined by the local 1-2 family dwelling building codes) to be on the property prior to adding any ‘accessory structure’ to it.
But if you ask nicely, the building department will generally tell you (i.e., confess) that a shed of 120 square feet (if allowed without a permit) “does not exist” as far as they are concerned – exactly what I was told (although homeowners association rules may be more explicit and restrictive.) It’s in the same category as a dog house, a child’s playhouse or swing set, one of those wooden ‘windmills’ you put in your flower garden, landscaping stuff – trellis, concrete goose (now THAT we should have some codes for.) They don’t want to mess with regulating all that. The 120 square foot shed is essentially the cut-off, albeit at the very edge.
Cabin vs. Shed
Further, building codes may exempt this shed, but such a building must not be used for ‘habitation’, which is stated either explicitly or it is implied. Some codes even provide definitions, stating a ‘shed’ becomes a ‘cabin’ (and not allowed) if it is ‘designed, arranged, and intended to be used for living, sleeping, cooking, and eating by an occupant.’ This is obviously very subjective and open to interpretation, and could be used for or against you. Theoretically, you could be accused of all those things by just owning a simple tool shed located at your house! But that’s not ‘inhabiting.’ If I spend 9 hours all night working on my mower, am I ‘inhabiting’ the shed? No. The best advice may be to simply avoid any situation where you would have to disclose your ‘design, arrangement or intention,’ such as is required with a permit application for a larger shed.
If you want a bigger shed, or the restrictions are such that you cannot put even this small shed on a property without a residence being in place first (as was my situation), an alternative is to arrange to purchase the piece of property AFTER the seller, who has a real house / residence on a different part of their property, has legitimately placed a ‘shed’ for himself, via appropriate permit if necessary (you have to have a cooperative seller!), on the part you will be buying (of your design of course, and at your expense). This can be accomplished through a Lease with Purchase Option (‘rent-to-own’) agreement, a one-page standard form you can find at an office supply store. You agree to rent the property for an amount equal to the purchase price upfront, with an option to buy it for $1 at the end of the term, usually one year. The legal title stays in the seller’s name until then, and a clause states that any buildings, trees, landscaping, etc. on the property at the time of, or added during, the agreement stay with the property upon transfer of title when the $1 is paid. My building department told me “well, it’s a way around the rules, but they don’t like it.” They even said I was being “unethical” in doing so! How dare they? It’s allowed, so live with it. (I didn’t say that, I just thought it!) I suppose it’s in the same category where I get to take a mortgage interest deduction on my taxes whilst poor people who rent don’t get to. We all have to find our own path. My ethical standards are very high; I see no conflict.
Thus, I could have had the seller in my case obtain a permit for a larger shed through this transaction. I chose not to for these reasons:
There is no reason a 10’ x 12’ shed can’t be built with 2”x4”s at 16” o.c. and log siding; situated with a sliding door overlooking the beautiful view; covered porch; screen door; flowerbox; nice windows; insulation; a 12/12 roof pitch for looks and extra storage or loft (although some areas restrict a no-permit 120 sq. ft. shed to a maximum height of, say, 10 or 12 feet) and cathedral ceiling; hard wood floor; knotty pine paneling; a small section of kitchen countertop and cabinets; a futon that pulls out to ‘store’ a sleeping bag or two (beats washing linens!); a 4 1/2-foot-square separate room to serve as a ‘privacy closet’ or place to change in and out of a bathing suit or dirty clothes. No reason you can’t drive in a hand- or pitcher-pump well outside your door to water those flowers (components purchased at any farm supply store) or a patio outside the sliding door made of brick pavers set in the ground and surrounded by landscaping and a cedar fence section or two to give the ‘feel’ of deck for your picnic table or patio furniture.
Hanging out around the shed will require
food, water and such. A cooler and some water jugs can solve that easily enough.
And a 5-gallon plastic bucket lined with a trash bag with sawdust or cat litter
in it, an oak toilet seat on top (with cleats screwed in underneath to keep it
from sliding), and another bucket with a scoop and more sawdust or cat litter
nearby, are nice things to have ‘stored’ in the privacy closet too. Taking all
trash bags home and disposing of them properly keeps things tidy.
Thoroughly justified and enjoying my incredibly low-cost nature experience, I remain -
Bob the Cabin Boy