One of the attractions of tiny houses is the ability to place the small structures on a trailer with wheels, creating a mobile — or portable — dwelling. This allows the occupants the option of moving whenever the mood strikes them.
But this modern day nomadic lifestyle hit a roadblock in Maine his past summer when municipalities were notified by the Maine secretary of state’s office that the Bureau of Motor Vehicles would no longer register, assign vehicle identification numbers to or title tiny homes on wheels.
The registration and title rules change in Maine does not affect tiny homes that are built or placed on permanent footings or foundations.
In early 2018, Maine tiny living got a boost when the state’s building codes were amended to include guidelines for the dwellings. The standards defined a Maine tiny house as a residence with less than 400 square feet, allowed sleeping lofts, permitted ladder access to lofts and approved skylights as points of emergency egress. The Maine code amendments did not take into account or cover the portable tiny houses.
In states with no codes defining a tiny house, a residential structure under 500 square feet is generally accepted to be a tiny home, according to various online groups advocating the simplified lifestyle.
Residence or RV?
For a time, tiny homes on wheels in Maine were treated as if they were RVs — or recreational vehicles — similar to those towed behind passenger pickups or larger sport utility vehicles.
They could be registered with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles by municipalities and their owners could move them from place to place as often as they liked.
But that will no longer be the case, now that the Bureau of Motor Vehicles is no longer issuing titles or identification numbers.
“These units do not comply with the definition of a camp trailer or a trailer and may not be registered or titled as such,” Patty Morneault, Maine deputy secretary of state, wrote in her June 25 notification to Maine’s municipal officers.
In addition, Morneault wrote the homes on wheels are also not considered manufactured — or mobile trailer — homes. Instead, wheels or not, from the state’s perspective they are stick-built homes and subject to the Maine building codes.
Since June, anyone in Maine wanting to move their tiny home on wheels must first get a single use transit permit from the bureau of motor vehicles. This means they will need a new permit for each time they move their home on wheels.
An extra and costly burden
Repercussions from the state’s decision are already being felt, including by those who manufacture and sell them.
“It’s stopped my business,” said Corinne Watson, founder of Tiny Homes of Maine LLC. “I build tiny homes on wheels exclusively, and I am trying to figure out how to work around the new regulations.”
For Watson and many of her potential clients, the big issue is the Bureau of Motor Vehicles no longer issuing titles on the portable tiny homes. No title, Watson said, means no bank financing.
“Banks need something — like a title — to put a lien on when making a loan,” Watson said. “Without that, people can’t finance.”
That is going to make it impossible for people who don’t have all the needed funds to purchase a tiny home to own one, according to Alan Plummer, Maine’s representative to the American Tiny House Association.
“Those on the lower end of the income scale are not being considered,” Plummer said.
Watson’s tiny homes run between $56,000 and $76,000. There are not many people who have that much cash on hand to invest in a tiny home, she said.
Plummer also feels the single-use permitting system is going to make it harder for people to live tiny on wheels in Maine, even if you can afford one without financing.
“If someone wanted to build a tiny home on wheels in Maine so they could travel and live around the state in it, I would not recommend it,” Plummer said. “Sure, they can get that point-to-point permit, which lets them take it from the point of sale to their land, but if they want to move again they have to get another permit every time.”
From Plummer’s perspective, this means that people who currently live the nomadic tiny home life, or had hoped to start with a newly purchased portable tiny home, have put a lot of their money into a lifestyle that is now for all intents and purposes illegal in Maine.
Updating the rules?
In her notification, Morneaul indicated her bureau would continue to study the issue of tiny homes on wheels and their status when it came to traveling on Maine roads.
“The Bureau of Motor Vehicles will be working to address the unique needs to builders and sellers of the tiny homes and [their] requests to move them on Maine highways,” Morneault wrote.
Last week, however, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles said there are no plans to amend the rules contained in the notification.
“There is no impression of any further revisions to the decisions,” said Kristen Muszynski, communications director in the Maine Office of the Secretary of State. “This is how the [law] will be interpreted.”
Meanwhile, in other New England states
New Hampshire is another New England state wrestling with regulations governing tiny houses.
This past year, the Granite State’s Legislature passed HB 312, which established a committee to study tiny houses in New Hampshire.
Currently, tiny homes are not recognized by the state’s residential building codes or covered under any local zoning and planning regulations, according to the Concord Monitor.
Part of HB 312 is allowing tiny homes on wheels in residential zoned areas of New Hampshire.
In Massachusetts, state law allows individual municipalities or communities to establish their own ordinances covering tiny houses built on foundations or on wheels.
Last year, the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards approved a tiny house appendix that specifies safety standards for the construction of tiny houses on foundations.
Can Maine change again?
Plummer and Watson are hopeful the state will take another look at the rules when it comes to the tiny homes on wheels.
“We really need to get this figured out,” he said. “It can be difficult and frustrating.”
Watson said she is not waiting for the state of Maine to fix the problem when it comes to the financing end of things.
“I am working [with a bank] to establish some sort of ‘work around’ the title issue,” Watson said. “I am confident this can be done, but it’s going to take some time to figure it out.”
She fears it’s just another stumbling block for a residential option that faces enough problems.
“It’s already hard enough for people who want to live in tiny homes,” she said. “Many communities are leary of allowing them in because they don’t know enough about them [and] think they are just another mobile home or trailer, not a well built and attractive wood dwelling.”
Plummer fears if the rules stand, lower income people are going to be priced out.
“There are people who want to get into a tiny home on wheels but who may not have a lot of money to invest upfront,” Plummer said. “Maine is saying, ‘you are on your own, poor people.’”
Watson is not giving up.
“Something has to give,” she said. “I am pretty passionate about [tiny houses] and that lifestyle and I’m not ready to take no for an answer.”