How to Live in an RV on Your Own Land Legally
Daniel Mark Schwartz
January 27, 2020
For many people, the quickest and simplest way to move on to their own plot of land is to live in an RV or motor home. In my own off grid journey I’ve researched this path extensively. And, since many people are confused it they can legally live in an RV at all, I’ve decided to share what I’ve found.
Can you legally live in an RV on you own land? In many areas, you can legally live in an RV on land you own, so long as you apply for proper permits. Commonly, you would be required to have a suitable septic and well or access to public utilities before living in your RV full time.
Getting proper permits for an RV can be a bit of a minefield. While there can be a lot of conflicting info out there, I’ve tried to make the steps clear and simple to make it easy for you to move in to your own RV on your own land legally.
How to Live Full Time in an RV on Your Own Land Legally
- Contact your county building office to determine permit requirements (if any)
- Check with public health to determine if a septic and/or well is needed
- Consider getting an address assigned to your lot
Here are the steps you need to live in your RV full time while living comfortably on the right side of the law. This list may seem involved, particularly if you are used to renting or owning an already finished home on the real estate market.
For the typical home owner, most if not all of these steps were taken care of for you buy the developer who constructed the home you live in. If there were more turn key RV properties on the market, then it could be the case that, likewise, few people would have deal with permitting for their RV home. However, since full time RV living is still the fringe, despite its obvious benefits cost reduction and overall freedom, RVers will inevitably have to take a little more of the responsibility on themselves.
Do I Need a Permit for My RV?
Permit requirements vary from locality to locality, and are generally handled at the county level, although city ordinances and local HOA covenants may affect your ability live full time in your RV.
The first place to start is to contact your county building office, and check county building codes and zoning requirements. Find your county contact information and website easily using the linked map.
In my local county, there are no special requirements when two or fewer RVs are parked on private property. However, some permanent structures such as decks or out building may require a permit if I decide to add them.
Additionally, you may need to build a septic, well, and approved driveway to reside permanently in your RV.
Do Manufactured or Mobile Home Laws Apply to RVs?
In many counties, such as my own, you will find special laws and permits regarding manufactured or mobile homes. Because RVs are also mobile, it can be confusing as to whether these laws apply to your RV.
In most cases, manufactured home permitting and installation requirements do not apply to RVs. National code 24 CFR 3280 defines manufactured homes as:
… dwelling units of at least 320 square feet (30 m2) in size with a permanent chassis to assure the initial and continued transportability of the home.
This definition does not cover most RVs, and since most states base their definition on the national regulations, your state probably does not classify your RV as a mobile home. However, always be sure to check your state and county laws to make sure they don’t apply to you.
Mobile home is a common catch all phrase in the US, and can apply to many different types of structures. Check your county definition. In my county, structures are only considered mobile homes if they were built before 1976 and they conform to the modern standard for manufactured homes. So, again, in most cases RVs would not be considered a mobile home.
Do I Need a Well or Septic for my RV?
While you may not need a full building permit to live in your RV full time, in many cases you will need to install a permitted well and or septic.
Many states and counties have requirements specified by the health department, or similar, at the county level as to whether you need sanitary facilities on your land. Check with your county health department to be certain what laws apply to you, but in many counties I’ve checked, there is a requirement that waste handling be available on any plot where people will be staying for than a few months at a time.
County requirements vary quite a bit, but in pretty much every jurisdiction where public sewers are not available, a septic system is recommended as the alternative. Septic require running water, ground permeability tests, state inspection, and periodic maintenance. Thus, if your county require a septic system, you will probably need a well drilled if you don’t already have one on the property. Wells also need power for the pump, in which case grid power access or an off grid power system is also called for.
Some counties, such as this one in Idaho have allowances for pit toilets or composting toilets in certain off grid situations, in order to fulfill the county requirements.
If your county doesn’t allow alternative systems, or you are interested in more sustainable permaculture methods, than remember that most codes only say that a septic must be available, but doesn’t say that it must be used. Doing enough to meet the code gives you the freedom to manage your business your own way, and may allow you to use humanure, composting toilets, biogas digesters or other methods as your primary waste management technique while staying within the law.
Can I Get an Address for my RV?
Generally, you can get an address for your land if you just have an RV on it and no structure.
Application for an address is usually handled as part of the building permit process for traditional construction processes, but is frequently actually provided by your county zoning and planning department or some other office separate of the building department. It is likely that you can can apply to that office directly to get an address for your property even though you are not building a permanent structure.
Getting an address without a building permit is usually a bit out of the ordinary, so you may have to persist through some resistance or red tape on the part of the county officials. But knowing the law and being polite can get you pretty far in this regard.
Most counties have a set of rules and a checklist you can download that describes what you need to have in place to apply for an address. In my own county this comes down to applying for and installing a proper driveway.
Driveway requirements usually take in to account the needs of local safety and rescue vehicles, and often specify minimum widths, means of connecting to the main road, and may require a turn around if over a certain length.
You may also have a requirement to display proper street numbers visible from the road, one an address is assigned.
If you have any doubts about the cost or requirements for your driveway, check with an experienced road builder in your area, as many of them have experience building rural driveways that meet state and county codes.
How to Claim an RV as a Permanent Residence
Many people wonder if they can consider their RV a permanent residence for tax purposes or for establishing residency in a state.
Can you claim your RV as a permanent residence? Yes. When filing federal income taxes or for other official purposes your RV can be considered a permanent residence.
The IRS considers an RV to be a home when it fulfills the following needs:
Broadly speaking, taxpayers are allowed to designate their RV as the primary residence for purposes of deductions, even if your RV doesn’t have a permanent location or is not parked on a property.
For other purposes, including establishing state residency or the financial need establish a home, the easiest way handle this is to get an address assigned to the land where you typically park your RV. Read above if you have questions about how to accomplish this, but in most cases you can get an address assigned to your land even if you only have an RV there. This address can count as your “mailing address” or physical location for most purposes.
Can I Live in My RV in the City or Behind My House?
Frequently, it is not possible to legally live in an RV full time within city limits. While many county and state jurisdictions to not have laws that make living in your RV illegal, when done according to established guidelines. Yet, many cities in the United States, and elsewhere, have ordinances in place the prohibit or limit the possibility to live in your RV full time within city limits.
Check the following to see if RVs are allowed in your city:
- City building / planning departments
- County zoning law
- City beatification and nuisance laws
- HOA bylaws or covenants applied to your deed
Cities are notorious for having laws that are rather specific, and they tend to vary widely from city to city. Some downs, such as Spur, Texas may be particularly friendly fro tiny or mobile living arrangements. While others may outright ban living in an RV.
Check with the local planning and building departments to see what laws, if any, apply to living in an RV within city limits. Also be sure to check local codes more broadly. Many nuisance laws or beautification laws might apply to RV living, including limiting allowed “camping” time or how long a vehicle may be parked on your property without being moved.
Also, double check your county and city level zoning laws, as zoning in cities tends to be much more limited. Zoning laws in some jurisdictions may limit RV living explicitly, or have the requirement to build some kind of permanent structure on your land if you are going to live there.
Lastly, double check that your land does not fall under some home owners association or have other covenants attached to the deed. It is increasingly common for fairly restrictive limits to be placed on land use when larger tracks are broken up and sold as housing lots. These rules can often sneak up on people looking for land to park their RV, and may or may not be something a real estate agent would bring up when you buy your land.
The Best States to Live in an RV Full Time
While many states have the possibility to live full time in an RV legally, the following states are popular options.
- Washington State
- South Dakota
In general, states with wide open spaces such Eastern Washington, Nevada, and all the rest on the above list make it easier to found a cheaper parcel where you can legally park your RV for extended periods. More space usually equates to less restrictive zoning and usage laws. And more affordable land options as well.
Likewise, it makes sense to consider climate and the environment. Living in an RV means you are much more connected to nature, and choosing an relatively mild climate that you enjoy goes a long way to making the RV life enjoyable for long term year round residence. Warm winters and lack of extreme weather make areas of the above states great for full time RV living. Plus, they all offer access to amazing views and scenic national parks which might just be worth driving your RV up the road a bit now and again.
Lastly, since RVers are typically money conscious, whether they are retired, saving money, or just free spirited, taxes and other costs can play a big factor. Most of the listed states don’t have income tax, although be sure to consider the cost of property tax and sales tax when you choose your cost conscious RV parking state.
Can You Legally Park an RV on Someone Else’s Property?
Like most forms of RV living, be wary of local zoning and use laws. Unless your city or county specifically outlaws living in an RV, it is probably possible to park your RV on some else’s land legally, provided you have the owner’s permission.
Be sure to check city ordinances and any HOA or covenants that apply to the property before parking your RV for the long term.
Also, be aware that if the owner charges you to live there, then the state may classify that as “operating and RV park.” Most states / counties have special regulations and requirements regarding RV parking facilities, and would require a special permit. In my county, there would have to be more than two RVs on a property in order to consider it an RV park, but others may not be so lenient once money changes hands.
Further, if you pay to live there, ther may be additional renters rights that apply which could make living in an RV on that lot essentially illegal. In those cases it is probably best to check with a local lawyer to be sure you are within the law.
If you are at all concerned as a renter, one good option is to make sure that no money changes hands. In some cases, if you can work out a way to pay your rent with good or services instead of cash, then you would avoid officially being a renter, with all the trouble that it could cause. Ingenuity and hard work in this case is the best defense to future trouble, as it is in many cases.
Is It Legal to Live in an RV?
Yes, it is legal to live in an RV. To stay within the law, you will need to take care to follow local zoning laws and ordinances that may govern where you can park your RV. You may also need to access to water and sewer if you plan to park in one place or on your own land on a permanent basis.
Can You Claim an RV as a Permanent Residence?
Yes, an RV can be a permanent residence for tax purposes or to claim residency in many states. The IRS considers any structure as a possible primary (or secondary) residence if it has sleeping, cooking, and toilet facilities. For other purposes, you can get an address assigned to your RV property like any other home.
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