No Permit Required: Where to Build a Tiny Home
Why are people so attracted to the image of the cabin in the woods? Is it an innate, powerful draw back to nature and natural materials or is the log cabin a symbol of the simple life, a life free from modern stresses – noise pollution, over-population, crushing debt and information overload?
For me, it’s the thought of working for decades at a job that does make me happy, disconnected from nature, surrounded by concrete, buildings and too many people, and dependent on an employer, the government, the system and powerful and efficient but noisy and unnatural machines.
When I was 21, I was already tired of society and wanted badly to move off-grid, to live off the land and to live on my own terms. Fortunately, a couple of years earlier, I had earned and saved enough money working in construction during summer breaks to buy some cheap land with help from my parents.
The property consisted of 5 acres in central Ontario Canada directly across from a lake and surrounded by public land. I thought I could live off the land, supplemented with a large stockpile of oatmeal, rice and canned vegetables. Unfortunately, I didn’t last a year. The township started harassing me to remove the trailer that I was living in while building the cabin and I had to get a job to pay the property taxes. I couldn’t believe it. I owned the land – why couldn’t I build a cabin or live in a trailer, or a tent for that matter? It didn’t make sense, but when I looked into it further, I found out that that was the way it is in most of Ontario and throughout the US and Canada, with some notable exceptions.
25 years after building that first cabin, things have gotten worse. Land prices have skyrocketed while wages have stagnated. Owning a house, especially one with a decent sized piece of land, may not be an option for my kids and most others in their generation. On top of that, governments have increased rules, regulations and fees. Previously unorganized townships have amalgamated with their neighbours and are no longer safe havens for off-gridders.
I found my solution in the form of an unorganized township in Ontario, Canada. Here, I am unencumbered by government oversight. With no building permit requirement and very low annual property taxes, I am free to build what I want, where I want and when I want. Without oversight, I am free to build another log cabin. It’s 10 feet by 20 feet – 200 square feet plus a 70 square foot covered porch and a back deck overlooking the stream, which will eventually be screened in.
Inside the cabin, there is a sleeping loft with a queen sized bed. The main floor has a bunk bed, a kitchen, a table with seating for 4, a wood stove for heating and cooking, two chairs in front of the wood stove, a footstool and side table. Outside, there will be an outdoor kitchen with a bread oven and 50 feet away, downwind, an outhouse.
I get my water from a dug well 600 feet away near the road access, or from the nearby stream during open water season. During the winter, the creek remains open in sections and I can melt ice or snow if that freezes during a particularly cold day.
Tiny Homes in Ontario – Restrictions on properties in organized/incorporated townships
In Canada, municipalities regulate residential and commercial construction based on the minimums set out by the National Building Code. Some provinces, such as my home province of Ontario, have more restrictive regulations set out in the Ontario Building Code. Municipalities can add further restrictions and regulations, including things like minimum and maximum plan view dimensions and heights, set-backs. A standardized “Development Fee” is an example of local intervention, which is a fee that they charge you for the right to build in their municipality.
Here are some of the restrictions preventing you from doing what you want on your property.
- Minimum primary building size. In Ontario, that can be anything from 500-640 sf for a hunt camp to 800-1000 square feet for a primary residence.
- Minimum number of rooms and minimum room sizes, depending on usage.
- No camping on your own property. Often, no camping even if a permit is in place.
- No sleeping trailers unless a building permit is in place to build a permanent primary structure. Permit expires after 1-3 years on average.
- No accessory buildings before primary building has occupancy permit issued, even if under the maximum size for a secondary shelter. So, no building a “shed” until the house is built.
- No cooking, sleeping or sewage systems in an accessory building under 108 square feet
- Maximum height restriction on accessory buildings. 2nd storey, if allowed, must not exceed 108 square feet.
- Many jurisdictions make it mandatory to connect to the local electricity grid
- Development fee (the “right” to develop a building in the township) is $10,000 + in many municipalities, including most in Muskoka and in townships surrounding us. Flat fee regardless of size of building.
- Building permit is expensive, priced per square metre of building area.
- Property taxes are high! – Unorganized townships are cheap – just $100-$200 in our case, including education portion
How to find a property in an unorganized township
- Search Realtor.ca in the area that you are interested in.
- Contact real estate agents in desired locations and asked for a list of unorganized townships in the area.
- Ask realtor for a list of properties for sale in an unorganized townships. Include already developed properties – sometimes the building is not suitable for habitation but beneficial infrastructure is in place, such as driveway, well and septic.
- Visit http://www.gisapplication.lrc.gov.on.ca/CLUPA/Index.html?site=CLUPA&viewer=CLUPA&locale=en-US (Crown Land Use Policy Atlas) to see what public lands are located near your property. Ideally, a large park of public land should be within walking distance.
- Spend time on Google Earth to get an idea of what surrounds the property – lakes and rivers, landfill sites, other developments, mines, quarries, etc.
Not everyone will agree with this list of criteria that were important to my wife and me when we were searching for our property. If you are a typical homesteader, you will probably be more interested in arable land that is good for growing crops and raising livestock. I on the other hand, wanted a wilderness cabin in the woods on the rugged Canadian Shield, surrounded by vast forests, lakes and rivers teeming with wild game. However, it had to be close enough to farms and towns where I could source food and other resources that I could not get from the land. Plus, it had to be within a reasonable driving distance of Toronto and Ottawa so that I could invite guests and students to join me at the cabin and property.
- Unorganized township
- Remote location for privacy, less competition for resources and cheaper land prices
- At least one water source on property – surface water, dug well and drilled well are the options
- Year round fully maintained road with reliable snow removal
- Backing on to crown land
- Minimum 5 acres – not too close to neighbours
- Cell phone service
- Variety of mature trees for shelter, building materials and firewood, not a clear cut lot
- Within reasonable driving distance of Greater Toronto Area
- Well maintained area (not run down)
- Driveway in or inexpensive to install
- No encumbrances or road allowances that interfere with access
- High and dry (not low and wet) topography
- Quiet and peaceful road (no highway noise)
- Phone and hydro service nearby for re-sale value
- Well and/septic installed is a bonus
- Clean site (junk removal prior to closing if necessary)
- No nearby disturbances, such as a landfill site
Other things to look for in an off-grid property
- Productive land with abundant natural foods and attractive to wildlife
- Arable land for growing food
- Enough land to raise livestock
- Access to land beyond your owned land. In Ontario, Canada, that means access either to friendly neighbours or better yet, Crown land with difficult access for non-landowners.
- Reasonable access to health care, shopping, farmers markets and other essential goods and services.
Purchase land just about anywhere in Southern and Central Ontario, or anywhere else in Canada or the United States, for the purpose of sustainable, off-grid living, and you will soon find out there are rules and regulations in place to stop you from doing what YOU want to do. It sounds hard to believe, but just because you own your own land does not mean you have the right to do whatever you wish on it, even if it has no impact on your neighbors or the environment.
In our hunt for suitable land to create a power-free, off-grid recreation lifestyle, my wife and I were shocked to discover that not only could we not build a tiny home to occupy, nor a temporary Bunkie prior to building a permanent residence, we were not even permitted to camp on OUR land for any length of time. What?!
It’s true. We could spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a piece of vacant land in Ontario and we could not occupy that land, even temporarily, without a permit in place to build a permanent home. And, not just any home, but a house with a minimum area of 1,000 square feet – not exactly a “tiny” home. With a permit in place, it’s legal to place a trailer on the property for up to three years (only in some municipalities mind you), but at the end of that period, the trailer must be removed from the property if you have not built a house.
Also shockingly, in many jurisdictions, it’s actually illegal to NOT be connected to the local utility grid. So, relying on renewable energy (or even a generator) without tying into the territorial electricity grid is strictly forbidden.
What we wanted
Freedom from government oversight at a local level.
Freedom to build an off-grid homestead
Freedom to camp or otherwise occupy our property in a shelter that we deem appropriate for our current use.
Freedom from high development fees and annual property taxes.
What to do?
One possible solution, although not necessarily a 100% legal one, is to own and occupy land in an unorganized township. In Ontario, Canada, unorganized territories are found only above Muskoka in the center of the province, from Parry Sound District north. In these Districts, there are areas with no county or regional levels of government and therefore no local oversight.
And just in case you are willing and able to buck the system and occupy your land under your own rules and think you are beyond interference, another government department has that covered too. Even though there is no local government or provincial employee to inspect your property to make sure you are in compliance with the Ontario Building Code, MMA has overall jurisdiction to encourage your compliance. The following is taken from the website of the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs (http://www.mah.gov.on.ca/Page2103.aspx);
Territories without municipal organization (ie.where there is no local government in place) are commonly referred to as “unorganized territories.”
In an unorganized territory, do I need a building permit?
Building permits are not issued in unorganized townships, as there is no municipal authority to do so. There are, however, unorganized townships that are subject to Minister’s Zoning Orders or Zoning by-laws and therefore, “Letters of Conformity” or “Zoning Conformity Permits” would be required in these townships, prior to any development or construction taking place. Citizens owning properties in unincorporated areas should call the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Municipal Services Office, in their area for more information. The Ministry of Natural Resources may also need to be consulted with respect to permits required, as would the Ministry of Transportation if development is proposed on or near a highway. Septic system approvals would need to be obtained from the local health unit or conservation authority.
Do I have to comply with the Building Code in unorganized territory?
The Building Code Act, 1992 is applicable to all lands, whether in municipalities or in unincorporated areas. This applies to all buildings, whether or not a permit has been issued or applied for, and also where a person is exempt from the requirement to obtain a permit (i.e. for the construction of buildings other than sewage system, in unorganized territory).
Are communal water and sewer systems permitted in unorganized territory?
It depends on the proposed volume output. Contact your local health unit or the nearest Ministry of Environment and Energy office for information.
Do I need a letter of conformity for a septic system?
Only those unincorporated areas subject to a Minister’s Zoning Order administered by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, or a Zoning by-law administered by a local planning board require either a “Letter of Conformity” or a “Zoning Conformity Permit.” If you are uncertain whose jurisdiction the unincorporated township may fall under, contact the nearest Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Municipal Services Office for information.
In unorganized areas, what taxes are payable?
In unincorporated areas, lands that are privately owned are subject to the provincial land tax, which is remitted to the Ontario Minister of Finance, Oshawa office. The Oshawa office can be reached at: (905) 433-6381.
The lands may also be subject to Board of Education taxes, Local Service Board taxes and Local Roads Board taxes if the unincorporated township is within the jurisdiction of these boards.
What rules are absolutely mandatory to follow in most unorganized territories?
While we all want freedom, we also want a clean environment and access to services. Therefore, I have no problem with the two types of permits that are still mandatory in an UOT; septic and driveway/culvert. Septic systems are governed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and must be designed and built to standards meant to protect the environment. I agree that this is important. Culvert permits are required for installing a driveway and act to ensure that local roadways are not adversely affected by modified drainage patterns. I also agree with this regulation.
Where do you find these unorganized territories?
Wikipedia is a great source of information in your search for unorganized townships in Ontario.
- Algoma, UNO, North Part
- †Algoma, UNO, South East Part
- Cochrane, UNO, North Part
- Cochrane, UNO, South East Part
- †Cochrane, UNO, South West Part
- Kenora, UNO
- Manitoulin, UNO, Mainland
- Manitoulin, UNO, West Part
- Nipissing, UNO, North Part
- Nipissing, UNO, South Part
- Parry Sound, UNO, Centre Part
- Parry Sound, UNO, North East Part
- Rainy River, UNO
- Sudbury, UNO, North Part
- Thunder Bay, UNO
- †Timiskaming, UNO, East Part
- Timiskaming, UNO, West Part
In the Parry Sound District, where our property is located, you can look for land in these towns/municipalities;
Free land in the Yukon Territory
For us, one of the benefits of owning in an unorganized township is that we are free to construct outbuildings that suit us, without the requirement to purchase a permit or follow unreasonable and unnecessary guidelines. The second reason is that we are permitted to use the property as a camp to teach others the skills required for survival and independence. Providing inspiration to the next generations and teaching love and respect for nature, sustainability and self-reliance is the legacy I want to leave behind, and owning land in an unorganized territory is currently the only way I can achieve that. I hope my kids have the same opportunity.