Tiny home or large vehicle? The latest from the District Court

There is currently no nation-wide regulation of the building and occupation of tiny homes.  Each local council deals with tiny homes in different ways.  Sometimes they require full building code compliance and consents.  In other cases they have no such requirements.  A common issue is whether a “moveable” tiny home (ie, a structure on wheels) should be considered a building or a vehicle.

Councils across the country have made numerous referrals of cases to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to make determinations about tiny homes under the Building Act 2004 (Building Act).  MBIE’s case-by-case approach has led to calls for legislative change to provide certainty for those who wish to build and use tiny homes.  At present, however, the uncertainty remains.  A recent Canterbury case gives a useful overview of the key issues.

In 2018, Hurunui District Council (Council) issued Alan Dall an “order to fix” under the Building Act in relation to his tiny home.  Mr Dall’s tiny home consisted of a trailer and a dwelling constructed on top of the trailer.  Both the Council and MBIE determined that the Building Act applied to his tiny home.  Mr Dall disagreed and appealed to the District Court.

Under section 8 of the Building Act, a “building” includes “a vehicle that is immovable and occupied by people on a permanent or long-term basis”.  In interpreting the Building Act in Mr Dall’s case, the Court in Dall v The Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment [2020] NZDC 2612, considered two key questions and answered them as follows:

Was the structure a vehicle or a building?  The Court found that the structure was a vehicle because it was equipped with wheels, axles, brakes, a drawbar and a trailer hitch enabling it to be used on the road.  This differed from other cases where structures had axles, wheels and tow-bars that were moveable around a property but not designed for road use.  These structures were found to be relocatable buildings.

Was it immovable?  The Court found that the structure was not immovable because its design and components enabled it to be attached to a vehicle and relocated with relative ease, it had a valid registration and WOF, it was self-contained and incapable of being fixed to the ground, there was evidence it had previously been relocated, and it was indistinguishable in any material way from a caravan.

On this basis, the Court found that the structure did not come within the Building Act definition of “building”, therefore the Act’s requirements did not apply.  Had the Court found that the structure was immovable, it would have needed to go on and consider a third question, was the structure was occupied on a permanent or long-term basis?  If so, it would have come within the definition and meant the Building Act requirements applied.

Although the Court has provided some guidance in this recent decision, there is still uncertainty about the building code compliance and consent requirements for tiny homes.  If you are considering building and/or living in a tiny home, you will likely need to take a careful look at how these structures are being treated in your part of the country.

Resource Management team

Josh LeckieAnnabel Hawkins (née Linterman), Kelsey Barry, Mia Turner

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