Have You Considered a Historic Neighborhood for Your Small House?


by Jo-Anne Peck, President of Historic Shed Custom Outbuildings

There comes a time when anyone who dreams of living in a small house has to ask the question, “Where will I put my tiny house?” When choosing to site build a little house, this becomes an ever bigger question since zoning codes and neighborhood association rules are often at odds with small house goals. As a result, many tiny house people look to rural areas where restrictions may be less stringent. However, not everyone prefers country living, and site development costs for utilities can be prohibitive on undeveloped land.

For those that would rather live within more established areas, close to walkable stores and with sociable neighbors, older and historic neighborhoods may be a good choice for building a new small home. The average size of an American single-family home has grown exponentially over the years, but most of our ancestors managed to live in much less square footage, often with much larger families. Therefore, there are many established neighborhoods with precedent for small homes. Historically laid out with small lots (for example, much of the historic core of Lake Worth, FL was platted with 25′ wide lots), local zoning in designated historic districts is often tailored so that new construction within the district remains in scale with the historically smaller homes in the neighborhood. In addition, many historic neighborhoods also allow accessory structures behind the main home that can be even tinier than the main home.

Some historic neighborhoods have few available empty lots, while others have many vacant lots available due to fires, demolitions, or never having been fully developed. It may take some diligence on your part to find the right spot, but with careful consideration you will likely find an affordable lot in an up-and-coming older neighborhood that suits you perfectly.

Benefits of building a small house within a historic district:

  • Site utilities are already in place, saving on development costs
  • Established neighborhoods have sidewalks and mature trees
  • Zoning laws are commonly adapted to lot sizes and the scale of surrounding properties, allowing for smaller footprints
  • Historic neighborhoods are often within walking distance to stores and restaurants reducing or eliminating the need for a car
  • Neighbors to look out for you and socialize with; many historic preservation proponents have similar mindsets to tiny house people
  • Historic District design standards direct the area’s future development which often helps to maintain economic stability
  • Many historic districts allow for accessory dwellings behind the main residence that can be even smaller than the main house, allowing for rental income or a co-op living arrangement
  • Property values are based on livability, aesthetics and historic character rather than a “bigger is better” mentality
  • When looking for a lot for your small house, you may find the perfect little house already in existence waiting for your loving touch – historic preservation is the ultimate recycling project

When looking for an appropriate historic neighborhood to build in consider the following:

  • Look for a neighborhood of predominantly smaller homes; neighborhoods with shotgun style or bungalows are generally suitable
  • Neighborhoods platted from the 1890s to 1930s developed for working class residents often have small lots suited for smaller homes
  • Irregular or previously subdivided lots, often called “non-conforming” by zoning standards, may be perfect for construction of a small house and very affordable
  • Look for an “up and coming” neighborhood, preferably with an activeneighborhood association for more affordable property
  • Avoid neighborhoods where the trend has been to demolish the older small homes and replace them with “McMansions”
  • Avoid neighborhoods where new additions to existing homes are equal to or bigger than the original historic home
  • Look at the architectural style of surrounding homes; you will likely be required to build a home with similar scale and shape (i.e. if most of the homes have gable roofs, yours will more likely meet design requirements if it also has a gable roof)
  • Talk to local Zoning officials to find out minimum and maximum lot coverage, setbacks, parking requirements and other site development regulations before you buy
  • Talk to the local Historic Preservation office to learn about design guidelines for infill construction within the neighborhood before you design your small home
  • Consider buying a lot with an existing home and build a tiny house behind to provide rental income if zoning allows

For those interested in living more economically in a smaller footprint without having to build from scratch, looking for a house in a historic district may be a great opportunity to both live in an attractive home and neighborhood and to recycle an entire house. If the perfect house doesn’t already exist, or is not within budget, building a new small house within a historic district may be just the right combination.

Visit Historic Shed’s website

Reposted with permission from Kent Griswald’s Tiny House Blog. Kent has been blogging about tiny house living at for 5 years and is an authorized Tumbleweed affiliate.
  • Suzanne Dreitlein

    Horray for the small historic house! For those attracted to living small in a city, Philadelphia has a plethora of small (sub 1,000 sq ft) row homes waiting for those who want to live small. Many of these are older than 100 years and are in established neighborhoods with all the perks of city living. The best thing about living in a historic house, small or otherwise, is that the maintenance of these homes is essential to the neighborhood and community vitality. As a resident, you really feel like a part of something bigger. If people don’t care for these little homes, they will fall into disrepair and get torn down to make room for larger homes that lack historical integrity. NYC is a perfect example of how smaller row houses really got the shaft in favor of tenement development and I believe that something was lost there. Fortunately, we’ve got small homes to spare here in Philly.

    • Danielle

      Suzanne, indeed a lot of PA towns have them and most for a steal! Good idea for inspiring readers and fans to think and live for locally/sustainably.

    • Tiny House Hunter

      Got any pictures? I moved into the South thinking it was a part of the United States of America. It is not. The South is one great big Huey Long state and we are looking to get out ASAP.

  • Howdoigetpastthis

    I would like to buy your book but I have no e mail address and will not get one so your sales slip refuses to let me buy your book. I do not do face book.
    726 Tablerock Circle
    Branson, MO 65616
    Call or write me a  letter telling me how to purchas your book and I will.
    P.S. For a tiny house, off the grid guy it seems odd to me your billing forces me to conform to to the norm.
    By the way I borowed a frind’s computer after seeing something about Tumbleweed Homes on their TV

  • hpluvstinyhouses

    Great blog! As a professional historic preservationist and avocational tiny house lover, you hit all the key points. Existing tiny houses are available in historic districts around the country. New tiny houses can also be very compatible infill construction in existing historic districts. Remember, nothing is “greener” than reuse. Why not “reuse” a historic tiny house!

  • Angela

    I like the idea of building in historic/established districts. One problem in the Northern Virginia area is lots in these areas are very expensive. I live in Manassas and any intown lots advertised for sale start at 99,000.00 and just get more expensive. So I’m looking further away as I would like to connect to sewer and water instead of digging a well and septic system.

    • Gin Di Battista

      Angela, I live in Fredericksburg and worked in Manassas for a year.

      Depending on how far you are willing to drive, you might want to look a bit to the west towards West Virginia. I know that several of my (ex)co-workers live over that way and have stated that it was much less expensive to buy a house/land out there.

      Good luck!


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