is it legal to live in a camper in your backyard?

Backyard camping was the best adventure as a kid. Almost as good as actually going camping, but without going anywhere.

If you are an RV or Trailer Camper owner, you may have considered setting up camp in your yard too.

Plus, a camper can be a great additional space for large numbers of guests or if your guests just want a bit more privacy when they are visiting.

But, is it legal to sleep in your camper or RV in your backyard?

In most cases, yes. You can legally sleep in your camper or RV on your property. However, it cannot become a permanent dwelling. You may have to check with your HOA to see what regulations they have individually. RV or camper are legally considered vehicles or trailers, not homes, so different laws apply.

While different neighborhoods and states may have different laws surrounding living in your camper on your property, you can park it on your land in most cases.

We will break down the ins and outs of parking your RV or camper on your property, so you won’t be wondering if your RV is parked legally or not.

Parking your RV or Camper on your Property

While you can park your RV in your backyard and sleep in it for a couple of nights, it isn’t typically legal to make it a permanent home.

If you are permanently living in it like cooking your food, receiving your guests, or holding parties there, then it is most likely illegal.

If possible, consider parking your camper in a garage or shelter, but most garages are too small to house an RV. 

In the RV community, it is recommended to ask fellow RV users in your area about parking it in the backyard.

You can also ask the local authorities about it. You do not want to spoil your RV experience just because of a wrong assumption. 

However, enforcement of RV laws is not as strict compared to laws pertaining to trespassing or theft. Some people get away with living in their RV in their backyard, and some do not. 

The typical options in RV living are as follows:

  • Registering “recreational vehicle” and parking it in your garage
  • Get your RV is registered as an “accessory dwelling unit”
  • Parking your RV at designated RV campgrounds or parks

In short, the federal government sees the RV as something people use for recreation and traveling rather than living permanently.

With that view of RVs and campers, you should feel safe sleeping in your camper in your backyard as long as you come back to your house after a while.

Living permanently in an RV is usually prohibited, especially in residential areas, both urban and rural.

The Legality About Live In a Camper

Traveling in your RV is different from living in it. You might be thinking that if living in an RV is mostly illegal, why are there still a lot of RV travelers?

Well, when you travel in an RV, you are using it as a vehicle. Therefore, you are not living in it but driving it.

RVs park at designated RV at a motorhome stopover for a few nights to check on their vehicle and get a break from the road. 

Motorhome stopovers vary from state to state and county to county, just like RV laws.

While it is preferred than parking your RV at the side of the road or anywhere else, some stopovers have a time limit to how long you can park.

That is why a good traveler is a prepared traveler. Do your research online and call some people before going on your trip.

RV as Permanent (or “semi-permanent”) Home

According to the USLegal website, an RV or “MotorHome” is defined as:

Motor Home is a self-propelled vehicle that provides both transport and sleeping accommodation.

The term mainly describes vans that have been fitted out, often with a coach-built body for use as accommodation.

In the United States, the term “recreational vehicle” (RV) is more common for these vehicles. They are also called campervans.

In most cases, the authorities do not see an RV as a house or permanent living site since it is technically a motor vehicle.

Also, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an RV can is for travel, recreational, and camping purposes. 

So, in most cases, the cops will at least give you a notice or warning about living in your RV or camper.

Usually, this will come due to a neighbor complaint, but if they see it, they can ticket you as well.

Sleeping for a night or two might be okay, but living there for weeks and months will eventually lead to a discussion with the authorities.

Domicile Status

A domicile status means that you are permitted to live full-time in your RV. It differs from a residency status since the former allows you to have residences in various places, while the latter only permits you to be an RV resident in the state you applied for. 

In some states, if you have domicile status in your RV, it means it can be subject to an income tax. We won’t be covering RV tax specifics in this article since there are so many caveats and loopholes.

Getting a Building Permit

A building permit is another way around strict RV parking and living laws. In some cities, a building permit will allow you to live in your RV for a short time.

This can be done if your land is still blank or your house is still being constructed. The RV or camper is then a temporary housing situation until a permanent dwelling is built to code. 

The permit cost is around $1,000 in most locations, but the price will vary from state to state. However, it will give you the full permission of living in your RV, no strings attached.

With a building permit, you will be expected to build something you can live in eventually. If too much time passes, you could still end up being fined if no work is being done to change your living situation. 

2016 HUD Panic

Back in 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, for short, was rumored to implement a policy that would prohibit people from living in their RV for extended periods under any circumstance.

Of course, the news was received stress-fully by the RV community as some had already invested their resources in their RV as a house and have grown accustomed to it. 

The updated regulations were featured in HUD’s “FR–5877–P–01 Manufactured Home Procedural and Enforcement Regulations; Revision of Exemption for Recreational Vehicles.” The HUD emphasized that living full-time in an RV is illegal. 

Here is an excerpt from the revision:

This proposed rule is based on a recommendation adopted by the Manufactured Housing Consensus Committee (MHCC) which would define a recreational vehicle as one built on a vehicular structure, not certified as a manufactured home, designed only for recreational use and not as a primary residence or for permanent occupancy, and built and certified in accordance with either the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1192-15 or American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A119.5-09 consensus standards for recreational vehicles.

At this time, RV and camper laws are not enforced strictly in all areas. This is subject to change at any moment.

As the HUD begins to change regulations, cities may take more notice of RV and camper parking situations.

Zoning Laws

Aside from the federal and state laws regarding RVs, you should also read about zoning laws.

Zoning is the act of dividing a city into designated sections and lots like residential and industrial. 

How do zoning laws affect your ability to sleep in your RV in your backyard? Let us say you are in an affluent neighborhood.

Looking from afar, the community has rows and columns of houses that look and function like traditional homes.

If you decide to park your RV in your backyard and live there, you might get some complaints from fellow homeowners. 

First, your RV might affect the desired look of the neighborhood. Whether it is your regular suburban neighborhood or a swanky urban one, developers and homeowners care about how their neighborhood looks.

If your backyard is not seen from other houses, then you might have higher chances of parking it there and sleeping in it sometimes.

Second, if others see you are getting away with living in your RV, then they might think it is perfectly fine to do it too.

Once a large number of folks in your neighborhood begin residing in campers and RVs, it will become more noticeable, and the city is more likely to intervene. 

In some cities, it is fine to park your RV by your house and for it to be fully visible to others. In some, it is not.

It may be a matter of maintaining a uniform look or for security purposes. Whatever the reason is, always follow the law of your city. 

For example, in mid-America, the zoning laws are more forgiving of RVs compared to laws in west coast cities like San Diego or San Francisco.

Cities that are more commerce-heavy than others will enforce their laws more strictly due to the number of people living and working in them.

RV Parking Laws in Various States

The laws and regulations of sleeping in your RV in your backyard vary from place to place.

You can get a lot of valuable information by talking to a friend that has done it before, but contacting your local housing and law offices is preferred. Seek to get up to date and accurate information at all times. 

For example, in the state of California, the “ADU loophole” is usually brought up.

It means that you can work your way around specific laws by registering your RV as an Accessory Dwelling Unit. The state defines it as: 

“[A]n attached or a detached residential dwelling unit that provides complete independent living facilities for one or more persons.

It shall include permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking, and sanitation on the same parcel as the single-family dwelling is situated”

An ADU can be treated as an extension of your main property as long as it is placed within it.

Most of the time, an ADU is used to host visitors or is rented out to tenants. 

Again, the definition of an RV as a vehicle or an ADU shifts from time to time and place to place.

However, an RV’s qualification to be an ADU is usually based on the following criteria:

  • Is the main property big enough for your house and the RV?
  • Is the RV less than 1,200 feet?
  • Does the RV need its own utility metering?
  • Is the RV taking up more than a single parking slot?

However, just like the state of Vermont, California’s RV laws are different in each county. Both states permit local governments to issue RV’s an ADU permit based on some conditions.

However, in the county of San Diego, RV laws are more strict. They explicitly categorize RV as a vehicle and shall not be used as an ADU just like in New York City. 

In the city of Chicago, Illinois, RVs are strictly defined as vehicles and not as ADUs. Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, an RV is an ADU if it follows this code:  

“[T]he primary exterior materials of the detached accessory structure shall be durable, including but not limited to masonry, brick, stone, wood, cement-based siding, or glass.”

In the states of Oregon and Washington, any structure that has wheels on it cannot be counted as an ADU.

In cities, RV laws are enforced more strictly due to zoning, housing, and safety laws. As you move out of cities and into more rural communities, the laws become more flexible. 

In Bedford County in Virginia, an RV can be considered an “accessory apartment” based on conditions like being detached to the main property and should be less than 50% in floor area than the main property. 

The states of South Dakota, Florida, and Texas are more welcoming of RVs. There are still zoning laws in some areas in each state that you have to follow, but the RV experience in those states are generally easier.

In Phoenix, Arizona, an RV can be considered a guesthouse. Some conditions include having a single guest house in the land, being not bigger than 50% of the main property, and not be advertised as a property for rent anywhere. 

You check this website to see the different ordinances in each city in each state regarding RVs as ADUs.

The information is from volunteers, mostly RV travelers, and some can be outdated.

It is an excellent site to visit to get a general knowledge of how RVs are treated in the next city you will be visiting. 

Remember, a state may have a different law, and a county in that state may also have a different one. Beyond that, laws are always subject to change.

The enforcement of these laws is a different story too. It may be strict on paper, but in some cases, enforcement of RV laws is relatively infrequent.

Rural RV Parking

There is an advantage in parking your RV in a rural area. There are more RV “campers” in the country than in the city, so you can immediately gauge “how legal” is it in your area when RV camping. 

Also, authorities in rural areas are more likely to be relaxed with their enforcement, especially when it comes to the issue of living in your RV. This does not mean you should push your luck.

It is better that if you are new to an area, especially rural, ask around where all the RVs are parked.

If it is a designated campground or lot, then that is the best option you have if you do not have a land of your own. 

If it is just a group of RV drivers that have decided to camp together, it is also a good choice. 

Urban RV Parking

Zoning laws and law enforcement are stricter in cities, especially in commerce-heavy cities.

To be safe, always assume that the default law is that you are not allowed to permanently live in your RV unless told otherwise. 

You have to understand that your neighbors would prefer someone living in a traditional house versus an RV.

It may be a matter of aesthetics or safety, but either way, it is best to follow the rules in place to avoid any problems or neighbor complaints. 

How to Safely Live in an RV on Your Own Land

By “camping”, we mean a short stay in a fixed location. Let us just say that a short-term living period is around 2-5 months. Here are some steps to follow:

Create a timeline

Going on the road with your RV is hard, but it is harder when you decide to camp somewhere new to you.

That is why you should set a schedule, so you know where you will be on this date and avoid camping unexpectedly. 

Create a roadmap

Some RV travelers prefer going in blind since the “thrill of the unknown” adds excitement to their travel.

However, it is recommended to create a roadmap – a physical map with your route outline – especially if you are a beginner.

Prep your supplies

One of the usual reasons for unexpectedly camping in a new city is having to resupply.

It is in these new cities that you are not familiar with RV laws, and you might just end up being cited or fined when you sleep in your RV in that area.

Example of supplies include:

  • Vehicle papers, personal identification, and other necessary papers
  • Spare cash – not everywhere will have an ATM
  • Medical kit – better to have it when you do not need it than the other way around
  • Printed map – we recommend getting a map you bought from that county rather than an “all-in-one” map that may be outdated already
  • Light source and batteries – in case your tire blows in the middle of nowhere, and it is 10 pm

Prep your home 

Preparing your RV as a vehicle is given, but what most people forget is to prepare your home, after all, you will be leaving it.

A tip that you will not hear from a lot of RV articles is you should not announce (aside from close friends and family) that you will be going in on an RV trip and leaving your house.

That is just advertising to burglars that your home is open for theft.

Do your research and call ahead

Now, if you have created a timeline and a roadmap, you have a rough idea of where you will be days ahead.

Do thorough research on what the RV laws are and what is the enforcement on the ground in the states and cities you will be visiting.

Learn Your Local RV and Camper Laws

Camping in your backyard doesn’t have to be complicated. When it comes down to it, all you need to do is ask a few questions and do a bit of area research into vehicle parking and dwelling laws.

In most areas in the United States, it is illegal to live in a camper or RV as a permanent home unless you are under a particular registration or circumstance. 

While these laws may not always be strictly enforced, you don’t want to be caught up in legal trouble and possibly lose your RV or camper.

Remember that in most states and cities, the law recognizes the RV as a vehicle primarily rather than a house. In the cases that your RV is deemed to be fit for a short-term living as an ADU, they do mean short-term, no permanent.

Your best camper or RV option, if you want to live full-time, is to travel with it. Drive it around, camp in new places each week, and enjoy the spirit of RVing.

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