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I-TEAM: Tiny homes, big problems — ‘They deliberately sold this house that I cannot use’

Published: Nov. 19, 2020 at 6:50 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - During the pandemic this year, sales of tiny homes began skyrocketing over the summer as homeowners looked to ditch their expensive mortgages in the economic crisis for a smaller and simpler way of life.

However, we uncovered regulation is not keeping up with demand.

They say knowledge is power. This is especially true for consumers considering purchasing a tiny home. Gaps in regulation create confusion, and a confused consumer is most vulnerable to questionable sales tactics.

Let’s introduce you to Mary Barnwell.

“The porch is what I loved,” Barnwell said of the tiny home she purchased.

“I had thrown the couch in here and the table for my daughter, but I mean this is the living room, the kitchen, the refrigerator -- I mean it all came with it. Two air conditioners. Two heaters. all of the amenities of a traditional home.”

Barnwell paid $30,000 for the house and another $10,000 for a total of $40,000 to get it set up. She believed the small footprint would be the perfect solution for her daughter.

“It’s like a shed,” Barnwell said. “I could put it in my backyard, and I would never have to worry about where she lived or anything. I knew she would be safe.”

But all she sees a year later in her backyard is a 399 square foot nightmare sitting as empty as her bank account.

“Oh, my God, I feel so stupid, and I am lost,” Barnwell said.

It’s important to understand why nearly anyone in Barnwell’s shoes would feel stupid. We found regulations pertaining to tiny homes are confusing and vague at best.

Single family homes are subject to state building codes and local ordinances and inspections.

The Department of Urban Housing and Development regulates manufactured homes. Recreational vehicles fall under another agency -- the Department of Motor Vehicles.

A tiny home falls under none of these, meaning rules are different in each and every county. It’s confusing, and brings us back to Barnwell’s big problem.

“Well, I had to get the sewage put in, had to have things run into it to get it ready, the water, make sure it was level again, and I went to go get the pole for the electricity, and that’s when it came to a screeching halt,” Barnwell said.

We found Richmond County does not have a specific code for tiny homes, but there is one for an accessory building.

“Accessory buildings shall not be designed and used for residential purposes. They cannot contain bedrooms, and can never be occupied as such before a permit may be issued,” the code said.

“They told me it was a tiny house. That if you bought it was just like a shed in your backyard. You don’t have to have any permits,” Barnwell said.

Barnwell bought her tiny home from Heritage Housing of Augusta. We found Heritage Housing primarily sells manufactured homes, but tiny homes are on the lot and for sale at their Augusta location on Gordon Highway. Their brochure advertises they can provide delivery and set up, too.

“They deliberately sold this house that I cannot use at all, not even for an office,” Barnwell said.

Barnwell didn’t know this, but the county building inspector told us Heritage Housing of Augusta did know. The Richmond County building official with planning, zoning and development wrote us, “Heritage paid for the home to be set-up” and they “should have inquired about the permit” because “they know that the building cannot be there legally.”

In Barnwell’s case, Augusta-Richmond County found wrongdoing by Heritage Housing of Augusta and cited the manager for the following violations: commencement of work without a permit, violating the zoning ordinance, failing to get a follow-up inspection, and using an unlicensed contractor.

A lawyer representing Heritage Housing of Augusta told us, “Unfortunately, it does appear that the city of Augusta does not permit their citizens to use a tiny home as a residential dwelling in areas that are zoned for residential use. However, at no point would we permit one of our salespersons to tell a customer that a tiny home is not subject to local zoning ordinances.”

We went to Heritage Housing of Augusta undercover to find out for ourselves. We asked one of their salespeople if we could just buy one of the tiny homes and place it on our property.

“No, you have to go to your county officials and get permits and some counties don’t allow them like Richmond County,” the salesperson said.

The salesperson said he was new here and continued to talk candidly with us.

“The people that were here before me were just selling them and we had to go repo them because it couldn’t pass inspection, couldn’t get the permits they needed, and the town they were in didn’t allow them,” the salesperson said.

“They were just selling -- whatever, I don’t know. We have been cleaning up a lot of mess.”

The lawyer for Heritage Housing of Augusta continues: “We do sympathize with the customer, and understand her disappointment in not being able to use the home for its intended purpose. We don’t believe at this time that it is appropriate or fair to offer the customer a full refund for the purchase of the home.”

Barnwell isn’t just disappointed. She’s angry. She went back to Heritage Housing of Augusta pretending to be a potential customer. This time, she pressed record on her phone.

“And this is a tiny house?” Barnwell asked the manager on the line.

“It is,” the manager replied. “It’s a tiny house, or you could call it an accessory dwelling unit if you want to talk to the county about it.”

The man identified himself as the regional manager for the company.

“You should treat it just like a shed,” the manager said. “I forgot the purpose is was a craft room and not someone living in here full-time. They get really funny when they find out someone is full-time living in one. Whatever you do for a shed, you do for this.”

“This should be the same as a shed because they don’t need to know—this is a bedroom/craft room two, and that is craft room one, right?”

“It’s put a real hardship on my family,” Barnwell said.

We were there as the manager of Heritage Housing of Augusta went to civil court in October.

Barnwell now awaits to go before a judge to hear the case.

“Many of these builders are going gangbusters this year,” John Keronhan, a tiny home builder, said. “They can’t keep up with the orders for tiny houses. People are looking at them as a solution for what they are facing right now.”

Keronhan breathes, builds, and sleeps in tiny homes. He says the pandemic has increased the demand for a simpler way of life, but regulations have yet to catch up with the demand.

“A zoning department needs to decide a couple things first,” Keronhan said. “Square footage requirements -- if square foot requirements doesn’t allow for 400 square feet or smaller than, you automatically can’t live in a tiny house. Then there are municipalities who don’t allow for full-time residential within mobile structures on wheels.”

Planning and zoning told Barnwell to move her tiny home or risk fines. Why doesn’t she just let the home get repossessed?

“Because I borrowed from my sister-in-law and gave them the whole thing up front,” Barnwell said.

Barnwell also paid cash.

“I make $783 a month and pay $665 a month for that,” Barnwell said.

Barnwell is newly divorced and surviving off Social Security, too.

“I don’t go to much,” Barnwell said. “I don’t have gas. I don’t buy groceries a lot.”

She can’t afford even the tiniest of losses.

Georgia and South Carolina have fallen behind states like California where regulation there has led to the development of tiny home communities for seniors and homeless families. Tiny home villages could be part of the answer to the housing crisis in Georgia, but without state laws and regulations, there could be more stories like Barnwell’s. The outcome of her case could set a precedent for the future of tiny homes at least locally in Richmond County. We will keep you updated.

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