So…can a yurt really be your primary residence, or are they limited to being a weekend cabin type structure?
After seeing a yurt, perhaps staying in a rental yurt in a state park or vacation resort area, your intrigue has become curiosity and finally a desire to live in a yurt. That is a great decision…I know I love living in mine…but the question of living in one as your primary residence always comes up and I’ve never seen an answer…from other yurt owners or from yurt companies…that I feel really answers concerns satisfactorily…so here are some thoughts based on my experience.
Yurt companies really cannot answer the question, primarily for legal and liability reasons, so don’t get mad at them for not giving you definitive help in deciding if you want to make a yurt your home. The legal issues that are varied all across the country make it impossible for a company to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on your particular situation. If they make a mistake and someone buys from them based on their advice, then runs into problems with local laws, they leave themselves open to liability, so they HAVE to leave the decision up to you.
I don’t have that restriction, so I can give you my opinion, based on experience, on issues you might face and possible solutions. Also, besides legal issues about erecting and living in a yurt, I’ll be addressing insurance issues as well.
So…let’s see if I can answer some of your questions, OK?
Are yurts a livable long term option?
The first thing that might occur to you after you’ve had a yurt experience…either camping in one or seeing one on TV or in a magazine article…is the question, “Yurts are really cool, neato, and peachy-keen, but are they REALLY livable long term?”
Well, you can read about my first year of yurt living, September 2009 through September 2010, in my post “Yurt living one year in…thumbs up or thumbs down?”, but the short answer is a definitive and resounding yes, long term living in a yurt is not only doable, it is great! Space is a bit limited with a large yurt (30 feet in diameter) being about 700 square feet, and you need to learn small space living, but it is not just doable, it is very comfortable…and for families bigger than a couple some folks have hooked two or more together, one for kitchen, living, and dining areas and one for sleeping and bathroom(s).
Would you call a yurt “affordable housing”?
I hate to sound repetitive, but the answer is, again, a resounding YES! Obviously costs will vary from area to area, but my 30 foot yurt from Pacific Yurts cost me about $45,000 to build from bare ground to livable home. Breakdowns of costs of various stages of the actual yurt will be in separate posts that will follow.
This cost included building the platform on a crawlspace foundation, buying, shipping, and setting up the yurt kit itself and all interior construction separate from the actual yurt (bathroom, kitchen cabinets and appliances, plumbing, heating, and cooling, etc). It does not include land costs as I already owned the property debt free, site preparation as I built on the spot where my house had burned down the year before, or well and septic system installation as the ones that had serviced my previous house were still useable. This cost also does not include the cost of landscaping, decks, or porches beyond a basic 5×10 entry porch because those costs can be so variable, depending on your taste.
So…a 700 square foot home, with ceramic tile kitchen floors and countertops, ceramic tile bathroom and custom shower, and a professional grade kitchen, can be built for about $65.00/sq ft. A friend of mine who is a homebuilder said he wouldn’t touch this job for less than $150,000…plus the $18,000 I paid to buy and ship the kit itself.
So yes, a yurt IS affordable…very much so.
Can I get a loan to buy and build a yurt?
You are going to hate this answer, but it is yes…and no…and maybe.
Up until 1968, when Fannie Mac and Freddie Mae were instituted (I know, I know…its Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That was my small attempt at humor.), and before the big boys like Bank of America and Citibank started the bank consolidation craze, you could probably walk into your local bank, ask the loan officer for loan for a yurt, offer a reasonable down payment, and if you had good credit you would get a loan. Now, thanks to the Federal government making “improvements” in our banking system, the chance of getting a home mortgage on a yurt is slim to none, and slim just got on his horse and left town. The fact is that most banks sell their mortgages to other, bigger, banks, and those mortgages have to meet certain criteria and yurts don’t meet their standards.
That takes care of the “no ” part of the answer.
The “maybe” part of the answer is that a few banks still make a few mortgages to a very few customers who have good credit, are able and willing to make a good down payment, do a pretty fair amount of business with the bank, and who want a mortgage with terms the bank is willing to hold in its own loan portfolio, typically along the line of 7 to 10 years maximum.
The “yes ” part of the answer is for folks with good credit, who have a good relationship with their bank, can make a substantial down payment, and who are willing to have a loan with “car loan” type terms in interest rate and in length of loan.
Unfortunately, when it comes to housing, especially alternative housing, in the phrase “all others pay cash”, “others” includes folks who want a yurt.
Do yurts meet “code”?
In a word, no, or at least “no” as it relates to primary residences.
Almost everything about a yurt, from the lattice walls to the light weight rafters to the reflective insulation, fails to “meet code” with any code types that I have looked at, including the SBC (Southern Building Code), UBC (Universal Building Code), and another UBC (Uniform Building Code). This does not mean that a well constructed yurt kit, designed, manufactured, and sold by reputable yurt company, Pacific yurts for example, is an inferior, unsafe structure. The fact is, in practice that performance of the yurt “parts” that do not meet code actually exceed the performance of a structure “built to code”.
I’ll give you two examples. At 1:30 AM on Christmas morning of last year an 80 foot tall pine tree was blown down and fell onto my yurt. At the point on the tree that first struck the yurt the tree was approximately 10 to 12 inches in diameter, and fell across the yurt about half way between the edge and the dome. In my opinion if the house had been a standard, stick-built, built to code house that third of the house would have been crushed. Instead, I wound up with a few holes in the top cover, eight broken rafters, and ABSOLUTELY NO DAMAGE TO THE LATTICE WALL or the doorway which was struck also.
You can read details about the delivery of my 80 foot tall Christmas tree, and the subsequent repairs, at Yurt-1, pine tree-0, part one and at Yurt-1, pine tree-0, part two. I’m going to buy my own Christmas tree this year. Santa Claus has no concept of proper sizing.
Building codes say my lattice wall does not meet their standards and is not safe. My experience with the pine tree last year says otherwise.
Another area where a yurt does not meet code but in practice actually exceeds the results that building codes are supposed to be striving for is in insulation. Building codes require that three areas…walls, roof, and foundation…be insulated to a specific level and approved insulation materials are measured in R-factor. The problem is that the insulation used by Pacific Yurts and other companies, while actually doing a FAR better job than traditional insulation, does not have an R-factor to measure, therefore it typically doesn’t met code.
An explanation of how insulation without R-factor can exceed R rated insulation:
Heat moves, or is transmitted, in three ways; conduction, radiation, and convection. Traditional insulation deals only with conducted heat, and R-factor only measures the efficiency of insulation on conducted heat.
The insulation used by Pacific Yurts and most reputable yurt companies is a double layer of, basically, bubble wrap, with a reflective aluminum “skin” bonded to both sides. It is not very good at stopping the conduction of heat, thus there is no effective R rating, but it is extremely effective at stopping radiated heat by the reflective aluminum skin reflecting heat back toward the source, reflecting the heat inside a house back toward the interior during the winter, and reflecting the heat back toward the outside in the summer.
The bottom line is that this insulation, while not meting code, is far more efficient at keeping you comfortable and at keeping your heating and cooling bills low.
Since yurts don’t “meet code”, how can I build one to live in? Don’t I have to build something that meets code to get a building permit so I have the government’s permission to build my own house on my own land?
Sorry…a little bit of sarcastic political comment in asking your question for you…LOL.
The degree of difficulty in building a yurt for a primary residence is probably most dependant on where you live…both geographically and demographically. In areas where state and local governments, ESPECIALLY local governments, are used to having free reign to tell the citizens how to conduct their lives you are going to have more difficulty circumventing oppressive rules. I think folks in places like Maryland, Massachusetts, Delaware, etc will find it hard to get a yurt permitted or get the authorities to turn a blind eye to a yurt being built without a proper permit.
Demographically, I think the more rural your location the more likely it is that you can get a yurt either approved or ignored. Here in Georgia, had I tried to build my yurt as a primary residence in Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cherokee, or 5-7 other counties that make up metro-Atlanta, I would have had rough going. Instead, I live in a rural county with a county government that is still aware that they are public servants, not rulers. Initially I got the standard, “Codes are there for people’s protection.” line, and was told that I could get a variance from codes (probably), but that it would probably take me a year and cost me $10,000 in legal fees.
Remember, in MOST jurisdictions the only thing the authorities can do if you don’t get a structure permitted is to refuse to allow the power company to hook power to your yurt. This gives you some wiggle room, especially if you are planning to be off-grid to the point of not needing electricity. Unfortunately I, and most others, do not plan to be that off-grid, so you have to do some legwork and planning.
First, check to see if there are any other rules that could cause you to not get power, and if there are resolve those issues first. Where I live, in addition to permitting issues, the health department has to sign off on your septic plans before you can get power. Originally, I had planned to use an incinerating toilet in the bathroom of my yurt, but when talking to the local health department official I found that while incinerating toilets are legal in Georgia, there had to be a backup system, either a septic tank or by being put on a sewage system, in case the incinerating toilet failed.
I found it interesting that an incinerating toilet had to have a conventional sewage system as backup in case of failure, but a conventional sewage system did not have to have a backup in case of its failure. I did not push the issue though as I wanted to win the war, not one small battle.
Since my house that burned had been hooked up to a septic tank the health department official pulled the installation record for the original septic system and found that it met current standards and I would be able to use that. One challenge overcome, now back to planning and zoning.
Back at the planning and zoning office I asked exactly who was going to be protected from what that made meeting code and getting a permit so critical. The answer was the same answer you’ll probably get wherever you try to build a yurt, and will fall into one, two, three, or all (if you are lucky) of the following reasons:
First they told me that meeting code was necessary to protect the bank’s investment. Well, I had to answer for that. First, it’s the bank’s job, not the county planning and zoning department’s, to protect their investment and get the finished product inspected by their own inspector before approving a mortgage if they felt that need to do so. It was not the taxpayers’ job to pay inspections to protect the interests of a private business (bank). In addition, in my case the point was moot as I was building the yurt of my own pocket with no bank loan involved and the only one taking a financial risk was me.
Next they told me that meeting code was necessary to protect my homeowner’s insurance company’s interest. Again, I pointed out that it was the insurance company’s job to look after them self, not have the taxpayers spend money to look out after them.
I’ll be addressing insurance issues later.
Last, they told me that meeting code was necessary to protect home buyers. I pointed out that I was not a contractor, did not build spec houses to sell, was building the house for me, planned to live in it until the day I died, and that I did not need the county protecting me from myself.
I concluded by summarizing that first, yurts were not bad structures, just different from what building codes addressed, and second, absolutely no one was being put at risk beside myself, and that I was willing to accept any risks involved. It also didn’t hurt to point out that my Pacific Yurt was not some dream pulled out of someone’s head, but an engineered structure.
I also implied that if I were going to spend $10,000 on legal fees it would be to sue somebody, not to dance around various hearings trying to meet unreasonable planning and zoning requirements.
In the end, I danced a little, and they gave a little. I had planned to live on my property in a 29 foot travel trailer while building the yurt. I paid $50.00 for a trailer permit, got a temporary power pole installed, built the yurt, and got the power moved from my temporary power pole to a meter base at the yurt setup as the power company required for trailers.
Are there other options to “get around the rules”?
Of course there are. There are always options if you think creatively. For example, you can build backwards.
Most people, especially the type to have yurts, usually have some kind of out building. It might be a barn, it might be a workshop, it might be a chicken house, or it might be just a tool shed. Be creative, use your imagination.
Build that first. And get power to it. Unlike a primary residence a barn or workshop does not have to meet health department standards by having a proper bathroom and septic system, and at least in my county a building permit is not required if the outbuilding is going to be less than 200 square feet. So, build a 10 by 20 tool shed, install a meter base to power company specs on the outside, install a breaker box on the inside, and run your yurt when you get it built from a sub-panel in the yurt connected to your main panel in the tool shed.
Remember, every time government makes a rule they have just allowed you to do everything the rule does not address. Find the gaps, the loopholes, and use them.
OK, so I can find a way to build a yurt. Now, what were you going to tell us about insurance?
Well, some really good info..in my next post, next week.
Folks, I give you all the information I can, and it is as accurate as possible. I am not the be-all and end-all knows everything expert. Please, if you have any additions, corrections, or comments use the comment button at the end of this post and let me know. If I don’t have the answer I’ll get it for you or maybe another reader will chime in.
Alternatively, you can just leave a comment saying “Hi!”…it’s nice to know someone is reading this stuff…LOL!