Tiny Ruminations at the DMV

My husband and I are sitting at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The rows of plastic chairs, the artificially bright-lit room, the sighing and squirming of people in their seats, the office hum. I’m reminded of the waiting room scene in Beetlejuice — the limbo, the agony.

“This is why most people don’t build tiny houses,” I say to Nick.

Annoyed, he nods his head. I pat his upper back, reminding him that this is what you do at the DMV. You wait in lines, fill out forms, and then hope for a smooth, uneventful process in which you end up with an official piece of paper that says you’ve successfully endured such a banal but required human experience.

This is what happens when you register an automobile, or something normal. But registering a tiny house on wheels? It’s complicated.

We made an appointment, but as everyone who has made a DMV appointment knows, you still must wait to some degree. We stare at the screen: G20, G21, G22… Lots of Gs. We are not a G. We are A19.

G23 to window number 10, announces the automated female voice.

I think about why we’re here: our unfinished tiny house has been sitting in the driveway of my parents’ home for several months. After a lot of thought, we’ve decided to hand it over to a tiny house builder, based in Santa Cruz, to finish the project. We feel very good about this decision, allowing us to focus on the design and decor of our home, and search for a location to park and live, while leaving the construction to professionals. Our builder will tow the house to their build site soon, so we’ve come here to register the trailer — and the unfinished structure atop it — as a PTI trailer. It’s our second DMV appointment this month, so we’re hoping the information we were given at our first one, at a different location, is consistent with what we hear today.

No surprises, I think. I get easily stressed out over administrative steps: I’m scared of forms, have cried over my taxes, lose sleep over issues with our condo’s HOA, and I’m pretty sure the entire process of buying the condo in 2011 sucked thirty-three percent of my life force out of me. Given my reflective personality online and reserved demeanor in person, most people don’t know that I get extremely anxious over such things. My mother points this out when it happens, and even though I don’t admit it at the time, she is right.

While our house is tiny — just 131 square feet — the steps we’ve faced are not so small. Because not many people build or own tiny houses, it’s hard to find answers to questions: What type of “vehicle” is this? How should we describe it (or not describe it)? When should it be registered? Will the DMV need to physically see it? Since tiny houses fall within a gray area, we’ve discovered that people interpret rules in various ways, so what the DMV official said earlier this month might be different from what the person here will say.

We’ll tackle these types of questions one by one, yes. But as we sit here, both late for work — our eyes glazing over the electronic display of numbers — I think about how this tiny house project has dumped more onto our already-full plates, and the layers of uncertainty to sift through.

Where, ultimately, are we going to live?

Will this big life experiment work?

A17 to window number 12, she calls over the speaker. A moment of relief. Another A ticket, and then us.

Nick holds our paperwork: our trailer’s certificate of origin, an application to register, and our number receipt. I think he is as allergic to forms and procedures as I am — we just bickered like a good married couple as I completed the application, not knowing how to answer some of the questions. We don’t speak legalese. And I think, for a long time, and certainly in our lives before we had each other, we’ve both tried to avoid lives governed by red tape. Nick and I are so similar in many ways, from our interests to our world views, and even more so in our admittedly childlike attitudes to adulthood things.

Sometimes, we just want to run away.

* * *

tiny house on wheels
Our tiny house, parked in a yard in Sonoma.

I think our family and friends are excited about our plan to live in a tiny house. I don’t think everyone quite understands why we want to do it, but people have been supportive, and that’s what matters to me. But there have been numerous moments when I’ve burst into tears. Discussions-turned-arguments. Expenses we didn’t realize we need to pay. Days when I’ve referred to the house as that stupid fucking thing. The questions are constant: Will our neighbor, eyeing the house from across the fence, submit a complaint? Why aren’t there any suitable warehouses or build sites for rent within 30+ miles? How exactly will we get electricity, running water, or heat?

And the bigger questions I’ve asked myself each day: Why does this little house feel like dead weight, sitting on the driveway? Shouldn’t this be exciting?

Meanwhile, living with my husband in my childhood bedroom in the suburbs isn’t ideal, and so our items on a To Do list have easily built up into one Sisyphean task.

And so, remind me again, please: why did we move out of our comfy San Francisco loft, give away our shit and move in with my parents, and decide to build a tiny house? Why have we introduced these complications — this avalanche of minutiae — into our lives?

A18 to window number 8, the Siri of DMV calls out. One more to go.

I look at Nick, scrolling through his Twitter feed. I open my WordPress app. 385 notifications, marked in red.

The day has begun without us.

I think about how much money we’ve spent up front on the house: A few tiny house workshops, which were not cheap. Floor plans, also not cheap. A barn raiser, or partially constructed stick-built house on a trailer, for $17,100. A dozen Integrity by Marvin windows, for $6,000. Solar panels, a Magnum mini-panel, and other equipment, for $5,000 more.

And we’ve begun another wave of payments for our builder: an initial consultation, a hold deposit to ensure construction starts at a certain time next year, a hefty but understandable fee to deliver the house to Santa Cruz, and an estimate to finish the house, of which fifty percent is due once building begins.

A19 to window number 10, the voice calls out.

That’s us. We approach window 10 and hand our paperwork to the woman behind the counter. She asks: What do you want to do?

I let Nick talk. He’s a better talker. Actually, I’m not a talker at all. If it were up to me, humans would walk around and interact in silence, using telepathy.

We’d like to register a flatbed trailer with a load on it, he says. We met Jay Shafer last month, at a Four Lights workshop in Sebastopol, Sonoma County, and he suggested that was the best way to describe the trailer. The woman scans the forms, does some shuffling, and asks for my driver’s license. She inputs our information into the computer, confirming the vehicle identification number twice.

And what is this, again?

It’s a flatbed trailer with a load.

And how much did it cost? 

Nick had scribbled two very different numbers on that line. 17K? 5K?

Well, we’re not sure. Maybe you can help us. Do you want the cost of the trailer only? Or the trailer and everything else permanently attached, as it reads here in Section 6?

She says she only cares about the trailer.

Okay, well, it’s $4,500. But there’s a load attached to it. 

She looks at us, puzzled. Where’s your receipt?

Nick searches his GMail account on his phone for an email from Tumbleweed, the company from whom we bought the incomplete house. He shows her the breakdown of costs: the house and trailer, the dormers, the roof.

She asks: What are dormers?

We look at each other, both not sure how much we want to say about the house. I say they’re like openings for windows, while drawing a rectangle in the air with my hands. Nick nods. At our last DMV appointment, we chatted with a friendly lady to whom we explained what this structure actually was, and what we planned to do with it: It’s a little house. Like an artist’s retreat. We want to park it on our own land, eventually. And yes, it’ll have running water.

She was nice about it all: confused but curious and willing to help, showing her colleagues the pictures of the house we printed out, figuring out what to call this thing and how to register it. Ultimately, she told us not to do anything just yet — go on and build the thing, then come back and register it as a coach trailer once it’s finished.

But our plans have changed, and our builder will soon pick up and move the house. We assume it should be registered now — as something — so it can be legally out on the road. And so here we are again. But this woman, in front of us now, is not as warm and approachable. I sense we both want to do this quickly and painlessly: we give her the form, she marks it with her handy red stamp, and we’re off. No need to get into the details of this peculiar little structure today.

But there are always surprises.

She prints out and hands me a piece of paper with a fee: $1831.

Cash, check, or debit.

California tax! Oh, joy. We expected this, sure. But it still stings.

You also need a weight certificate. 


Nick asks: Can’t we just register this as a PTI trailer and be done?

She shakes her head. She’s given us a temporary operating permit, valid for 30 days, and will issue the plate and complete our registration once we return with a weight certificate. In other words, we need to tow the house to a public scale to weigh it.

Yet another task for the To Do list, which in itself requires another set of tasks: finding a local tow company who might have some experience pulling an unusual, tall, and heavy structure; searching for a weigh station a reasonable distance away on a straightforward route; and scheduling the drive in the coming days, before our house pickup date. Or, asking our builder to do it for us, shelling out more money, and perhaps rescheduling the move date and taking a day off of work.

All of this can and will be solved — with time and money, with research and planning — but it’s still stressful.

I write a check for $1831. The woman returns our paperwork.

It’s somewhat of a success. But we’ve learned that each tiny house win is measured in inches.

Note: After this visit, we discovered that it’s not the right time to register (and weigh) the trailer, since the house is unfinished, which is pretty much what we were told the first time. Assuming that we needed to register it now, just for the move — and not disclosing the details of the structure this second time — both led to this mistake.

We returned to the DMV to explain exactly what we’re doing and what we need — just a temporary moving permit — and spoke to two different employees who said their coworker (above) was incorrect. They said to check back in with the DMV when the house is completed to finalize the registration process, and that they need to physically see it. So, we’ll cross that bridge later.

Tiny house lesson #4,758? Work with officials. Be open. Explain what you’re doing. We realize, over and over, that this is a trial-and-error process. We’re paving a (winding) path as we go.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

22 thoughts on “Tiny Ruminations at the DMV

  1. Why does it seem so natural to want to keep secrets from officials. I have the same phobia with customs. Even thogh I’m never breaking the law I always am thinking what will get me through the qickest , but if they look closely enough at my passport then there going to be like, I think there’s something more going on than a visit when you’ve been gone for 5 years…
    I love your, that stupid fucking thing line. It’s so easy to forget that we wanted the stupid thing in the first place when we see the entire package that comes with it. At least it is creating entertainment for the rest of us! Good luck.

  2. Wow, gosh this is a project for sure. Good luck with it all! I can sympathize with your anxiety over all things official, gets your heart going like you’ve had too much caffeine perhaps? God forbid it happens on a day you’ve actually had too much caffeine. Crazy how much goes into such a tiny…huge project. I look forward to seeing how well this turns out for you both, interesting experiment no doubt.

    Best wishes to you! (Next time I’m coming back to go back and read what got you two headed down this road. ;))

  3. Good luck with all this – I admire what you’re doing. An encounter with the modern bureaucratic state can sometimes make you feel that the spirit of adventure is being slowly squeezed out of the world.

  4. I’m so bad with government agencies, and you write so well, that now I’m a nervous wreck, and there’s not even a government worker around for me to let off some steam at. There is a stuffed rabbit over in the corner, however, his future’s not looking so good. Lol. Boy, hang in there you two. If it was an adventure you wanted, I guess you found it. Stay strong.

  5. Wonderful! i felt a little guilty reading this as it has nothing to do with me, as i do not plan to build a tiny house and live thousands of miles away in a tiny house my parents own. i don’t even know how i stumbled on to this article (rummaging through WordPress). Anyway, this piece just jumped at me from the start, it is a very human story. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, it is easy to forget that someone thousands of miles away can read and appreciate your ruminations, so don’t. Keep at it, everyone who read this is rooting for you. You shall overcome both the bureaucracy and your own cold feet. The house i have lived in all my life is the last in a row of similar one storey boxes and my room resembles the most intimate of Hong Kong’s apartments, so personally, my goal is to sleep under the stars but (pang!) there are many who live on the streets because they are forced to here in Addis Ababa.

    While walking the 3 minutes to work, i pass by every sort of meager accommodation you can think of, from corrugated iron coffins suspended on wooden legs to plastic tents encircling wheel chairs so you could say that the tiny house was originally a third-world thing. I know i’m getting carried away and hope I am not disheartening you, rather i hope to [gently] remind you that people live in even tinier confines happily, just in case you feel the novelty wearing off and the claustrophobia creeping in. Sorry if this comes off as (English is my second language so i don’t know which word to use right now, i’m sure you will help me out), I really did enjoy reading every line and wish you all the best. I didn’t mean to rant. Good luck and godspeed.

  6. Oh man, so many things people like us (outsiders looking in) wouldn’t ever think about! Thank you for sharing! =) I’ve been seriously considering a tiny house in the near future, and this really adds a very real perspective on what to expect.

    Keep us updated, and wishing you both the very best in this process! <3

    1. There’s a lot of fluff, and also very general information, on tiny house blogs. A lot of them are focused on the stages of building, but since we’re not focused on that, I thought it’d be interesting to focus on the themes I muse on best: evolving ideas of home, space, and place; as well as the minutiae and mundanity that comes along with it.

      Tiny houses are cute. Downsizing is freeing. The “movement” is taking off. Yes, yes, and yes — but there’s more to it than this, and I’m drawn to diving into more of this. Hopefully I’ll continue to write more pieces on the process.

      Thanks for reading!

  7. Thank you for sharing the lingo you use when registering and suggestions from the professionals. I haven’t started building a tiny house yet and want to be as prepared as possible with the little details. Most of the articles are merely fluff like, couple builds tiny house for 3k and lives off grid. Ha, maybe if nothing ever went wrong and they didn’t take it to the dmv! Anyways, good luck and I hope everything is smooth from here on out.

    1. I haven’t started building a tiny house yet and want to be as prepared as possible with the little details.

      Good plan! It’s frustrating when you search for specific details and no one has really written about it. Or, they mention it, but don’t really get into it. Given the past three DMV experiences, I sense that even if I described in detail, in a blog post, what each person had told us, it’d likely not help anyone else going through the process — it depends on who you talk to, and how you choose to describe the house. The employees we consulted at the same location debated among themselves what exactly we should do and what to call it, and I suspect if we went *again* we’d get a different answer 🙂

      To follow-up with this post, we did return on Monday and the receptionists said we DIDN’T have to weigh it, and that their colleague was incorrect. The best advice I could give is to research and read what others have done (which you are doing!), be honest and open to whoever you talk to, and probably even get the names of employees so you know you who’ve talked to. That said, still expect surprises and go with flow 🙂

  8. Hang in there, you two. In the far future, you will be reminiscing about this part of your journey together and smiling.
    I appreciate you sharing it with us.

    1. No, we won’t pay property taxes.

      I plan to talk more about expenses, both up front and long-term. It’s worth noting that there may be some hurdles we’ll face in the future: from what I’ve read in DMV documentation, we may have to weigh the trailer annually (if it’s registered as a PTI). I’m not sure if that’s the case with a trailer designated as a “trailer coach.” Regardless of what it will be classified, I suspect we’ll pay an annual or some sort of regular DMV registration, but again — that’s something we’ll deal with when it arises.

      Ultimately, when the construction is finished next spring, the house will be paid off in full.

    1. Hi Shaina — I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet! For some reason, I’m not really interested in watching it (same with the show, Tiny House Nation). I’m not sure why, but I think I’ve gotten caught up in my own tiny house journey, and figuring out what I want for my own house.

      (I was originally inspired by the blog Tiny House Swoon — I saw a post on Facebook last year, which started it all for me…)

  9. Your project sounds ambitious and a bit stressful but the outcome sounds wonderful!
    You write very well! This was a pleasure to read and the Beetlejuice comment made me laugh… I’ll be remembering that one the next time I’m at the DMV 🙂


  10. Why is the DMW one of the places where we get to ruminate the most? The wait there can drain the calmest person on earth. After all we only physically go to the DMV when we have an unusual request or a serious problem to solve. That and the day we get our permit and licence. These situations are nerve-racking and make us a little edgy. As always I like how you tie your very personal experiences to universal human feelings. The DMV is for all of us a place we’d rather avoid, although I’ve found that the majority of employees isn’t trying to make our lives more difficult. Au contraire. The fact that we arrive sometimes too unprepared makes us more vulnerable. I can imagine how impatient you must be to move in your tiny house. Meanhwile enjoy the time you spend in your childhood home. It won’t happen often after the big move.
    Also the winding roads are the most beautiful.

    1. Also the winding roads are the most beautiful.

      Thanks for this reminder. I’m really caught up in the minutiae, in the hurdles, in all these steps — it’s hard to see past it and remember why we set out to do this…

      While we were sitting at the DMV, I felt this post brewing — you’re right about the setting being such a ripe place for contemplation (and frustration).

      Thanks for reading!

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