Michigan Off Grid Laws: An In-Depth Guide


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Last Updated: July 11, 2022

Michigan has an abundance of water, few natural disasters, and plenty of affordable land.  So, it isn’t surprising that off-grid living is becoming popular, especially in the northern part of the state.

But off-grid living isn’t always legal.  Here’s what you need to know about Michigan’s off-grid living laws.

Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Michigan?

It is usually legal to live off-grid in Michigan.  The only statewide law which would make it illegal is a requirement to connect to the local sewer line if one is located near the property.  Many other laws make certain types of off-grid systems, such as outhouses and greywater reuse systems, illegal or so highly regulated that they might as well be illegal.

Building Codes in Michigan

  • 2015 Michigan Building Code
  • 2015 Michigan Residential Code
  • 2015 Michigan Rehabilitation Code for Existing Buildings
  • 2015 Michigan Mechanical Code
  • 2018 Michigan Plumbing Code
  • 2017 National Electrical Code (NEC)
  • 2015 Michigan Energy Code
  • 2015 International Fuel Gas Code (IFGC)
  • 2015 International Swimming Pool and Spa Code (ISPSC)
  • 2012 International Fire Code (IFC)

Are Building Permits Required in Michigan?

Under Michigan State law, you will need a permit for almost all work on your property.  The main permits required are:

  • Soil and erosion permit: If excavation occurs within 500 feet of a body of water
  • Well permit
  • Septic permit
  • Driveway permit
  • Electrical permit
  • Plumbing
  • Mechanical: Covers heating, cooling, ventilation, gas lines, fuel, and solid-fuel burning appliances

Permit Exemptions

Under the law, you do not need a permit if building:

  • Detached accessory which is 200 sq. feet or smaller: Must be an accessory to a single or two-family dwelling
  • Detached accessory which is 120 sq. feet or smaller: Must be an accessory to a building other than a single or two-family dwelling

The exemption does not apply if there are no other buildings on the property.  And the exemption generally does not apply to buildings that will be used for living.

This makes it illegal to, for example, live in a small storage shed on your property without first getting permits and meeting all codes.  

Exemptions for Hunting and Fishing Cabins in Michigan

Some counties do have exemptions for hunting and fishing cabins.  You will still need a permit for these, but you may not have to meet the stricter requirements for a residential dwelling (such as the minimum floor size requirement). 

However, for a building to qualify for this exemption, it must be for part-time private use.  Generally, you cannot live in the building for more than 30-60 days at a time, nor can you rent it out.

Building a Cabin without a Permit in Michigan

I’ve read many stories about people “risking it” and building small cabins in Michigan without getting permits.   Not only is this illegal, but it could create a nightmare later on.  Michigan apparently is very strict about inspections. Here are just some quotes from a discussion on the topic…

“You will get caught, and depending on how they are feeling you may pay a lot more than a fine. Like tearing out walls so they can check construction.”

“A friend told me in his area there are some old retired guys that have nothing else to do but drive around and report things.”

“You guys do realize that there are “for contract” companies that specialize in looking at aerial views to find violations of the building code right? IE building without permits in those “can’t see it from the road” spots. A few townships are starting to use these contractors and the list is growing every day.”

Michigan Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living

While there seem to be some areas in Michigan with no zoning (see this map), almost every part of the state has adopted some zoning laws.  

These zoning laws might make it illegal or very difficult for you to live the off-grid life you want.  Because zoning laws vary by county, you’ll need to do a lot of research into the laws before buying any property.

Some of the rules to look out for are:

  • Minimum dwelling size requirements
  • Minimum land parcel requirements
  • Number of accessory dwellings allowed
  • Permitted uses for property
  • Whether animals and livestock are allowed

Tiny Home Laws in Michigan

Michigan State law is not friendly to tiny homes.  The law states that all dwellings must meet these minimum size requirements:

  • At least one room with not less than 120 sq. feet of floor area
  • Other habitable rooms, other than kitchens, must have a minimum of 70 sq. feet of floor area.

Some counties have stricter zoning laws that require even larger homes.  For example, in rural residential zones in Gratiot County, homes must be at least 960 sq. feet on the ground floor.  Most counties also have stringent zoning rules against living in an RV.

Off-Grid Electricity in Michigan

Off-grid electricity is completely legal in Michigan.  It is generally straightforward to get a permit for solar power. 

It is also possible to use wind turbines, but local zoning laws dictate height and setback requirements.  You’ll need to get a permit for all electrical work and, with few exceptions, have it performed by a licensed electrician.

There are no state laws in Michigan that require you to have electricity in your home.  So, it is legal to live in a home without any electricity at all.  Note, however, that there are requirements for landlords and business owners to provide electricity.  If you want to rent out your property or have seasonal workers, you might need some form of electricity under the law.

Off-Grid Water Laws in Michigan

It is legal to have off-grid water in Michigan.  However, under the Michigan Housing Law, you must have running water in your home if you live in or near a town with 100,000 residents.  Homes without running water are considered a “sub-standard dwelling” and illegal.

Well Water

You will need a permit to dig a well in Michigan, but you do not need to apply for water rights.  It is even legal for homeowners to dig their own wells in some cases.  After the well is completed, the water must be tested.  The well will be inspected and only then get final approval from the local health department. 

Read more about the cost of digging a well.

Surface Water Laws

Michigan follows riparian rights: landowners have a legal right to use water on or next to their property so long as they don’t infringe upon the rights of other riparian users.  For example, you would have the right to pump water from a stream on your property but not use so much water that your downstream neighbors no longer have any water.

Note that riparian rights only apply to natural waterways and not artificial waters.  There are also some exceptions to rights on the Great Lakes.

Read more about Michigan water rights here and here.

Rainwater Harvesting Laws in Michigan

Rainwater harvesting is legal in Michigan and encouraged by the state.  Some counties offer rebates and other incentives for harvesting rainwater. You do not need a permit for rainwater barrels.  Even larger storage containers usually don’t require a permit, though you may need an excavation permit for underground rainwater cisterns.

Note that you will need to meet the State Plumbing Code requirements for nonpotable if you want to use rainwater indoors.  These requirements can be stringent.  See Section A1303 Nonpotable Rainwater Collection and Distribution Systems.

Digging a Pond on Property

Under Michigan State law, you do not need a permit to dig a pond (whether for fishing or retaining water) on your property unless it is located within 500 feet of an existing body of water.  It also cannot connect to an existing body of water.  However, your local county may have stricter rules, and you may need an excavation permit.

Dam Laws in Michigan

You do not need a permit to build a dam so long as it is less than 6 feet and impounds less than 5 surface acres of water.  Read more about the laws here.

Sewage and Waste Removal Laws in Michigan

Michigan has relatively strict laws when it comes to sewage treatment.  You must connect to the municipal sewer system if one is located within 200 feet of your home.  This effectively could make it illegal to go completely off-grid in Michigan. 

Greywater

Michigan has relatively relaxed rules about greywater.  In many places, you are allowed to discharge greywater onto the ground so long as it is not near a body of water.

The state laws aren’t very clear about what counts as an “acceptable” greywater system, though, so it may ultimately be up to the local inspector to determine whether you get a permit or not.

If you want to recycle greywater, you must meet the State plumbing code regulations about nonpotable water.  It will need to be filtered or disinfected before reuse in many cases.

Compost Toilets

Compost toilets are legal under Michigan State law. Under section 333.12757 of the Public Health Code, they are considered an “acceptable innovative or alternative waste treatment system.”

You must also have an acceptable greywater treatment system to use one legally.  You need to get a permit to use one, and any requirements to connect to the municipal sewer system still apply.

Are Outhouses (Pit Privies) Legal in Michigan?

Michigan State law does not explicitly forbid outhouses, but many counties prohibit them.  Even in places where outhouses are legal, the state’s housing law about “Sub-standard dwellings” still applies.  Under the law, all dwellings located in or near a city with 100,000 residents must have an indoor toilet.  Read more about this housing law here.

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