After the economic trauma of the recession and continued stresses of student loan debt, a growing number of people are redefining proverbial “American Dream.”
They want to own a house, but not be a slave to a 30-year mortgage and to the jobs and bosses they don’t like to cover that debt. Or some, especially Millennials, already are saddled with college loan debt. Generally, they want to have simpler lives, more time, less stuff, lower utility bills and/or to lessen their environmental impact on the planet.
Most are purposefully wanting to live in “tiny houses.”
“The mortgaged house has become a ball and chain,” says local architect Danielle Kovach Gilbert, who recently designed a 750-square-foot home for a client on Johns Island.
While there is no definition of the size of a tiny house, it falls below 1,000 square feet and most would say under 500 square feet. Regardless, it’s well below the average size of a new American home in 2013 of about 2,400 square feet.
Granted, there is precedent, especially in the Lowcountry, for living in small spaces either by necessity or on purpose. Examples are Freedman’s Cottages, sailboats, beach cottages and apartments downtown.
But now it’s taking the form of a “movement” of living more simply.
It’s being aided by social media and blogs but seems to be getting more traction with popular shows, including HGTV’s “Tiny House Hunters” and FYI’s “Tiny House Hunting” and “Tiny House Nation” that help demonstrate the possibilities for average-income individuals, couples and even families.
Films available for viewing for free online include “Tiny: A Story About Living Small,” “We The Tiny House People: Small Homes, Tiny Flats & Wee Shelters,” and “Living Small: A Tiny House Documentary.”
Locally, the Luxury Simplified Group, a company interested in promoting tiny house construction, is hosting a screening of “Small is Beautiful: A Tiny House Documentary” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Terrace Theater (see box for more.)
And yet, those who choose to do so face challenges in the form of building codes, zoning regulations, financing and building professionals who are unwilling to go along with small stuff. Michigan natives Wendy and James Falkner, ages 39 and 41, are among the locals who experienced that firsthand.
The Falkners moved to Charleston in 2002 and have rented a dozen places since then. They were tired of renting and wanted to own a house but also didn’t want a long-term mortgage.
Besides, the couple like to take road trips and especially enjoy hiking.
Last year, the Falkners, who are co-managers of the Kilwins ice cream and fudge shop at the City Market, decided to build a tiny house and chose the Brevard Tiny House Co. in North Carolina to do it.
They picked the 192-square-foot “Home Run” model, which cost $45,000 with a few extras, but ran into the first obstacle: financing.
“We went to four banks and they couldn’t finance it because there was no classification for it,” says James, who then reluctantly sought a personal loan from his parents.
Still, the Falkners, who don’t have children, are confident that they will be able to pay back the loan in five years.
They got Brevard a check in November 2014 and had their “micro house” by the middle of March. But then they faced their next hurdle.
The Falkners own a lot in the Accabee community in North Charleston. But because the house was built on a trailer and certain aspects of the house, such as the steps to a sleeping loft, don’t meet building codes, they weren’t allowed to put the house on the lot, even if they took off the wheels.
They eventually found a lot in Hawthorne City, a mobile home community off Rivers Avenue in North Charleston, where the fee is $301 a month (including water) to park their tiny house.
While skeptics may say that a tiny house on a trailer is a glorified mobile home, the Falkners disagree and are more than happy with their baseball-themed tiny house, which they can move in the future.
“We may open a franchise (of Kilwins) ourselves somewhere else,” says Wendy. “We don’t know what our future holds but this would make it one less thing that we have to worry about.”
Johnny Reaves, a 32-year-old massage therapist, is building a 336-square-foot house for himself on Johns Island and attests to the challenges of jumping through the bureaucratic hoops.
“It took a long time to clear through Charleston County. (There were) so many issues,” says Reaves, noting that the house is in a flood zone and is on a permanent foundation, not wheels.
Reaves, who describes himself as the “contractor, builder, designer and landscaper” for the project, said the delays were worth it. “I don’t want to be tied to a mortgage for 30 years,” says Reaves. “I’m a minimalist and want a small footprint on Earth. People say tiny houses are for lower income or poor people but ask people who have mortgagees how happy they are. I know what is important in life and it’s not big houses and five cars and material things.”
He started building the house in October and estimates the final cost to be $30,000.
It was Harold Singletary’s wife who first had the desire to live in a tiny house a few years ago. Renee Singletary recalls how they seemed financially strapped at the time.
“We had just bought a house. We had two kids, one in private school and one in child care. We were both working full-time and we had hardly any money to do anything. We thought this is ridiculous. It was just money out, money out, money out,” says Renee.
She recalls looking at some “awesome tiny houses” with a friend online and having a revelation.
“People are really doing this. People with families are doing this, not just your single traveler or loner in the mountains,” she says.
Initially skeptical, Harold noted that they had a 2,000-square-foot house and still needed two storage units to store their stuff. But he came around to the idea.
When he got the job as chief financial officer with Luxury Simplified Group, he was surrounded by a team of construction professionals that he could trust to build a livable small space for his family, including their children ages 5 and 10.
Construction of a 240-square-foot house is well underway on a trailer on the East Side of Charleston.
Besides it being small, Renee is psyched about some of the “sustainable” features of the tiny house, including an incinerating toilet as well as cabinets, flooring, door and insulation that were salvaged. That reuse of materials will helped the Singletary family get under the $30,000 budgeted to build the house.
Like the Falkners, the Singletarys are unsure where exactly they will put the tiny house because zoning laws don’t currently allow it on the East Side, where they would like to live.
Singletary, who grew up on James and Johns islands, says they genuinely want to live in a tiny house but they also want to join the company in “championing” the cause of allowing tiny houses for an array of reasons.
That includes providing lower-income people with an opportunity to live close to the service jobs in downtown Charleston or to young professionals who are trying to balance college debt with buying a house.
Luxury Simplified is hosting the screening of “Small is Beautiful” to help start the conversation about making room for tiny houses in Charleston and the Lowcountry, where there are examples of historic tiny houses.
Currently, the company is building on Ashe Street a 600-square-foot “Freedman’s Cottage,” which is a one-story home originally designed for newly emancipated slaves to live in after the Civil War. It also is working on a possible planned unit development calling for 40 micro houses on two acres in North Charleston’s Park Circle.
Chris Leigh-Jones, co-owner of Luxury Simplified, says tiny houses and Charleston are good fit.
“There’s an Anglo-Saxon view of houses prevalent that my house is my castle,” says Leigh-Jones, a Welshman.
“People want these large-ish houses because when they shut the front door, they don’t want to be disturbed. I have a wider European view about it that you want to live in Charleston because you like Charleston. So why shut it out?
“We live in an environment where nine months of the year you could live outside. I wouldn’t try in August or December, but the rest of the year, you’re fine. So your outside is your inside. ... It’s a simple lifestyle and you won’t collect a lot of stuff.”
Charleston’s tiny house scene was featured prominently on the first segment of the new season of FYI’s “Tiny House Hunting” on June 1. The show featured Shauna Mackenzie and Justin VanBogart, a young married couple in Charleston.
The show, which now can be viewed on the network’s website, featured the VanBogarts looking at three options: a 400-square-foot houseboat at Charleston Harbor Marina in Mount Pleasant for $100,000, a 570-square-foot cottage built in 1935 on Folly Beach for $250,000 and 49-foot sailboat with 300-square-feet of space docked on the Ashley River for $275,000.
The show featured the tug-of-war between the couple, who are both 31, of Shauna wanting a house on land and being OK with spending $250,000 and Justin wanting to live on a boat and staying within the couple’s cash budget of $100,000.
Before the show aired, Shauna talked about their interest in moving out of a 1,500-square-foot apartment and living in a space one-third the size.
“For us, it’s about freedom. There’s a lot of effort, energy and money attached to things,” she says. “We can do more things like work on our businesses and travel without all that effort and those things.”
A 71-year-old retiree who moved to Charleston in 2010 was quite content renting a 1,100-square-foot home in Riverland Terrace until the landlord decided to sell it and told her to move out.
“I didn’t want to look for a rental every three years,” says Carolyn Lee.
Her frustration turned into an opportunity after a friend told her of a lot on the marsh in the Stonefield subdivision on James Island. She took one look at the lot, which is less than a half-acre, and made an offer.
She asked her architect to design a 750-square-foot house and didn’t realize it was 887 square feet until she got her building permit.
“It’s not a tiny house, but it’s a small house,” says Lee, who intentionally wanted to live in a small house for simplicity’s sake and environmental reasons.
Lee used bamboo, considered a sustainable resource, for floors and Hardiplank for her exterior walls.
Lee, whose “last best job” was with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, merged her experiences being formerly married to an architect and the environmental ethos from a lifelong love of nature in creating the airy, light-filled home.
The main room contains the kitchen, dining area, living area and small nook for a study. Two 10-by-10 bedrooms contain “a bed, a light and a book.” Her small closet space and laundry are in the hallway between the two bedrooms.
She raised the house higher than necessary, to more than nine feet, to make functioning use of the space beneath the house where she now parks her Toyota Prius and stores her kayak and paddleboard, two items necessary for her passion of exploring the Lowcountry.
Lee is grateful for the wisdom gained over life.
“Part of the beauty about being this age is an awareness that stuff is just stuff that I needed to dust and polish and maintain. I’ve lived alone for a long time and so that’s my responsibility. It began to bite into my time,” says Lee.
“I wasn’t always a minimalist, but I am now because the less I have, the more time I have.”
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.