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Greenville Business Magazine

Think Small: Some homeowners are saying goodbye to McMansions and hello to tiny homes

By Dustin Waters

Looking back on the two years he spent living in a small cabin near Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a seat?" Now, for many of those hoping to live simply, that seat has taken the form of a tiny home.

In the 30 years since 1977, the average square footage of a single-family house in America increased by more than 46 percent, according to Census data. This steady increase lasted until 2007, the same year that the U.S. saw its housing bubble burst and the market fall into disarray. In the years immediately following, average home sizes decreased annually after peaking in 2007 at 2,521 square feet. For many Americans facing economic hardships or simply wishing to avoid them in the first place, downsizing became the simplest course of action. 

As they are legally defined, tiny homes are free-standing dwellings under 400 square feet in size. While that may seem restrictive at first, many buyers are opting for the tiny home lifestyle because it offers a level of freedom they couldn't find with a traditional, full-sized house. 

"I live in a tiny home. I have one on Daufuskie, and I have one in Georgia. It's small. It's easy. I pay about $20 a month in bills. I can put another $400 or $500 in my company or traveling," says James McGrath, founder of the design and construction firm Tiny Homes of Hilton Head.

"If I get bored of where I'm at or I don't get along with people that are nearby, I can hook up and pull up to any of my buddies' houses that have any kind of acreage, plug in and hang out for a few weeks. That's freedom. The tiny home world is the freedom of not being constricted by the system."

It's this versatility that allows tiny homes to be utilized in inventive ways. In 2015, after South Carolina was devastated by mass flooding, Ben Kennedy of Bluffton's Brighton Builders launched a charity campaign to provide free tiny houses to those who lost their homes due to the natural disaster. This served as Brighton's first major foray into developing tiny homes. They now share the Lowcountry with fellow tiny house developers Tiny Houses of the Lowcountry in Ridgeland and McGrath's Hilton Head operation. 

For McGrath, designing and constructing a custom tiny home for a customer requires a great deal of personal consideration. Before embarking on the months-long process, he looks for projects that are about more than just another paycheck. 

"My company operates on a one-on-one basis. I pick and choose which builds I really want to do depending on the situation, if it has a story in it and I like it, and if it feels good," says McGrath. "The biggest thing for me as a consideration is I've got a feel good about it because we don't really make a lot of money as builders. Some builders charge $80,000-$100,000. We go between $30,000 and $75,000. Sometimes we'll get a special custom build for $80,000-$100,000, but we don't make a lot of money."

With the tiny home lifestyle comes a certain determination to do more with less. Of course, this explains why tiny home owners are choosing to flock to dedicated subdivisions with like-minded individuals opting for a simpler life. According to Randy Hanson, the longtime developer behind Lake Walk Tiny Home Community in Greer, this shared philosophy has forged a strong connection between residents. 

"Tiny houses create more of a close society and close community than anything else. I've been developing subdivisions all my life, and I've never seen this before. The people have formed almost like a family and they do things together," says Hanson. "The houses are close enough together and they all have front porches. They sit on their front porches and holler back and forth like the old days."

Sitting along the shore of Lake Cunningham, Lake Walk's amenities include a dog park, community garden and picnic area, as well as a newly opened coffee shop. Of the community's more than 60 lots, only three sites remain available. 

Due to zoning regulations, lots cannot be sold permanently in these tiny home communities. Under county law, Lake Walk operates under the same rules as an R.V. park, and the tiny homes, which come from a manufacturer in Alabama, are classified as R.V.s. This close regulatory bond between tiny homes and motorhomes is even more identifiable at long-term rental communities such as Townville's Little Creek R.V. and Tiny House Resort, which offers monthly rates. 

With its current system, Lake Walk leases individual lots for $450 a month and sells the tiny homes to new residents for $70,000 to $80,000. According to Hanson, his biggest hope is that local regulators catch up with the tiny home trend. 

"They don't have any idea of how great an option this is, especially for older people. These people are thinking about how they don't want to go into assisted living and they want to grow as old as they can among their friends," he explains. "That's why this is popular and why local, county and state governments need to get a little more welcoming. It's something that is needed and necessary. It's a really great option for older people. Everybody pictures tiny homes as something for young people and the hippie-types, but that's not the demographic."

After a year and a half of navigating the permitting process, Creek Walk Tiny Home Community in Travelers Rest is perhaps South Carolina's newest tiny home village. Located along the Swamp Rabbit Trail and in prime distance of Greenville proper, Creek Walk offers access to downtown locales while also providing the peace and seclusion of nature. Whereas traditional, full-scale developments would require leveling a wooded area before construction could even begin, tiny homes are small enough to position among the trees. This means that rather than waiting a lifetime for the tiny sapling you planted in your yard to reach full size, you can enjoy the shade of a hearty forest on move-in day. In this way, tiny home communities can be about preservation as much as they are about destination. 

"They want to take care of the earth and take care of themselves. And tiny homes are an easy way to do both at the same time," says Justin Draplin of Creek Walk Tiny Home Community. "We regularly get people who say, 'I don't want to spend all my time maintaining a house. I want to travel more. I want to go away on the weekend. I don't want to have to worry about all the things I have to do around the house.' It's that ease of use, but it's also about being less wasteful and more purposeful with the way that they live."