Tiny House wave spreading in the Upstate of South Carolina

Moving into her first tiny house at the Lake Walk Tiny Home Community by Lake Cunningham has brought Debbie Stansfield closer to God.

Several years ago, Stansfield and her late husband were taking care of a more than 3,000-square-foot home, her kids were adults and multiplying.

"And so we started watching this show about tiny houses and my husband kept saying, ‘You know, if we got one of those they (the children) couldn’t come back home,’" Stansfield said in laughter.

Health problems eventually forced the Greer couple to downsize to a one-story, 1,800-square-foot home, with an acre of lawn to maintain.

And not long after, her husband — the father to five children, grandfather to 14 and great-grandfather to two — died.

"And one day my grandson was putting shelves in my closet to put up some more of my junk, and he kept saying over and over, ‘Boy, my mom and her sisters are sure going to have fun when you die,’" she said. "And I said, ‘OK, I’m going to have to do something.’"

Stansfield, who’s in her mid-60s, recently moved into her tiny house on Randy Hanson’s property in Greenville County.

"It was like God hit me in the back of the head and said, ‘This is it girl. Go for it.’"

Pioneering tiny homes in the Upstate

Randy Hanson, a South Dakota native whose accent still hasn’t escaped after 20 years in South Carolina, has always been hands first: building tree houses and forts, tearing down old barns with his dad and building residential homes.

"I built my first house when I was 20 years old. Been building ever since," he said.

Hanson figured at first he would turn the hilly property beside Lake Cunningham into a RV park. The property isn’t zoned.

The 15-acre property in the 3200 block of N. Hwy 101 in Greer was perfect for it.

Instead, his wife and daughter suggested another route for the Greenville County property: a tiny house neighborhood, now called Lake Walk Tiny Home Community.

The family’s first tiny home — the Elsa — is Scandinavian inspired after the family’s heritage.

Hanson’s wife, Mary, and daughter, Melodie, decorated the 323-square-foot, 28-foot towable space, featured on HGTV’s "Tiny House, Big Living."

The cabin-like exterior, with a separate towable greenhouse on the side, features large windows for natural light, quartz kitchen countertops, a full-size gas range, modern appliances and a pull-out sleeper sofa with storage.

An obvious difference between standard and tiny homes: measurements.

"You have to really think a lot when you’re building these, because if you make mistakes it could nail you three process down the road," Hanson said. "The other thing you have to do is really take advantage of storage because it’s so small."

Hanson, whose community has just a handful of tiny homes, is at the tip of the tiny house movement, and the demand is growing in the Upstate region, as it is across the country.

Greenville County Council is now debating whether to rezone property off Swamp Rabbit Trail, near Travelers Rest, for the next tiny house neighborhood.

The applicant, Joseph W. Bryant, an engineer with Seamon Whiteside, and partners that include Hanson, want to rezone 5.3 acres off Old Buncombe Road for more a tiny houses.

County staff have approved plans to rezone the property to a flexible review district, which would include tiny homes ranging in size from 250 to 450 square feet and have a maximum height of 15 feet.

The property is currently zoned commercial.

Though subject to change, plans call for a total of 53 spaces for development and a pedestrian access point to the Swamp Rabbit Trail.

The tiny homes would be similar in style to modern cabins, with front porches and a private driveway, according to the application.

The property would remain under single ownership where residents lease spaces.

"It’s just a phenomenal location," Hanson said.

Council Chairman Butch Kirven said tiny houses are a desirable addition to the county’s housing mix.

"People are always a bit suspicious of anything new," he said.

Kirven admitted the county is "behind the curve" on incorporating tiny houses into the current zoning codes.

"And one thing that frustrates me is our inability to move faster on adapting to changes like this as they come before us," he said.

But not all are wild about one trait that tiny homes carry: wheels.

"The fact they would sit there with the wheels still on them is not attractive. It came across as a modern-day mobile home park," said Councilman Ennis Fant.

The county’s planning and development committee, of which Fant sits on, denied the request.

"I would have been more open if the housing was permanent, no wheels," he said.

Councilman Willis Meadows, whose district includes the property in question, said a tiny house neighborhood wouldn’t keep up with the surrounding neighborhoods with homes ranging between $250,000 and $300,000 — with or without wheels.

"I’m not in favor of tiny homes," Meadows said. "… Probably housing would be better. But I can envision maybe a business that would be there if it’s made compatible."

Meadows said he’s received more than 250 names against the proposal. Some are concerned about added traffic; others worry about the potential depreciation in home value and changes to the neighborhood.

"To represent the constituents fairly, I am representing them by being against this," he said.

The proposed tiny house neighborhood could go before the county council again next month.

Ready to downsize?

When Hanson’s family first drew up plans for Lake Walk, he assumed the neighborhood would draw in young professionals and families on the move.

He’s been surprised at the number of retirees, or nearly retired, looking to downsize.

Ryan Mitchell, a Charlotte resident who runs The Tiny Life (thetinylife.com), a website dedicated to the tiny house enthusiast, said baby boomers are the tiny house No. 1 demographic.

"… It’s people at the end of their careers, looking forward to retirement. Maybe their 401(k) took a real hit in the 2009 recession, and they are just trying to look for options to be able to retire comfortably and financially soundable without having to work into their 70s and 80s," he said.

Mitchell, a millennial, built his tiny house more than four years ago after he lost his job at a recruitment firm.

"I was fresh out of grad school and kind of had my first adult job. Six months in, I’m doing really well, hitting all my marks. I had a really amazing performance review, got a pay bump. On Friday, the owner comes in and says we’re closing the company," he said.

Pouring over his finances, Mitchell realized half his income went toward rent, insurance and utilities. He needed to make a big change.

So he built a tiny house.

"There was this big question with the recession, are tiny homes just a recession thing or are they a here-to-stay kind of thing," Mitchell said. "I saw the biggest growth kind of after the recession. My (website) traffic tripled basically after the recession kind of ended."

Tiny homes have become so popular nationwide, Mitchell helps put on a yearly Tiny House Conference.

Hanson has tried to make the process of securing a tiny home and leasing space in Lake Walk almost as simple as the living.

Hanson asks for a $1,000 deposit, residents choose their home site to lease a minimum for six months, "we spec out the house, we start building," Hanson said.

The tiny homes themselves cost between $70,000 and $80,000, but can change depending on the model and features. Lake Walk has a 20-year mortgage option available.

Site leases are $450 a month, which includes utilities. Hanson does all the ground maintenance.

There are two methods Hanson uses to construct tiny homes, which can take at least a month to build: custom or model, built out of a tiny house factory in Alabama.

Alabama-based Lakeside Tiny Collection, an arm of a Berkshire Hathaway company Clayton Homes, builds the model tiny homes.

A Clayton representative was not available for comment.

‘Everybody is scratching their head’

Hanson realizes he and the other tiny house neighborhood applicants are trying to pioneer the movement in the Upstate region.

"So all the municipalities, all the utility providers, everybody is scratching their head including Greenville County," he said.

But it’s not just the county.

Type in "tiny houses" and "zoning" on Google, and up pops hundreds of news articles about local municipalities grappling with whether to change variances, codes, zoning ordinances to make room for the tiny house wave.

Horry and Aiken counties are just two in South Carolina that have debated tiny house proposals.

Tiny homes, according to the Horry County municipal code, are single family units that have a maximum size of 750 square feet. They must be on a permanent foundation and not attached to a frame of a motor vehicle or wheels, the code states.

Also, the code states the homes can’t be manufactured homes defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development or a RV as defined by the National Fire Protection Association and American National Standards Institute.

In neighboring Spartanburg County, Joan Holliday, the county’s deputy director of planning and development, said the county has received several requests for tiny homes.

As long as the home applications meet the county’s building codes they’re allowed, she said.

Ed Memmott, Spartanburg’s city manager, said currently the city does not have any specific zoning ordinances for tiny homes.

Debbie Stansfield, a new tiny home owner in the Lake Walk Tiny House Community, said it’s time local governments start looking at ways to incorporate tiny homes into their bylaws.

She purchased her tiny home with money used from her house sale, and has spruced it up to her liking.

It has enough beds for visitors, but an area for crafts, too. The front porch is large enough for Stansfield to do her devotionals every day and for her dogs to roam around.

Tiny house living, she said, has brought her costs down and brought her closer to nature, God and her late husband.

"When you find your soulmate, you never lose that. He’s always with you," she said. "Every decision you make, they are always there, telling you what to do."

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