Chris: Welcome to “Target Your Goals,” a podcast by Penny Forward. Penny Forward is a community of people who are blind, their family, and friends who share a common interest in financial independence. Join us, via our Facebook group, and we will work together to avoid financial obstacles and target our goals. The purpose of this podcast is to introduce you to people who have set interesting goals, and are succeeding in accomplishing them. Join us as we meet these people, and cheer them on, as they work towards their own success.
Chris: Our guest today is Gina Marie Applebee. Gina has a B.S. in geology, an M.S. in marine geo physics, an EDS in science education, and a Ph.D. in progress in integral and transformational psychology. Gina was a totally blind PH.D. student working as a figure model, with a dream of living independently while being priced out of her home city of Charleston South Carolina. She decided that she was going to build a tiny home to live in independently.
Chris: Gina, thanks for being here.
Gina: Thanks for having me, Chris.
Chris: So let’s start at the beginning. What is the beginning? Tell us your story.
Gina: Let’s begin with the idea of building this tiny home.
Chris: Yes, let’s begin there.
Gina: So, this is over three years ago, actually, around Thanksgiving, and I’d been living in Charleston for a few years. I’d move back, and terrible apartments, horrible housemates, the worst of conditions. And, as happens in many beautiful cities, the price of rent was increasing, and my income was not increasing to match that. And so I was really struggling, as a blind person who walks everywhere and really needed to be in a major city where I could walk to everything I needed, to figure out how I could make my living situation work. So I had this idea to build a Tiny House.
Chris: And what brought you to that idea, particularly?
Gina: Well, you know, my dad was really into the TV shows, and I’d heard about them, and it was just such a neat idea to have my own tiny little space in the world. You know, not a big place, not anything … Not a huge house with a big mortgage, just a little tiny house that was just for me. And I really got caught by the idea of it. And I had no idea what was involved in the construction and the coordination of such a project, but I really resonated with that idea of just having my own little tiny place. So that’s where it began. And, of course, I didn’t have the money, I had no idea what I was doing. (Chuckle.) But that didn’t stop me. I started a Go Fund Me, and I was off.
Chris: What were people’s reactions when you said, “I want to do this.”
Gina: A lot of folks were skeptical. Others were very excited for me, and like my dad had seen the TV shows, and the other sort of popularized versions of tiny homes, and we’re like, “Of course! It’s perfect!” In this sort of naive way that you don’t really understand what’s involved in the whole construction. I did get a lot of support from friends and family, and even many, many strangers.
Chris: What happened next?
Gina: Well, I had to raise quite a bit of money. Just to get the trailer was over seven thousand dollars. And so that took a few months of heartfelt fundraising, and a lot, a lot of people giving, and helping out, and sharing on social media, and I got the money together for the trailer. The trailer came in. It was beautiful. Tumble Weed tiny home trailer. 26 feet by 8 feet. And I marched up and down it and said “This is gonna be here, and that’s gonna be over there, and this is how it’s gonna be.” The whole dream was in place, and it was just a matter of a lot of time after that.
Chris: How did you find the trailer?
Gina: You know, I looked around. I shopped around, I dreamed about what sort of tiny house I would like, and Tumble Weed Tiny Home Company is a very solid tiny home company out of Colorado, and, of course, sell tiny homes, completely finished, for a large amount of money, which I did not have. But they also sell the trailers and the blueprints to kind of do it yourself, and I really liked this idea of customizing my home, and building it from the trailer up. That’s what I went for. Initially I was gonna go a little smaller, and they said, “You know what, we have this 26-footer ready to go, we can send it tomorrow,” and I said “Okay. It’s a bigger porch.” (Laugh.) So, Tumble Weed Tiny Home sent me this beautiful trailer, and the initial phase went pretty quickly. I had the subfloor, and the framing in, done, within, really just a few months. Before I started hitting obstacles.
Chris: And what were some of those?
Gina: Oh, there were so many obstacles. There’s been a number of different contractors. Nobody told me going into this that, “By the way, like working with contractors is a nightmare. And then you’ve got the bureaucracy of the city, and the zoning, and the codes, and the, you know, coordinating all these different people. It’s a huge amount of work.” But, once I switched from my initial builder to my second contractor, I moved the tiny home, you know, it was really just a shell at that phase. Downtown Charleston from James Island, where I’d begun the project, and started to just chip away here at the roof, and here at the windows, and a little bit at the siding, and months went by as I would just do a little bit at a time. And I’d get some money and fundraise some more, and then I’d coordinate another phase of the project. And it was just little by little. It started to begin to look like a home.
Chris: Describe the trailer when you got it, ’cause it sounds like you had to do a lot. You didn’t have much to start with, right?
Gina: Well, you know, I had the trailer, and I had the blueprints, and I had the dream. (Laugh.) I did not have all the money. I did not have all the correct people and connections. And, the trailer is, it’s a gorgeous, solid, steel frame. It looks like you could build a skyscraper on it. And it’s got kind of these spacers every few feet, these beams that go across it. Of course, it’s built to carry, I don’t remember the exact amount of weight, but quite a lot of weight. When I initially stood on it, it was just like, “Wow! This is the foundation for my home!” And it was very inspiring. And I could envision, in my mind’s eye, the structure growing up around me from that base.
Chris: So when you say that you did framing and subfloor, were there even … Was that all it was, was a base? Were there walls?
Gina: Oh no! No. Initially it’s just a trailer. Just a steel base. And so the subfloor went in, and then the framing, the kind of … just the shell. After that went some T 111, more sheeting, and more siding, and some hearty plank on top of that, and just these layers. And to get to the point where I am now, where it’s insulated, the sheet rock and painted, it was just … it was an incredible metamorphosis from an idea in my mind to a space that I could walk around and live inside.
Chris: How did you go about finding contractors that could help you with this?
Gina: Well, initially, it was just kind of, “Who do I know? You know, what’s the closest connection? And who’s willing to help me?” And there were so many people who were well intended, but didn’t wind up having really the time and the energy to put into the project, and others who were less well intended and just wanted to make a little money and not do a great job, but I kept just going through contractors until I found people who could do the job. And fortunately, I’m at a place now where I’ve found folks who can communicate, and I know what needs to be done, and I pay them to do it, and they do it. And that’s really … It’s … it’s a miracle in the world of construction to find people like that. So, a lot of looking and a little bit of luck.
Chris: And so, when a contractor told you that something needed to be done, and you felt like maybe they weren’t telling you the right thing, or maybe giving you the run-around, or, you know, even trying to screw you over a little bit.
Chris: How did you know? How did you know whether they were right or you were right?
Gina: That was a huge learning curve, actually. Because coming into this, I knew nothing about building. I knew nothing about constructing a home. And, you know, that’s not my background. I’m a psychologist, for crying out loud. And I really had to educate myself, and talk to a lot of people, and get a lot of feedback in terms of, “Is this a good idea? You know, I kind of think this sounds a little weird, or this sounds a little too expensive.” And other times, I would doubt, and then, it turns out that the contractor would be right. So, it was an enormous learning curve as to like, “Well, is this the right thing to do?” When there was a question of quality vs. making something work for a little bit cheaper of a price, I chose quality. And I was criticized for that because it was a fundraised project, but, you know, in the end, I’m gonna be living in this place until I’m old and gray. And I want it done right. And I have no regrets about any of those decisions in the process.
Chris: So talk more about the fundraising. How did that all shake out?
Gina: Wow. What an ordeal! I had no idea. In my mind, I thought, “Well, you put a Go Fund Me up, people just throw money at you, and then you just do what you want to do, right? (Laugh.) No. That’s not how it works. So initially, you know, I was very, very fortunate with support in the initial Go Fund Me effort. And that really got me started with the trailer, and the initial materials. But then I partnered with a wonderful non-profit organization called I Got Legs, which is a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities achieve independence, and that organization was very helpful in terms of getting the word out, and the publicity, and just kind of amping up my efforts in a way that I was just, as an individual, not really prepared for. And that really kicked it off to a very solid start, and other organizations caught wind of it and became very helpful to me. The Summerville Lions Club, which is a nonprofit that does a lot to help blind people. That’s a local chapter of that national network, and they were extremely helpful, the Good Friends of the Low Country, I mean and there were so many individuals who gave a lot, and a lot who gave a little. That made a really big difference. I mean, news networks caught on, I did a couple kind of extreme things, where I was like, “I’m gonna walk the Ravino Bridge for eight hours straight. You know,” (Laugh.) “Give me money for my little house.” And other things just to kind of catch the public attention. There was a local flower shop that sold flowers to collect money for the tiny house. “Charity Blossoms,” they called it. “Tiger Lilly” is the name of the flower shop. And they raised thousands of dollars. My yoga studio, likewise, had a special fundraiser, and raised a lot of money, and so there were a lot of people and businesses and organizations along the way who said, “You know what? This is a good idea. Let’s help her out.” And I wouldn’t be where I am without them.
Chris: But it sounds like you put in a lot of effort too, in order to find those organizations, and build publicity for this. How are you going about doing that?
Gina: Oh yeah. I put a huge amount of work into this. And it had my heart. And so, my energy just flowed into it, seemingly without effort. And, really, I just reached out in every direction, and knocked on every door, and the ones that opened, I was extremely grateful for, and I did my best to work along side them to make things happen. But, as much as I put into it, I can’t emphasize how much help I had. So, I’m extremely grateful for all of it.
Chris: Did any of the organizations or individuals that fundraised for you put any strings on that money?
Gina: Not really. Not really. You know, other than, it looks good for people to help people in a situation such as mine, most of the time, it was a mutually beneficial situation.
Chris: We’ll hear the conclusion of this interview in a moment, but first, a brief word from our sponsor.
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Chris: You said you had doubt. Did you ever just want to give up and say, “This is taking too long, I want to quit?”
Gina: That’s never been my style. I’m just not a giver upper. And there were points where, you know, I remember one building inspection in particular. And this is probably a little over a year and a half ago. And I was in a temporary location way up, uptown, not a great location. And I was living in the unfinished house, and I had the inspection done, and there were so many little things that needed to get up to code, and the inspector was like, “Why don’t you just sell this to somebody as a shed and start over? You know, with an up to code, already finished, bla bla bla.” And I was like, “No way, Dude! You have no idea how much time and heart I have put into this. I’m not giving it up right now.” (Laugh.) “There’s no way.” And so, there were moments where others maybe thought that was the best route, but I wasn’t having it. The little place is so beautiful, and it’s so mine. I really, I changed the plans, I tweaked them to be just right, I added windows, I made the porch bigger, and it’s just got this … this vibe about it that’s irreplaceable. You couldn’t just switch it out for another house.
Chris: What were some of the things that weren’t up to code?
Gina: Well, you know, a lot of little stuff. One of the major things was what they call Hurricane Straps, that strap the rafters of the home to the structure. In case of, you know, here in Charleston South Carolina, we do get big storms and hurricanes. So, they wanted that roof really strapped to the structure with hurricane straps. So I had to tear out the sheet rock all around the inside roof line, strap everything in, and then replace the sheetrock, you know, stuff like that. That really had to be up to snuff, and I’m glad. One of the other things is getting strapped to a foundation. And that’s what’s happening now. The tiny house is currently lifted up on jacks and beams, and then tomorrow, actually, the foundation guy’s gonna come in and dig the foundation and put the foundation underneath it so I can strap to that, and that will satisfy the city’s requirements in terms of being up to code.
Chris: So I know that there was a ton of stuff that you’ve wrestled with, with regard to the city. What were some more of those things?
Gina: Well, first of all, I am THE first official tiny home that is going through all the legal motions. Now there are quite a few on the peninsula who have … they just kind of built something in their backyard and they let it fly under the radar, but this is the first tiny house that’s checking all the boxes. So it’s a big deal for the city to let this happen. And they didn’t make it easy. (Laugh.) But, you know, following all the initial, “What an unusual project!” And “We don’t even have … We don’t even have requirements for a structure like this.” You know. “It’s totally unheard of.” But once we got past all that, the lot that I landed on, which is a beautiful location, and I really … I’m in love with the spot. It happens to be a slightly smaller lot than the usual minimum for a single family home. And so I’m like, “But it’s not a single family home. It’s a tiny home. It’s a tiny lot, … It’s a tiny home on a tiny lot.” (Laugh.) “It makes sense.” But that required, you know, quite a bit of bureaucratic this and that, and getting a special exemption, and the whole bit, and a committee hearing, and … you know, my heart thumping as the people are like, “Okay. The tiny house on the tiny lot is fine.” It’s been one obstacle after another, and I’ve cleared them all. So far.
Chris: So now exactly how long has this project taken so far?
Gina: Over three years. (Laugh.)
Gina: You know, my dad, my dad and step-mom have been hugely supportive through this whole process, but when we had … when we were initially like brainstorming, and dreaming around it, and he watches the TV shows. It just happens like magic on TV. It’s like, “And then … and then the house is done. And then they’re decorating. And then the decoration’s done. And then the paint’s done. And on and on.” In real life, things take a lot longer. And I did not envision it taking this long, and it was worth it. Sort of whatever it takes. You know, and in the meantime, I have a place to be, albeit a little uncivilized, and I’m happy with just having my own little Gina environment. I have no housemates. There’s nobody interferes with my energetic space. It’s just mine. And I’ve never had that before. So it’s really … It’s really earth shattering, and important for me, and despite the unexpected sort of dragging out of the project, I’m really happy with it.
Chris: But you have been living in it for quite some time now, right?
Gina: Oh yeah. Over a year and a half. Without utilities. I’m very much a gypsy, and, you know, at first, … and I thought it was much more temporary. “For sure I’ll be done in just a few months. You know, this will be done, that will be done, da da da,” you know, (Laugh.) Not so. But in the meantime, you know, I got a camping toilet, I got a camp stove, I sort of just have a system, you know, at this point, where I’m settled now, I have access to my neighbor’s hose, an extension cord if I need to charge things, and run the record player, basics. You know. And it just became a sort of … a glorified camping situation that I adapted to. I shower on the campus where I work, I have sort of just a hand crank washing machine, and yeah. I look forward to the day where I have all the civilized amenities, and people lived for thousands and thousands of years without central heat and air, and light switches that flicked on and off, and plumbing and all these things. So for me to do it for a little while is … it’s an interesting experience, and I’ll be happy when it’s over.
Chris: Was living like that a new experience for you, and what did you have to learn in order to be able to do that?
Gina: Well, you know, I have always loved camping, and that sort of adaptive mindset is not new to me. But the situation itself was. It was novel. “Well! How do I cook in this situation? I’ll put the cutting board on the porch railing, and I’ll just put this over here and that over there, and then,” (Chuckle.) You know, Set the camp stove in the yard there, and wash the dishes in the hose, and …” It was a little learning curve, but once I got it, you know, I have a system in place, it just becomes habit. You know? Carry the camping toilet out in the morning, you know, and I really, I think, like most people, I had been overly attached to the comforts and conveniences that we usually live with every day. And once those were removed, I realized that life could go on just fine. As long as I was willing to do a lot of little things. To do the work. To make life work.
Chris: Has anyone ever said, you know, “Gina, you can’t … you can’t live like that.”
Chris: “You can’t do this.”
Gina: “That’s illegal!” Um, … Technically, yes. I am a little bit flying by the grace of my community. And my entire street, it’s like I’m a figment of each street’s imagination. We’re like, “Oh, she’s … she’s there, she’s not really there. She’s … the home is being stored there, is what’s happening.” (Chuckle.) But nobody has … Nobody has come to me and said, “Gina, you can’t do that.” Because I am doing it. And anybody who knows me, and who knows how I tick knows I’m gonna pull it off. And in some ways, I’m holding it together more than others that I know who have all the conveniences available to them. So, because I am sort of presenting confident and competent front, no one really questions what I’m doing. And there’s always on the horizon a completion. So I’m not asking to do this forever. It’s a temporary situation.
Chris: So if you could, describe the state of the tiny home right now, like what is it like, and what is coming next in the project?
Gina: Ah, the tiny home right now is gorgeous. It’s mostly completed, I mean the structure itself is complete, minus utilities and interior carpentry. So, what … the house is … it’s 26 by 8 feet, and it’s got a porch, a front porch that’s four feet deep, and then, it’s got, let me see. Five large casement windows downstairs, including four kind of skylight windows, and then two smaller windows in the upstairs loft. So there’s a loft over the porch, and then a large bedroom loft over the bathroom. And currently, as of just a few days ago, the entire home has been hoisted up on very strong jacks and beams about three feet higher off the ground than it would have been, and that’s so that the foundation can be dug and poured underneath it tomorrow. And I really like having it up higher, so I’m actually gonna have the foundation built up so that the house sits up a little bit higher off the ground. And then following foundation, next week, there’s gonna be an inspection, and then utilities, and sheetrock and paint finishing, that will be followed by interior carpentry. So my kitchen counter, my closets, my record shelves, my built-in couch, the whole deal.
Chris: Wow! How long do you figure all that’s gonna take? Do you have a guess?
Gina: I will be having a foundation party in three weeks time. And then, following that, it’s probably gonna be another month of interior carpentry and finishing. So it’s getting pretty close.
Chris: And, do you mind me asking, what the total budget for this project is?
Chris: If you know?
Gina: Another estimate. I was way off in the beginning. You know, I had no idea. I sort of sketched together stuff. When I initially started raising money, I think I was asking for around 12 grand. I wound up raising over 16,000 dollars. And then there’s another … about another 16,000 dollars going into it right now. Some of that is my student loans, some of that is additional fundraising I’ve been doing, and all said and done, we’re looking at probably a little over 32, 33 thousand dollars. Which, for a home, is not so bad. (Laugh.)
Chris: No. No, not at all, but it’s still a pretty … pretty large sum of money to come up with from zero.
GINA: Right. Exactly.
Chris: So, how have you felt throughout this whole process, and how do you feel about it now?
Gina: You know, to be honest, it’s been a little roller coaster of excitement and frustration, and exhilaration and devastation at yet another obstacle, followed by relief, when that yet another obstacle was overcome, and I feel very satisfied with the entire project, and extremely grateful for all the support and help that I’ve had along the way. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to be living in a space that’s literally the manifest kindness and generosity of other people. And how excited I am. For the rest of my life, this is gonna be my place. That I can live. I don’t have to depend on anybody else for it. And that’s an incredible feeling.
Chris: Do you have any advice for somebody else that, you know, might be thinking about doing the same kind of thing?
Gina: Oh gosh. Yeah. I would certainly tell anyone dreaming of building their own home, be it tiny or otherwise, to do their homework, and to find good, trustworthy contractors, and to always pay the price to have the job done right. And to never let bureaucracy, or inconvenience, or any other tiny obsticle dishearten them from the dream. Because, you know, if you get disheartened at any point along this path, it’s not gonna happen.
Chris: Along those lines, as a psychologist, I’m thinking maybe you have more thoughts on this than most. Do you have any ideas for somebody that’s working on a long term goal like this on how to stay motivated through it all?
Gina: Yes. Yes. Keep the memory clear in your mind, of the dream you had that got you started. Keep that beginning fresh, at all times. And it will never let you down. It will always stay, you know, the shining light that can keep you moving forward. And don’t let that be tarnished by anything that happens. I think that I’m more, maybe a little unusually driven and motivated than many other people that I know. For whatever reason, I just have this drive. Like “I want to make it happen!” And there’s no quick answer to where that comes from, but I think we all have it in ourselves. We really have an incredible resource of desire for, you know, what we know in our hearts is right for us. And to get in touch with that and to stay in touch with that is one of the most important things you can do in your journey of life.
Chris: Was being blind a challenge for you throughout this process?
Gina: Well of course. You know, and that has many sides to it, but two that are … (Chuckle.) Two that are obvious. And the first side is that I couldn’t see what people were doing. I couldn’t see their plans, I couldn’t see what they had done, I had to either trust the people doing the work, or my friends with eyeballs that could check it out for me. So that’s one side of it. Is I couldn’t directly observe the plans for what was happening, and what had been done. The other side, is that, that perceived disability. That secondary disability, where people think, “Oh, she’s blind, so she’s not gonna know if I don’t finish the bla bla bla.” (Chuckle.) You know, this kind of perception that, for whatever reason, because I’m blind, I must also not be competent, or fully needing something done correctly in a certain way.
Chris: This is such a great story. I’m really excited for you. I’m really proud of you, I would imagine that all (the internet that has followed this journey are really proud of you and cheering you on.
Chris: Where can people learn more about this?
Gina: Oh my gosh. You know, I had a buddy early on who was like “We’re gonna start an Instagram story on a tiny house, we’re gonna follow it every step of the way,” and of course, you know, lost track of it probably a year in because it’s such a long project. I do post regularly on my Facebook with whatever photos and updates that I have. It’s Gina Marie Applebee is my Facebook. I’m pretty sure it’s public, so people can just follow it. And, ultimately, I’d love to get a camera on the finished project and be like, “Here’s the completed tiny house.” Because there’s so many people cheering along the way, and I want … not that things should be product or destination driven, but I want people to see sort of the monumental accomplishment of the finished home.
Chris: Oh, I think people are gonna love a virtual tour.
Gina: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: Yeah. It’s absolutely amazing. Again, I just want to thank you for being here, and I’m really excited and proud, and have all kinds of feelings about this. And I really want to thank you for sharing your story. This is very, very cool.
Gina: Oh, thanks for having me, Chris. Thanks for talking to me. I really appreciate you giving me a platform to share this reality.
Chris: I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s interview and will join us again next time, but first, let’s talk about compound interest. Compound interest, or sometimes referred to as just “interest,” means two things depending on the context. In the context of credit cards, compound interest means that you pay the credit card company a little bit of extra money in return for them lending you money, which you need to then pay back, when you spend money on your credit card. If you spend 500 dollars on a credit card, and you pay 25 dollars a month, it will take 26 months to pay that off. And by the end, you will have paid the credit card company 636 dollars. On the other hand, if you put money in a savings account, you also earn compound interest. And in this case, the bank pays you to have money saved in their savings account. They don’t pay you as much as a credit card company charges you to use their money, but you do make a little bit of money by having your money saved in a savings account. As an example, if you put away 25 dollars a month, for twenty-six months, which is just a little over two years, you will have saved about 612 dollars in the average savings account. That is something that you may want to take into consideration the next time you think about spending money using a credit card. Bank Rate has a nice, screen reader accessible calculator which will help you to determine, if you spend a certain amount of money on a credit card, about how much you will pay, and about how long it will take to pay that off. Check that out, and think about it. Do you want to accumulate money, or do you want to pay someone else to lend you money? Sometimes you don’t have a choice, but when you do, accumulating money may be a better choice in the long term.
Chris: We hope you have enjoyed this week’s episode of “Target Your Goals,” a podcast by Penny Forward. For more information about Penny Forward, like us on Facebook, join our Facebook group, or visit www.pennyforward.com
Until next week, I’m Chris Peterson, thanks for listening.