For sentimental as well as environmental reasons, some homeowners will spend millions of dollars to move a house to a new, better location.
BY NANCY KEATS
Moving Day: On Martha's Vineyard, an 8,300-square-foot house is being moved back 275 feet from an eroding bluff to a 4-acre property purchased for $4.5 million. The move will cost at least $1 million.
THERE'S A DRAMATIC SCENE currently under way on Martha's Vineyard. To keep their 8,300-square-foot house from plunging off an eroding bluff, the owners are moving it back 275 feet. The estimated cost: at least $1 million.
The stone and wood-shingled house, built in 2004, has seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms and a massive basement with a bowling alley, according to public records. All of that—plus a 1,814-square-foot guesthouse and a garage—is going, much of it to the 4-acre property next door that the owners bought in January for $4.5 million for that purpose.
The move involves digging underneath the basement, moving the structure through a trench and then refilling the hole with soil. Still, that pales in comparison to what the house cost to build: The current appraised value of the buildings and the land is $7.6 million, but contractors put the cost of rebuilding the main house alone at around $10 million.
"If I'd spent all that money on the house, I'd be moving it, too," says Edward Vincent Jr., chairman of the Edgartown Conservation Commission. (Owner Richard Schifter, a partner at private-equity firm TPG Capital, declined to comment.)
Americans moved about 40,000 private homes last year—a number that has held steady for the past decade, according to an estimate by the International Association of Structural Movers. Flooding and other natural disasters account for some of those moves, especially in recent years because of Hurricane Irene and superstorm Sandy. But most still result from owners' personal motivations: saving a historic house located on land slated for development; sentimentality for a family home; or a penchant for old architecture.
Lisa Chu longed to live in an authentic, 18th-century New England house. But she didn't want to leave Northern California, where she grows Cabernet grapes for a living. The solution: Instead of moving to a New England house, Ms. Chu had a New England house moved to her.
The 1,064-square-foot, kitchen-less house, a wood-framed "saltbox" originally built in 1737 in Shrewsbury, Mass., was meticulously disassembled and shipped across the country on three trailers to her vineyard. There, it was reconstructed, restored and placed next to her main home. Still not completely finished, the project has taken 13 years and cost more than $1 million.
"It makes me feel like I'm back in New England," says Ms. Chu, who grew up in New Jersey. She filled the transplanted house with period furniture and surrounded it with a rose garden outside.
For Scott and Kelly Bradley, plans to develop nearby property compelled them to move their home 2 miles down the road in the Fort Worth suburb of Westlake, Texas. Their 6,000-square-foot house, which they bought for $650,000 in 1977, was designed in 1938 by Charles Stevens Dilbeck, a well-known 20th-century Texas architect, for Ted Dealey, former publisher of the Dallas Morning News.
"They were going to tear the house down, and we couldn't stand that," says Ms. Bradley, who had lived there 20 years and become somewhat of an expert on Dilbeck's work.
The Bradleys hired an architect to photograph and measure every inch of the house, including its eight brick horse stables, extensive wood paneling and massive fireplaces. Then they cut it into six pieces, removing all the bricks, rocks, six chimneys and all five porches. Thinking the reconstruction process would only take about two years, they moved into a mobile home on their new 58-acre property. Ten years later, after adding a full basement and putting in a 1,800-square-foot guesthouse, the house is 11,500 square feet and the project cost about $8 million, not including the price of the land.
"People would be absolutely shocked" if they knew how much money and effort goes into reassembling old houses, says Anna Winter, who moved two historic taverns with stenciled walls and floors—built by two brothers in Massachusetts in the 1700s—from Northfield to Concord, Mass. Ms. Winter and her husband, technology entrepreneur Neil E. Rasmussen, bought their 200-acre parcel in Concord in part because of its history: It was once owned by descendants of the Ralph Waldo Emerson family. But the house that stood there was in bad shape, so they took it down. "The landscape cried out for an 18th-century structure," says Ms. Winter, who runs a nonprofit historic preservation group.
The project, which cost about $3 million for each house, was not unlike a giant puzzle. They heated up all the old nails to straighten and reuse them, reused the old foundation stones, recreated the same lime mortar as originally used and had handmade windows made just as they would have been in the 18th century. They added closets and bathrooms—amenities that didn't exist back then. A cow shed that had been used to store carriages was turned into a kitchen. Ms. Winter says the result was worth the time and money. "It's a gift to be able to live in a home that exudes life from other times. You can almost imagine what the 18th century was like when you stand here now," she says.
In the 17th and 18th centuries it wasn't uncommon to move a house. Home-building was more labor-intensive then because of cruder tools and equipment, materials were harder to come by and houses were smaller because they didn't include bathrooms or kitchens. "Moving the house made more financial sense than building a new one," says Stan Barber of Larmon House Movers Inc., which has been moving houses since 1885 and covers New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont. George Ellis, operations manager for Gary Sylvester's Building Moving & Excavation in East Falmouth, Mass., says nowadays many of his clients are looking to preserve homes. His company recently moved two houses that were more than 5,000-square-feet each—both because the owners wanted to build new houses on the sites but didn't want to destroy the old ones.
Technology in the form of improved dollies and jacking systems has made the process of moving more efficient and less expensive. The cost now to move an average-size house runs between $25,000 to $45,000, depending on the size, distance and local permit and labor prices.
Still, it isn't always easy. Chad Attwood found that out when he and his wife, Valerie Frances, moved a historic, two-story wood-frame home in Odenton, Md., a quarter of a mile down the road. Two weeks before the actual move, the town built a concrete median in the road. That necessitated finding what are called "power dollies"—motorized hydraulic dollies that look like a set of large jet airplane wheels that are attached to the front and rear of the house. The house is then "driven" to the new site without a truck.
They had as many overhead wires as possible powered down for their move, but in their path was a set of wires that power local offices of the National Security Agency and cannot ever be shut off. The house, once raised, was too tall by about a foot. That meant the movers had to remove all the chimneys down to the roof peak. They also had to hydraulically "drop" the house on the wheel frames to lower it just enough to get under the wires. "That part was a little nerve wracking," says Mr. Attwood.
Houses that need to go more than a mile are almost always cut in pieces or disassembled. Reconstructing a disassembled house also isn't easy. "People didn't know if it was a nuclear-bomb facility," says William Butterly about the temporary arch-shaped, steel-and-fabric hoop barn he had to build in his Fairfield, Conn., yard to store the pieces of an old house he had moved from Needham, Mass. Mr. Butterly, a New York City attorney, initially was looking to salvage old parts, such as stairways and fireplaces, from an old home to use in an addition on his 1805 home. But his architect, Leonard Baum, alerted him to an 1827 house that was being used as a dorm at a school that wanted to get rid of it. So Mr. Butterly bought the 1827 house, which was then added to his existing home.
Mr. Baum has made a practice out of this kind of work since 1988, taking one or two 18th-century houses a year that no one wants and deconstructing them, stripping away all the renovations until the original house is revealed. He then removes the lathe and plaster and documents everything by labeling doors, windows, floor boards—anything that will need to be reassembled. He draws up blueprints, takes lots of photos and then dismantles the house and ships it when the client is ready. "Every house has a story," he explains.
Some house-moving companies have side businesses selling what they call "recycled homes." Marcus Building Movers in Raymond, Minn., is currently offering a two-story, four-bedroom farmhouse for $40,000—including the move; another two-story farmhouse, this one with five bedrooms, is for sale by Milbank House Movers in Milbank, S.D., for $10,000, plus $450 an hour to move it.
Moving a house once doesn't mean it won't have to be moved again. Last year, Luke Boswell, a retired businessman who lives in Cincinnati, and his extended family moved their roughly 6,000-square-foot summer house—built by his grandparents in the late 1920s—on New York's Fishers Island because of coastal erosion. "It's filled with love and laughter and wonderful memories. We didn't want to lose it," he says. The move 40 feet back and the restoration took six months and included building a new foundation. Now the bluff has eroded another 20 feet, and Mr. Boswell fears the home may have to be moved again. "We didn't question whether it was worth it at the time," says Mr. Boswell of the first move. "But who knows what the future holds."
Write to Nancy Keates at firstname.lastname@example.org