Picking up a house and moving it somewhere else — can, in fact, be the most practical thing to do when money is tight.
The house was just $1. The catch? A delivery charge of nearly $22,000.
Still, Julie and Randy Olson decided it was worth it. In 2007, they had bought 120 acres of farmland in Brook Park, Minn., only to see the value of their property plummet, along with their hopes of ever getting a construction loan to build a house.
And while the 4,200-square-foot wood-frame house they bought for a buck had been slated for demolition, it was solid, Julie Olson said, with “tight pine lumber and tongue-and-groove construction.”
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Julie Olson, 45, a game warden for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, had heard about the house from a colleague who had listed it for public auction, to make way for a wildlife refuge. And the Olsons, it turned out, were the only bidders.
But they are not the only ones to recognize that what might seem wildly impractical — picking up a house and moving it somewhere else — can, in fact, be the most practical thing to do when money is tight.
In recent years, more cash-strapped Americans have been doing just that: realizing the dream of homeownership on the cheap, by buying land and then hauling in inexpensive (or free) houses that would have otherwise been torn down.
Many of these houses come from used-house lots, the domestic equivalent of used-car lots, where one can choose from a surprisingly wide range of styles, whether quaint shingled cottages or multistory houses.
There are no hard figures on how many homes are acquired this way, but while sales of stationary houses have been declining, sales of the peripatetic variety appear to be increasing.
Owners of used-house lots, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, on the Gulf and East coasts and in the Upper Midwest, said their sales had increased as much as 60 percent over the last three years.
Warren Davie, the owner of Davie Shoring, a structural mover with a used-house lot in Kenner, La., outside of New Orleans, said his business has increased 50 percent since 2008.
“It seems like we’re even busier when the economy is bad,” Davie said. “People are looking for a way to save on demolition and dump fees on one end and save on building costs on the other end.”
Depending on a home’s size, its condition and how far it has to be moved, the cost can range from $15,000 to $60,000.
That’s about 40 to 60 percent of what it would cost to build the same structure from scratch, said Joshua Wendland, president of Milbank House Movers, in Milbank, S.D., which sells and transports houses within a 500-mile radius. For the last three years, Wendland said, his business has increased about 15 percent annually.
These days, he added, “If the weather is good, we move up to six houses a week.”
Buyers include developers who want the houses for rental income while they wait for financing to build larger projects and farmers flush with cash from high crop prices, who are upgrading their residences or providing housing for laborers. Natural-gas companies are also buying houses for workers who can’t find lodging in sparsely populated drilling regions like North and South Dakota.
But Davie, who is on the board of the International Association of Structural Movers, the industry’s trade group, said most buyers were “hardworking people who don’t want to go into serious debt to own a home and are willing to put a little sweat equity into the project.”
The Olsons fit that profile. In addition to the $21,500 they paid to move their house 30 miles, they plan to spend another $100,000 renovating it themselves.
“It’s hard work, but it’s going to be beautiful,” said Randy Olson, 48, a cattle farmer.
Cheryl Moore, 52, and her husband, Kenneth, 48, of Houston, are also rolling up their sleeves. The couple, quality-assurance employees at an oil-rig services company, have been working on a 1,200-square-foot Victorian-style house since August, when they moved it 130 miles from Houston to their property in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Cheryl Moore found the house on the website of a local structural mover who got it from a developer who had wanted to tear it down to build a snow-cone stand. The cost, with shipping, was $47,500. She and her husband plan to invest another $100,000 to put on a new roof and add two bedrooms and 2 1/2 bathrooms, work they will do themselves to save money.
“It’s a great deal,” she said, “considering to build a house like this would cost us around $500,000.”
Moving a house is, in theory, relatively simple.
If it is on a pier-and-beam foundation, structural movers slide steel beams under the ground floor to lift it; if the house is on a concrete slab, the mover uses a jackhammer to create tunnels where support beams can be inserted.
Then the house is raised on jacks, dollies are maneuvered beneath it, and the beams supporting the house are lowered onto the dollies, which have an integrated hydraulic suspension system that adjusts to the road, so that no part of the house is unduly stressed on the way.
“The equipment has improved by leaps and bounds in the past three to five years,” said Keith Settle, president of Northwest Structural Moving, in the Portland area, which has seen its business increase 25 percent annually since 2007.
Last year, Settle invested $250,000 in a system that uses self-propelled dollies, instead of the kind that are hitched to a trailer truck. It operates by remote control, so he can walk alongside a house while it’s being moved, making adjustments as it travels over uneven terrain.
Inevitably, it’s a process that prompts spectators to reach for their cellphones to snap pictures. But as Edgar Dodson, secretary and treasurer of Dodson House Moving, in San Antonio, noted: “We move along at about 15 to 20 mph, so they’ve got to take the picture pretty quick.”
When it’s your own house, the sight can be disconcerting.
“It’s kind of freaky to watch your house coming down the road,” said Steve Moon, 41, a lieutenant with the fire department in Cannon Beach, Ore.
Moon paid $25,000 to move a two-story house 10 blocks, and $10,000 of that, he said, “was to deal with the wires.” (Utilities charge hefty fees to lower or raise their wires so a house can pass.)
But the house itself, a solid cedar A-frame structure he now rents out, was free. It came to him serendipitously last year. The owners called his unit to do a so-called controlled-burn demolition, so they could build something new, and he offered to take it off their hands.
“When I saw it,” he said, “I was like, ‘Holy cow, there’s nothing wrong with this place.’ “
But most people come by their relocated houses more conventionally, through used-house lots or structural movers’ websites. Other likely sources are large building companies and organizations that routinely clear land for building, safety or preservation projects.
Joe Kessi, a developer who buys used houses to place on vacant properties owned by his company, OHM Equity Partners, in Scappoose, Ore., said he looks for houses “anywhere there is a major building project, like a new road or new hospital being built.” Then he starts “calling around to find out who has the contract to do the demolitions,” he said. “I could go to any state and find a house.”
Contractors are usually happy to save money and avoid the hassle of getting demolition permits, and will simply give the houses to Kessi. That means moving and renovation are his only expenses. But even during a recession, saving money isn’t always the only consideration when it comes to moving houses.
Jennifer Davis, 38, a mediator in Everett, and her husband, Craig, a policeman, also 38, bought a 1,500-square-foot cottage in 2008 as a vacation home for a quarter-acre they owned on Hat Island. The local structural mover who sold the house to them charged $65,000, which included transporting it by barge across Puget Sound and then building a short bridge to span the last 100 yards, where the water was too shallow for the barge to pass.
Despite the obstacles, the damage caused by the move was limited to a few easy-to-repair hairline cracks. And Jennifer Davis estimates that they saved about 40 percent of what it would have cost to build a house.
But the best part, she said, is “it’s a 1950s rambler with all kinds of details, like scalloped trim in the kitchen and a wonderful pink bathroom, that you don’t find in new construction.” And “we saved it from a landfill.”