When highway developments overtook her parents' property and rendered the family home "uninhabitable," MOTHER EARTH NEWS reader Joyce Hetrick had the house lifted and moved to another location 30 miles away.
The author's house, loaded onto a truck, journeys to its new location.
Photo courtesy of Joyce Hetrick
If you’ve found that ideal (empty) plot of land but the idea of starting from scratch with new construction seems like an impossible feat, or likewise, if your dream home is in a less-than-favorable location, you might consider moving — moving a house, that is.
Houses are regularly sold “to be moved.” The houses to be moved are usually dislocated by urban “improvements” or highway-widening projects. These houses go for as little as $1,000. Professional house-moving companies sometimes buy them to resell. Then they will move it for you. Houses are also advertised "for sale to be moved.”
You need to take a few things to take into account before you buy one, though. First, consider the location of the land versus the house’s original location. Moving a house very far distances is quite expensive. Also, consider the roads over which the house must travel. Many country highways have small, high-sided bridges over which the house must be able to pass. Power lines and other obstacles such as road signs can usually be moved out of the way.
We were fortunate enough to inherit 120 lovely acres about 30 miles from a reasonably nice little community in central Arkansas. My mom had lived about six miles east of the town for several years in a four-bedroom, three-bath, ranch-style house. Because of the urban flight from the larger city of Little Rock, the town had grown at about 14 to 20 percent per year, so eventually highway-widening projects reached out and overtook my mom's house. Actually, the developers didn't take the house itself — they seized half of the half-acre lot, which left them less than the required amount of land for a septic system, thus rendering the house uninhabitable. The highway department bought an easement for the land, but actually left the house in place.
My folks then built a new home on the ancestral acres. My first thought was to tear the older house down and salvage the materials to build us a residence on the farm as well. My mom suggested that we see about moving the house. My reaction was, “You can't move it; it's on a slab!” She insisted that I check with the largest house-moving company in Arkansas to see if it could be done.
Well, as usual, Mom was right — a house on a slab can be moved, slab and all. In our house's case, the slab wasn't thick enough, but not all was lost. In 1994, the movers cut the house frame from the slab, raised up, put a new floor under it and then moved it. This, of course, increased the price of moving the house.
After my folks moved out, and before the septic lines were cut by the slow-moving highway construction crews, we rented the house for a short time so that insurance could be maintained on it. Empty houses are difficult and expensive to insure. When we started the demolition and rebuilding process, we had it insured under a "remodeling" policy. After the house was complete we went back to a home owners' policy.
I spoke at length with the owner of the moving company about what I would need to do, and made a list of the tasks. We made sure that the roads would be adequate to move the house. The route we had to take was so circuitous that the 30-mile move actually became 80 miles!
Site selection was critical. The first consideration was water. Though our area usually has good water at reasonable depths, it’s better to be safe than sorry. So, we picked what we thought was a nice site, inside a wooded mesa on the back side of the farm. The well driller brought in a wonderful well with an inexhaustible supply of good water.
Now that we had water and a site picked out and knew that the roads were passable by the house, we could proceed with preparation for the move.
The first thing I needed to do in preparation for the house moving was to have all the things touching the slab removed from the inside. This included the lower cabinets, carpet, door frames, doors, toilets and bathroom cabinets. This would also require that we had a safe place to store this for several months before they could be reinstalled into the house.
Before we started removing stuff, we had to build a safe place to store it on the farm. We looked at several different large metal buildings and priced them, and finally found a company in Oklahoma (Green Country Pole Barns) that would come in, erect the building and be gone in two days, and for cheaper than we could buy the materials locally. They were there in no time, built the barn, and departed. With that task completed, we were ready to start taking the stuff out of the house.
Since I didn't personally know anyone to do each step of the labor and really wasn't sure which steps should come next, I contacted a small contractor and asked him if he would be my “consultant” for a payment of a side of homegrown beef. He agreed and was a godsend.
My contractor consultant recommended a young carpenter to remove the items from the house. My husband, our son and I transported the items and stored them in the barn. In the meantime, we got the site leveled and the footing dug and poured.
The footing was poured wider than usual because you can't really tell if a house is actually square until it is suspended over the footing, and so allowances were made in case it wasn't. We planned to put the house on a bit of a slope with the front part of the foundation below grade and the back above grade. While the worker was present with the dozer and the back hoe to dig the footing and site, we got him to dig the hole for the septic tank and the field lines. We left room on the front for a French drain.
After the carpenter was done removing the items from the house, the mover and his crew came in and jacked the house up off the foundation and placed a floor under it. Then they backed big I-beams on wheels under the house. The carport was placed on a separate truck. The additional floor cost $5,000. The move itself would cost $13,000, plus the floor. They required half of the payment at the time they moved the house, and the other half when they had it positioned and leveled.
We had a local shale hauler construct a road from the county road to our house site. For every 25 feet of road, one load of shale was required. Shale is preferred in our area over gravel, because gravel just mashes down into the sandy loam and disappears. Shale, on the other hand, packs down and becomes almost like a paved road.
We had considered having wood heat since we have an endless supply with the 60 acres of woods on the place, but because we were getting older and I had developed a severe allergy to wood smoke at our previous residence, this pretty much nixed the idea of wood heat. Butane, natural gas and electric were other options. Butane is quite expensive here and so is electric, so we decided to see just how much it would cost to run the gas line the half mile to the highway.
This option only cost us $1,700, giving us a supply of relatively cheap natural gas for heat. The highest winter heat bill we have had was less than $100 during the coldest weather. We think the gas line has paid for itself over and over, and will continue to pay us a “dividend” over butane or electric heat.
Moving day arrived and the whole community was out to see this event. Traffic was stopped behind the house for half a mile. When the movers got to the turn-off from the highway, I thought there was no way they could get it around the sharp bend, but they put the tractor into the deep ditch, then winched it out and up onto the side road almost as if they had the proverbial “sky hook.” They made it down the narrow gravel road and set it right over the footing. They detached the tractor and left the house jacked up over the footing.
The next week, the block layers put the rest of the foundation under the house and the mover came back out and let the house down and leveled it.
There was still a great deal of work to do. There was no plumbing in the house and an additional subfloor had to be laid. My contractor consultant told me which thing came first and I hired a carpenter to start work, and I was his helper. The door frames were reinstalled and the doors rehung, the cabinets and the bathroom fixtures replaced, etc. There was less damage to the sheetrock than you would imagine for such a move, but I learned as I went on repairing the holes and the cracks. I did the painting and wall-paper-hanging myself.
While my husband was out of town for a week, I worked on the house during the day and worked at the local hospital on the evening shift. On the weekends when my husband was home, he supervised the filling-in of the French drain and other large chores.
The house was delivered April 18, and we moved into it over Labor Day weekend.
The total cost for the four-bedroom, three-bath house, the repairs, the move, the road, the well, the barn and a half-mile of natural gas line was $47,000. This worked out to be about 35 cents on the dollar for the value of the new property. We were given the house, but the price offered to my mother for the house where it originally sat was $1,500. We didn't have to purchase land, but it was still an incredible bargain!
If I had it to do all over again, what would I do differently? Plus, what problems might others run into that we didn't have?
First, I would make sure I got a house that already had a good floor under it. That would have saved $5,000 just on the floor, plus the labor to take out the fixtures ($800), the installation of new carpet and flooring ($3,000), the labor to reinstall all the stuff that was removed ($1,500), and redoing all the plumbing ($2,500). So, you can see that a house with a floor already built in would have been much cheaper!
Secondly, make sure that you have the best mover in your area who really knows what he or she is doing. Ask for a list of customers and go visit them. Talk to some carpenters and other professionals and see if they can vouch for the mover’s reputation.
Be involved in the process. By working with the carpenters (but not bossing them around) I was able to save us some headaches when their “vision” of what I wanted didn’t match mine, but in the end, they gave me some good advice and we were pleased with the results. In house moving, like any extensive remodeling project, there are millions of little decisions to be made daily that will affect the outcome in either price or quality.
We didn't finance any of this and paid cash out-of-pocket for materials, the move and the labor, but I understand that banks will work with you on a moved house. It is difficult to estimate costs on things too far in advance for an amateur, but make sure that you plan as far in advance as you can.
We didn't have to have any zoning or permits to move the house, over and above the permits the moving company had, or permits to install the septic system. Federal law requires that if you have less than 10 acres, or are up against a property line, that you must have a “coded” septic system. Because we didn't have any of those problems or any local zoning or codes to comply with, we set up the septic system with common sense, but not to “code.” We also ran our greywater out into the woods rather than into the tank.
One other bit of advice I would give to people buying and moving a house is not to try to remodel too much inside. This ends up costing a lot of money and you might be just as well off to build from scratch if you are going to do that. I did relocate the hot water heater and the laundry room by moving them from one side of the house to the other, and that little bit of remodeling cost about $400 by the time it was all done, mostly in labor costs.
We put a lot of sweat equity into our house, as well as money, but the process was very satisfying.
Our house now looks like it is site-built and no one would be able to tell by looking at it that it wasn't. We have had very little settling or sheetrock cracking in the house and we are totally pleased with the result. Not having a mortgage payment and yet living in a very comfortable — but affordable — house was well worth the work, the planning and all the anxiety. If we had built the same house on this site, we would still be in debt and paying the monthly mortgage payment for the rest of our lives. If we had chosen to build a home for the same amount of money, we would be living in much less space and comfort. By all means, if you have any movable houses in your area, consider house moving as an opportunity to create your dream home!
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