Moving a House: The Saga of Big Pink

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Moving a house turned out to be fraught with complications, but eventually Big Pink reached its new site mostly in one piece.

According to the census bureau, the average American family can expect to move its entire household several times. Few families, though, actually move an entire house. Yet moving a house is exactly what my husband, Craig, and I found ourselves doing some years ago.

Although the project has been fraught with problems, long delays, and cost overruns, we’re glad we did it. Our recycled house fits our needs and provides us with comfortable living space while we continue to remodel it. Best of all, we got the dwelling at a fraction of the median cost of a home in this country, which now stands at $71,900!

Plans Gone Awry

Old-time readers might remember my “Report From” (see A Homesteader’s Life in Wisconsin), which told how, in the spring of 1975, we bought a parcel of land in Wisconsin’s north woods and moved into a little rented farmhouse three miles from our homestead. At that time, we had high hopes of building a log house on our property, but as many a homesteader can attest, the best-laid plans oft go awry.

All kinds of events kept us from completing that building: another baby, a fight with the electric utility company over herbicide spraying, lack of money, and lack of time. But the blow that stopped us in mid-project was a lawsuit over a log that got away and hurt a friend who was helping to heft it up onto the wall. Needless to say, the accident was upsetting, but when our friend sued us for $15,000, we were shocked! Even though our renters’ insurance paid the suit, it took better than a year to resolve the matter. (In retrospect, we were very glad we had paid the small premiums for that policy before the accident, because we could have easily lost much more than our pride.)

The whole business took the wind out of our sails, especially when the insurance company, after paying the settlement, refused to give us any more liability coverage on our log home project. So there we were, seven years after buying our land with half of a log house completed, still crowded into a one bedroom shack with no water or plumbing.

Where There’s a Will…

At that point, we were left with limited options. We could sell our property and buy a piece of land with a house on it, we could try for a bank loan to build a conventional home, or we could try to find a suitable structure to move. The first option was one we contemplated with heavy hearts, and the second was financially out of our reach. Obviously, if we wanted to keep our land, we’d have to find a house to move.

Well, a year later we located the building we now call Big Pink. During that time, we had chased down many word-of-mouth leads and looked at a lot of houses, but those that fell within our spending limit of $1,000 were too small or were in such disrepair that they would have cost too much to renovate.

Finally (a year ago last January) we heard that two houses in a nearby town had to be moved to make way for a new supermarket. One was a white, two-story, two-bedroom, frame structure. The other was also a two-bedroom frame but was painted bright pink. Both houses had 9′ x 12′ enclosed porches added onto the front and back. We submitted a bid of $551 for each house, hoping for the white one but willing to settle for the pink, which we did. It wasn’t the home of our dreams, but it had possibilities. Little did we know that the project would take over a year to complete and would cost much more than we had planned.

Learn From Our Mistakes

If we had it to do again, we would still tackle the job of moving Big Pink, but we’d try to avoid some of the mistakes and hassles along the way that cost us time and money. To begin with, our bid was selected in mid-March, and the house had to be moved off its foundation by March 25th. In a little more than two weeks, we had to make arrangements with a house mover, basement excavator, and builder. And, though they all assured us that they could do the job, had we taken more care in hiring these contractors, many problems could have been avoided.

The basement, for example, did not get dug and built by the time our house was ready for us. In fact, because our excavator went to work somewhere else, it wasn’t even started. Then the state of Wisconsin threw us a curve by announcing a “road ban” on heavy trucks and equipment, a phenomenon common to the northern states when the spring thaw causes paved roads to heave and turns unpaved ones to quagmires.

The house mover, however, did come through by finding a vacant lot on which to rest the building for the following six weeks. And we had another piece of good luck: The structure, even on its trailer, was still two feet lower than our area’s power and phone lines. (If utility lines have to be raised or taken down to make way for a house, it can cost the owner dearly, sometimes thousands of dollars!)

The road ban came and went, and as we drove by our pink house on our way to work, we were struck with feelings of deja vu. It was beginning to seem too much like our unfinished log home project. There it sat and here we sat. Further on into the spring, the back porch began to sag noticeably, since the mover’s crew had failed to put supporting blocks under it. “Don’t worry,” the mover assured us. “It’ll go back together.” It didn’t.

Mid-June came before we were able to nag the excavator into working on our place. When he began, an additional problem arose. Only two feet below the ground’s surface, the bulldozer ran into another Wisconsin phenomenon: solid granite. Two weeks, 20 sticks of dynamite, and $600 later, enough of a hole was blasted in the rock to allow for footings. (There are still several outcroppings of rock in our basement, which we call conversation pieces.)

By that time, the house had to be moved off its vacant lot to make room for county highway equipment. Obviously, the basement wasn’t going to be built fast enough to suit the county, so the house had to be moved onto our land, where it would be reset on blocks to await the completion of its new foundation.

The Big Move

Moving day came none too soon for us! Though the house was only three miles from our property, we had to follow a moving route six miles out of the way to avoid unusually low power lines and narrow bridges. Nevertheless, it was a proud day when our parade headed down the highway: the police escort …the boys and I in our car …then Craig and the mover in his car …and, finally, the truck pulling Big Pink, which attracted its share of incredulous stares from oncoming motorists! As you can imagine, I breathed a sigh of relief when I watched the truck and house making the final turn into our meadow.

Unfortunately, during the ride the chimney (which the moving crew promised us would be disassembled before the move) had broken loose and fallen through the living room ceiling. Our feelings of elation at finally bringing Big Pink home quickly turned into despair when we saw the pile of broken bricks, insulation, ceiling tiles, and glass. Worse still, under the whole pile of debris lay two oak doors with etched windows, which Craig had put on the floor for safekeeping during the trip!

The basement was constructed in July without too much more ado, even though our plan called for it to extend under both 9′ x 12′ porches, as well as under a 12′ x 20′ solarium that we’d eventually build. “Eleven corners!” the basement contractor exclaimed. “This place has 11 corners!” Apparently, cracking block to fit corners is not a mason’s favorite job, but in spite of heat, horseflies, and 11 corners, the crew built a fine basement.

At the end of August, the house was moved yet again, to its final resting place, and throughout the fall we were to a race with winter to make the place habitable. The interior mess had to be cleaned up and a new chimney built. A cap had to be put over the basement addition until we could afford to finish the solar room. Electricity had to be hooked up and a phone line run in. Stairs and doors had to be built, a well drilled, and some sort of septic system installed.

A Manageable Mortgage

During this entire moving process, it had been my job to secure financing — not an easy proposition in a community of 1,500 people. It was a little scary to owe contractors more than $6,000 and to have no loan secured, even though I’d been working on the problem since March. That odyssey took me through one savings and loan association (twice), one mortgage company, and one state-financed home loan program. Finally, in October, we settled on a $12,000 loan on a 15-year-note at 13% interest from a local bank. Our payments are just $150 a month, less than the average car payment or monthly rent.

We moved into Big Pink on November 1st ten months after purchasing the house. We still had no water or septic tank, but we’d been living that way for nearly eight years, and at least the move increased our living space. By the middle of December we had our well, so water was only a few feet from the back door rather than a six-mile truck ride away.

You may not be able to get blood out of a turnip, but we discovered that you can get water out of granite, although it may cost a small fortune. Contrary to popular opinion, granite is laced with a network of groundwater cracks and crevices, but hitting one with a drill is another matter. Our well driller pounded down through 163 feet of bedrock — at $20 a foot! — without finding more than a trickle. Fortunately, he used a technique called hydrofracturing, which actually lifts the rock with the pressure of the water being forced down the well shaft. That pressure also forces open new cracks in the rock, which allow for a better water flow into the well. To our amazement, it worked! We now have a well which produces four crystal clear gallons a minute, but the bill was nearly double the amount we had budgeted, adding further to our cash crunch. [EDITOR’S NOTE: For information on how to save money on well drilling, see Can You Drill Your Own Well?]

The final obstacle, waste disposal, remains to be solved. As of now, it’s the old outhouse routine. We have plans for building a composting toilet, but to satisfy state codes and to keep the bank happy we still have to have a septic system or holding tank installed by a licensed master plumber. (Wisconsin is often heralded as an environmentally progressive state, but composting systems are not yet recognized here as legal primary-waste disposal methods.) To cut costs, we opted for a holding tank along with our composter, but that project is waiting, as usual, for the contractor to do the work.

All in all, it’s been a long haul, but the effort has been worthwhile despite the work that still lies ahead. We still have to repair the living room ceiling, rebuild the torn-apart back porch, finish the solar room, and landscape the grounds. The house also needs to be resided. (Goodbye, pink!) And we’re still dealing with the mover over the damages to the house that could have been avoided had his crew followed instructions.

So far we’ve found that the costs for this house-moving operations tally up as follows:

House $551
Mover 3,500
Basement 3,500
Lumber and Insulation 200
Excavating and blasting 1,600
Well 4,300
Culvert for driveway 300
Holding tank 1,800
Permits 63
Total $15,814 

Nowadays, that’s not a bad price to pass for a roomy, comfortable house. Even with the original cost of our land figured in, it comes to $25,000 —still well below the median price of a home today. And even without improvement our dwelling has been appraised at substantially more than our original investment.

Things to Keep in Mind

Anyone deciding to move a house should keep a few things in mind in order to pre vent a moneysaving route to home ownership from turning into an expensive boondoggle. First, it’s essential to have several thousand dollars in seed capital, since the house will usually have to be paid for in advance and the mover will generally want half his or her fee “up front.” If any utility lines have to be moved, that cost must also be paidin advance. In fact, according to several couples we’ve known who have also recycled houses, it would be reasonable to expect to pay a minimum of $10,000 to get a house from its original site to yours.

You should also be prepared to do a lot of work yourself. House moving is not for the homeowner who’s afraid to wield a hammer! And, before signing any contracts for moving, excavation, plumbing, or anything else that must be hired out, ask around about the most reputable contractors and get in writing, if possible, who is liable for any damages that might occur. (That also prevents the contractor from sending you a bill that’s much much higher than the estimate.) However, even with the best of help, delays can occur, so it pays to be flexible.

As I write this, snow is piled high around the outside of a bright pink house glowing against its woodsy background. Smoke curls up from the chimney. Nuthatches, chickadees, and finches flit the short distance from the woods to the feeding stations. Inside, our family rests warm and cozy, a little smug knowing that in these days of 30-year mortgages on $70,000 houses, we have joined the ranks of homeowners in a most unconventional way!

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