Is it really smart to move an old house rather than build a new house?
February 4, 2013 9:20 PM   Subscribe

So I've read multiple times about folks moving historic houses from their original locations to new locations. Is this a good idea financially?

Assume I know nothing about real estate and houses and land. To me, it seems incredibly silly to move a old structure down the road and reassemble it elsewhere, but I've heard regularly about barns and houses moved, sometimes considerable distances. Is it cheaper? Or is it just to keep the "real estate" cred of having a house built long long ago? Why not just build a replica and skip the lopsided door frames and warped floors? I imagine it's a huge pain in the ass, but so is building a house. Any insight is helpful.
posted by Grandysaur to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: As an example (that I totally failed to add to my original post):
"The Prokopis live in a historic, plantation-style house called Serenola. Built in 1935...they loaded the house onto flatbeds and moved it a mile down the road to nine acres that they owned, and then restored it themselves, foundation to roof, adding a Viking stove and a fifty-thousand-gallon saltwater pool."

From this Mefi post about this article.
posted by Grandysaur at 9:24 PM on February 4, 2013

It's not "real estate cred", it's actually appreciating the building for what it is, even if it isn't specifically historic (i.e. famous person slept here).

Take my house. It's from 1931. To actually build this house, three-row brick, all-wood trim, textured-plaster walls, every exterior window with stained-glass insets, would cost almost three times what the house is worth on the open market.

Also, regarding lopsided door frames and warped floors: in new construction, you're only avoiding those problems for a few years. The quality of building materials today is such that most new homes are built to outlast the ten-year warranty, and then it's anyone's guess.

(One exception to this: insulation and temperature control.)
posted by notsnot at 9:27 PM on February 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Not building something is almost always cheaper than building something.

It's obviously a good enough idea financially to sustain an industry of house-moving. It's fairly common in Australia - generally old wooden farm-type houses.
posted by pompomtom at 9:27 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Historic houses are often moved to save them from destruction, and are sold for pocket change. Here's one you can buy for $1.
posted by Knappster at 9:40 PM on February 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Depending on the house or structure, something older can be so much more solid than something new. I am just fascinated by old barns and houses, not because they are just old but because some of them are nearly bomb-proof.

The house in ruins built in the summer of 1900 right next to the house I grew up in is still more or less standing with zero maintenance since around 1931. It is just a frame house built of old-growth oak and sided in cypress. When I was little in the late 1970s, part of the chimney crumbled, so the walls began to split apart, but the walls themselves are still intact, just peeled back like a banana. Even with the extra exposure, there they are.

The barn on another part of the property has completely fallen in and the boards and beams long sold off for decoration, but you wouldn't ever know there was a barn there from 15 feet away, the floor built of oak beams on granite and limestone cornerstones is completely invisible - buried under a couple of feet of loam and dirt. When you dig through it there is the wood still suspended 2 feet above the ground level, just like the day it was built. That would never happen with new pine and fir, much less with mdf or composite I-beams.

So my fascination is with the relative permanence of the materials. The log house that my dad built next to the ruined house is solid, but the pine and fir takes much more maintenance than the old frame house ever did. The windows on the log house have already been replaced once since 1978. The windows on the ruin, while the glass and leading are long-gone, could still be refinished although very weathered. The profiles of the moldings are still visible and fairly clean. I've seen nice new wood left out for two or three seasons not look as good as the wood on that house.
posted by Tchad at 9:51 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think part of it is the cachet that comes from just owning a historic house, but the economics tend to be a bit more complex and these things generally are moved for reasons other than someone just wanting a historic house in a different location. Most examples of house-moving that I know of are similar to what Knappster links to, where the property the house was originally on has been bought in order to develop it, but the developers are not allowed to destroy the building for whatever reason, so they'll basically give it to anyone who's willing to move it since that will allow them to develop the property however they want. If that's the case, it may well be cheaper. I don't know of anyone who's set out with the intention of buying a historic property at retail value, and then moving the house to a new location for whatever reason aside from the fantastically wealthy who are treating such buildings as a sort of art collection, like when Hearst raided European castles and monasteries for elements to import and put into San Simeon.

There's one park in San Diego that's entirely devoted to preserving old houses that were rescued from demolition.
posted by LionIndex at 10:07 PM on February 4, 2013

There are several docu-reality-television-shows devoted to or regularly touching on this: Haulin' House, Mega Movers, Monster Moves/Mega Moves/Huge Moves/Impossible Moves
posted by XMLicious at 10:43 PM on February 4, 2013

The type of construction might be a factor.

I grew up in a flat part of the US (my state's highest "mountain" is 500 feet above sea level) with a high water table, which is prone to flooding and swampy conditions. Basements don't really exist, and a lot of older homes are built several feet above ground on pilings.

Possibly because of this, or possibly for totally different reasons, many historic homes are only one story tall (sometimes with a small upper garret type area called a "garconniere") and have a relatively simple footprint.

Because of that, it's very much within the realm of possibility to move a building. People do it all the time, if the building is desirable enough and there's a reason to do it (say, that pesky flooding and swampy ground I was talking about).

Meanwhile, if you're talking about a house in New England with a basement built into rocky soil that freezes in cold winters, and ground that potentially isn't level, that's a totally different story.
posted by Sara C. at 10:50 PM on February 4, 2013

Yup, the article in question is talking about Florida. It's probably as I suspected -- houses built in swampy low-lying areas are not that difficult to move, and sometimes need to be moved for preservation reasons.

Also, people in the south fricking LOVE plantation style homes and will do all kinds of insane things to preserve the mystique of the antebellum period. For example, the idea that a home built in 1935 is "historic" and would even have the label "plantation style" applied to it is a symptom of this bizarre obsession we southerners have with A Certain Kind Of History.
posted by Sara C. at 10:54 PM on February 4, 2013

Sara C., it's worth noting that historic designation eligibility begins at 50 years. Obviously, prewar isn't the same thing as antebellum.
posted by dhartung at 12:10 AM on February 5, 2013

I'm not saying "omg how dare they think their house is cool" or whatever, but in other parts of the country, a home built in the 1930's would be considered comparatively new.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to move an old building to a new site. There's nothing wrong with historical preservation organizations designating a home that's barely old enough to be considered antique a "historic place*". There's nothing terribly wrong with southerners' fascination with antebellum architectural styles. It's just that the whole phenomenon that Grandysaur is asking about is a particular quirk of southern life. Pretending it's not idiosyncratic would be strange.

*My assumption is that the reason the home in question is on the Register is that something significant happened there, or it was built or owned by a significant person. Not simply because of age.
posted by Sara C. at 12:29 AM on February 5, 2013

The Devil Queen is a blog about just that. They bought a Queen Anne victorian for cheap, moved it. It was not a success story.

Take heart. Anything you do will most likely work out better. Because it can't really work out worse...
posted by wrm at 2:43 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is it cheaper?

I think a piece of the discussion that's been overlooked is the cost of land. In many instances, the land that a house is located on can be significantly more expensive than the house itself, e.g., in downtown areas or areas experiencing rapid growth. Just because a property is listed for $1 million doesn't mean that the improvements, as such, are worth anything near that.

This also explains some of the supply issues. A property owner may find that they've got an old house on a piece of property that they'd much rather use for something else, either a new house or some kind of non-residential building. What do you do with the old house? Well, you either tear it down* or you let someone else take it away.

So if you can get a bargain on purchasing the house because someone doesn't want it, it might well prove to be significantly cheaper to move that house to a cheaper, nearby lot than to build a new structure on that lot. There are a lot of vacant, construction-ready lots that sell for the low five figures. That would let you spend upwards of $100,000 to relocate and restore an existing house before you even start to get close to the cost of building a new one.

*Which is the right thing to do in many instances. Just because a house is old doesn't mean it's "historic" or worth bothering to save. Crappy construction methods are not unique to modern, mass-production builders, and people have been trying to save money by cutting corners ever since there have been corners to cut. Also, if maintenance has been poor, it could be so ravaged by dry rot and termites that the whole thing is unsafe.
posted by valkyryn at 5:12 AM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

valkyryn is more successful at providing the reason I was trying to get at.

Which is the right thing to do in many instances. Just because a house is old doesn't mean it's "historic" or worth bothering to save. Crappy construction methods are not unique to modern, mass-production builders, and people have been trying to save money by cutting corners ever since there have been corners to cut. Also, if maintenance has been poor, it could be so ravaged by dry rot and termites that the whole thing is unsafe.

Sure, but most places that have been moved that I'm aware of happened because the developer had to move the building to be able do anything on the property.
posted by LionIndex at 6:30 AM on February 5, 2013

In Cambridge, MA. MIT was forced to move an entire triple decker house a few blocks away, and then to place it in the new location at the same magnetic orientation because the occupant claimed he could not move from the house because of his physical and psychic connection to the structure. He was a self proclaimed master of Electric Kung Fu.

All in all MIT Moved a house because it was cheaper for them to do so than to fight the rent-control protected tenant.
posted by Gungho at 7:24 AM on February 5, 2013

My grandparents home was built from a historic hotel they tore down in 1947.

I won't go into too much detail but there isn't a sheet of plywood in the entire structure. Even the roof is ship lap boards supported by true (larger than todays measurements) 2x4 oak rafters and such.

Sentimentality aside, a house like that today... it would cost a fortune if you could even build it at all.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:56 AM on February 5, 2013

As a lover of old homes (and currently the owner of my third home over 100 years old), sometimes too it comes down to the simple fact that people just really love an old house, or see potential in it. Maybe they can't afford the house where it is, but can afford cheaper land and to move a house onto it. Some of use love lobsided doors and uneven floors, and the personality (and work) that comes with buying an older house.

Finances aren't the only consideration when buying an older house but just as a reference the last old house I bought 160 year old stone cottage, I paid $60K for renovated for about $50K and sold for $280K two years ago, after a bidding war broke out on it (average house price on the street was $150K) an older house doesn't have to be a financial loss. Remember there are theoretically infinite number of new houses available but by their very nature a limited number of "old" houses, supply and demand can work in your favour.
posted by wwax at 8:30 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

A property owner may find that they've got an old house on a piece of property that they'd much rather use for something else, either a new house or some kind of non-residential building.

This is another good point.

My grandparents' house is built in what used to be a low-density mostly residential/small-farming rural area. Sixty years later, the area is now evolving towards industrial use as farming declines, nearby industries develop, and the next generation of residents would rather live in town. The house is not "historic", though it is on the old-ish side. It also has sentimental value, because it's the house my dad grew up in, where I spent a lot of time as a child. This particular house isn't conducive to moving for a lot of reasons, but if it were, hell yes I would pay to have my grandparents' house moved to a lot in a residential area. I could probably even offset the cost of doing so by selling the lot it's currently on.
posted by Sara C. at 9:00 AM on February 5, 2013

Is this a good idea financially?

In my experience,* emphatically not.

*18th century house, disassembled by old-house expert in New England, purchased and trucked to The Midwest, then re-built with new mechanicals and insulation and roof on purchased land.
posted by minervous at 10:28 AM on February 5, 2013

There is a company in Ottawa that will take old building away for a fee less then the cost of demolition, store them at their storage lot, and then sell them off to people looking for a building. They took away a (to my eyes) craptastic tiny post-war house (one of those 1.5 story victory houses, clad in vinyl) just down the street from me a couple years ago. According to the newspaper interview with the company, they have a lot of customers for these things. Here are some past houses they have moved . Here is another company. The third one down is very similar to the one that used to be in my neighbourhood.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:32 AM on February 5, 2013

For some folks they just love an old house, for whatever reasons and things being equal, they'd rather move an old structure than build a new one.

Another thing is that if there's a time factor, it's quite quicker to move an already built home than it is to get permits and build one from scratch.

There are modular-built homes that are 90% built off-site and moved on-site and assembled. Because they are sort of assembly line built, there is a lot of uniformity associated with them, also, because there's no customization (or very little) they have the plans and just crank them out on demand. Most of the modules are built in a huge warehouse, so weather isn't a factor, thus allowing the builder to keep to a time-line. Ditto reducing the theft of materials.

Just another wrinkle.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:57 PM on February 5, 2013

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