Need to Relocate? Bring The House, Too

Tonny Luong for The Wall Street Journal

Dao Engle, some neighbors and a handful of local kite-boarders stood on a sand dune on Pocomo Head along Nantucket Harbor this past June and watched nervously as her 10,000 square-foot home, which had been separated from its foundation and placed on a series of steel moving rails, began its very slow, very short trip to safety.

After seven years of planning and four months of preparation, En Fin, as the house is named, was at last fleeing the fast-eroding bluff that was on its way to undermining its foundation.

“They’d move the house 5 feet, then check it. Then they’d move it 10 feet and check it again,” Mrs. Engle said. “It was definitely nerve wracking.”

For 40 years, En Fin’s gabled roof and massive size have made it a landmark for sailors like Mrs. Engle and her husband, who first saw the home from the water.

“It made an impression,” Mrs. Engle said.

En Fin, a 10,000-square-foot home on Pocomo Head in Nantucket, Mass., is being moved away from a sandy bluff that is eroding and threatens to undermine its foundation.

En Fin, a 10,000-square-foot home on Pocomo Head in Nantucket, Mass., is being moved away from a sandy bluff that is eroding and threatens to undermine its foundation.

Tony Luong for The Wall Street Journal

In August of 2012, the Engles, who are investors and real-estate developers, purchased the home for $8.4 million from Nicki Nichols Gamble, former Planned Parenthood executive and widow of Procter & Gamble heir Richard Gamble. The home was endangered by the eroding edge of the bluff, which was 25 feet from the home at the time of purchase. The need to relocate or replace the enormous structure was baked into the price, which was very low for a luxury home on seven waterfront acres on Nantucket. Initially, the Engles thought they’d replace it.

The Engles installed a fence at the base of the bluff to slow further erosion, but they knew they couldn’t stop it. After living in the home for four summers, the family decided to relocate it rather than tear it down and start over: the total cost to move, including the cost of disconnecting utilities, the fee to clear the site and move the house, and the price of concrete used in the process, was approximately $1.6 million. Estimates on a rebuild alone in 2017 was $1,000 a square foot, not including the cost to demolish En Fin and remove the debris.

“We were realizing that it’s a secondary home for us,” said Mrs. Engle, whose primary residence is in Palm Beach, Florida. “Maybe it doesn’t need to be perfect. We could tweak it.” As part of the move, the Engles are building a finished basement, adding about 6,500 square feet, two more bedrooms, a home theater, and a gym. That work will bring the all-in cost for the move and upgrade to an estimated $4 million.

By some measures, En Fin may be the largest home moved on the Cape and Islands, an area particularly subject to coastal erosion. In 2013, a 8,300-square-foot home belonging to Richard and Jennifer Schifter was moved 275 feet from a bluff on Martha’s Vineyard.

 The home is prepped for the move by the moving contractors Toscana Corp., who installed wooden cribbing and steel beams, which were punched through the original foundation.

The home is prepped for the move by the moving contractors Toscana Corp., who installed wooden cribbing and steel beams, which were punched through the original foundation.

Tony Luong for The Wall Street Journal

More than 8,000 structures are moved each year, due to development, environmental hazards and historic preservation, according to Tammie DeVooght Blaney, executive director of the International Association of Structural Movers. Industry leaders estimate that high-end, single-family homes at 4,000 square feet or greater account for about only a dozen of these moves annually.

The distance a house, especially a very large one, can travel by dolly on a roadway is often limited by street width as well as electric power lines, natural surroundings (like hillsides, sharply curving roads and trees) and other existing structures, according to Ms. DeVooght Blaney. For this reason, large single-family homes can only be moved back from an eroding coastline if there’s room to maneuver. Unlike their east coast counterparts, luxury homes along California’s eroding beaches, in communities like Laguna Beach and Malibu, are frequently built close to the lot lines on all sides, so owners often have little choice but to stand their ground and fight for shoreline improvements like sea walls.

Because of this, the majority of West Coast luxury house moving occurs in the booming Seattle market, where structural movers Nickel Bros relocate homes by barge. When Nickel Bros identify a house that the owners are planning to demolish, they present an alternative to the owners—the company will find a buyer and sell the house for a cost that will include its removal, transportation, and delivery. The current owner does not pay for any of the home removal costs, but there could be additional costs involved on site, so owners generally save around 80% of the cost of demolition, the company says.

The view underneath the home.

The view underneath the home.

Tony Luong for The Wall Street Journal

Nickel Bros are involved in the sale and relocation of around 300 structures in the Pacific Northwest and Canada every year. Owners, says Nick Carpenter, the company’s sales manager, are further motivated to move a home rather than destroy it because of sentimental attachment or an aversion to creating waste. The company recently moved a 7,000-square-foot manse because the plot owners had raised their children in the house and couldn’t bring themselves to demolish it before rebuilding.

If a home move is logistically possible, the owners then have to weigh the cost of relocation against the costs of demolition and new construction, which vary by region.

“The more logistical issues involved in the move, the greater the costs, the more you need to prove the value of the house,” according to John Clegg, president of the Texas Association of Structural Movers. “Ninety-five percent of people who reach out to us don’t do the move. It’s just too expensive.”

Flooding is also becoming a major factor in home moves, according to Jerry Matyiko, who has been moving houses (plus airport terminals, lighthouses and more) for 50 years as the co-owner and president of Expert House Movers. He says that flood-related moves often occur after a house has already taken some water damage. This means that states’ Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant money and National Flood Insurance Program claims can factor into budgetary decisions.

“FEMA gives three options if you have a water problem: tear the house down, move it, or lift it,” according to Ms. DeVooght Blaney. “If you can’t move your home and you’re in a flood plain, FEMA funds a grant for acquisition and demolition, but you can never rebuild on that property again.”

FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program caps its structural reimbursement at approximately $250,000, and that’s not enough to rebuild a home over 4,000 square feet. (Supplemental insurance often proves cost-prohibitive for many homeowners.) For some owners, this may tip the scales in favor of a move for a larger home—but hidden costs and complications may make the investment a wash.

For many homeowners, the best option is to hire a structural mover to simply lift the house up onto stilts or pilings and hope rising waters stay lower than the first floor.

En Fin half-way through its move. Remnants of the original foundation are in the foreground.

En Fin half-way through its move. Remnants of the original foundation are in the foreground.

Tony Luong for The Wall Street Journal

Once the Engles decided to relocate En Fin, they worked with Nantucket architect Chip Webster, who in turn used local surveyors to select a new location for the home 80 feet to the north, then 60 feet to the east of its historic location. They also hired Scott O’Connor of O’Connor Custom Builders to be the project’s general contractor. His work would include all internal and external renovations at the new site.

Structural moving and excavation firm Toscana Corporation moved the house to its new location. Toscana founder Carl Jelleme says he’s worked on about half of the house moves on Nantucket since his first structural move in 1981, which was when house moving started becoming more common on the island.

After clearing the overgrown lot and charting the home’s path, the Toscana crew erected wooden cribbing that would support the weight of the home and the steel support girders once it was removed from its foundation. Then, the crew punched through the basement walls, creating space to slide the lattice of steel beams that would support the house. Beneath these beams, the crew installed 32 unified hydraulic jacks.

Invented by Chicago-based structural mover Pete Friesen in 1955, the unified hydraulic jacking system is what allows such large structures to be moved “with pristine precision,” Ms. DeVooght Blaney said.

Because the Engles’ house only had a short distance to travel, the crew put the house on 16 cribs and 16 skates—rolling fixtures designed to grip and glide down a series of steel rails. (If the distance had been farther, the house would have traveled on large, two-axle dollies, as the Schifter house did.) Two excavators, attached via cables to the steel bracing under the house, pulled the massive structure along its track.

The move took place over a week, and involved a dozen people. It will take another couple of months for the home to be secured on its new foundation. In addition to building out the new basement, the Engles also had stabilization fences constructed on the face of the bluff, which seems to be slowing down erosion.

“By fixing the problem and redoing the space, we have effectively doubled the value of the home versus what we bought it for,” Mrs. Engle said, relieved that the long journey of 140 feet is over. The Engles hope to be back in the home by next summer.

“Ultimately, this move has been a no-brainer for us,” Mrs. Engle said. “We’d like to be here for the next 100 years.”

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Source: Housing Trends Feed