It’s daunting enough to move all your belongings from one house to another, but what about moving the house itself, too?
Amazingly, people do it all the time, for a variety of reasons. “A lot of people, they want to build a new house, and the old existing house is in the way. But they save money by giving it away to somebody else,’’ said Jim Paveglio, owner of Geddes Building Mover in Bow, N.H. “That other person pays for the move, and then they get a new house as long as they have a lot to put it on.’’
“I’ve seen so many different reasons, and it seems like every year you hear a couple more,’’ said Mike Brovont, lead project estimator at Wolfe House & Building Movers in Pennsylvania.
Historic preservation is a common theme, he said, with historic societies or old-home lovers relocating antique houses to save them from demolition. Moving an old house farther back from the road is a common motivator, too. “Back in the 1800s, early 1900s,’’ he said, “the road out front was originally just a horse and carriage path, and now it’s a very busy two- or four-lane road.’’
And increasingly, as climate change has brought rising sea levels and more severe storms, homeowners are simply moving their houses upward — to higher ground on the same lot or onto a new foundation or pilings that elevate it above the floodplain.
While these companies pair hard work and hydraulics to perform seemingly impossible feats of physics, they are nonetheless limited by more tedious realities — such as stoplights and geography, especially in the hilly and densely settled Northeast.
Just as Storrow Drive is no place for moving trucks, there’s no squeezing a two-story house under a typical overpass, for example, and overhead obstacles — from electric wires to trees to traffic lights — can make longer moves impractical or impossible. (That’s one reason a couple in Newfoundland, Canada, moved an old home slated for demolition not by land, but by sea — floating it across the Bay of Islands in 2021.)
Utility companies often can disconnect power lines and cables temporarily, or even move telephone poles, but at a cost that adds up quickly. And most communities, understandably, won’t allow you to maul the landscape just so you can cram your house through a tight intersection. “When you have trees that are encroaching the roadway, you can usually limb them, but you can’t start removing stone walls and trees,’’ Paveglio said.
The entire move path generally needs to be almost as wide as the house, Brovont said, and any bridges crossed need to be rated to handle the weight of the house plus the moving equipment.
Add it all up, and your dream of moving a free or cheap Midwestern Victorian to a plot of land outside Boston may have to remain a fantasy. Most real-world house moves, especially in the Northeast, are extremely local. “Occasionally we’ll go down the road a quarter mile, half a mile, and very, very rarely, more than a mile,’’ he said.
How it works
So how does one lift and transport an entire building? The goal is to get the structure supported on a temporary and movable foundation of steel beams.
To do that, the moving company will first excavate around — and punch holes through — the foundation, so they can slide a grid of sturdy steel beams underneath the house. A series of cross beams run side to side, while the main beams run end to end beneath them.
In a typical house, Brovont said, “the floor system spreads the weight out to the center beam and to the exterior walls,’’ so those are the crucial load-bearing points that need to be supported. But after years of settling, houses are rarely as perfectly level as a steel beam. So at each point where a steel beam meets the base of the home — every 8 feet or so for a “stick-built’’ (wood-frame) structure, or every 4 feet for a heavier brick or masonry house — the crew uses heavy-duty wood shims to close any gaps and ensure a snug fit between beam and house.
Then, workers build “cribbing’’ piles beneath the beams: 4-foot-long oak or hemlock timbers stacked Lincoln Log-style for support. Inside those crib piles, hydraulic jacks are placed under the beams, linked to a unified jacking system that can distribute different amounts of pressure to each jack, depending on the weight above it, so everything rises at precisely the same rate. “Say you have a jack under a deck, and then you have a jack underneath the fireplace,’’ Paveglio explained, the latter being much, much heavier. “If you weren’t using a unified system, that deck would just rip off the house.’’
The first inch off the foundation takes the longest, Paveglio said, but then things can move fairly quickly. As the house is raised, more support cribbing is added, and then the jacks are swapped out for hydraulic dollies. Once the weight of the building rests on the dollies, Brovont said, “then we just remove those crib piles and drive away.’’ The dollies can be self-propelled and controlled remotely or switched into “coaster mode,’’ so the whole assembly can be hauled by a truck.
The steel platform is now a temporary, secure, and mobile foundation for the house. Once it’s time to move, Brovont said, “It’s just a matter of making sure that framework doesn’t rack from corner to corner.’’ It’s OK if a house tips from side to side or from end to end, he explained — as it goes down a hill, for example. “You just don’t ever want to rack it from corner to corner, that’s what’s going to cause cracking inside.’’
Surprisingly, you don’t always want a nice, flat new foundation waiting to welcome the house at its new location, since the old home may not be perfectly level. So in many cases, a contractor will pour only foundation footers — a sturdy base on which the rest of the foundation will sit — before the house arrives. “Then we’ll roll the building in place over the footers and get it lifted to wherever it needs to be,’’ Brovont said. “And then they’ll come in and lay the foundation up off of the footers right up underneath the building.’’
Preparing for a move
Building movers do just (and only) that, so you’ll usually want to hire a general contractor who can manage the many other moving parts. That includes site preparation, demolition, foundation work, and finishing touches.
“Somebody else needs to disconnect all the utilities ahead of time,’’ Brovont said, including water, sewer, gas, and electric service. The basement should be clear for crews to work in, and furnaces and water heaters should be removed.
Anything that’s not coming along for the ride, such as an old deck or garage, should be demolished and removed before the building movers arrive. And at the new site, “Somebody else has to install the foundation, somebody else has to hook all the utilities back up, do the backfilling, the landscaping, any steps, decks,’’ Brovont said.
But aside from clearing the basement, you can actually leave all your furniture in place. If there are particularly steep hills on the route, Brovont recommends that people put rubber bands on their kitchen cabinets and lay expensive grandfather clocks and the like on the floor. But otherwise, it’s a slow and gentle affair.
“People will put a golf ball on the mantel, or a full cup of water on the table or something like that, as a challenge — and in general, it stays just fine,’’ he said.
How much does it cost?
As you can imagine, safely raising a house off its longtime foundation and setting it down elsewhere does not come cheap, and the cost varies dramatically by the size and composition of the home and where it needs to go. There also are myriad costs besides the actual move, from pouring a new foundation to permits. But it’s still generally less expensive than building a new house.
“A small frame house should be able to be moved for less than six figures,’’ Brovont said, including utility hookups and foundation work. “But then you get up into the masonry buildings, and you’re getting into six figures, and some of the big ones are even in the sevens.’’
Location plays a big role as well, Paveglio said. “In New Hampshire, you can jack up a home, put it back down on a new foundation, carpentry done and everything, for less than $100,000. Whereas in Massachusetts, it might be $150,000 to $200,000.’’
Last-minute changes can add to the price tag, too. Customers have realized they want certain rooms facing the other direction and have asked Paveglio to spin the home around — after it has been set down on its new foundation.
“And we’ve done that,’’ Paveglio said. “If you’re willing to write another check? We can do anything.’’
Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.