(© Susan Wiggs)

Last year two old pals, Rita Lucey and B. Michael Cook, got a wonderful gift: Friends offered them an Avalon, N.J., beach cottage that was in the path of their new home construction. They also threw in $20,000, about what demolition would have cost, to help get it off the lot.

The three-bedroom, two-bath ranch-style house was 30 years old, with plenty of life left. It was solid, pest-free and equipped with a nearly new roof, furnace and air conditioner. Its living room had a peaked cathedral ceiling.

"It was a very generous opportunity from our friends," says Lucey, 47. When she and Cook, 44, hired house movers to take it to a nearby town, they joined a passionate group of people who are saving homes from the wrecking ball's path -- and getting a bargain in the process.

A successful move
People call house movers for many reasons -- to save a historical treasure, to rescue a house from floods, to fiddle with the placement of an expensive home on its lot or just to lift a building long enough to put a basement or foundation under it. As with Lucey and Cook's home, when a house is in the path of construction, owners sometimes give it away. They're saved the demolition cost and spared the sight of a good home destroyed.

What's your home worth?

At first, Lucey and Cook wanted to move the house to a nearby Jersey Shore community. But they found that lots were running as high as $300,000 -- way too much. So they switched gears and decided to become partners in making the house a rental property.  

They hired Jerry L. Davis, an Ocean View, N.J., house-moving expert, who guided them as they researched land costs and moving expenses within a 30-mile radius. Construction of their friends' new home was about to begin, so the partners had to move fast and learn a lot in a hurry. Lucey became an avid researcher, comparing costs, rules and building codes for each town they considered. She solicited bids, competing bids and still more bids for each facet of the operation.

Even so, there were a million surprises. Who knew that some towns require a reconditioned house to meet the same building codes as new construction? That would have meant installing new bedroom windows for fire exits. Some towns demand testing for asbestos and lead. All this research went into a spreadsheet, the bible on which they based their decision.

The partners quickly grasped the rules by which experts such as Jeff McCord of Nickel Bros. in Seattle live. "Within certain limits -- mostly distance and overhead objects -- almost any structure can be moved," McCord says. "It's just a matter of determining at what point it retains value enough to justify it being moved."
Slide show: Houses on the move

Lucey and Cook settled on a $33,800 lot in Laurel Lake, N.J., a rural village of mostly fishing shacks, trailers and vacation cottages that has recently begun attracting new development and -- most important -- tenants. Davis says that, unlike some sites the partners considered, the roads to the Laurel Lake lot were straight and wide enough for him to deliver the 1,200-square-foot house. To satisfy local codes, they added hard-wired smoke- and carbon-monoxide detectors and enough new insulation to reach an R-19 rating.

Davis charged about $23,500 to obtain permits, disconnect the sewer, gas and electric lines, dismantle the air conditioner and recapture its Freon, hoist the house onto a flatbed truck, temporarily flatten the peaked roof and haul the house to the new location. As far as house moves go, it was pretty straightforward -- no need to move traffic lights or wires. He left Avalon with the house at about 9 a.m. and got it to the new site at around 3:30 p.m.

With no time to empty the cottage, Davis moved it fully furnished. "Not one thing broke," Lucey says. "Not even a light fixture."

Risk pays off
Lucey admits to initially feeling a bit intimidated by the whole process. Neither partner had real-estate or construction experience -- just adventurous spirits and some expert friends to advise them. "I'm not rolling in the dough," says Lucey, a clinical nurse specialist in cardiology in Wilmington, Del. "Taking money I'm saving for my future and investing it in anything is a little scary."

But Lucey and Cook were unusually smart and hard-working, and the $20,000 gift was a big help in making the project pencil out: They estimate they spent an additional $84,000 -- on moving, land, permits and reconditioning -- bringing the total cost of the reclamation to about $104,000. With nearby properties similar to theirs selling for the mid-$160,000s, they're feeling pleased about the investment even before rental income is figured in. (They are just wrapping up getting their free house ready for occupants.)

It's unusual to come out ahead financially moving a house on the East Coast, says Steve Dziuba, of Dziuba Building Movers in Millerton, Pa. Not only is land pricey, Dziuba says, but "you're lucky if you can move a house more than a few blocks" through the thicket of buildings, signs, wires and traffic on the Eastern Seaboard.

Bargain hunters have a better chance in less densely populated areas in the Midwest and West, Dziuba says. There, movers sometimes haul homes hundreds of miles.

Making moves pay
To get a rough idea of costs, at least in the Pacific Northwest, see Nickel Bros.' list of houses available for purchase and moving in northwestern Washington and southwestern British Columbia. The company’s prices cover preparation, dismantling chimneys, loading, trucking, insurance, temporarily lifting or lowering utility lines, recycling waste and, in some cases, barging the house. The home-plus-moving packages range from $32,000 to more than $200,000.

Professionals such as Nickel Bros. can help customers decide if moving a particular home makes economic sense. "As far as I know, every state has at least one house mover," says McCord. The International Association of Structural Movers lists members' contact information on its Web site.

"What we find in general is that our customers spend 60% to 70% of the cost of building a new home," not including the land, McCord says. His most-efficient customers get it done for about half the cost.

Experts say the keys to bargain reclamation are:

  • Cheap land: Moving and rehabbing the house aren't cheap but it's the land prices that push many dream projects into the market-rate range. That's fine with many homeowners who measure a bargain in other ways --- old-home quality with a brand-new foundation or a finished, high-ceiling daylight basement that effectively doubles the home's living area. Typically, a recycled home becomes functional in a few months, much faster than new construction.
  • Logistics: Your dream lot at the end of a wooded, windy road may be inaccessible for a 60-foot-long, 30-foot-wide rolling house-truck combination. The best locations are mostly flat and reached by wide roads free of overhead obstructions such as power lines, trees, bridges and traffic signals, some of which can be moved aside, but at a cost.
  • Discipline: Home rehabbers are vulnerable to seduction by magazine-style kitchens, baths and other improvements, driving up the final price of the reclamation. Lucey and Cook's hard-driving discipline kept them under budget; they doggedly researched every expenditure. But price wasn't their only consideration. Davis, for example, wasn't the cheapest contractor, but he was deeply expert and trustworthy -- factors "worth every penny" Lucey says.
  • Sweat equity: Bargain-hunters pare their cost of getting the house in shape on its new site by tackling the jobs they can do themselves. Lucey and Cook spent many hours, alone and with friends, cleaning, spackling, grouting and painting. They built a stone sidewalk and two decks and added landscaping, a lawn and interior trim.