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    An 18′ by 22′ garage apartment is detached from its base and moved through South Austin’s Bouldin Creek neighborhood to its future home in the Ridgetop neighborhood two miles away. - photo by Leonid Furmansky

House relocation offers numerous benefits to our communities and environment.

Adapted from House Relocation: A Practical Guide for Austin, Texas by architect Sarah Gamble in collaboration with The ReUse People Austin’s Kathy Robinson and with support from Preservation Austin

In the US, house relocation has been around for centuries, evolving alongside the tools, machinery, technology, and techniques used in the practice. It is an unpredictable and sometimes intimidating process that demands a great deal of planning and preparation. Today, a number of new tools—such as heavy-duty hydraulic jacks, robotic legs, dollies, and unified jacking machines—can be used to move even more complex structures over longer distances and more challenging routes. Outside of moving manufactured, modular, and other portable structures, some may not know this practice exists, how it is executed, or its benefits, which include maintaining market-rate affordable housing, diverting waste from landfills, and preserving the neighborhood fabric of cities. As cities grow, so will their infrastructure, and rather than demolishing historic structures to clear the way for new roads, railways, or other expansions and public development, relocating them is preferred.  

An increasing number of single and multifamily housing demolitions contribute to affordable housing issues and gentrification as property values escalate. To avoid rising property values and new construction costs, homebuyers might choose to relocate an existing house to where land is more available, less expensive, and has fewer development restrictions. Some houses located in areas susceptible to consistent flooding need to be moved to safer areas conducive to the longevity of the structure. Relocation is inherently more sustainable than new construction in that it reduces resources and fuel typically used in the production and transport of building materials—lowering carbon dioxide emissions—while diverting construction and demolition (C&D) waste from landfills; studies show close to 25 percent of landfill waste generated globally is from C&D.

To ensure a successful move, four primary entities should be involved: a house mover, project manager, general contractor, and licensed design professional(s). Drawing from the educational guide House Relocation: A Practical Guide for Austin, Texas, authored by architect Sarah Gamble and written after completing a relocation of her own, there are six steps to consider when relocating a house. As there are various ways to move houses depending on their size, shape, and structure, this article will focus only on wood-framed, pier-and-beam, single-family homes, which is the most common type of house to be relocated in Central Texas. The following steps involved in this process were written specifically for the city of Austin but are meant to provide general guidance and may vary between projects based on destination, reason(s) for moving the home, and the permitting process of the particular city.

STEP 1. Site Analysis 

A building relocation permit is required to gain approval from the city to move a house, requiring a site plan of the destination. This site plan will be analyzed to determine the destination’s buildable area, which will help inform what house size and shape to select. A similar site analysis of the origin site will be needed upon identifying a house for relocation. 

STEP 2. House Search 

A number of resources for finding a house are available. House moving companies will often trade homes for their relocation services and/or purchase homes for resale, and will list available homes on their website, online marketplaces, and social media. The Texas Association of Structural Movers (TASM) provides an online member directory for prospective buyers searching for potential house movers. Printed media and word-of-mouth are also useful sources. It also pays for the buyer to be proactive. Preservation societies can be a valuable resource if sought out. Speaking with neighbors and involvement with neighborhood associations or HOAs can also provide potential leads. Even reaching out to developers active at the origin and destination locations can help put one’s finger on the pulse of house availability. After a house is selected, a site analysis of the origin is conducted to determine if relocation is feasible, aiding in the planning of vehicle and equipment maneuverability around existing elements on the site. A site plan of the origin site can also be produced as a benefit towards the planning of the project, though not required for permit applications. 

STEP 3. House Purchase, Project Planning, and Permitting 

Upon selection of a house, it is advisable to establish an agreement transferring ownership of the property between the house seller and house buyer before defining responsibilities for each party. The seller’s responsibilities revolve around the origin location and include applying for the relocation permit, inspections, the site plan and analysis, and site work. The buyer’s responsibilities revolve around the destination location and include obtaining a new construction permit, contracting with a house mover, the site plan and analysis, and getting any other needed approvals for construction. As project demands may vary, so can these responsibilities. If the house is relocated within city limits, unaltered portions of the house are grandfathered, exempting it from needing to meet current building codes. Houses will need to meet current building codes if relocating outside city limits, repairing damaged elements during transport, and adding/renovating elements at the destination location. The seller sets the timeline for the house to be removed from their site so they can begin development. Because of this, carefully planning the schedule is important to ensure relocation can be achieved on time. The preparation of stamped architectural/engineering drawings for permitting can be time-consuming and costly, and the wait time for the city’s review and approval can be significant in certain jurisdictions. To save time, the buyer can pay the extra fee for an expedited plan review. 

STEP 4. Site Preparation 

Prior to relocating a house, all the existing utility accounts must be closed before utilities are disconnected and capped by licensed professionals. A final inspection of utility disconnections will be conducted by the city as part of the relocation permit process. Removal of landscape elements, fencing, HVAC equipment, personal belongings, building skirting, etc., must be completed to allow necessary vehicles and equipment to access and maneuver the house on site before leaving the property. Elements not being relocated can be demolished or preferably recycled.

STEP 5. Relocation 

Upon receiving a permit, the house moving company can then begin preparing the house for relocation. A house’s size, shape, structure, and destination can have a direct impact on costs, labor, number of trips, and time needed. The physical process of utilizing steel rails to lift and support the house can take up to a few days, depending on the complexity of the house structure and site. The house moving company must apply for a house moving permit from the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV works with TxDOT to propose a transportation route—from origin site to destination site—for the house mover’s physical inspection and approval. TxDOT then approves the route for 30 days, and the DMV issues the house moving permit which is valid for 7 days. In some jurisdictions, a separate house moving permit might be required if moving a house through city streets. If the house moving permit expires before the move, a new permit application must be submitted. Tree trimming, removal of potential obstructions, police escorts, and other preventative and remedial work can all be arranged prior to the move by the buyer or house mover. At the destination site, the house mover can communicate the route and schedule of the move with the neighboring community. The house can arrive at any time of day and will remain on steel supports until its new foundation is ready to be built upon.

The garage apartment is pulled onto the property alongside the existing main house. The apartment is lifted into place and a new garage built below, followed by an interior renovation and new entry stair. – photo by Leonid Furmansky

STEP 6. Project Wrap-Up 

Final inspections at the origin site will confirm the house was moved and existing connections were handled accordingly, while the new construction permit and all associated inspections will guide all site work at the destination site. After the new foundation is built, the house is then lowered onto the new supports while the temporary steel supports are removed, concluding the house mover’s scope of work and continuing the work of the project manager and contractor.

Efforts are being made to position the house relocation process as an even more economically viable and sustainable alternative to demolition while making the process much easier to navigate. Some houses are being designed in a manner that facilitates their disassembly, relocation, and reassembly much more easily. This practice, known as Design for Disassembly (DfD), prioritizes the circular economy of keeping materials, products, systems, and services in circulation (at their highest value) to the greatest extent possible, minimizing C&D waste. Clarifying the house relocation process for the public could help spur interest and encourage more people to consider this as an option, further bolstering the industry. Changes to city policies, such as reducing the costs for relocation permitting and expedited plan review, could also prove beneficial. The City of Austin passed a resolution last year (Resolution No. 20231102-024) expounding on the benefits of the practice and promoting strategies for improvement. Although moving houses to avoid demolition can still represent a loss for a city’s collective history and character, the benefits—economic, sustainable, cultural, or historic—far outweigh the negatives as relocation efforts can help save these historic structures from being doomed for the dozers.  

Nnaemeka Mozie, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at Perkins&Will in Dallas.

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