Can You Handle a Free Historic Home?

Updated at: 03/12/2014 11:39 AM
By: Networx

A stunning relocated Queen Anne mansion. Photo: Doug Berman/FlickrIt's a deal that sounds too good to be true: a beautiful historic home offered for free or for a very low price to anyone who's willing to move it, usually by a developer or organization that needs to use a lot, but doesn't want to tear down the historic structure occupying it. This Queen Anne in Riverside, California is a great example: with five bedrooms and four baths, it retains much of the original woodwork, including elaborate and stunning architectural accents. It's a breathtaking showpiece, and the city needs someone to take it so the lot can be used.

If you're tempted to throw everything over and pick up an amazing free historic home, there are similar listings all over the country as developers aquire lots and need them cleared for various uses. Local newspapers can be a good resource for leads, as can organizations that focus on historic conservation and preservation. But before you take the plunge, ask yourself: are you ready for a free house? Because these gorgeous homes aren't really free.


Some come with very specific caveats. For example, you may not be allowed to take the home apart for recycling purposes; the very thought might seem terrible to you, but some firms specialize in dismantling historic homes and selling them for parts, providing a supply of historic details to people restoring other buildings or interested in adding character to new ones. The terms of the deal may also require keeping the home within city limits or adhering to other restrictions. Make sure you know what you're getting into before you take the offer.

Finding a New Place to Call Home...and Moving Your New Home

If you accept a free house, you need to find a new location for it. New lots can be expensive, especially in areas that are being rapidly developed, and the closer the lot is, the less complicated the move, creating an active incentive to keep close to the original locale. Buying a lot for your free house can cost as little as $50,000...or a whole lot more, depending on where you are.

Then you'll have to hire a specialty house moving company. These firms have unique skills allowing them to handle fragile historic homes in a process that can be quite expensive. It can cost you between $12-$16 per square foot, with costs rising rapidly for every complicating factor you add in. You'll also need to prepare a new foundation, hire plumbers and electricians to handle new hookups, and work with other technical experts to get the house settled in place.

About That Restoration

Most free homes are free for a reason: they need extensive work. While they may be absolutely beautiful, they could need months or years of remodeling to get them up to scratch, and during a large part of that period, the house might be totally uninhabitable. Want a glimpse of what it's like to restore a historic home almost from scratch? Check out Casa Decrepit, which documents the process in painstaking detail. Whether you hire a Philadelphia remodeling firm with restoration experience, do it all yourself, or work somewhere in-between, it's going to be very expensive.

When you assess a house, don't get caught up in the gorgeous architectural details. Consider the condition of the roofing and flooring, the amount of rot, mild, mildew, and other damage, and issues like how much reconditioning and repainting you'll need to do. You may need to do asbestos mitigation, remove old materials from the home, and rebuild substantial components. All that adds up.

A relocated historic home can be turned into a gem, but it's a serious commitment. Make sure you're completely ready before you start, because projects abandoned halfway through can be very hard to sell.

Katie Marks writes for Networx.com.

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