Second Hand House: A personal story of reviving a ‘forever home’

The Blueberry Cottage could have been demolished. Instead it brought reporter Rae Anne Guenther’s family new life.

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In the wake of the abrupt end of my marriage, I found myself a single mother of two young children with a property I couldn’t afford to maintain by myself—your modern-day divorce story.

But this story comes with an unusual twist. Because my property was uniquely (and oddly) divided into three separate sections, I was able to subdivide and sell off a chunk to pay down my debts. My fairytale ending became a vacant lot to start a new sequel for my family.

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We needed a home quickly and one that was inexpensive, so I decided to explore house moving. 

I called around to every house moving company on the island and let them know I was looking for a small, three-bedroom home with that old-character charm. Over the phone, one mover said there was a cottage not listed yet that would be ready to be moved in the new year.

“It’s called the Blueberry Cottage in town,” he said. “It’s been used as a vacation rental for the last decade and has quite the charm.” 

As we spoke, I stumbled to find my laptop to Google search the rental. As quickly as the page loaded I knew in my heart: this is it. He kept chatting away, but I didn’t retain a single word.

I’m not sure if it was the weathered blue cedar shingles or the coziness of the living room layout, but this cottage felt like home. Before even viewing the house or signing a contract, I would fall asleep at night envisioning the kids running through the rooms playing. This house would be my family’s new beginning—a new place filled with love and laughter instead of loss and grief.  

Likely the first image I saw of theBlueberry Cottage from the Airbnb website, showing a blue shingled cottage with flowers in the window and a sign that reads Blueberry Cottage.
Likely the first image I saw of the Blueberry Cottage from the Airbnb website after I heard about it from the house moving company. Photo by Maureen Hansen Crowder

What is house moving?

House moving is exactly how it sounds—a house that is moved from one place to another. But the act of house moving is anything but simple. The house is lifted off its foundation using a series of jacks, rested on steel or wood beams (or both) and then craned onto a truck. 

Once the house is transported to its new location, it is craned off the truck, supports are built underneath and it’s carefully lowered onto the blocks to rest while the new foundation is built directly underneath. 

After the foundation is complete, the house and beams are lowered together until the house is securely on the foundation and the beams are then removed. The house needs to be placed on a four-foot crawlspace or basement foundation.

The cottage is shown at 2 a.m. being lifted with equipment.
My home during the move at 2 a.m. on March 2021. Photo by Rae-Anne Guenther

What kind of houses can be moved?

“When we evaluate houses to be moved, we first look at, is it movable?” says Jim Connelly, manager of sales at Nickel Bros. The company has been moving buildings since 1956 and has offices in B.C. and Washington state. They also lift houses, move commercial and industrial buildings and advertise houses waiting to be moved. 

“The other day, I looked at a four thousand square foot house that was built in 1991. Beautiful house, but not movable.”

For a house to be deemed movable, it must be structurally sound and have a way to get out of its current location. “You don’t want a home that has been pieced together over the years,” says Connelly. “We look for well-made buildings that are going to have a long lifespan in their new place.” 

Typically, if a house has had several major additions, the quality and method of building can vary greatly and affect the integrity of the building.

For example, my house had three expansions over the years, resulting in the roof trusses being built completely differently in two sections of the house. As a result, the home had to have extensive truss support added to make it safe to move. 

Connelly says once you reach 1980s home construction, that is when you start seeing the decline of quality construction. “You know, houses in the ‘80s and ‘90s were quickly built for sale, but not built forever like a lot of the ones you see from the 1940s and the ‘50s.” 

These older homes are usually made of better quality lumber and don’t contain plastics or harmful chemicals such as laminates or asbestos. 

Over the years, structural companies have been successful in working with municipalities to have “moved-on” houses considered “existing buildings,” which means they don’t have to be extensively retrofitted to meet current building code requirements.

My house’s pre-existing structure is grandfathered in—I don’t need to be ripping out walls to reinsulate them—but anything built new, like the foundation, has to meet current code regulations. 

A black and white image shows the Blueberry Cottage  as photographed in the 1940s or 1950s.
The Blueberry Cottage, photographed in the 1940s or 1950s. Photo courtesy of Betty Annand

A home full of stories: The Blueberry Cottage

My moved-on home is one of those older, built forever homes. Nicknamed the Blueberry Cottage at its previous location in downtown Courtenay, the 100-year-old, 900-square-foot home comes with a lot of stories. 

Used as a vacation rental for the last 12 years, the house became a well-known place for expectant couples to stay who were from smaller neighbouring communities without access to a nearby hospital. This house has seen over thirty births in those years—it literally is a home of new life. 

Way before becoming a vacation rental, in 1930, newlyweds Hugh and Flora Strachan bought the Blueberry Cottage where it stood on the corner of Fitzgerald Avenue and Third Street in Courtenay and raised their twelve children there. 

The cottage has the original inlay fir floors, built-in kitchen cabinets, and claw foot tub. The quality of these materials is shown by their longevity and strength almost a hundred years later. 

The house is framed with old-growth lumber and shiplap sheathing (horizontal planks commonly used between a home’s frame and exterior before the advent of plywood) that continues to strengthen with age.

It has good bones and character that can’t be easily replicated today. 

The previous owners wanted to build their retirement home on the lot but didn’t want to see the Blueberry Cottage’s rich history be torn down so they contacted Pridy Bros. House Moving, a structural moving company based in Courtenay, to relocate the house. 

(When homeowners contact a house mover to remove a building from their property, companies will often market that house to the public. When looking at houses available for purchase, the listed cost usually includes the building and the local move.)  

The true cost of demolition

The City of Nanaimo has issued demolition permits for 45 single-family dwellings and two-family dwellings since January 2020, according to a representative from the city. 

In 2019, the City of Victoria and surrounding municipalities issued 211 permits to demolish single-family homes, according to federal statistics. Province-wide that figure was close to 2,700. More than 600 demolition permits were issued by the City of Vancouver.

To put these numbers in perspective, University of British Columbia professor Joe Damen and data analyst Jens von Bergmann created the Teardown Index, which shows that about 37 per cent of single-family homes in Vancouver were demolished between 1985 to 2015.  

As the value of land continues to skyrocket, developers are looking to tear down more single-family homes in order to build denser and bigger. 

Nickel Bros relocates up to 300 houses a year throughout British Columbia, which Connelly has said accounts for 21,000 tonnes of construction materials diverted from landfills.  

Waste from construction and demolition accounts for roughly a third of all waste in Vancouver landfills. To mitigate this, in 2014 the city implemented a Green Demolition Bylaw that ensures at least 75 per cent of the materials from homes built pre-1950 are recycled. For those with character house status, 90 per cent of materials must be recycled.    

As an alternative, a growing number of deconstruction and salvage companies aim to divert up to 95 per cent of waste from landfills, as outlined by the Capital Daily. One company says they divert around 50 tonnes of building materials per house—about 10 tonnes of which is lumber. 

How much demolition and construction waste goes into Nanaimo landfills?

In 2020, 147 tonnes of construction and demolition (CD) waste was dumped in the Regional District of Nanaimo’s (RDN) landfill due to the bans on certain building materials (with fees for non-compliance). 

“These bans on cardboard, metal, wood, and drywall are considered to be effective policy mechanisms to drive diversion in the commercial and industrial and CD sectors,” says Travis Tanner, special projects coordinator with the RDN.

(In a recent solid waste management plan, the RDN admitted “there are examples of where the high tipping fees have failed to result in diversion.”) 

The RDN is currently in the consultation phase for the adoption of two additional bylaws to incentivize the diversion of recyclable and compostable materials from landfills by reducing disposal fees for loads that are free from banned materials, says Tanner. They hope this will boost diversion by 10 per cent.

Demolishing vs. house moving

As hard as demolition is on our landfills, it is also hard on the wallet. Connelly says if homeowners give the company adequate notice and they are able to move the house from one lot to another, compared to storing it first, the removal costs are minimal and much less than demolish costs. 

The average cost of tearing down a home is anywhere between $25,000 and $50,000, though if any asbestos or hazardous materials are found, that number quickly multiplies. For any demolition or moved building, a hazardous materials report needs to be conducted. 

“Half of them are clean and half of them will have some asbestos. If you were to demolish that house it has to be completely taken out properly and that gets extremely expensive,” says Connelly. “Removing the tape, the glue – it’s time-consuming too.” 

However, for a moved-on building, there is more flexibility around materials – for example, if the floors in the kitchen have asbestos glue adhere to them, the house can be moved as-is, with the recognition that the floors are not to be ripped up or if they are, that proper removal needs to be done. 

The Regional District of Nanaimo requires all moved-on buildings to be at least 100 per cent or greater value than neighboring dwellings within 100 metres. This rule was put in place to ensure the neighborhood keeps its value, though it can also prevent the opportunity of quality homes being moved. 

For example, if someone was trying to move a character rancher into a subdivision with newly built 3,000-square-foot custom homes, the heritage home, although beautiful and high-quality, would not be equal in value due to its age and size.

With options out there, why are people still choosing to demolish? 

“I just had a four-thousand-square-foot waterfront house that they decided to demolish rather than move, because they’ve got money to spend and moving seemed like too much trouble,” says Connelly. “Or sometimes, the timeline is too short for us to move the house out of there because they are not doing their due diligence and contacting us with enough notice.” 

Luckily, the previous owners of the Blueberry Cottage gave almost a year’s notice about their plans and the home was able to be relocated.

House moving vs. building new

Before building costs skyrocketed with lumber prices well over doubling in price, I was quoted between $300 to $400 per square foot to build new. 

Even with my plans of building a quaint one-thousand-square-foot home, those quotes were way higher than my budget allowed, so the cheaper cost of a recycled home was the deciding factor. Originally I had considered building a tiny home on the property, however, with the lack of regulations, I decided against it.

Related: Locals choose tiny house living despite legal uncertainty

“A moved-on home will range from $70 to $100 a square foot generally,” says Connelly. According to the Nickel Bros website, houses are priced modestly around $70,000 for a one-thousand-square-foot home to $120,000 or higher for larger, character homes on Vancouver Island. 

Those prices don’t factor in foundation costs and utility hook-ups once the house is moved. Though the listed price includes local delivery, the route can add additional costs.     

For instance, even though my home is a single storey, the roof makes the house almost 20 feet high and moving from downtown Courtenay to Nanaimo meant there were a lot of low-hanging power lines to be moved. 

After receiving a quote of at least $35,000 to move hydro lines, I took the cheaper option of cutting the roof and moving the home in two sections. The top peak of the roof was cut off and transported separately, then craned back onto the house once it reached its new location and reattached. It was quite the process, but financially worth the time spent. 

Roof sections to be moved separately after house has been moved. The roof of the Blueberry Cottage is loaded on a trailer.
The roof sections of the Blueberry Cottage had to be moved separately after the house. Photo by Maureen Hansen Crowder

With the faster turnaround time of a moved-on house, our family lived in an RV for just a few months before moving into our home. 

Unlike a new build, a pre-existing home can come with more quirks and lead you down a rabbit hole of renovations ideas and costs. 

One of the many quirks of the Blueberry Cottage was a closed-off wall in the middle of the house where the chimney used to be. The walls were so badly warped and uneven it took a lot of cursing and time to figure out how to align it all to create a built-in shelf. 

If you are handy, you can renovate your home relatively cheaply and do the work at your own pace. I poured concrete countertops over the original fir cabinetry, ripped up the kitchen linoleum to get down to the original hardwood, and built a wood stove hearth in the living room. 

From my perspective, house moving is a century-old practice that could be one solution to our modern housing crisis while diverting waste from landfills. On a smaller scale, for me, recycling a home has not only been a financially smart decision, but it has brought my family immense healing during this difficult time. The Blueberry Cottage truly brought new life to myself and my boys.  [end]

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