Some South Jersey homeowners, wary of higher flood insurance premiums following Hurricane Sandy, have already begun raising their coastal properties. They’re finding the process can be mystifying.
Even as local authorities decipher the potential effect of new federal flood advisory maps, house movers such as Steven Hauck have been inundated with calls.
“We probably have 15 or 20 houses lifted already, and a lot more in the works,” said Hauck, owner of SJ Hauck House Movers in Egg Harbor Township. Based on what he’s seen so far, he said, house movers could be dealing with Sandy-related projects for the next five to 10 years.
New Jersey’s early adoption of preliminary flood-elevation guidelines — the final standards are expected in 2014 — could fundamentally change the landscape of many coastal towns as whole neighborhoods may need to be raised by up to 5 feet. Homeowners who resist the changes face sharp insurance premium hikes.
“They’re creating almost a panic, and that’s certainly one thing we don’t need,” said Martin Blumberg, an Atlantic City-based architect. “It’s bad enough we had the storm itself.”
Blumberg hasn’t taken on any house-lifting projects himself, but he has consulted with municipal building officials on the changes. They are nearly as confounded as the homeowners who come to them for advice, he said.
“Nobody at this point is sure what the requirements are,” he said. “It makes it a very difficult and sudden change, versus what could have been a more gradual change.”
Many property owners haven’t waited for clarity.
Those who can afford to lift their houses are queuing up with the state’s handful of licensed house movers. The companies have received so many calls that most instruct potential customers to email their information.
Meanwhile, the International Association of Structural Movers, the industry’s trade organization, has warned of a likely influx of unqualified movers. Gene Brymer, the association’s staff executive, said he’s already fielded calls from a number of “fly-by-night” operators looking to cash in on the recent spike in demand.
“I’d be very leery of any house movers coming up and wanting my business,” he said. “Do business with people you know, trust or you can confirm are good and honest.”
The actual process of raising a house is considerably more simple than the policy conundrums facing state and municipal officials, although some shore towns present unique challenges.
Brymer said the first thing any mover will do is size up the building: determine its center of gravity and weight distribution.
As they walk through a home, movers must account for different construction materials — wood-frame structures are lighter than those with brick facades or concrete block — and any additions built after the original construction. In some cases, it may be easier to tear down or move a den or attached shed separately.
“Most are very good at doing the mathematics in their head,” he said. “They’ve done it all their life, so they’ve learned the tricks of the trade.”
That’s why choosing an experienced mover is key, Brymer said. Any miscalculation could result in accidents during the move or significant structural damage.
Established movers are also likely to have the appropriate equipment for the job. Most moves require a unified jacking system.
“You put jacks in the right areas and stress points, and the hydraulic system raises the entire building at the same level and the same time,” he said.
But a unified jacking system can be expensive, particularly for a new company with limited resources. Brymer said eight- or nine-jack systems typically cost about $60,000. A 12-jack system can cost more than $75,000.
In the past two weeks, Brymer said, he’s received five phone calls from companies inquiring about where to purchase these systems so they can enter the house-lifting business.
“When they learn how much it is, they’re not interested,” he said.
Inevitably, some less reputable movers may start lifting homes using a manual system in which each jack must be raised one at a time, as occurred in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
“They try to keep them level as they’re doing it,” Brymer said, but that can prove to be a difficult proposition. “That’s dangerous and does damage to the structure.”
Hauck said the type of house will also determine the type and size of the steel I-beams, cross-beams and wood cribbing that will be placed to support the building as it’s lifted off its foundation.
“Every house is built differently,” he said. “You have to calculate what the loads are and where the beams should be placed.”
For instance, balloon-frame houses, an older style of construction in which single-wall beams run all the way from the roof down to the foundation, are more difficult to move because the walls must be lifted independently from the floor.
The size and shape of the house can also complicate matters, such as a recent Brigantine move in which the home was built on a triangular floor plan, Hauck said.
House moving in shore towns is particularly challenging because many beach houses were built on small lots with very little room for maneuvering of equipment.
“If there’s room to move the house out of the way, to the back or front of the lot, we can put wood pilings in,” he said. But if that’s not possible, movers use helical pilings that can be installed in sections with the house overhead.
Hauck said height requirements that FEMA is expected to pass down will also likely create logistical problems down the road for both homeowners and municipalities.
“One issue we’re running into is: Where are the stairs going to go?” He said. “With houses going so high ... the steps are starting to encroach on setback requirements by the towns.”
As a house mover, Hauck isn’t responsible for resolving those issues, but he said homeowners need to be aware of them.
Blumberg said Gov. Chris Christie may have been premature in his call for the adoption of the new standards, since the consequences of such a move are far-reaching and the maps have not been finalized.
The guidelines, for instance, don’t address the role that dunes and sea walls play in mitigating damage to homes in otherwise vulnerable neighborhoods. Meanwhile, many structures that will need to be raised at great expense to the homeowners suffered minimal damage during the storm.
“If your house was destroyed, fine, you have no choice,” he said. “But if you’re living in a house and there was just a foot or two of water, that becomes a real problem.”
Blumberg said many homeowners will face financial hardship because the rules seem to apply arbitrarily, with no consideration of real-world conditions.
“This is absolutely the worst time to create a real estate calamity,” he said. “People won’t be able to sell their houses, and no one’s going to be able to buy them.”
Hauck said raising a house costs between $16,000 and $40,000, with some complicated jobs costing even more.
“You can get into some delicate brick work that can cost lots of money, over $100,000, and you have to ask, is it worth it?” He said. “It’s not worth it, unless (the house) is historical.”
With so much uncertainty about the FEMA regulations and so much concern over the expense, Hauck said it may be years before all homes come into compliance.
So far, the people who are raising houses are those who can afford to pay for it.
“The ones I lift are out of pocket,” he said. “When people have the money, we’ll lift the house.”
To keep up with demand, Hauck, like many house movers, has had to hire more employees. In recent months, he’s added 10 employees, for a total of 16. He anticipates hiring another six by the end of February.
“We’re probably going to be lifting houses for well over five or 10 years,” he said. “I can’t imagine that everyone that needs their house lifted is going to be able to do it in even the next five years because of finances and all that.”
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