Hurricane Sandy and its flooding increased demand for many services, including building restoration and insurance adjusting.
The business where that nearly instant demand has most outstripped local supply is almost certainly house lifting — raising homes to escape future flooding and meet federal flood-insurance requirements.
Steven Hauck, owner of SJ Hauck House Movers in Egg Harbor Township, said the storm turned his business around in a day, from struggling through the downturn to the busiest he has been in his whole career.
“The demand is extraordinary, and we hope by next month to be lifting eight houses a month,” Hauck, 51, of Somers Point, said. “Before the storm, we’d lift maybe six or eight a year.”
He said he has two crews lifting houses and will soon add to his 14 employees to help handle demand.
David Leonetti, owner of LBI House Raising-David Construction in Beach Haven, has just hired a fourth employee.
“And I have another expert house raiser coming from New York. We’ll be able to split into two crews,” he said.
The handful of house lifters in the region have been swamped with job inquiries, more than they have had time to handle.
Leonetti, 56, of Brant Beach, said he’s getting an average of 20 calls a day. “My wife has fielded since mid-November about 300 calls.”
Hauck said he has a backlog of 300 phone calls to return. “I’m doing the best I can to keep up with them.”
Hauck figures there are thousands of houses in New Jersey that will need to be lifted to qualify for more affordable rates under the federal National Flood Insur-ance Program.
“The word I’m getting is that if they don’t lift the house to the required flood elevation, the insurance will cost $5,000 to $6,000 a year, whereas it will cost $500 to $600 if they do,” he said.
Even before the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was updating the house elevations required to minimize future flood damage and decrease the cost of flood insurance.
In mid-December, FEMA released advisory maps for Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties, as well as others in New Jersey, containing recommended building elevations for each zone.
Leonetti said the new maps raise the required elevations 2 to 4 feet in some cases, especially in areas such as Little Egg Harbor Township.
“For a lot of houses, I’m talking people into going higher so you can have a drive-thru in the future,” he said. “You’ve got to go 6½ feet anyway for the FEMA requirement, so I say just go another foot and you’ve got a low-ceiling garage underneath.”
Leonetti said house lifting after the storm is starting slowly, because the required permits aren’t coming quickly from municipalities and many homeowners are waiting for settlements and financing.
The work of lifting a house is fairly straightforward, although hard and heavy. Each job is engineered either by the house lifters, in most cases, or by a structural engineer if the job is more complicated.
First crews go into the crawl space and unscrew the anchor bolts holding the house to the foundation, and disconnect wiring and piping as needed. With some crawl spaces just 16 inches tall, that can be very uncomfortable work, Hauck said.
Steel I-beams are then inserted under the house. A hydraulic jacking system is placed under the I-beams and used to lift the house a little above where it will sit on the new or increased foundation.
The house and I-beams are then set on square towers of wooden beams called crib stacks while the foundation work is completed. Then the house is lowered onto the foundation and all connections are restored.
The cost of raising a house ranges from $15,000 to $35,000, depending on the size of the house and complications involved, Hauck said.
Leonetti said his firm, unlike almost all other house lifters, is also a construction company and so typically handles jobs where the two are combined.
His contracts are in the $45,000 to $50,000 range and include the foundation work, footings, pit filling, engineering work and utility adjustments, he said.
House lifters in New Jersey must have a state contractor’s license, but Hauck and Leonetti both said the most difficult requirement is the costly insurance for raising houses.
Before the storm, Hauck sometimes wondered if the business was worth the cost. “Insurance makes it very expensive to lift houses, and now it’s finally paying off.”
Hauck said that soon after the storm, he asked the International Association of Structural Movers for guidance on such things as handling the phone calls and dealing with FEMA after a widespread flooding event.
“We get advice and help from the same house movers that dealt with New Orleans and the Hurricane Katrina flooding,” he said.
He said some fellow members of that organization from Louisiana are getting ready to deploy in New Jersey to help handle the demand for house lifting in the next couple of years.
Gene Brymer, staff executive for the association and editor of Structural Mover Magazine, said experienced house movers aren’t the only ones headed for Sandy-flooded areas.
“You’ll get a bunch of people coming into the area representing themselves as longtime house movers or structural companies. They’ll tell clients they’ll do the job but they need the money up front,” Brymer said. “In many cases, the money and people will never been seen again.”
He said homeowners should ask to see the license of the structural moving company and confirm that it has insurance and uses a unified jacking system.
“When Katrina hit in New Orleans, tons of companies that had never been in the house moving or lifting business took people’s money and never did the work,” Brymer said.
Such scams are possible, he said, because there will be so much lifting to be done. After Katrina, there were 38,000 houses that needed to be elevated to a minimum of 12 feet.
Hauck said his crews are finishing a few jobs in Margate before starting house lifts in Brigantine, Ocean City and Ventnor.
Leonetti said he is working with an engineer to develop a FEMA-approved system to put piling — required in some flood-insurance zones — under lifted houses without having to move them out of the way.
“People can’t move their houses in some locations. I’ve met with local officials about it, because otherwise you’d have big equipment in the streets moving houses all the time, first 4 feet one way, then 4 feet another,” he said.
Leonetti said he, like other contractors, wished permits didn’t take as long, but in one case he’s very grateful the paperwork was delayed.
“I had one house I was supposed to raise the week before the storm, and the building department hung me up on a technicality,” he said. “That saved the day, because the house was right off the bay and in 5 feet of water, and I would have lost all my equipment.”
“I was very fortunate. All my insurance company would have to hear is that I had a house float off my crib stacks,” he said.
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