Need a Lift? House Raising Is a Niche Business - 27 East

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Need a Lift? House Raising Is a Niche Business

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A lifted house in Sag Harbor Village. LORI HAWKINS

A lifted house in Sag Harbor Village. LORI HAWKINS

A lifted house in Sag Harbor Village. LORI HAWKINS

A lifted house in Sag Harbor Village. LORI HAWKINS

A lifted house in Sag Harbor Village. LORI HAWKINS

A lifted house in Sag Harbor Village. LORI HAWKINS

A lifted house in Sag Harbor Village. LORI HAWKINS

A lifted house in Sag Harbor Village. LORI HAWKINS

A lifted house in Sag Harbor Village. LORI HAWKINS

A lifted house in Sag Harbor Village. LORI HAWKINS

Brendan J. O’Reilly on Nov 21, 2023

Elevation, rehabilitation and preservation are a few of the reasons why a homeowner might seek the services of Davis Building Movers.

While conventional wisdom dictates that razing a house and building new is the cheaper path forward for a homeowner who wants more space or a substantial renovation, that is not always the case, and in many situations, it’s not a feasible possibility given modern code and zoning restrictions.

Over the course of his career, Guy Davis, a fourth-generation house mover and the proprietor of Davis Building Movers, has seen every reason there is to lift a house. Of late, he’s observed a spate of lifts of historic homes in Sag Harbor Village, where the lots are often small and restrictive. House lifting opens up possibilities while retaining grandfathered building heights and setbacks, making it an attractive option for homeowners or real estate investors.

Davis Building Movers has done numerous notable moves on the East End, including the relocation in 2007 of four timber-frame buildings from the oceanfront de Menil estate to Pantigo Road, where they now make up East Hampton Town Hall, and the relocation of the Big Duck on two occasions, between Hampton Bays and Flanders.

Another memorable move happened after the blizzard of 1995 washed away the Davis Park Casino; Davis Park itself, on Fire Island, is named for Davis’s family

The replacement building was built on Davis’s steel on the Patchogue River — it would have taken three times longer to build on site, Davis said — and moved across the Great South Bay.

“They built the whole structure soup to nuts, tables, chairs, carpet, everything in it, and I put it on a barge,” Davis recalled. “The building was 60 by 80. We floated it across Great South Bay to Davis Park. The pilings were ready to receive us. We set it on the pilings, they plugged in the electric and they were ready to go.”

Davis grew up in the Bayport-Blue Point area, where the company has had its yard — where millions of pounds of steel beams are kept — since 1890. He now lives in Sag Harbor at the Watchcase and previously lived in Westhampton Beach.

Davis Building Movers works from one end of Long Island to the other, but recently had four projects going on simultaneously in Sag Harbor Village: one each on Madison and Division streets and two on South Main Street. And Davis said work has been steady in Sag Harbor for the last few years.

He generally has between 20 and 30 lift jobs in progress at any time, and he said very rarely are there two in the same village. “We will go from Montauk all the way out to Long Beach, and usually it’s just one or two in each town,” he said.

The only other time he’s had multiple homes lifted in the same neighborhood all at one time was right after Superstorm Sandy, he said, when many homes on the South Shore of western Long Island were raised four to five feet higher after they were flooded.

“The few years after Hurricane Sandy, we raised about 2,000 homes just because of flooding alone,” Davis said.

That was under a federal program that offered homeowners subsidies to bring homes up to a new height conforming with Federal Emergency Management Agency rules.

“We have to lift the house to be FEMA compliant, which then in turn lowers the premiums for the homeowners’ flood insurance,” Davis said.

Lifting a house can save thousands of dollars annually in insurance costs, he noted, which means that the cost of lifting a house can pay for itself over time — “plus it will never flood again.”

In other cases, a beach house might be moved upland, away from the shore, in response to erosion and the threat of nor’easters. This often happens on Fire Island, the South Shore and the East End, Davis said,

“We’ll lift a home, we’ll move it back 50 or 60 feet from the shore, and then we set it on new pilings or whatever type of foundation that they want,” he said.

In the case of the four homes in Sag Harbor, each was lifted so new basements can be built.

“A lot of the standard basements now are nine to 10 feet deep,” Davis said. “This gives people room to make an accessory bedroom or a gym. Some people put in wine cellars. You get all that square footage underground. You’re typically not taxed for underground for a new basement or underground square footage, which is nice. A lot of people are not going with the eight-foot basement anymore because by the time you put in ductwork and steel beams, you cut the headroom down to seven.”

Most of his lifting and moving jobs don’t move far at all. A client may want to have a house lifted to replace an aging foundation and crawl space with a habitable basement, and then set the house back down exactly where it was before. Or the house could be moved over just a bit on the same property to accommodate an addition.

Often, homeowners must retain an existing structure because it is landmarked or in a historic district, and while they can add a basement or an addition, they are not permitted to knock the house down and start fresh. And if they do lift a home to excavate for a basement, the house must be placed back at the exact height it was before.

But not every home Davis Building Movers lifts is subject to historic preservation. Sometimes, the homeowners want to keep a house regardless of what other options are available to them.

“Last year, we moved a 15,000-square-foot house over in North Haven, and that house on Robertson Drive was only about 10 or 15 years old,” Davis said. “It was a mansion, and we moved it on the property to a new location.”

The owner is now building a new 33,000-square-foot house on the water.

“We move old, new. It doesn’t matter,” Davis said.

Fifteen-thousand square feet is on the large side of the homes Davis typically moves, although the company has done houses larger than 20,000 square feet. The heaviest building was 550 tons.

“There’s different parameters of weights and sizes, whether it be brick cement block, wood frame, stone,” he said, explaining that weight calculations are done from experience. “I could drive up to a house and I could say that that house weighs about 150 tons. And then once we actually jack it — we have gauges on all of our jacks — I’ll know exactly what it weighs. And I’m usually within a few tons either way.”

Lifting a house, regardless of whether it is preserved or not, also has the benefit of taking advantage of what are known as preexisting, nonconforming conditions. These structures predate zoning and could not be built today.

“These houses that we’re lifting, say in Sag Harbor Village, they have very tight side yards,” Davis said. “So there’s something to be said about preexisting, nonconforming usage.”

If someone were to demolish a nonconforming home, the replacement home would be subject to the latest setbacks, which would lead to a smaller house, much farther back from the road, he explained. “But if we’re taking an existing house that’s say two or three foot off the side property line, we can maintain that setback because we’re doing it more as a renovation. So that’s really the key to why people are raising some of these older homes and then rehabbing.”

It’s usually a six-week process to go through the stages of lifting, digging, pouring the foundation, letting the foundation cure, getting the inspections done, backfilling, the carpentry and letting the house back down, according to Davis.

How To Lift a House

 

As challenging as house moving sounds, to Davis, it has become second nature.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 5 years old in the family business,” he said.

Each property is assessed for feasibility before agreeing to a lift, but it is rarely out of the question.

“There are very few houses that we’ve ever walked away from or said couldn’t be done,” Davis said. “There’s usually a way to figure it out and safely lift it so that the structure is lifted with all its integrity. Some of these old buildings we’re doing in Sag [Harbor] Village, they’re from the 1800s — old ship captain’s homes — and some of them are in pretty rough shape, but we hold them together. We brace them really well, and we definitely are super, super careful with what we do. We don’t have a lot of room for any type of error.”

Davis Building Movers has just four employees.

“We’re a small company,” Davis said. “We travel in a small group. House moving is very technical, and safety is the main concern. So we’re not running multiple crews. I like to be hands-on with my men and my crews, and we just go from one job to the next.”

He says that lifting is the easiest part of the job and fairly simple, done with a synchronized lifting machine run by one person.

“The bulk of the work is getting it prepped, putting all the steel beams in place, putting all the shoring points in place and setting all the jacks,” he said. “And then lift day is an easy day to do.”

It takes five to six days of preparation and less than a day to do the lift.

“It’s called the unified jacking system,” he said. “It was invented in the late 1960s, and the beauty of this system is it’s hydraulically run. And when you put all the hoses to all the jacks, no matter what the weight is, no matter what the pressure is, this unified jacking system will lift the structure evenly and level without any stress. So it’s not like you’re jacking a little in one corner and a little on another. You could lift the whole house simultaneously. Whether you have two tons of weight in one corner and 20 tons of weight in another corner. So that’s the beauty of that machine.”

He noted that the technology has been “reinvented a few times. And upgraded.”

“Prior to that, Everything was done by hand with hand jacks or with old screw jacks, mechanical lifts,” he said. “So the invention of the unified jacking system certainly changed our industry as a whole.”

Crews were 15-people strong back then.

To move homes down a road, his crew uses self-propelled hydraulic dollies. “There’s certain technological advances in our industry that make things a lot easier,” Davis said.

The company also moves structures by barges on water. “We used to move houses from Freeport all the way out to Westhampton back in the day,” he said.

He said house moving is the type of specialty that gets handed down from generation to generation.

“If you’re not born into this type of trade, it’s hard to start from scratch,” he said. “… I had maybe 30 years of apprenticeship to get to a point where I could be doing this without my dad or my uncle. It takes a long time to learn all the ins and outs and the tricks of how to safely lift the house. During Sandy, of course — we call them storm chasers — there were about 15 companies that came to Long Island, and it didn’t go well at all for a lot of these homeowners. A lot of their houses were damaged. They were just pop-ups and they just came for the money grab.”

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