“Seattle real estate is so expensive, even the houses are moving out!”
A small group of neighbors gathered on the shore of their lakefront neighborhood in a Seattle suburb to watch a 35-year resident of their block move away. Packing, in this case, was more complicated than usual, requiring hydraulic lifts, a crane, and a barge. “I house-sat that house,” a woman said, shaking her head, as 2,500 square feet of glass and gray wood inched away from the foundation.
When workers first started cutting the house loose, they found that when it was built, it had been bolted to its foundation far more thoroughly than is normal, with connections every few feet. The original owner was a structural engineer, and “he was making sure it wasn’t going anywhere,” said Dan Wozniak, the general contractor who was hired to build a newer, larger, and more expensive house in this one’s place. Wozniak laughed. “He’d probably be surprised by this.”
A house separated from its foundation is a disorienting sight. This one balanced, at times unsteadily, on beams stacked like Jenga towers atop an enormous trailer. Its usually invisible underside was exposed to the world but connected to nothing: You could see a sheet-metal duct going nowhere and a plastic water pipe, still wrapped in insulation, hanging free.
Peter Teutsch, one of the neighbors who came to watch the spectacle, remembered when this house was built in the early 1980s. Back then, he said, this neighborhood of Kirkland, across Lake Washington from Seattle proper, was known for beach houses, mostly smaller, uninsulated summer places on big lots. “What about now?” I asked him.
“What’s it known for?” he asked, laughing. “Old houses being torn down and new houses being put up.”
Lately, that’s what the whole Seattle area is known for, too. With a booming tech economy driven by Amazon, housing prices in the region are going up faster than anywhere else in the country. Developers are scrambling, both to meet growing demand and to make money. The results are an echo of the trends unfolding across West Coast cities: a runaway increase in homelessness, longtime residents forced to move away or commute painful distances, people mourning the loss of diverse communities. A new hashtag in Seattle is #NoticeofProposedLandUseAction, for lamenting the signs that harbinger yet another demolition.
But demolition permits are where Tawny Davis looks for opportunity. As the regional sales rep for Nickel Bros, her job is to find perfectly good houses that are about to be destroyed and, in the short window while permits are pending, persuade developers to allow her to try to find new destinations for them. (Nickel Bros has been around since the 1950s and used to focus on commercial-building moves; only recently has the economics of house-moving made so much sense.) She then looks for buyers who will pay to relocate a recycled house — usually onto cheaper property.
“I call it mining,” she says. “I’m moving a lot of houses out of Seattle, but not a lot of them are staying here.”
The work offers a strange window into Seattle’s housing market. Davis says people mostly want larger houses but make an exception for Seattle’s iconic wooden Craftsman bungalows. If a house’s location — a proximity to water, an absence of overpasses and overhead lines — allows it to be put on a barge to float away from the city, the options expand dramatically. But if a house can’t leave Seattle, where developers are regularly knocking down one home to replace it with two or with a condo that squeezes to the edge of the lot, then Davis is usually out of luck. (The exception is if a once stand-alone house is small enough to qualify as a larger house’s backyard cottage.) Some people assume the houses Davis offers are flawed, but she says the new reality is that a house on a developable lot is coming down “no matter what condition it’s in.”
Cities are always in a gradual, Borgesian process of replacing themselves — people move in and move away, old buildings make way for new ones. Seattle has to get denser or it will only get more expensive and exclusive. Still, for some residents, the departing houses call to mind all the people who have been likewise driven away from their foundations, unmoored, looking for a more affordable landing place elsewhere. Last spring, when a local blog in West Seattle reported that Nickel Bros was hoping to move six houses out of the neighborhood, a commenter couldn’t help but empathize with the departees: “Seattle real estate is so expensive, even the houses are moving out!”
More neighbors gathered, and finally the gray house wobbled its way onto the waiting barge, workers in fluorescent overalls adjusting the lifts to keep the home level and intact. People pulled up on a speedboat to watch, and a drone filming the move had to be landed when an osprey started attacking it. In the afternoon, the house would be tugged across Lake Washington and Lake Union, pass through the locks that lower it to the level of the Puget Sound, and then be moved to a larger, open-water barge for a trip to a fjord in British Columbia, 180 miles away. The economics were a reminder of the old dictum about location and real estate: With Seattle’s skyrocketing land prices, the new owners of the lot paid $3.3 million for a house that, if Davis hadn’t found its demolition permit and called Wozniak, would have been destroyed. Wozniak estimated they’d spend the same amount to build a new house of “architectural significance” in its place; with garage space, it’ll be in the ballpark of 11,000 square feet. Meanwhile, the gray house would make its way to British Columbia, to an area mostly known for summer houses, where a crew would settle it onto a brand-new foundation. The cost to its new owners? $1 for the house and $249,999 for the move.
The truck pulled the gray house fully onto the barge, and the tugboat that would pull them both away appeared in the distance. The neighbors, empty coffee cups in hand, began to leave. Peter Teutsch continued his tour of the neighborhood. “It’s changing,” he said, pointing at houses. “These two are new. This one over here’s being torn down in six months.” He pointed across a small inlet of the lake, to a light-colored house with a green roof. He remembered the house arriving by barge sometime around 1980, just before the gray house was built. Then, he supposed, the green-roofed house was the refugee from demolition and transformation elsewhere, and it was this place that was the distant, affordable refuge.