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Psst... Want a Free House on Nantucket? (Just Pay to Move It)

There are only a few people who know how to move a 40,000-pound house that’s been chopped into two pieces through the narrow streets of Nantucket. Mike Day is one of them.

On a late spring morning, Day and his crew from Atlantic Aeolus are moving a house from Brewster Road to Bunker Road, about a four-mile trip.

The house has already been disconnected from its utility lines, hydraulically lifted up from its foundation, cut in half, and mounted onto specialized trailers.

The first leg of the move is the most difficult, as they squeeze the two sections of the house down a one-lane dirt road and around a 90-degree corner. Day’s crew removes small trees from either side of the road to clear just enough room for the house to pass. Their progress slows to a crawl as they approach the turn in the road.

“This is not just like a truck and trailer where you can make adjustments last minute,” Day said. “You have to be looking ahead 20 – 30 feet all the time, 50 feet all the time, predicting which way you want to turn the house, try to get around different obstacles. We rubbed a tree coming out, only because it was so tight we didn’t get a good visual on it.”

The term “mobile home” has a bit of a different meaning on Nantucket. The island is believed to have the most house moves of any community in Massachusetts. At least that’s what Verizon told town officials last year.

And we’re not talking about the prefab homes that get delivered by semis. These are houses that were never meant to be moved anywhere. These are houses with insulation hanging from the gash where they were cut in half. Houses you can peer into and see their interior rooms and furnishings as they roll down the road. 

Off-season residents on Nantucket know it’s become a pretty common sight around the island. Just last year there were 29 structures moved over Nantucket’s roads. Atlantic Aelous moves about four or five per year.

“Every time we move a house over the road, it’s cool, it’s exciting. I love to see people stop, be in awe a little bit, pull out their phones and take pictures of a house they know nothing about. It’s kind of an amazing thing to see, something that weights 100,000 pounds on tires rolling down the road,” Day said.

The trend is driven in part by economics, and the extremely high cost of building on Nantucket. In many cases, it’s actually less expensive to move a structure onto a vacant property than to build a new home. And, as Mike Day knows quite well, the island’s unique circumstances create an unusually large number of houses available to be moved.

“The price for land is so expensive, so valuable, people who come here and are looking to build their dream home don’t really care about that old farmhouse there, or that two bedroom ranch that’s on their property,” Day explained. “They’d rather just get rid of it, demo or move, so that contributes to other people who gain that opportunity to gain a house that someone else doesn’t want."

The Town of Nantucket itself also plays a big part in creating a supply of these homes, thanks to a local bylaw that applies to any structure scheduled for demolition. If there’s no need for an immediate demolition and the structure has any reuse potential, the town requires property owners to place an ad in the island newspaper to make the house available to anyone able to take it away - at their cost. The result is a large number of houses available to be moved, and, from time to time, you see slightly absurd newspaper ads that announce a “Free House.”

Back at the house move on Brewster Road a few weeks ago, Nantucket landscaper Jesse Dutra had a textbook case of the island’s unique circumstances. Instead of paying to build a new office at his business site, Dutra is paying Atlantic Aeolus $24,000 to move a house that became available. 

“This is someone that’s developing and was basically getting rid of the building, and I said I’ll take it,” said Dutra. “I definitely needed an office and this was the perfect sized building for it. It’s a better option than building new. It’s expensive, but it’s not as expensive as a new building.”

Beyond the economics, Nantucket has a long history of house moves, dating all the way back to the first white settlers of the island. According to Betsy Tyler, the Obed Macy Research Chair at the Nantucket Historical Association, many of the structures that made up Nantucket’s original settlement along the north shore are believed to have been moved east to the current area of downtown Nantucket.

“It’s a long tradition of moving, and I’m always curious about where it came from and where it’s going and that somebody documents it, so we know in the future what came from where,” Tyler said.

Tyler pointed to the Dreamland Theater, a landmark in downtown Nantucket, as a prime example of an historic structure that was moved to several locations around the island over the years.

“The building was built on Main Street at about 74-76 Main Street as a Quaker meeting house in 1829,” said Tyler. “And then as the Quaker population here diminished, it had different uses, and it became a straw hat factory in the 1860s, and employed about 300 women on the island making straw hats. And then after that business sort of petered out, it was moved to Brant Point where it became part of hotel there, and then it was floated across the harbor and became the Dreamland Theater. So it’s been reincarnated three or four times.”

Back on Brewster Road, the crew from Atlantic Aeolus is squeezing one section of the home around a 90-degree corner onto Shimmo Pond Road. At the rear of the house is Horace Plummer, a part-time employee from Montego Bay, Jamaica, who is helping to guide the structure around the corner. Plummer said he’s never seen anything like this back on his home island.

“The first time I saw it I was like, ‘WOW - is that possible?’” Plummer recalled.

Plummer asks the same questions many people do when they see a house rolling down the road on Nantucket.

“Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth it”, he said. “Maybe I should get me one of these houses, but where am I going to put it?”