At 1 a.m., yellow warning flashers light Victoria Street in Costa Mesa. It's another night of house moving for the city and the county.
A flatbed truck backs carefully under a jacked-up single-story bungalow sitting on steel crossbeams. The crew lowers the house and the truck drives off with it, sailing up traffic-free Placentia Avenue protected by a swarm of pickup trucks.
Whether they're moved by private individuals or by the county, "move-ons," as these houses are called, have found a small but healthy niche in the Orange County housing market.
For some people, moving a house means keeping a beloved home. For others it means breaking into the Orange County market at a reasonable price, while still others have found that moving a house is a relatively inexpensive way to replace an unsound structure riddled with termites or asbestos.
For the county, moving older houses has proved to be a promising method of recycling good housing stock that would otherwise be demolished.
"These houses are for replacing existing structures. Our purpose is neighborhood preservation. I think this is a priority, to save houses and to save money," says Bob Pusavat, program office manager for the county's redevelopment office of the Environmental Management Agency.
"You have to be innovative," Pusavat adds as he watches a truck edge onto Victoria with its wide load.
The county has been in the house-moving business for a decade, but in recent years the pace has picked up. When Victoria Street was scheduled for widening, more than 70 houses were tagged for removal. Pusavat presented the Orange County Board of Supervisors with a plan to move a half-dozen houses and store them in Anaheim for future use. Board members were enthusiastic.
The county wound up buying 24 of the single-story houses, most of them about 1,200 square feet, with three bedrooms and one or two baths. The rest were slated for demolition because they couldn't be braced properly, or were too large to move without damage, explains Charlie Clarke, the senior construction inspector for Costa Mesa.
Although Victoria Street is the largest of the move-on projects, the county's house relocation program goes on in unincorporated areas and in 14 participating cities. Pusavat makes it known that he has housing stock available, and he is open to suggestions on how best to use it. "They know what they need in the community. We know bureaucratically how to get it done," he says.
When an interested individual contacts the county's Housing and Community Development Department about buying a move-on, county representatives evaluate the circumstances--examining the individual's home and determining if one of the houses will fit on the lot. Then the costs and the opportunities for financing are explained to the potential buyer.
The program isn't limited to low-income families, although the houses Pusavat moves are most often used to replace homes in low-income neighborhoods. Many of them go to elderly residents. The county provides low-interest loans of 3%.
The redevelopment agency helps arrange a loan with a local bank, but there are other options, including deferred payment loans and grants. The houses usually cost between $12,000 and $15,000 to move, and $40,000 to $45,000 to renovate, Pusavat says.
Once the individual qualifies for the move-on, the old house is knocked down, and the new house is quickly put in place. If there's a large family living in the house, the county will sometimes enlarge part of the new house during the renovation. The entire process usually takes two to three months, Pusavat estimates.
Pusavat's department is actively searching for people interested in upgrading their homes by buying move-ons. "want to be pioneers in doing this. We want to bring a defeated neighborhood back to strength," he says. So far, public response to the program has been positive. "It gives a shot in the arm to the neighborhood. You do a few of these, and the neighborhood gets charged up," Pusavat says. "This is just a small portion of the housing picture, but it's an emotional one because you're saving something. Put one of these in place of a (dilapidated) house and it will last 50 to 80 years."
Individuals can donate houses to the county and receive a tax writeoff, although for a variety of reasons the county may not be able to use a particular house. "We have turned down a lot of houses because of the asbestos problem," Pusavat says.
While the county program eases many of the complications of house moving, the obstacles can be intimidating for an individual who decides to tackle a move on his own. Having a house moved is not a project for the faint of heart or the impatient. Still, for those who persevere, moving a house to an empty lot can greatly reduce the total cost of buying a home.