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Juan Ramos had fixed up dilapidated historic worker cottages in Hawaii, so he thought moving an old house from North Vancouver, B.C., to Bowen Island would be a fairly straightforward project.

Juan Ramos bought a 1908 Arts and Crafts two-level house in North Vancouver for $97,400 and had it moved by barge to a lot on Bowen Island for $250,000.Photography by Mary Lynn Machado

Two years later, he says there was nothing straightforward about the house move, never mind the fact that he purchased a lot that is ecologically sensitive with extremely restricted land use. He had to find a narrow enough house to wedge into a corner of the property, and he’s still navigating the permitting process to finish it.

It was the cheapest land he could find in the region, almost a quarter acre, which he bought for $250,000. The asking price for 1455 Tunstall Blvd., a 15-minute walk to the ocean, was $299,900, and it had been on the market 145 days. The neighbour next door had owned the forested lot and the family sold as part of an estate sale.

“I realize how outrageous prices of things are in Vancouver, so I was thinking, ‘Okay, here’s a piece of land that looks really nice that’s surrounded by greenery. Hey, I will take a chance,’” says Mr. Ramos, who lives in a West End condo.

He knew he wanted to save an old house, so six months later, he purchased a small arts and crafts 1908 two-level house for $97,400, called the Schiplo Residence, at 428 E. 3rd St. in North Vancouver. It was named after the first residents, a retired stonemason named Herman Schiplo and his wife, Isabel.

His house, which was listed by house moving company Nickel Bros., was just recently moved and finally sits on blocks on the Bowen Island lot. It’s a charming old house with a front porch, fir floors and coffered ceiling. It had undergone updates and appears well maintained. And it’s suitably narrow – 18 feet wide and 1,200 square feet of interior space – with only one bathroom and no kitchen. The kitchen was an add-on that didn’t make the trip from North Vancouver. But he has a long way to go until he can live in it, at least a few years.

“I would love to have a view, that would be a nice surprise if I could see the water,” Mr. Ramos says.

Old houses are practically given away when someone wants to rebuild, but moving them means paying for the moving of utility lines and storage fees.

Mr. Ramos purchases old ramshackle buildings, fixes them up and rents them out, such as the three Honolulu worker cottages. It’s not exactly a lucrative business, he says, but more of a side job that he carved out for himself because he loves old buildings and recycling.

“I have rental properties. And I’m a one-man show, not a conglomerate or anything. It’s very challenging because I do everything myself. I hire the architect, the environmental consultant, and the contractors. But it’s not like I have a huge income. I have to be very careful about how I manage things,” Mr. Ramos said.

“I don’t flip them, I generally keep them. It’s something I do because I enjoy it, and yes, I do calculate that I can’t overspend, and I do have the hope that whatever I do adds value and appreciates. But that’s not the motivating factor. I’m not going to do something that is economically foolish.”

But the Bowen Island house has been a long hard lesson on dealing with red tape, he says. The price of the property and the house sound like a sweet deal on paper, but both came with considerable challenges.

“There was a reason why the lot was only $250,000. I could only build on 1/10th of the property because there are streams that go through it.”

He had to pay extra for consultant reports, and it will be at least a three-year process with carrying costs. Old houses are practically given away when someone wants to rebuild, but moving them means paying for the moving of utility lines and storage fees.

He had other reasons for wanting to move an existing old house.

“I really prefer older stuff, and that’s just really a personal thing. It sounds like I’m some nutcase, but I really don’t like waste. It annoys me. So when I see things that are perfectly serviceable and going to waste, it pisses me off,” Mr. Ramos said.

“I’ve rescued houses that were falling apart and would have been teardown

“I told my realtor in Hawaii, ‘find me the oldest, most run down place you can find,’ because that’s what I like working with. … They have a certain honesty about them.”

His first house move turned out to be a circuitous journey. Initially, he found a beauty in the historic municipality of Oak Bay on Vancouver Island, but his house designer said it was too big for the slim pocket of land that was his development site.

The Nickel Bros. house was one of several in a North Vancouver land assembly that were about to be replaced with condos, he says. He was told one house made the trip to Washington State. Because his permits were going to take time, he barged the house to a storage site in Nanaimo. That storage yard needed the space back, so he had to relocate it to Victoria, before it was finally barged to Bowen Island, after nearly two years in storage.

“That house has been around,” Mr. Ramos said.

And according to environmental consultant Micaele Florendo, he’s got another year and a half to go before anyone can occupy it. That’s because a creek bisects his property and a portion of the creek has to be diverted in order to put in a septic field. The septic field they’ve designed needs a 15-metre setback. They’ve recently applied for a permit from the province to do the work, and the permit will take about 18 months. Ms. Florendo has guided him through the process since he first thought about purchasing the property. She said they are required to keep the building footprint under 30 per cent of the area and they’ve managed to keep it under 18 per cent.

“He can do all the work inside the house,” Ms. Florendo says. “He was able to clear the area and create the building area, move the house onto the lot and he can put in the septic tank. He just can’t hook it up.”

Despite the challenges, Mr. Ramos is surprised there isn’t more of a movement under way to stop the demolition of houses considering that demolition is so wasteful. According to Metro Vancouver, demolition and construction materials make up one-third of the region’s landfill.

“I would like people to know more about saving houses,” Mr. Ramos says. “People look at the stuff I do, and they say, ‘Why, why are you saving it?’ There were a lot of people who didn’t encourage me to do this.”

Glyn Lewis, owner of Renewal Home Development, has made a business out of recycling houses, and he’s pushing for municipalities to make moving houses – rather than demolishing them – a priority wherever it’s possible. On his social media, he features houses that are only a few years old, in perfect condition, and ended up demolished.

The trick is getting them moved before a demolition permit is issued. One way to do that is to issue an “early green removal permit” so that companies who move houses can get them moved early in the redevelopment process.

“The day the developer gets their demo permit, they want the house gone as fast as possible. Time is money,” Mr. Lewis says.

He says thousands of homes are demolished.

An early removal permit would save developers time and money because they wouldn’t have to demolish or deconstruct.

“That way they have a clear bare lot the day they get their development or building permit and they can begin construction on day one.”

As well, an empty home is quickly vulnerable to vandalism and fire risk, so municipalities should be motivated to have them sustainably relocated, Mr. Lewis says.