Many of the new homes that we build are built upon land where another house once existed, usually the first on record on that property. We are often asked why we knock the house down and rebuild new rather than renovating the house. We are often confronted by upset people who say builders are hurting first-time buyers by eliminating the lower priced, smaller, older homes from the market.
We do not knock a house down lightly. It is a decision based on both logistics and finances. The houses we knock down to rebuild are the ones that are beyond rehabilitation and/or have serious structural issues. Where the cost of renovation and bringing it up to current codes so far outweighs the cost of knocking down and rebuilding, we often have no real choice. These houses have no historic preservation value, are structurally unsound and functionally obsolete homes whose main value is in the land.
Most often the electrical systems are beyond integrating and upgrading with current needs. The old plumbing does not retro fit properly or within a budget that is commiserate to the neighborhood and must be gutted and redone. Old drainage pipes made of cast iron are corroded and tree roots compromise them to the point of collapse. Almost always, the houses are loaded with asbestos in insulation and other materials like flooring. Old heating systems, insulation, and windows are inefficient and none of the old materials meet new energy star standards. Heating and cooling bills in a small, older home are often the same as a new home twice the size.
Then there's the issue of aesthetics. The old floor plans in the smaller homes do not serve the needs of modern day families that want big kitchens and open floor plans. Although knock downs got a bad name because most times they were replaced with "McMansions," today, the tear downs we do are replaced with newer homes that are not only energy efficient, but fit into the existing neighborhood, oftentimes increasing the value of all their surrounding homes. These knock downs are welcomed by the local towns for the increased tax revenues, which benefit the entire town thereby making the town a better place overall for all residents.
Many of the homes we are buying and knocking down to rebuild new are being sold by WWII veterans. When the war ended, with the GI bill, they purchased lots and double lots and built their own homes, oftentimes doing much of the work themselves. Their pride oozes and permeates the air. It's contagious.
We are very sensitive to the seller who calls a house their home and is selling to us; builders. They often ask if we are going to knock the house down. We are always honest and say yes and ask them if they want to see what we are going to replace their home with and to please come back and see it when we are done. Very few do. To honor the memory of the older home, we started asking the seller to leave something behind in the house to stay with the house through all future owners. It has been such a wonderful experience to see what each homeowner leaves to go into the new home and stay with the house so that they and their original house full of memories are not forgotten.
My favorite one thus far was Jim on East Madison Avenue. His wife died and he was selling us their home of almost 50 years. He was realistic and sad that he could not keep up with all that needed to be done in his house and wanted us to build a new house on his property. We build many of our houses locally in the town we've lived in for almost 30 years. We love Florham Park and not only build our clients their new home, but we are their neighbors. He said he chose us from all the many other builders in town because he not only liked our work but heard good things about us. This was Great to hear. I told Jim about our tradition of the seller leaving something and he said he would give it some good thought. When we closed on the house and went to walk through, we were astounded to see what Jim left.
As we started to build the new house on Jim's property, we listed it. One of the realtors who saw the listing, quickly contracted to buy it. He and his wife are Veterans. I waited until the house closed before I visited them bearing gifts and welcoming them into their new home. I brought wine, cookies and the gift from Jim. I told them the story of our tradition and the background of the knock down and I could see the anticipation build in their eyes of what this stranger left them for the house. As I lifted it out of my car, I could hear their glee! Jim left a beautiful bowling ball, carrying case and shoes that had to be from the 1950's.
Everyone I told about what this seller left for this buyer said not to give them the bowling ball… that I should buy a plant or something. What would they do with a bowling ball? But a tradition is a tradition and the bowling ball is what he left so that's what the new owners were getting. Sean and Joanne, the new homeowners, explained to me that they come from a long line of bowlers, love to bowl, and would treasure the ball. It would receive a prominent place in their new home and would surely be a conversation piece for years to come. I wrote a note to Jim, who left NJ to live with his children in PA, about how much the new owners appreciated his gift. He was pleased and said he was happy and comfortable with one chapter closing in his life and another opened for him.
Another homeowner left an angel decoration. One family Catholic, the new one Jewish. I am happy to say that the new owners display the angel on many family and holy days and thank the original owners for keeping place for them in the line of owners and stewards of the land.
One of my favorite stories of buying a house basically for the land and being honest about it was from Annette on Normandy Parkway in Morris Township. She interviewed us for the purchase of her home and asked us if we were going to knock the house down and build a McMansion. We had been warned by the realtor that she was adamant that she did not want to sell to a builder who was going to knock it down. She was ok with renovation, but not tearing it down. The home was severely outdated and overpriced, but this street in Morris Township is historic and the land is very valuable. The house sits about 300' from the road and has stately mature landscaping, but the house had to go.
As I honestly told her we would most likely be knocking it down, I felt a swift kick to my shin under the table. At first I thought it was by mistake. After the third kick, I knew it was by design and asked that the kicking stop. Red faces from my team at the table! Annette got very upset and asked us to leave because she thought she made herself clear that she would not sell her home to a builder to knock down. She said she was dealing with two other builders who assured her they would not be knocking the house down. We made our case for knock down, but she wasn't buying it. As we left, we all agreed that although we very much wanted this land, we felt better we were honest. The realtors were not as comfortable having us blow the deal.
About two days passed and we received a call from Annette asking us if we still wanted to buy her home. I reminded her that we were the builders who were going to knock her house down. She said she knew we were. I asked her why she was calling as she had two other builders ready to buy with full price offers and no tear down. She said she called each of them, asked them again if they were knocking it down, and they both independently assured her they would not knock it down. She went over some of the issues with them that we gave to support knocking it down and they just kept assuring her they would renovate, not tear down. So I asked the million dollar question (quite literally) …. why sell to us? She said because she knew they were lying and if it had to be knocked down, she wanted the one builder that was honest to get it.
When the house was done, Annette drove past the new house about three times looking lost before we went out to the road to flag her down. She wanted to see the new house but thought her mind was playing tricks on her because she couldn't find her old property. She was looking for a new home, but the one we built there looked like it had always been there, much to her surprise and delight. Annette left behind a garden statute to remain with the house and to remind the new homeowners to spend family time outside as much as they can. The new homeowners love their home and the outside.
What do others leave behind? Notes, photos, tools, antique candle holders, gold cross, Depends Diapers (yes they did), picture frames, vases, books, furniture, and best of all, good wishes for health, wealth and happy memories.