A House Raising Experience

May 17, 2013
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By John Burton

Homes are literally rising along the Jersey Shore as owners work to restore their houses after the pummeling from Super Storm Sandy.

House lifter Pete Sommer (center) with his crew, Pete Sommer Jr. (l) and Dennis Grasso (r) in front of a Monmouth Beach house.

House lifter Pete Sommer (center) with his crew, Pete Sommer Jr. (l) and Dennis Grasso (r) in front of a Monmouth Beach house.

It’s been a busy six months for contractors who specialize in elevating structures or moving homes as part of their construction business. Owners have been scurrying to find qualified companies that can address their needs and ad­here to new regulations for flood level standards that are expected to be issued by the Federal Emergency Manage­ment Agency (FEMA).

“It’s been crazy busy. I can’t even answer the phone right now. I have 150 calls to return,” said Pete Sommer, who lives in the Leonardo section of Middletown and has been lifting houses for 36 years.

James Sullivan, who owns and operates Eco-Coastal Building, LLC in Monmouth Beach, was busy a year ago at this time, still working with Hurricane Irene-related locations. Now, “it’s been insane,” he said.

His company does house lifting, construction and is an insurance due diligence firm, working with the insured in negotiations with the insurance company. His firm has 67 residences currently under contract to be raised, said Sullivan, who has 25 years experience doing this.

During the past six mon­ths, Sommer, whose operation is fairly small, has elevated about 12 homes, one structure at a time. He was working this week on a Mann Court, Monmouth Beach, home when he stopped to talk about the work.

The project, he said, entail­ed lifting the two-story home an additional 8 feet to a total of 14 feet above flood plain level. That would make it slightly higher than the current Monmouth Beach standard for the specific area in immediate proximity to the Shrewsbury River. The home was flooded with about 3 feet of water during Super Storm Sandy last October.

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The work, being done by Sommer, his son, Peter Jr., and another worker, will take the crew about three weeks to complete, Sommer said. “We do everything by hand. We like to do everything slow,” paying painstaking attention to details.

The details begin with gutting the home and removing the drywall, then screwing 2-by-12-foot wooden boards to the structure’s walls, and installing 8-inch-by-8-foot steel beams – using 17-inch hy­draulic jacks – to slowly raise the building. He then places 6-inch-by-6-foot wooden blocks in place as the building goes higher, usually at 6 to 17 inches at a time.

“It’s like putting together a puzzle,” Sommer said.

The crisscrossed, stacked wooden blocks look a bit like Jenga, the children’s wooden block stacking game.

As the structure is raised, workers place and seal cinderblocks into place where the house will eventually sit. The structure might have some minor cracking, which is normal for the type of job, he said.

The cost of the work is about $15 per square foot, according to Sommer.

That’s only the beginning. After the home is elevated, additional work is needed, including masonry work for the foundation, which is completed by others, Sommer said.

Sullivan said his work costs on average about $50 per square foot, with a 1,200- to 1,400-square-foot first floor footprint, costing, roughly, a little bit under $50,000.

The work is more complex than it might initially appear. “A lot of people think they can do this themselves. They can’t,” Sommer warned.

Sullivan and the state’s Division of Consumer Protec­tion, advised homeowners to research and check the licensing of contractors they are considering hiring. Neal Buccino, a division spokes­man, also recommended not paying more than one-third of the project upfront and consider paying by credit card, which would offer a recourse if there is an issue with the work.

The house on Benton Avenue in Leonardo is in the process of being lifted by Pete Sommer and crew.

The house on Benton Avenue in Leonardo is in the process of being lifted by Pete Sommer and crew.

The division has not re­ceived any complaints about home improvement contractors raising homes. However, last year the division got more than 1,500 complaints about home improvement contractors, the largest category of complaints, Buccino said.

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Sullivan also advised check­ing to see if the contractor has specific house lifting insurance, which usually requires them to have at least two- to four-years experience before it can be issued.

Eventually, it’ll be around 100,000 structures that will have to be elevated throughout the state, in response to damage or FEMA and local standards, Sullivan estimated.

Sullivan offered a pretty strong warning for area residents: Given what he’s heard from scientists and experts in the field, another severe storm “is going to happen again, not in 100 years, not in 500 years, but it’s going to happen relatively soon.”

The work is still coming and things are expected to continue to be hectic for Sommer.

“Before, you were looking at people who wanted to do it. Now it’s people who have to do it and they can be a little crazy,” he said.

Looking back, it seems a long way from last year for Sommer when he “could ride my motorcycle and have a little fun.”

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