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The exclusive island where people keep giving away homes for free — even though the typical house costs $3.6 million

Dan Latu   

The exclusive island where people keep giving away homes for free — even though the typical house costs $3.6 million
  • Nantucket is an island off Massachusetts that is a popular vacation spot for the wealthy.
  • Each year, several homes are offered for free — but buyers must move them to new locations first.

The crescent-shaped island of Nantucket, located 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, has long been home to idyllic summer getaways for the rich and famous.

Nantucket's median sales price is $3.6 million, according to Realtor.com, though many homes cost much more.

In 2021, Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman was the rumored buyer of a $32.5 million waterfront estate, according to the Nantucket Current, a local paper. Barstool Sports cofounder Dave Portnoy set a Massachusetts record when he paid $42 million for a six-bedroom home on the island in 2023, multiple outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, reported.

But in stark contrast to the eight-figure homes is another common Nantucket practice: giving away homes for free.

Or technically free. Free, but with some caveats. The big one: you have to move them — and pay sometimes hefty sums to do so.

It plays out like this: Many wealthy summer residents buy Nantucket properties intending to construct dream homes, which means whatever structure is standing on the land is effectively a tear-down, said Anne Kuszpa, executive director of Housing Nantucket, a nonprofit that creates affordable housing for the island's year-round community.

"Sometimes when someone buys a property, the land is worth a lot more than the dwelling that's on it," she told Business Insider.

Due to Nantucket's "demolition delay" rule, any home with "reuse potential" must be advertised in the town paper for 30 days. It's not required to be offered for "free," but doing so has become commonplace practice because most owners would rather not pay for the cost of removal, says Kuszpa.

Real-estate attorney Steven Cohen is representing a "free" home in the Miacomet neighborhood, known for its public golf course and freshwater pond, with a tax-assessed value of nearly $800,000. He has already received 25 emails from interested parties, he said. (Mansion Global first reported the listing.)

The "buyer" must pay to move the home, which usually involves lifting it off its current foundation and putting it on a trailer, which is driven slowly to another spot on the island. A 2,500-square-foot home can cost at least $100,000 to move, Cohen said. The bigger the house, the higher the price to move it.

It is much cheaper, however, to move a "free" house onto a property than to construct an entirely new dwelling. Cohen said it costs around $800 a square foot to build a home on Nantucket, making that same 2,500-square-foot home cost about $2 million to build from scratch.

"When you live on an island, your resources are scarce," Cohen told Business Insider. "You reuse them."

House moves are so common in Nantucket they hold up traffic

House moves in Nantucket have increased in popularity. A decade ago, Nantucket only issued 19 permits for homes or units to be transported across the island, according to the Nantucket Current. In 2022, 91 permits were issued by October alone — and many house moves happen in the off-season months late in the year, so the annual figure was likely even higher, according to the Current.

"Free" houses can range in size from small cottages to mega-mansions, Cohen added, and some residents will even split houses into smaller parts and then move them to new properties to serve as garages or pool houses.

The fire and police departments need to sign off on the permits to move a house, and road closures need to be issued for the 14-mile-long island, as the trailer carrying the home moves at a walking pace.

House moves only occur in the fall, winter, and spring. In the summer, they're halted due to increased tourist traffic on the island.

But for year-rounders, the sight of a "free" house being carted across the island is so common that it might just be part of their morning commute.

"If you get to work late and you tell your boss, 'Oh, there's a house move,' people just understand," Kuszpa told Business Insider.

Some of the 'free' homes do good for the community

Buyers of the "free" homes fall into three main categories, Cohen told Business Insider.

The first group is homeowners on Nantucket looking for a small property to turn into a rental for additional income.

The second pool, which Cohen said is larger, consists of individuals or young families who, through their families or other connections, already have land on the island but not enough wealth for a new-construction house.

The third category is housing nonprofits that take the homes as a donation — giving a tax break to the sellers — and turn the structures into affordable housing for the local workforce and low-income families.

"It's the cheapest way to create housing," Kuszpa told Business Insider.

The new homes are only open to families making less than 110% of the area's median income, Kuszpa said, which the census pegs at $135,590. Kuszpa said a typical beneficiary is a family of four making under $100,000, who will then be able to rent a three-bedroom house for $2,500. The market rent for the same property would be $4,700.

Teachers, landscapers, cleaners, bank tellers, and other members of the Nantucket workforce have all benefited from the program and are currently living in rental homes that were moved to new locations. Over 600 families are currently on the waitlist for such, says Kuszpa.

Since 1994, Housing Nantucket has repurposed 39 "free" homes into income-capped rentals on the island.

Currently, the organization is preparing to move a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom home from a plot of land near the center of town, which new buyers purchased earlier this year for $5 million.

Kuszpa says the nonprofit is budgeting $400,000 to move the structure nearly 4 miles to the Atlantic Ocean coast of Nantucket, where it will get a new life as a home for a Nantucket family.

"When you're on an island, materials are just harder to come by," Kuszpa said. "It's about using what you have."



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