August 03, 2013|BY DENISE BUFFA, email@example.com, The Hartford Courant
MILFORD — Clay Markham waved to a neighbor on East Broadway in Milford one sweltering day in July.
"You look exhausted. You've been lifting those houses all by yourself?'' the elderly man quipped.
Yes, Markham lifts houses for a living. But not with his bare hands, of course .
He uses machinery and men to raise the structures high in the air so they can be put down on new foundations -- like posts, pilings or piers -- that will prevent damage when the Long Island Sound swells from super storms.
Business has been booming for Markham, who runs High Caliber Contractor LLC out of Milford, since tropical storm Irene and storm Sandy hit Connecticut's coastline in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The storms rocked some houses along the shoreline off their foundations and filled others with water.
"I've always stayed busy over the past 20 years lifting and moving houses, but it's extremely busy right now along the shorefront areas," Markham said. "I think I was doing 30 a year before Irene...Now, we're doing two a week, at least."
That's triple the business.
The complexion of Connecticut's coastline is changing. While some homeowners are choosing to lift their homes in flood hazard zones to prevent future flood damage, others are being forced to lift them. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says if the cost of improvements or the cost to repair damage amounts to more than 50 percent of the market value of a building, it must be brought up to current floodplain management standards.
In Fairfield, 30 homes have been raised and 30 more will probably be lifted as well. In Westport, nearly 30 houses are being lifted. And in Old Saybrook, 10 houses are either in the process of being jacked up or will be jacked. All this according to town officials.
Tom Ivers of the Milford Department of Community Development estimated 4,000 to 5,000 houses in that city, which boasts 17 miles of coastline, may have to, "by code," be elevated at some point in the future .
"It certainly does provide some peace of mind," Ivers said.
Markham -- who says he's done work in Madison, Old Greenwich, Westport and East Haven -- isn't the only house lifter out there. The work is so plentiful that contractors have come to Connecticut from other states, including Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
Still, Markham - who dons a white hard hat and glasses -- seems to have his share of the business that he loves.
"At any given time, I have 10 to 15 houses on equipment," he said.
Once a general contractor, Markham decided to specialize in moving structures because he found it more rewarding.
"I wanted something that was a challenge to do. It was a challenge to grow my own business -- and there wasn't a lot of people doing it," he said. "It's a challenge to get the jobs. The jobs are a challenge to do.
Markham, a 51-year-old married father of two, lives on the water in Milford's Silver Sands area, one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by Sandy. And he's lifting many of his neighbors' houses using "unified hydraulic jacking systems," which have a central control for monitoring each hydraulic jacks performance.
The cost of a lift could be anywhere from $12,000 to $30,000 -- and that doesn't include building a foundation, which could bring the bill to $75,000 to $100,000.
"If you're going to bring it up to flood code, it's a lot of money," Markham said.
The house lifter, who stands 5-foot-2, stood under a Cooper Avenue house he had just lifted. He was dwarfed by the structure. But while he may be small in stature, Markham has a big heart by at least one account .
"Clay is a great guy -- and he's been so helpful during this whole process," said Tim McFadden, who owns the two-story, 1,800-square-foot house at 10 Cooper Ave. that towered over Markham. "He's kind of like helping all the neighbors out there, not killing on the price ...He knows what we're going through."
Sandy skirted his home, McFadden said, but Irene "wiped out" the whole first floor. He decided to lift it rather than leave it.
While other structural movers tried to soak him, estimating it would cost at least $25,000 to lift the family homestead -- where he and his wife reared their three children -- McFadden said Markham charged him less than $20,000.
That's a big deal to a homeowner who is suddenly facing a $75,000 to $100,000 emergency project, including the costs of an architect and soil and structural engineers plus building a new foundation. McFadden is hoping for some government aid.
Markham said he enjoys helping others.
"I don't want it to sound like I'm out there doing it for free," he said. "But I definitely like giving people advice on what they're doing and which way they should go with their house."
Despite the help that may be available, some property owners are bailing out. Still, others are buying in.