Psst – Wanna Buy a Free House?

I didn’t really plan to write this article on my author page, but neither was I ready to invite the greater world to my personal blog, and I promised a lot of people that I’d write it. Based on things I personally have done and seen, yes it’s possible to get a free home.

Naturally, there is a catch. (There’s always a catch.) But I promise you, it is possible to find and legally acquire a free house. You can also buy a home for such low prices it might as well be free.

Disclaimer: I don’t live in a free house. I paid $2000 for mine. That was the total cash price, as of summer 2016. My husband and I could have moved in and lived in it as it was. It even came furnished! We simply didn’t want to keep furniture and carpeting that was new when the house was built in 1978. Bad enough it had been sealed up for ten years, and featured ten years’ worth of dust and cobwebs everywhere.

But let’s talk about the reason you’re reading here. Is there such a thing as a free house?
Yes, there is. I’ll tell you about those, in addition to telling you how to find houses for less than the price of a beater car.

Free House Version 1: Getting a Move On

I know you’ve seen these before. They don’t crop up all the time, but you will see them in the news from time to time. There’s a beautiful old house, often a two-story Victorian, available for anywhere from free to $100. The catch with this one is that you must move the house. Moving a house, as you might guess, doesn’t come cheap. It may run you as much as $100,000 to transport and settle a house onto a new property, depending on the size and condition of the house and the distance from Point A to Point B. It will require permits and a specialty mover, and of course a piece of land at the end of the journey.

Is it cheap? No. However, it’s likely going to get you the home for far less than you’d pay to buy a comparable home that’s already sited. If your empty lot cost you $50,000, and the cost to move the house cost you $100,000, you’re still getting a home for $150,000 total (not counting renovations and/or minor fixes due to the move.) Still a pretty good deal, when you compare it to the value after the house is re-settled to its new location. If you can swing this one, including any renovations or repairs needed, you can probably flip the home for a tidy profit.

Free House Version 2: The Craigslist Hustle

Here’s the one for those who genuinely want a free house, which may or may not need to be moved. I’ve seen this one several times over the years. Keep your eye on the free section of your local Craigslist. I don’t know about you, but in the Phoenix metropolitan area, at least once or twice a year, someone will be giving away a free mobile home.
Is it a house? Not in the most technical sense, but it is living quarters, and the only thing you’ll pay is the title transfer, which is usually under $20.

Sometimes the home needs to be moved. In this case, however, the “mobile” part of “mobile home” works in your favor. Moving costs vary according to location, but you can generally get a mobile home transported for $2000-2500 or thereabouts. In other cases, no move is needed. Be aware that a lot of these mobiles (though not all) are in senior parks and may have been abandoned because the owner passed away. Other times, the owner was moved into an assisted living facility and the family would rather give the mobile away than to keep paying space rent for it.

Not all giveaway mobiles have to be moved. If you don’t have to move it, all you’ll need to worry about is qualifying for the park and paying space rent and utilities. It’s not living free, but it’s bound to be cheaper than renting an apartment and dramatically lower than paying a mortgage payment every month.

In these cases, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll need to do repairs, which can range from cleaning and patching walls, to replacing sub-floors, sealing leaky plumbing and roofs, and replacing fixtures like water heaters, HVAC, etc. If you can get into a mobile that has functional plumbing, electrical, and HVAC, you can live through the repair phase. If you go this route, be aware that your worst enemy in a mobile home is moisture. Leaks will destroy the structure of the home faster than anything else, so it’s the one fix you can’t afford to postpone.

The Sort-of Free House

Several years ago, I was a broadcast news reporter in Podunk, USA. Part of my job entailed sitting through county meetings and reporting on what transpired. As part of that process, every year I sat through a sequence where homes were auctioned off for back taxes. One year, a man bought a house, on land, for $125.

Let that sink in for a minute. A house. Including land. $125 for the package.

The new owner didn’t purchase the Taj Mahal. It was one itty bitty house on a tiny slice of land, and the house would be better described as a shack. A piece of land with utilities and street access would still be worth significantly more than $125, nearly anywhere in the US.

Other properties in the same auction sold for less than $1000, and a few for the range of $2000-2500. Those deals still happen across the country. Check with your county courthouse to find out when the auctions are held and what the court’s requirements are for you to bid on the properties. Technically speaking, when you purchase these properties, you’re getting them for free, simply by paying the back taxes. It’s done through legal channels, no squatting required. You know when you buy it that there’s no tax lien because the taxes are the reason they’re being sold. And since the tax lien is a primary lien, you won’t be acquiring a mortgage to go with the keys. (The keys aren’t going to be included, either, for the record. You truly get the property as-is.)

In some parts of the country, the homes can sell for less than taxes owed; in others, your bid must be at least equal to the amount owed for back taxes.

If you choose to go this rate, do NOT pay for one of those so-called “services” that list tax lien properties. You can get the information for free from your county courthouse.

The So-Cheap-It’s-Nearly-Free House

There are other channels to obtain homes which are insanely cheap. I tracked one house on land on eBay this weekend. It sold for $800. Just be careful to read the fine print. If it’s not in your town, you never know what the true condition of the property will be, what liens or taxes could be tied to the home, or countless other potential pitfalls. Many of the eBay listings are for down payments, rather than the total cost of the house.

There are places in Pennsylvania and in Michigan where you can buy a home for under $5000, but the home may contain mold, its structure could be irreparably compromised, or any number of other scenarios which would require the current structure be demolished and rebuilt. When you’re looking at free or nearly-free homes, you’re not going to be moving into a new build. You’ll be the one putting in the cash and elbow grease to get things in shape.

As I mentioned, my husband and I paid a whopping $2000 for our home. It’s a mobile home in a senior park. We did about $2500 in repairs and remodeling, so our total cost, for a home we own outright, now sits near $4500. We still have a couple of small projects to finish, so our final cost will most likely hit $6500. That’s still some pretty cheap living, with more space at a fraction of the cost of a “tiny home”. We’re proof positive that you don’t have to fork out a quarter of a million dollars for a place to live. What’s more, mobile home parks are no longer hotbeds for drugs and other crime. Over the past several years, most parks have cleared out the riffraff, making them safe, clean places to live. Our neighbors might be busybodies, but I’d never be afraid to stay home alone.

Build Your Own

When I wrote the original version of this article, some fifteen years ago, building your own home wasn’t considered a low-cost option. I’d never heard of cob homes. I didn’t have any idea there were people who could take castoff materials and fashion them into a place to live.

In a push-back against the McMansion, a movement to build low-cost and sustainable housing has arisen. These men and women use any combination of rammed earth and recycled materials, blending them to form the kinds of homes built by our distant ancestors, only with as many modern amenities as can be fit in. These homes rarely get the government’s permit stamps, meaning they won’t serve as much more than temporary shelters. And as with any home, they require a piece of land to build.

Then there are the tiny houses, the trend featured on television shows. They’re not free to build, though more than one owner has used enough recycled materials in their construction that the home still came in under $5000. Those projects are about living mortgage-free, or with a negligible payment.

And isn’t that the whole point of a free home?