Our FREE House

Words by  Irena Brooks
Roger Richardson Roger Richardson

It’s not every day you get offered a free house.

Especially not one with 380m2 of floor space, built in 1929 with heart rimu, and one of New Plymouth’s most iconic buildings.

The catch of course, it was just the house — not the land. And to move it would cost a lot.

The sheer size of the structure was going to make any move tricky, and the building was not exactly in tip top condition.

But a local couple took on the challenge.

Two years after moving the house to its new home, Adam and Nicola Warner talk about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they liken to “winning Lotto”.

That first visit in 2020 was a game-changer.

“We went to look at it thinking it might be a rental investment,” Adam remembers, “ and we were like ‘this is special, this is not a rental house. This is like your lifetime home’. We couldn’t believe the size of it.”

At the time they were enjoying life in a 200 square metre villa they had transported to Egmont Road in 2016 and had spent a year renovating. They certainly weren’t looking for a new family home — or renovation project.

“But this house was free,” emphasises Adam, “so we went home and crunched some numbers that night and the next day. It just stacked up so well on paper in terms of what we were looking at potentially as outlay, compared to what it could be worth once we were finished.”

And that was before the massive explosion in house prices seen in 2021, “and before the cost of all the materials escalated and all the supply issues turned to custard,” says Adam. “We got in just in time.”

“We would have struggled to do it now,” reflects Nicola. 

The building was very run-down, with a lot of water damage, mouldy and smelly.

“We talked to the house movers who had already given some prices to have it relocated within New Plymouth, and they gave us a price of 200 grand + gst to remove it,” says Adam. “At that point we were like ahhh nah, the house ain’t gonna be free any more is it? That’s getting up there.

“We still had to buy a section. You couldn’t put this on a quarter acre … it had to go somewhere that was significant.”

“It felt like such a long shot at that point,” Nicola remembers. “And then we started imagining what it would be like if we did get it.”

Getting The House

They weren’t the only people interested in the free house, but the sheer size meant finding a site where the house wouldn’t have to be cut into too many pieces to get it there.

The movers advised the couple to look at sections near the heavy haul route, that runs from Port Taranaki to Methanex — ‘somewhere where there’s not too many power lines.’ 

“So we’re driving around everywhere and Adam happened to know the person selling these plots,” Nicola says of the Ngatimaru Road site on the outskirts of Waitara that the house now sits on.

“We came out here and thought this would be absolutely perfect,” Adam says of the pretty much flat site, with sea and mountain views.

“Everything sort of fell into place. From first looking at the house to basically having everything over the line, including the bank, was like a two-week process.”

The house was able to be moved in two pieces, though the two upstairs gables were also detached to get past some angled lamp-posts.

Essentially halving the house also pretty much halved the cost — not to mention potential issues with trying to reinstate a house from multiple components. The cost of the move to piles was just over $100,000.

“The main body of the house was around 50 – 55 tonne on the trailer,” says Adam. “They don’t often do many of that size, we were told.”

A crowd came to watch it leave at 9:30pm and the entire family followed the house out to Waitara.

There was a lot of work they did to the house before it even left town. Three massive brick chimneys had to be demolished, plus they pulled out a lot of gib and rotten ceilings.

Any extra weight had to go and that included the aged concrete tile roof.

The move was done in two stages and was parked up on a gravel area on the side of the road for a night. Adam stayed too and slept in his ute to look out for it.

“We were worried it would be vandalised or burnt down overnight if left alone!” remembers Nicola.

The second part of the trip began the next morning and it took all day to complete the 3km journey as there were four sets of overhead powerlines to be individually dropped and put back up as the procession went through.

The house arrived at its new home on the 9th of September 2020. The reattachment was relatively straightforward and the house was whole again on the new site within 48 hours of the move.

It sits facing the same direction as it was originally constructed, “just by coincidence,” says Nicola.

Adam did the initial earthworks and put in the driveway, and the couple discussed the layout of the house and what rooms would be used for what purpose.

“It was a rabbit warren,” Nicola recalls. “The building had been used to house about three different businesses.” Hallways had been blocked off, the sun porch completely enclosed to make another room and new doorways made and false walls put in. 

“The first time we looked through it … it felt like a real maze.”

Nicola looked into the history of the building, viewing the original plans at Puke Ariki.

She took a photo of them, which is now framed and on display in the front entry of the home.

“It was very well-built for its time — it would have had the best of everything.”

Built for 2,972 pounds back in 1929, it was designed by Thomas Bates.

Seeing the original plans helped the couple determine how to lay it out.

“There are so many rooms it was actually quite hard to decide what to use for what.”

“We’ve owned eight or nine houses and lived in like 12 or 13, in a reasonably short period of time,” says Adam, “so to actually end up somewhere that we know we’re going to be for quite a while is a nice feeling. Moving’s not that much fun.”

The Renovations

Most of the house is heart rimu, with a 2.7 metre stud height throughout.

“When we started work, you always expect you are going to find rot, borer, but it was just perfect,” beams Nicola.

The downstairs floorboards were in particularly good shape as they had been covered with carpet since the house was built.

The work was entirely carried out by local businesses.

“We had lots of friends working on it where we could,” says Nicola.

“My philosophy is if you’re going to pay someone to do it, you might as well pay a friend, you know,” says Adam.

Downstairs is the living area, kitchen, master suite and a two-bedroom self-contained Bed-and-Breakfast to help pay off the mortgage.

Upstairs there are four bedrooms, one for each of the Warners’ three children and a guest bedroom, plus a separate toilet and bathroom, office and rumpus room.

The dark shellacked wooden doors are still in their original state upstairs, though the wooden frames have been painted white like the walls to add some much-needed light to the hallway. 

The doors downstairs were all refinished and lightened a bit to freshen them up, before being given a wax coating.

Lush soft carpet features throughout the upper storey as the floors up here were not as pristine as the ones on the bottom floor. The carpet adds another layer of sound-deadening between the storeys, though the significant sub-floors already lend solidity and quiet to the second level.

The house has been rewired and replumbed, is fully insulated and has a significant heating and cooling system installed. It doesn’t have double-glazing but the house doesn’t need it, the Warners say.

“It’s honestly not a cold house,” says Nicola.

They have laminated the windows in the kitchen/dining area, but that’s it.

“All our curtains are thermal and if it’s cold we just close those.”

Moving In

The family moved in during February 2021.

They had sold their Egmont Road Villa in order to buy the 10 acre section, and were renting a house until they got the moved house habitable.

The living area, bedrooms and downstairs bathroom were all mostly completed in that first six months, while over the past 18 months Nicola has focused on finishing off tasks and doing the rest of the house.

“Adam’s so busy at work … he kind of works to fund it and I kind of manage it and that’s how we roll eh?” says Nicola. “Any important thing I’ll talk to Adam and ask ‘this or that?’ but generally he doesn’t need to know all the small stuff, he’s got enough going on.”

“The company being successful is instrumental in us being able to fund this long-term, so that is my focus,” says Adam, who manages the engineering company started by his father in 1985.

“I actually left my job at the time to do this because it was just too much,” says Nicola, who is now back working part-time and also head coach at the local pony club.

“Megaw Construction did all our building work … having people you can trust like that to oversee things and guide us through things made a world of difference.”

“This is the third house they have done for us,” says Adam.

“We were really lucky that our tradies were so great,” says Nicola.

“There’s actually so many talented craftsmen-type people around to help with this kind of stuff.”

They feel blessed to have had people who cared about the finishing side of things.

“You need people who care as much as you do about the end result.”

The TSB Bank need props too,” says Adam. “They were awesome and instrumental really in allowing us to do this. They gave us some huge revolving credits that we could draw money out of and pay tradies. Without them and their help this never would have got off the ground.”

As for the total cost of the house the couple confess they wouldn’t know.

“Definitely over the 500 mark,” reckons Nicola. “But it’s hard to build an entry-level new home for that these days. Even if it’s gone up closer to 600 thousand, it’s still a great deal for a 380 square metre lovely, modernised home.”

“The land cost sounded like a lot at the time,” she adds, “but we knew we were never going to lose on it, being so close to town and it’s lovely having all the space for the horses and a paddock for the motorbikes.”

“That’s the whole idea of that whole paddock out the back, was just for making memories and having fun in,” says Adam. 

The couple agree it’s been worth every minute of stress and work.

“It’s been a process for sure, but it’s come together,” says Adam.

“After living in the villa and living in here, we do love the older homes,” he adds. “We just like that homely feeling that you get.”

They have lived in a brand new home, but “the kids were really young then and every time you scratch and bump you’re all like freaking out the whole time, whereas I don’t mind if the walls get dented and stuff here because it sort of just ties in with the character of the house … it has so many nicks and scratches but it doesn’t matter.”

Which means they are both way more relaxed, and so are the kids.

“This is us. We want to be here until we’re old. This is our family home now.”

With so much space and so many rooms — and so many bills — the couple have turned part of the downstairs into accommodation to help offset some of the renovation costs.

Fully self-contained, a solid internal door separates the bed and breakfast area from the main house.

Consisting of two spacious double bedrooms, a large bathroom, along with a living and dining space that encompasses a kitchenette, it has a private entry and mountain views.

“I thought about the name for a very long time,” says Nicola. “We’re calling it Old Gambrels. I wanted the name to be specific to the house, and the roof design is the most interesting feature of the house. The double pitch on the gables of the roofline is called a gambrel.”

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