We’ve all heard about free, or almost free, houses in Europe – the castles given away for nothing, the Italian villas for one Euro, etc – and somehow they don’t strike us as that unusual. Unlike the roaring US, we think of Europe as a mess of millenia-old cultures that’s constantly on the brink of utter exhaustion. In this metaphor, Europe is your elderly aunt who has to pay attendants to go on cruises with her, while America is her young vibrant niece who’s choosing between suitors. Right? Well, not so much …
Turns out there are plenty of places right here in the good ol’ US of A that basically have to pay people to live there. And in some cases, even the lure of a free house isn’t enough to bring warm bodies in. The town of Marne, Iowa (population 125) has been offering free lots to any and all comers for over ten years. The only requirement to receive your free land is that you have to build a house of at least 1200 square feet within a year and a half. So far, only one family’s taken Marne up on the offer, despite the fact that Marne boasts a bar AND grill, an auto body shop, and a park. (As someone who’s lived in Iowa, I can confirm that free land isn’t enough to lure people; you’d have to pay me at least $50,000 a year, tax free and no strings attached, to live there again.)
Gary, Indiana, which has lost half its population over the last fifty years, is giving houses away. Buffalo, NY is also selling houses for a pittance, many for as little as one dollar. The only requirements are that you have to fix all the code violations, cover closing costs, and live there for three years. While there have been some success stories – this impressive historic maid’s cottage was painstakingly restored by hand – other “dollar house” renovations have hinted at the reality of gutting and rebuilding these decrepit homes. It sounds like this couple, for example, managed to redo a single room in three years. Of course, Buffalo is Logan Circle compared to Detroit, which is so depressed that average home values in some zip codes have sunk to less than $8000. The city has been giving homes away left and right for years now, as I’m sure you know if you have any artist friends between the ages of 21-36; there’s even a program to give writers free houses. (I love the intention behind the idea, but considering that writers are universally, wretchedly poor, this might not be the best way to rebuild your tax base.)
And make no mistake, that is what the free house racket is all about – rebuilding tax bases. Just like there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s not really any such thing as a free house. The house is free, but most of these places require five or six figures worth of repairs, not to mention hefty annual property taxes. Depending on where you settle, a “free” house could end up costing you more than renting. Of course, you’d own the place, though that’s only a big deal if Detroit really is the next Berlin, and not just, well, Detroit. No, the “free house” dream is probably just that – a dream. Unless, of course, you get lucky, like the woman in Indiana who got a decade of free rent because everyone just sort of forgot about her.
Lisa Hardy worked at a mortgage company in Indianapolis back in 2005, and part of her compensation package was a free house to live in, as long as she worked at the company. But after the market crashed, the company went under and the founder went to prison for wire fraud and money laundering. When no one ever contacted Hardy about moving out of the company’s house, she did what any rational person would do: she crossed her fingers and lived the (rent-free) dream. Although the house racked up yearly back taxes (the city advised Hardy not to pay them, since she wasn’t the owner), it was never seized and auctioned, possibly because of the criminal case. By the time a Singapore company bought the house in 2014, Hardy had gone almost a decade without paying rent or property taxes, a record that will probably never be broken.