Illustration by Michael Kirkham

Considering a home teardown? First crunch the numbers — “unbuilding” it just might be cheaper than demolition.


So, you’re thinking about a home teardown to make way for larger, more modern digs? Fair enough. But before you hire a guy with a dump truck, here’s a tax tip that may seem as improbable as a benevolent IRS man: It just might be more lucrative to have your abode painstakingly­ dismantled — stud by stud, floorboard by floorboard, brick by brick — than to flatten it with a bulldozer. And you’ll do the environment a huge favor in the process.

At first blush, this makes about as much sense as the popularity of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. After all, time and labor factors make home deconstructions roughly twice as expensive as demolitions. But in high-end enclaves on the East and West coasts, people are discovering that substantial tax benefits lurk in unlikely places — namely underfoot and inside the walls. In short, the tax deduction garnered by donating salvageable materials (such as highly prized old-growth lumber or vintage oak floorboards) to certified nonprofit groups can offset the higher cost of deconstruction. Along the way, unbuilding a house diverts 75 to 85 percent of the demolition debris from overburdened landfills.

BREAKING IT DOWN: 

Deconstructing a 2,000-square-foot wood-frame home can yield about 6,000 square feet of reusable lumber — the equivalent of 33 mature trees.



“With the tax break, people can actually come out ahead,” says Ted Reiff, president of The ReUse People of America, Inc. (TRP), a nonprofit that salvages and sells reusable building materials; it has rerouted 320,000 tons from landfills since its start in 1993. “But not everyone can afford the up-front cost or to wait for the tax refund.”

While the charitable tax deduction has been available for decades, consumer awareness about applying it to salvaged home materials has begun to mushroom only over the last five years or so. During this time, Reiff says his firm has seen a 15 to 25 percent increase in home deconstruction and that it now handles about 350 jobs a year nationwide. When you consider U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics, which estimate that an average 2,000-square-foot home produces about 127 tons (or 370 cubic yards) of demolition debris, TRP alone is diverting a whole lotta floorboards, lumber, toilets and the like from landfills.

Why is deconstruction gaining popularity now? Reiff credits a perfect storm of factors, including heightened consumer awareness, rapidly filling landfills (and the difficulty of obtaining permits for new ones), take-out-a-second-mortgage-level landfill-disposal fees and tighter dumping restrictions. There’s also another catalyst: consumer ­concerns about the carbon footprint of producing and transporting new construction materials.

Interestingly enough, Reiff says that about 10 percent of TRP customers ­deconstruct houses for purely altruistic reasons, receiving bupkes in terms of financial benefits. “They just think that running a bulldozer through a house is bad karma,” he says.