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Modular homes gain fans, end home-building woes -- Page 2

By Pat Curry
"We just take it to the natural next step," he says. "Does it make sense to buy an automobile in which the components are dropped on your driveway to assemble in your garage, or to have it built in a factory?"

A common misconception about modular or panelized houses is that they're not built as well as a site-built house. But a modular house actually is structurally stronger because the modules are engineered to withstand transportation and being picked up by a crane, Flaherty says. And they're precision-made in a factory, which means straight walls and level floors.

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Accurate statistics on the percentage of new homes built with the systems are hard to obtain, Fulton says, but roughly 3 percent of new houses are modular or log houses. That figure jumps to 10 percent outside metropolitan areas. The most popular region for modular houses is the Northeast, where it's been a well-established option for many years.

It's also difficult to pin down cost savings. The builders do save money in terms of labor, materials and on-site waste, but much of the savings is negated by the transportation costs. Snyder says that home buyers might be able to save between 5 percent and 10 percent, depending on the house.

The big savings is in time and frustration. With the shorter time frame, however, a buyer could save money on the construction financing and be able to work more accurately with a lender to lock in mortgage rates.

Virginia Tech's O'Brien went with modular construction for a couple of reasons. He had designed some starter homes that were appropriate for a modular building process and learned enough to decide it was a great idea. He liked the idea that it was built in a factory; it meant the materials were never left on site to be damaged or stolen. Plus, the best rate he could obtain for a loan at the time was 19 percent.

"I had worked out the financing ahead of time and I knew that every week I could save was real money," O'Brien says. "I had a neighbor who was building a house at the same time and it took six months. Five months of savings was huge. It helped us get into a house we could afford."

Consumers who are interested in buying a modular house should do what they would with any builder: Do a background check and ask for references from customers. Additionally, they should try to arrange a visit to the manufacturer.

"If you have the opportunity to see where your home is going to be born, go see it," Fulton says. "It blew my mind. Once you see it in the factory, it all clicks in your head, and there's no way you can hold on to the preconceived notions about building systems."

Prospective buyers also will need to make sure that a modular house can be delivered and built on their site. The modules are shipped on flatbed trailers and are assembled with a crane. While there are no limits on how far the modules can be shipped, longer distances will add to the cost. Then there is the matter of highway limitations.

"In the Northeast, different states have different regulations in terms of how and where these trucks carrying building components can travel," Fulton says. "Compare that with the Midwest, where interstates are straight and wide. We have a member who ships modules that are 20 feet tall in Nebraska. They know where the three bridges are in the state."

Land or zoning restrictions also will need to be checked. Fulton says that builders generally don't run into problems once officials see the house plans. But some neighborhoods do have restrictive covenants against factory-built housing as a way to keep out trailers.

"They just don't get it," Fulton says. "These houses are conventionally built, just not completely on-site. Most people have probably been in a system-built home and didn't realize it."

That includes everyone who's ever toured Thomas Edison's winter estate in Fort Myers, Fla. It was built in sections in Maine in 1885 and shipped to Florida on four schooners. It's still there.

Pat Curry is a freelance writer based in Georgia.


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-- Posted: July 22, 2004

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