Factory-built homes back in vogue

Many buyers attracted by energy savings, beauty, convenience - Remember the tight, cute "kit" cottage you saw at the annual Home Show (one of five clustered in the featured vacation-home area) that would fit just perfectly on the wooded lot you've always wanted in the mountains?

It seems that builders and manufacturers always are urging consumers to dream -- whether it be a stately primary residence or a precut timber home composed of hand-milled Montana logs trucked directly to your site.

More and more dream homes have gone inside -- at least for all or part of the construction phase -- as curious consumer’s research and locate the new creative designs, energy-efficient features, often lower costs and environmentally controlled production of prefabricated residences. And, the finished product absolutely demolishes the preconceived notion of a "kit."

Modular homes, manufactured, structural insulated panels and other types of "prefab" housing are reaching a growing segment of new-home buyers yet they are very different in the way they are built. The built-to-be-towed house -- in a custom, preassembled package or enclosed finished unit -- has changed dramatically, and so have its occupants.

For example, modular home builders have begun to target last-time home buyers: customers who know what they want and are willing to pay outside the "affordable" range.

According to Sheri Koones, author of "Prefabulous: The House of Your Dreams Delivered Fresh from the Factory" (Taunton Press, $25), "prefab" has become a generic term that describes any type of construction that is partially or mostly done in the factory. Often the term "prefab" is associated only with manufactured homes or trailers that are built to a HUD code and have a metal chassis. These homes are brought to the house site on their own wheels and are not placed on a foundation.

"Today, there are many prefab houses that are built to adhere to residential building codes and are built with a variety of different methods," Koones said. "Sometimes referred to as 'system built' houses, these include modular, panelized, timber-frame, log, concrete, steel and hybrid techniques. They are customized, beautiful and rival the most elaborate site-built homes."

Manufactured homes and modular homes are two different products built under two different codes. Modular homes typically are custom-built and usually include a concrete foundation. They are not found in mobile-home parks and are governed by the same building codes as conventional stick-built homes. They are assembled in a factory and trucked to the building site. They are usually financed with conventional loan programs.

The big change for the manufactured-home industry occurred in 1976. That's the year HUD enacted standardized building requirements for mobile homes, essentially substituting one national code for numerous state codes.

"Mobile" is a relative term. These days a custom prefab could roll into a home site with 4,000 square feet of living space and include everything except a basement, and even those have been added. The sunken bath, country kitchen and custom fireplace may be on wheels for the trip, but it's very unlikely they will move again.

The size and topography of the lot often dictates the type of prefab system that can be used. And, system typically dictates price.

"There can be a savings in modular, panelized and structural insulated panels, depending on the location and complexity of the house," Koones said. "Other methods may be more costly -- such as timber-frame, log, concrete and steel. Some of these methods, such as concrete and steel, are particularly durable and will be standing for many years. In the long run, these might be considered cost-saving investments."

Also, some of these prefab methods reduce the carrying costs because of the energy savings that can be achieved with the method of construction. Structural insulated panels (SIPs), for example, have shown to substantially cut down on the need for heating and cooling.

Scheduling can definitely be a benefit to families on the move, especially during the colder, wetter months of the year. Think about it … materials are stored and brought finished to the site, curtailing weather-related losses and the anxiety brought by the length of time your new home is "open" to the elements. Also, there could be less disruption to the neighborhood because much of the building process is completed in a warehouse.

The possibility of having most of your home built indoors during the rainy months? Sounds like an intriguing concept.

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