Junk or Jewel in the Rough? The skinny on pre-fab homes

Karl Fendelander | Improvement Center Columnist | September 3, 2013

Tracing their lineage back to houses like the popular Sears Modern Homes sold for the first half of the 20th century, modular or pre-fabricated homes have had quite a history. A huge number of these pre-fab homes are still standing and holding up just as well as any other house on the block -- probably the vast majority of them, in fact -- because of the quality of the materials used and the solid construction. Had things stayed this way, manufactured homes might have held on to a great reputation. However, today the term 'manufactured home' is more likely to conjure up images of aging, dilapidated trailer parks than dream homes.

Over the past decade, a group of companies around the globe have been working diligently to change this image and bring homes assembled on a factory floor back into the limelight. These homes come in a huge variety of designs and are almost infinitely customizable. After all, if Sears could offer 447 different types of homes more than fifty years ago, just think what computer aided design and manufacturing can produce today. From hyper-modern to classic farmhouse, pre-fabricated houses can fit any need, meet any design requirement, look like any dream home you've imagined -- and do it all under budget.

The basic idea of pre-fabricated homes is that pieces are built on a factory floor and then shipped to your property. There, they're put together like building blocks and hooked up to utilities. Some companies build 80 to 90 percent of the home on a factory floor before shipping off large chunks to be fit together on site. Others use smaller pieces designed to perfectly go together to produce your design like a snap-together model, allowing the manufacturing plant to be brought right to you. However it's done, the process always saves time and money, coming in at around 5 to 10 percent less expensive than a traditionally built stick home. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average cost per square foot of a pre-fab home is $76.80, which is a substantial savings over the average stick home's $94.34 per square foot. That's not to say that there aren't companies out there making expensive modular mansions, of course, just that a similar product would set you back quite a bit more -- and take a lot longer to build.

In fact, the low construction time is where a lot of the savings come from. The speedy build keeps construction costs and unforeseen delays low. There's a lot less time for weather to stop construction, for example. Check out a sample timeline from one manufacturer:

  1. Design and permitting: 1-2 months
  2. Ordering materials: 2-3 weeks
  3. Factory build: 1-2 weeks
  4. Delivery: 1 week
  5. Installation: 30-90 days

Above and beyond the short time it takes to put everything together, pre-fabricated homes allow for easy use of some of the most advanced and greenest materials on the market -- materials that aren't always available locally. That's part of the reason why eco-friendly pre-fabricated homes are one of the hottest new green design trends, with several companies offering net-zero energy kit homes at a fraction of the price of traditionally built houses. Other companies are working together with green interior designers to put together complete turn-key, planet-friendly packages.

A few other things to know about pre-fab homes:

  • There are going to be extra costs not included in the base price. Many of these companies advertise a flat price for soup-to-nuts construction, but this can be a touch misleading. Carving out a suitable pad on your property, connecting to utilities, and/or putting in a septic system can add thousands more to the price. You'd have to pay these fees for a stick home, too, but it's still something to keep in mind.
  • They can take a beating. Because of their module-to-module construction and the fact that they need to be built to survive highway transit, these homes tend to be a bit more sturdy than traditional stick homes. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) noted that modular homes stand up better to hurricanes and other intense weather.
  • Not everyone is a believer, so selling may take a while. If you're looking to sell your pre-fab home eventually, you may have to put a bit more energy and patience into the process of convincing buyers. It shouldn't be difficult, thanks to all the benefits, but it's important to note that not everyone is convinced pre-fab is much more than a gimmick.

They're quick to build, last a long time, highly customizable and less expensive than other options. All in all, pre-fabricated homes are like the housing equivalent of having your cake and eating it too.

About the Author

Karl Fendelander cut his teeth on web writing in the late nineties and has been plugged in to the newest technology and tuned in to the latest trends ever since. With an eye for design and an ear for language, Karl has created content and managed digital media for startups and established companies alike. When he unplugs, Karl can be found biking about town and hiking and climbing throughout the West.