- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A brand new home in a matter of weeks? It’s true. The newest factory-built homes offer a traditional look in a fraction of the time. As more buyers weigh their options and want an affordable new residence without the long wait for new construction, the stigma attached to this style of home is disappearing.

They are light-years ahead of the old double-wide mobile home. Manufactured or modular houses are constructed in a factory and then transported and erected on the buyer’s lot. They typically cost up to 35 percent less than a traditional, stick-built home.

A casual glance reveals little difference between manufactured and modular homes. A manufactured home must meet building codes administered by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. A modular or prefabricated home is built to the codes of the state, locality or region where the house will become someone’s residence.

High land costs and zoning, especially in urban and suburban markets, keep out many factory-built homes. But this kind of housing is popular in outlying, less expensive areas, says Bruce Savage of the Manufacturing Housing Institute in Arlington (www.manufacturedhousing.org).

Some experts say, however, that more factory-built homes could be coming to the Washington region in a neighborhood near you. Some stick-built homes already use components that are built in factories.

The manufactured homes are delivered all in one piece or are built in sections, then transported to the home site. The structure is assembled or lifted onto a foundation and permanently anchored.

Although delivering a home on a truck may raise the neighbor’s eyebrows, today’s versions of factory-built homes are technologically advanced and include a host of modern amenities and styles. In fact, in many instances it is hard for folks to tell a manufactured home from a traditional residence built on the site.

Mr. Savage says, “New designs include two-story models, vaulted ceilings, wood-burning fireplaces, and lots of state-of-the-art kitchens and luxury baths.”

Ron Dunlap, executive director of the Richmond-based Virginia Manufactured and Modular Housing Association, says that the size of manufactured homes is increasing and that more modular homes are being constructed with two stories. This was unheard of as recently as five years ago, he says.

In Fairfax County, a stately brick landscaped sign welcomes visitors to the manufactured housing community of the Meadows of Chantilly.

In the neighborhood of what will be about 500 houses when completed, floor plans range from 750 square feet to more than 2,000 square feet. Homes have upgraded kitchens with islands. Many also have fireplaces, Palladian windows, inviting front porches and whirlpool tubs.

Community Manager Mike Benson says the neighborhood was a trailer park nine years ago before being converted into a single-family home community of manufactured houses.

Amenities available to residents include a swimming pool, clubhouse, playgrounds, fitness center and picnic area.

The company that owns and operates Meadows of Chantilly, Equity Lifestyle Properties Inc. (www.mhchomes.com), reports on its Web site that prices for homes, not including land, run from $87,900 for a two-bedroom, two-bath home, to $164,900 for a three-bedroom, two-bath. Lots in the community are leased to the homeowner for less than $800 a month.

A Web search yields listings for three-bedroom town houses in Chantilly listed in the $400,000 range.

Because visual appeal is a large concern, designers and architects have helped change the image of manufactured homes. Industry insiders say choices of styles, sizes and custom details have boosted sales. Others point out, however,that manufactured housing still faces perception and zoning challenges.

Mr. Savage says factory-built homes are no longer considered entry-level and low-end.

“It used to be primarily a newlywed or retiree market, but more and more Americans are seeking value for their housing dollar and turning to this housing option,” Mr. Savage says.

“There is no typical buyer in our community. It’s across the board, from people who are looking for a home to retire to young families,” says Mr. Benson, who adds that Texas-based Palm Harbor Homes Inc., a builder of manufactured and custom modular homes, constructs the houses for Meadows of Chantilly.

Cost and fast turnaround are big drawing cards.

“Housing costs have been rising so fast that more and more people are being priced out of the typical site-built home,” Mr. Savage says. “This is not only related to the cost of land, but the cost of labor and materials has been adding to this inflationary spiral.”

The Manufactured Housing Institute reports that manufactured homes range from 10 to 35 percent less per square foot than conventional site- built houses.

“Site-built homes can take six to eight months to build, while manufactured and modular homes can be completed in three to five weeks,” Mr. Dunlap says.

He likes to use the analogy of a car to make his point. “Most people couldn’t afford a car if it was not mass-produced. By doing so, it saves time and money,” he says.

Mr. Dunlap recalls one buyer who was going to have a modular home built in Arlington that was the same size as the stick-built homes, but the cost was about 35 percent less.

He says modular homes are becoming more prevalent. When they encounter no major zoning issues, people can — and do — put them in subdivisions next to site-built homes.

“People tend to get upset when the crane comes in, but once the home is completed, you can’t tell it apart from the others,” Mr. Dunlap says.

Some traditional builders are using factory-built components, such as engineered floor joists and roofing trusses, trying to offset the rising costs of building these components with the traditional, on-site method, Mr. Savage says.

Pulte Homes Inc., which has relied on traditional stick building for the past 50 years, has experimented with computerized factory building methods. The firm opened its Pulte Home Science plant in Manassas in 2004.

This was an attempt to test construction of key home components inside a controlled, computer-aided environment, says Melanie Hearsch, Pulte’s corporate communications manager.

Pulte manufactured four main components at the PHS facility — precast concrete basement walls and foundations; structurally insulated panel walls; steel studs; and floor decks.

But after producing components for about 850 Pulte homes in Northern Virginia, Pulte decided to close the plant for economic reasons.

“Due to current market conditions, the plant was operating at about 25 percent capacity by the end of 2006 and on [Jan. 26] we reached the decision to close the facility,” Ms. Hearsch says.

Although Pulte customers praised the factory-built components, Ms. Hearsch says, “the longer term effects of premanufacturing and transporting sizable, heavy components to a limited geographic area proved economically unviable.”

Gopal Ahluwalia of the National Homebuilders Association says a factory is the only difference between traditional homes and manufactured or modular homes. However, he doesn’t think there is a tremendous demand for factory-built homes. He blames that on marketing.

“A good marketing job has not been done for manufactured and modular homes,” he says.

Perception — and zoning regulations — are the twin obstacles to acceptance of less-costly manufactured housing.

“Manufactured homes do well in rural areas, but zoning prevents them from being built in most cities,” Mr. Dunlap says.

“More and more municipalities are recognizing the need to provide affordable housing in their neighborhoods, and many of them are becoming more receptive to other construction options, such as factory-built homes,” Mr. Savage says.

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