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Prefab Precision: Tips for Working on Factory-Built Houses

Prefab houses aren’t built in the traditional way, and that means they hide some unexpected complications when it’s time to repair or renovate.

Designed in component, built in factories in modules and assembled and finished on-site, prefab houses are an increasingly popular pick for homeowners who want a cost- and time-efficient process. Here’s what you need to know when approaching a modular home.

The houses are designed to comply with most building codes and standards, but industry standards are still aligning, according to the Modular Building institute, a trade association. Foundations and some finishes must comply with local building codes, but by definition, many elements of wiring, plumbing and structure are standardized and likely are not consistent with local building preferences.

The modular industry positions itself as progressive, especially when it comes to energy-efficiency. With economies of scale working in its favor, modular companies can afford to invest in the latest energy-saving materials, components and design. That means you may well encounter new and unfamiliar materials and features, such as solar components.

And the off-site component construction process means that wood is not exposed to the elements and moisture during framing, which means it’s usually dryer and stiffer. Modular houses tend to shift and settle less.

One big bonus: You can find out what you’re getting into. Homeowners usually have comprehensive documentation, including plans, materials, and photos of open walls, that can provide the next contractors with invaluable guidance. Modular companies typically document the building process, taking photos of open walls and leaving a complete diary of the construction process, including brand names of materials and fixtures. “That takes homeowners trouble later,” says Brian Abramson, co-founder of Method Homes, a Seattle-based modular home company.

Expect to bring your A-game when approaching changes to finishes. The modular process dictates, in large part, the style and vice versa: Modular homeowners gravitate toward simpler, streamlined architecture that can be built in components. The typical minimalist design means that there’s less millwork and trim to cover imperfect joins and intersections, says Abramson.

It’s a look popular with higher-end customers. Most of Method’s completed houses are valued at $1 million or more; one recently sold for $5 million.

Check out these additional tips as well:

  • Know the lingo. High-end houses partially built in factories and assembled on-site, in compliance with local building codes, are known as pre-fab or modular houses. “Manufactured homes” are a different animal: They are usually less expensive houses, almost completely built in factories and installed local, often in compliance primarily with Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) standards. Check out HUD’s website about manufactured housing.
  • Some prefab companies offer factory tours, which are a great chance to become acquainted with their process.

For prefab houses, there can be unexpected complications when it’s time to repair or renovate. Homeowners often pick these homes to save on costs and time, but that doesn’t mean you should go unprepared. With these tips, you can better approach a modular home should your client have one.

Joanne Cleaver is a widely published freelance business author, writer and former deputy business/real estate editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She and her husband have renovated three historic homes.

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