Before Buying a Prefab
SEARCHING for a vacation home to complement nearly 50 acres in Pope Valley, Calif., Dan Edmonds-Waters studied home designs online, visited a factory and even traveled to Missouri to tour a house. All this in his quest to find the perfect prefabricated home.
Some designs didn’t have his desired upgrades and finishes, he said, while many floor plans that looked spacious online felt cramped when he saw the actual houses.
“The rooms were too small,” Mr. Edmonds-Waters said. “There is no substitute for seeing a house in person. It’s like test-driving a car.”
He and his partner eventually decided on a four-bedroom plan with a modernist look from the architect Rocio Romero, whose Perryille, Mo., company designs and makes prefab homes. The house fit their budget and was built in about 10 months at a cost of $300 a square foot, including installation and finishes. This, he said, was much less than a custom-designed modernist home, which would have “cost a fortune” because the architecture fees alone could have topped 17 percent of the overall costs.
Makers and designers of prefab houses promote the magic combination of less construction time and, often, lower building costs, because most of the work is done in a factory. They also appeal to second-home owners who want to avoid constant visits to the construction site. But as the prefab field grows, you need to do your legwork.
Prefab is an umbrella term that covers any home partly built in a factory. It includes everything from modulars that arrive in just a few sections — complete with attached walls, flooring and even finishes — to what are called panelized homes, which are delivered in smaller pieces. Manufacturers range from those focused on more modern designs to makers of Cape Cods and center-hall colonial styles.
With any designer, ask how many homes the firm has built and how many are in the pipeline, and arrange to visit a finished house. The growing prefab field has led many designers to jump in, but not all them actually have designs that have been built.
“There are a lot of designers doing computer renderings, but the number who have actually built homes is very small,” said Steve Glenn, chief executive and founder of LivingHomes in Santa Monica, Calif., which sells houses by two designers.
Finding the right design is about not just visual appeal, but also such practical issues as finding one that can actually be built on the site. After all, the house has to be delivered on a flatbed truck. And it can be nearly impossible to deliver a modular house to a site that is off a windy, narrow road or one off a route with low overpasses.
Prefab design firms also offer levels of hand holding that take owners through not only the design phase, but also the permit process and the final construction. In some cases, the owner is responsible for hiring a general contractor, while some firms, like Marmol Radziner Prefab in Los Angeles, where designs start at $235,500 for a 660-square-foot, metal-sided one-bedroom house with a deck (not including delivery or the cost of the foundation) take a comprehensive approach.
“We offer a full suite of services,” said Leo Marmol, one of the firm’s partners. “We not only design the house but we own our own factory, and we are a licensed general contractor.”
Also ask what changes can be made to plans and how complete the house is when it arrives from the factory, a variable that can affect construction time. Some modular houses arrive 90 percent finished, with light fixtures in place; others need considerably more work from a contractor.
Hive Modular, a Minneapolis firm selling homes that typically range from $140 to $200 a square foot (including delivery but not inclusive of certain changes to plans, like changing the exterior finish) teamed up with 10 factories to produce its designs. Not all of those factories are able, for example, to install the type of Italian bath fixtures that the company uses.
“The finish level can vary dramatically,” said Paul Stankey, a partner at Hive. “From our factory in Nebraska, houses arrive 95 percent completed. The tile is in, but not grouted. The cabinets are there and the flooring is down. Even the walls are painted.”