A Guide to Prefabricated Homes

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Though jokes may abound about trailer parks, prefabricated housing, more often called prefab housing, is growing in popularity, and offers many advantages over traditional housing. No longer just tiny, boring boxy houses, today’s prefab homes offer considerable customization.

Prefab housing is not a new idea. Kits with all the pieces to build a home have been sold since the early 1900s. One of the biggest companies selling these prefab home kits was Sears, which offered dozens of kit designs through their mail order catalog, and sold around 75,000 homes between 1908 and 1940.

Since then, the prefabricated housing field has come a long way. Advances in technology, architectural interest and green building techniques have all had a major impact on the prefab housing market.

What is Prefabricated Housing?

In general, the term “prefabricated” means the parts of the home were built in a factory, transported to the building site, and assembled into the designed home. This is in contrast to a stick-built or site-built house, which is a traditional home built from the ground up on a foundation. The term “prefab” tends to refer to modular homes, though sometimes overlaps into the manufactured home as well. There is often confusion over the difference between a manufactured and a modular home.

Manufactured houses, which are often called mobile homes (though that term was formally discarded in 1976), are factory-built on a permanent steel frame that is used for transporting the home. The manufactured home has wheels, making it easy to transport to its final building site. Frequently the wheels are then removed, and the house placed on a permanent foundation. Many communities have different zoning requirements for manufactured homes, and banks often have different mortgage requirements for this type of home as well. Manufactured homes are subject to federal building codes, called HUD codes, rather than the local building requirements. Most often, this type of home is less expensive than a stick-built or modular home.

Modular houses, often called prefab houses, are factory-built in sections, usually by room, then transported by truck to their building destination. Once at the building site, the home is assembled on a foundation. Unlike the steel frame of a mobile home, the modular home has a wood and steel framework more similar to a traditional house. Modular houses are usually more upscale and often larger than a manufactured house, and generally quite a bit more expensive. The modular construction and framework allow prefab houses to be multi-story, and quite customized. In fact, modular homes can be pricier than stick-built homes if the owner desires many upgrades. Modular homes are subject to the same local building codes as stick-built houses, and once assembled, are indistinguishable from a traditionally built home.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Prefab Home

  • One of the biggest advantages of a prefab home is time. A prefab home is generally assembled and ready in a few days to a few weeks. Compare that to a site-built home, which will take months to be completed.
  • Price can be an advantage, though not always. The final price of your prefab home will depend on the amount of upgrades and customization you desire. Construction costs are lower though, usually saving you 15 to 20% over a comparable site-built home.
  • Prefab homes can be very energy-efficient. In fact, many prefab homes qualify to receive the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating. This will provide big savings in heating and cooling expenses.
  • There is considerable quality control in the factories that produce prefab homes, and continued inspection as the home is assembled and completed on its final foundation.
  • Prefab construction is very durable, often stronger than a comparable site-built home.
  • You can usually customize the home to your liking, and choose from a wide range of floor plans.
  • Prefab houses tend to be very eco-friendly.
  • A possible disadvantage, depending on your taste, is that many prefab homes are very modern in appearance.
  • Some areas still do not zone for prefab houses, usually due to confusion with manufactured homes. This same confusion can make it difficult to get a loan for a prefab house.
  • Because the house is transported, some materials such as brick are not typically used.
  • You will need to find a local contractor to oversee the assembly of the house.

Steps in Building a Prefab Home

The process of building a prefab home can vary widely, but generally, the process will involve:

  1. Choose the building site. Be sure it is zoned for modular homes.
  2. Research and visit prefab home manufacturers. Different builders have different styles of home available, so shop around until you find the style you love.
  3. Carefully discuss the costs of the home you have chosen. Be sure you are clear on exactly what is included.
  4. Discuss any desired customization.
  5. Apply for a loan with your bank or credit union.
  6. Get necessary permits and find a contractor to assemble the house.
  7. Pour the foundation.
  8. The house arrives by truck. A crane will be necessary to move it into position.
  9. Assembly begins with the floor. The walls go up, and the rest of the house is assembled.
  10. The interior furnishings are installed.
  11. Final touches are added.

Whether your modular home is a small cottage of just a few hundred square feet, or a large, multi-storied structure filled with the latest architectural and design features, there are many positive features to buying a prefabricated home. No longer restricted to the trailer park, prefabricated homes offer a wide range of designs, custom upgrades and cost savings.

Last Updated: June 24, 2012
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening to home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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