Pre-fab houses fight image problem

Despite all they deliver in appearance, economy and efficiency, factory built homes have an image problem.

The rap is something Canadian. Referred to as "pre-fabs", these clones of conventional homes and their less-expensive cousins — "mobile homes without wheels" — strike many as unimaginative.

But logic and foreign trends point to manufactured dwellings, particularly modular homes, (where every wall, floor, ceiling and roof component of what essentially is a conventional dwelling is made indoors and then assembled on-site) as the wave of the future.

From 30 per cent in 1975, the share of all new U.S. homes that came out of factories had risen by 1992 to 50 per cent. In Japan, the increase was from one per cent to 20 per cent and in Sweden, from 30 per cent to 90 per cent.

That hasn’t been the case in Canada. Here, production of both mobile and modular homes has remained almost static.

Not only are today’s full-sized modular homes as technically advanced as any on-site-built house, most are as attractive. And they offer speedier move-in times. Typically, a custom model, with all plumbing, oil, gas or electric heating place, can be occupied on a lot of the buyer’s choice within 12 weeks, compared with four months for a site-built dwelling.

Another big asset: the manufacturer can assemble the house almost anywhere — a big plus where experienced construction labour may be hard to find.

Doug Penson, vice-president of sales for Royal Homes Ltd., a major pre-fab builder in Wingham, Ontario, suggests that seniors and baby boomers alike are starting to discover the advantages of manufactured dwellings and mobiles.

Penson, whose firm sells only within Ontario but is typical of others across Canada, notes that seniors, in particular, are being attracted by the hassle-free aspect of dealing through manufactured-home builders. And Robin Morrison, a Newmarket, Ont., architect who specializes in cottage-country projects, agrees.

"Someone wanting a new home on a specific piece of land would normally have to ferret out and deal with an architect, an engineer and a builder," Morrison notes. "By dealing with a manufactured-home firm, all this comes built into the price of the home. Companies negotiate a custom design with the owner, arrange to have the foundation built, transport the components anywhere in the province and assemble the home with their own labour — in effect, delivering a turnkey product to the purchaser. All the owner has to provide is the lot, the financing and a lawyer, as well as purchasing appliances and hook-up to local water, sewer and power sources."

Penson concedes that the industry has been hurt by its image problem. Also by a few of its own making such as poor marketing — "maybe Canadians can’t break that old habit of building everything on site, step by step."

But manufactured homes, he says, also cost about five per cent less than units built on-site. (One reason, he argues, is that building inside a factory reduces the down time that normally hits builders having to cope with bad weather. Another is that factories allow for the use of more efficient machinery.)

"On top of that," Penson says, "factory-built homes not only command premium re-sale prices, lenders know them and will loan readily on them."

It may seem a contradiction that the strength of the business — factory uniformity — is also its biggest weakness. How, for example, can someone design a structure that is relatively uniform and still have the special qualities that most people look for in their own home?

One answer is that today’s manufacturers have a powerful design tools at their disposal — the personal computer.

Computer-aided Design (CAD) has enabled manufacturers to offer buyers almost anything they want. Today, the buyer can sit at a computer with the manufacturer and see full-colour renderings of all types of homes. These renderings can then be turned, changed and enhanced with just a few keystrokes. This process is now becoming common among many manufacturers.

There are other good reasons to consider factory-built housing, not the least of which is being able to wed a home of the owner‘s choice to a piece of land tailor-made to his or her lifestyle.

But a word of caution: It makes little difference if you paid $100,000 or $1 million for a house if it starts to fall apart before the ink is dry on the mortgage. Clearly, it makes sense to look for some warranties on the work you’re paying for. One way to ensure a satisfactory job is to hold back a portion of the final payment to the manufacturer.

If this isn’t possible, schedule a walkthrough with him about a month or two after moving in. Point out any defects in workmanship and materials you consider sub-standard. Then follow up with a letter outlining the same to all concerned parties. This will serve as useful documentation if you ever need to resolve any problems in court.