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Tales of a Modular Home Builder


Mapping Your Home’s Exterior Elevation to Your Topography

Three Types of Exterior Elevation Detail

I mentioned in my last post that before you authorize the modular dealer to build your home you need to see a complete exterior elevation plan that shows what your home will look like, taking into account your property’s slopes and contours after your GC completes his button-up work and site-built structures. To provide this plan, someone must integrate three types of detail. The first shows how the home will look after the GC completes his button-up work.  The purpose of this detail is to show what the modular manufacturer is building. It assumes the GC is not building any other structures on site and that your property is perfectly flat. The second type of detail adds all of the GC’s site-built structures, such as a garage, porch or deck, along with any extra finishes he’s applying to the home. The third level of detail depicts how the property’s grades and landscaping will integrate with the first two levels to more accurately depict what will be built.

The Topography Detail for a Complete Exterior Elevation

Few builders, modular or stick, provide the third set of details, those that capture the property’s topography. This is not important if the land is perfectly flat. It is important, however, when the exterior elevation plans depict the home on a flat lot but the property actually slopes front to back or side to side. For instance, if the finished grade varies more than a couple of feet around your home, more of the foundation will be exposed at the low points. Once you see an accurate plan showing a large section of the foundation above the finished grade on one side, you may want to consider replacing that section with wood-framed kneewalls or walk-out walls. This may in turn lead you to relocate the furnace and water heater to maximize the benefits that the added windows will provide. To accomplish this, you may have to modify the house plan to move the chimney closer to the new furnace location. If you do not discover this situation until after the excavation work has begun, it may be too late to change the house plan and relocate the chimney, which could mean that the furnace is stuck in the middle of what could have been a very useful and affordable basement family room or office.

The topography of your land may influence the design and cost of your home.  For example, a sloped property lends itself to a walk-out basement.  You will need an exterior elevation that shows the topography to see how best to do this.

The topography of your land may influence the design and cost of your home. For example, a sloped property lends itself to a walk-out basement. You will need an exterior elevation that shows the topography to see how best to do this.

An accurate exterior elevation plan may also make you aware that the slope in your backyard is so steep it will require a few additional steps to the rear porch. You may prefer to avoid a long set of stairs. Learning of this potential situation in advance will allow you to eliminate the problem by purchasing additional fill for the low spot. Since the fill will cost a bit of money, however, you may not be able to afford it unless you omit something from your modular contract, which you will only be able to do if you make the decision when you review the exterior elevation plans. Waiting until the GC begins the excavation will be too late, since you will have already signed-off on the plans and specifications. Another situation that is often revealed by an exterior elevation plan with topographical detail is when there needs to be a step down or up between parts of your home. For example, you might need three steps to enter the home from the garage because of a gentle slope across the front of the property. One way to avoid the steps is to build a retaining wall on the side of the garage so that additional fill can raise the garage floor without the threat of erosion. You will want to know about this condition while you are still in the planning stages so that you can budget the additional funds required.

Planning Issues Revealed by a Complete Exterior Elevation

As these examples illustrate, the natural contours of your land can significantly affect how you build your home. The more you know before construction begins, the more options you can consider and factor into your design and budget. Consequently, ask the dealer to show the property’s topography when he draws your home and site-built structures. Your GC or a surveyor, however, will need to provide the dealer with this information. The most accurate topographical detail comes from using a transit or its equivalent. The GC may suggest that he can come close enough by walking the property, but line-of-site judgments made with the naked eye are often inaccurate, especially when a property is heavily wooded or covered with thick vegetation. The only way to accurately determine the topography is for someone to take detailed site measurements with the appropriate equipment. You will have to pay for this service, but unless your property is perfectly flat, it will be worth the expense. Keep in mind that even if you receive exterior elevation plans that conform to your property’s grades, they may not represent exactly how your home will sit on the lot after it is built. That’s because the actual finished grade will depend on how deep the foundation is installed, which will partly depend on the soil and groundwater conditions discovered after the basement hole is dug. Groundwater and ledge can require the house to be raised substantially higher than what was drawn on the proposed exterior elevation plan. The finished grade will also depend on how much fill, if any, is brought to or removed from the site to compensate for these conditions. Unless you dig some test holes on the property before finalizing the decisions on your home, you will not be able to anticipate and plan for these exterior elevation changes. Only after your property is finish-graded and landscaped will you truly see what it is going to look like. For more information about how to get an accurate exterior elevation of how your home will look when finished, see Designing a Modular Home, Modular Home Specifications and Features, and The General Contractor’s Responsibilities for Building a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.

Seeing the Exterior Elevation You’re Getting

Getting the Exterior Elevation You Want            

Last week I pointed out that the marketing literature for most house plans displays a dressed-up exterior elevation. This is significant because the ornate features shown are not usually included in the standard base price for the plans. Many a customer has assumed they were getting everything they saw in the literature drawing, only to find out when the house was built that they were getting a simpler, less adorned version.

I suggested last week that there are two ways to make sure you are getting what you want.  The first is to look closely at the specifications listed in the modular builder’s estimate, and the second is to have the builder provide you with a drawing of the exterior elevation showing exactly what you’re getting.

Three Levels of Exterior Elevation

There are three levels of detail that must be included if you are to get an exact drawing of what your finished home will look like:  the manufacturer must draw what you are ordering, not a generic drawing; the dealer or general contractor must add the site-built structures; and someone must map both of these onto the slopes and contours of your property.   I’ll discuss the first two requirements today and the third in my next post.

The marketing literature for this T-Ranch plan shows the following options: a 12/12 cape roof, one A-Dormer with a hip roof, a reverse gable, gable returns, vinyl clapboard and scalloped siding, cultured stone siding, a front porch, an upgrade front door, and window moldings around the attic window.

The marketing literature for this T-Ranch plan shows the following options: a 12/12 cape roof, one A-Dormer with a hip roof, a reverse gable, gable returns, vinyl clapboard and scalloped siding, cultured stone siding, a front porch, an upgrade front door, and window moldings around the attic window. Your modular dealer and general contractor needs to include whichever options you select in their exterior elevation drawings, since these show what you will get.

Exterior Elevation of the Modules

All modular manufacturers will provide an elevation plan of your home, but not all of them will draw the exact home you are building. They may instead give you a generic plan showing the home without any of the custom touches you’ve added. For example, they may not show the additional windows and sidelights at the front door you selected, and they may leave out the reverse gable you specified for the roof above your front door.

You should not settle for a generic elevation. Ask your modular dealer to provide you with an elevation plan of what you have ordered from the manufacturer before you authorize him to build it. If his manufacturer will not provide the plan and he is unable to create it himself, ask him to have it drawn by someone else. Even if you have to pay extra for an accurate plan, you need to see it. Little things like the spacing of the windows can matter a lot, especially when you have taken a standard plan and lengthen the plan, added windows, or simply moved some windows within a room to accommodate furniture. In addition, if you are dressing up a plan’s no-frills standard look, you will want to see if your vision holds up to your own scrutiny.

Exterior Elevation of Site Built Structures

Asking the dealer to provide plan-specific elevation drawings will not be sufficient when you are having additional structures such as a garage, deck, or porch built on site. Unless your elevation plans include all site-built structures, you will not be able to review what your home will look like.

However, you might not get the needed assistance from your dealer if he is not serving as your GC. Your dealer may feel that since he is not completing the GC work, he does not know what the GC is planning to do. He may point out that the regulations governing modular construction in your state do not allow the manufacturer to include any of these site-built structures in its permit plans. He may correctly insist that state and local officials only allow the manufacturer to draw what it is building. While this is true, some dealers and manufacturers will help you by creating a separate set of plans that show the GC’s work. Before completing the drawings, they will ask you and your GC to provide the details, insist that you take responsibility for their accuracy, and charge you an additional fee for the assistance. You should make this investment.

Exterior Elevation of Modules and Site Built Structures

An alternative to having the dealer complete the elevation plans is to ask your GC to complete his own set of plans. The advantage to this approach is that he will know exactly what he is building. The disadvantage is that you will now have two sets of incomplete plans, one of your modular home and one of your GC-built structures. The only way they will appear on the same page is if the GC recreates the modular plans or another person integrates the details into a third set of plans, an impractical and wasteful step. This is why it is better to pay the dealer to provide a complete set of plans.

Remember, you need your modular dealer and general contractor to include whichever options you select in their exterior elevation drawings, since these, not their marketing literature, show what you will get.

For more information about how to an accurate exterior elevation of how your home will look when finished, see Designing a Modular Home, Modular Home Specifications and Features, and The General Contractor’s Responsibilities for Building a Modular Home

The Exterior Elevation You See May Not Be What You Get

The Exterior Elevation You See

House plans on the internet almost always show a dressed up home.  This is true whether the plans are offered by a builder or manufacturer (modular, stick, panelized, or log) or a company that just sells plans.  They all want to present an attractive façade because they know that your first response to a plan is likely to be based on its exterior elevation, not its floor plan.

This one-story home shows an exterior elevation with several optional features: cultured stone siding, a 12/12 roof with 2 reverse gables and gable returns, a garage with two bumpouts and a reverse gable, two circle top windows, an ornate front door, decorative moldings, and a rear chimney.

This one-story home shows an exterior elevation with several optional features: cultured stone siding, a 12/12 roof with 2 reverse gables and gable returns, a garage with two bumpouts and a reverse gable, two circle top windows, an ornate front door, decorative moldings, and a rear chimney.

There are many types of optional features that can be used to turn a plain appearance into an ornate one.  This often includes, for example, garages, porches, decks, taller roofs, dormers, return gables, decorative moldings, specialty windows, fancy front doors, and chimneys.

Getting the Exterior Elevation You Want

Embellishing the exterior elevation of a plan is reasonable as long as the modular builder makes clear what they are including in their price.   Sometimes this information doesn’t come out until you’ve received a detailed written estimate.  It won’t even come out then if the estimate only lists what is included and not what’s excluded.

There are two ways to make sure you are getting what you want.  The first is to look closely at the modular builder’s estimate, and then have the builder add the missing information.  The second is to have the builder provide you with a drawing of the exterior elevation showing exactly what you’re getting.

The Exterior Elevation Is Independent of the Floor Plan

When looking through a plan book, do not be misled by the pairing of floor plans and exterior elevation plans into thinking that you cannot make adjustments. In fact, each floor plan can have a multitude of exterior looks, and each exterior look can be applied to many different floor plans. For example, all homes can have a garage and porch, even if the artist has not included them in the drawing. Likewise, you can adjust the slope of the roof, add dormers and decorative gables, and opt for oversized roof overhangs if you choose, regardless of what you see in the drawing.

Remembering that each plan can have a simple, unadorned look and a complex, ornate look, as well as many looks in between, will free you up to consider some interesting floor plans that have been paired with what are unattractive elevation plans to your eye. It will also motivate you to take a second look at some desirable elevation plans that are matched with unworkable plans. A practical way to do this when you are looking at floor plans is to cover up the exterior elevation plans with a piece of paper. Otherwise you will find your eyes continually drawn to the elevation plans as you turn the pages.

For more information about ensuring the exterior elevation of your home will be just the way you want it, see Designing a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.

Minimizing Appraisal Problems

Appraisal Problems with New Construction         

Over the last few years, obtaining financing has been one of the most difficult problems for builders and customers. Not only have many banks been unwilling to lend, their appraisals for new construction have fallen so much that willing and qualified buyers have been unable to get sufficient financing.

The market is now greatly improved and continuing to get stronger.  More and more banks are willing to lend. But appraisals for new construction can still be a problem. The reason is that the sale price for a “comparable” existing home is often considerably less than the cost of building a new one.

Three Reasons Why There Are Still Appraisal Problems

There are three reasons why new homes cost more than existing homes. Land prices have remained steady in most places because land is a scarce commodity. As Mark Twain pointed out, they don’t make it any more. The percentage drop in the cost of construction labor, where it’s happened, isn’t anywhere near as great as the percentage drop in the price of existing homes. Few construction workers will accept a 40% pay cut. What has been especially surprising, even to seasoned builders, is the sharp spike in material costs. The increase has been fueled by an uptick in remodeling and commercial construction.  The three of these factors keep the cost for new construction higher than for existing homes.

Appraisals for new construction are based on comparing the proposed new home to recently sold homes similar in size and features. Since most sales are from existing stock, appraisals for new homes are often less than the cost to build them. This often prevents banks from lending the full amount needed by the buyer. Unless the buyer has sufficient cash to offset this shortfall, they can’t get a loan for the amount they need to build their home.

Minimize Appraisal Problems by Selecting Optional Features with High Value

Real estate appaisal

Minimize appraisal problems by selecting specifications that add the same or greater value than they cost.

So what can you do about this? It always helps to select optional specifications that add the same value as they cost. It helps even more if you choose features that add more value than they cost. Enlarging a modular home, for example, will almost always add more value than it costs, since factory assembly lines are very efficient. On the flip side, removing something that costs more than it adds in value will also bring the cost more in line with the appraisal. For example, replacing fiber cement siding with vinyl siding will substantially reduce the discrepancy between cost and appraisal. The appraised value of vinyl and fiber cement is comparable in most communities even though fiber cement costs much more. Similar results can be achieved by selecting vinyl windows instead of wood windows or by eliminating cathedral ceilings.

Minimize Appraisal Problems by Adding Other Work with High Value

Adding something you might not need, or didn’t want until the future, can sometimes increase the appraised value more than it costs. For example, if you select a cape design with one or two bedrooms on the first floor and an unfinished second floor, finishing a bedroom or two on the second floor might boost your appraisal substantially more than it costs. Of course this assumes you can afford the additional construction. Building your garage now rather than in the future might stretch your budge more than you prefer, but it may also be the only way to eliminate your appraisal shortfall.

For more information about minimizing appraisal problems, see Modular Home Specifications and Features in my book The Modular Home.

Modular Home Delivery Challenges

Modular Home Delivery Challenges         

A road sign indicating a winding road ahead for the next 5 miles

The dealer should confirm the modular home delivery route.

Although most building sites can take delivery of a modular home, there are some locations that require enough extra site work or a redesign of the house plan into smaller modules that building a modular home is not practical. Narrow approaching roads with hairpin turns, lots on the side of steep hills, and very narrow properties can pose challenges. The only way to know if a building lot can comfortably receive a modular home delivery is to have a modular dealer visit it.

But sometimes that’s not enough.  A few years ago we delivered a two-story home to an “easy” lot.  It was flat, wide, and deep with no trees to obstruct either the delivery or set.  The roads to the property were also straight and wide enough. Or at least they were when we completed our inspection of the route.

A week before delivery we were informed by the customer that our planned route had been closed by the town for six weeks to complete some emergency work to the sewer and water pipes. We immediately revisited the site and searched for an alternative route.  Fortunately there was one option, but unfortunately it required us to cross a very old, narrow wooden bridge that wasn’t rated to carry the weight of the modules.

Modular Home Delivery Backup Routes

We ultimately decided to use a very large crane to lift each module plus its carrier from one side of the bridge to the other. Ever since then we’ve always made sure to look for a back-up route to the property. However, we’ve not always been able to find a viable alternative.  Usually there is more than one route for a car, but the alternatives aren’t always wide or straight enough to handle the size of the modules.  Whenever we have any concern about the primary or backup routes, we talk to the town public works department to make sure they aren’t planning to close the road around the time of the scheduled delivery.

For more information about the modular home delivery, see The General Contractor’s Responsibilities for Building a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.

Turning Gray into Black

One of my earliest customers used to sell homes for a “stick” builder.  His interest in a modular home for his family was motivated by two things:  faster construction time and better cost controls.  However he wasn’t yet convinced that modular homes were better built.  And he doubted they were less expensive, at least to start.  But from his past experience, a stick home always took longer, which cost more money, and often created sizable cost overruns.

Turning Gray into Black for the Builder

I of course agreed with his points about speed and cost overruns, and asked him to tell me more.  He surprised me with a brief anecdote that I’ve never forgotten and often shared with others.

“Let me tell you about my boss.  About once a month we’d have a sales meeting and he’d almost always find an opportunity to tell us that our job was to turn gray into black for the company.  He never tired of explaining that there were gray areas in his customers’ contracts. It was our job to turn these gray areas into black.  The more gray areas the better, since change orders made him most of his money.”

Turning Gray into Red for the Customer

My customer added, “What my boss would never say aloud was what this magic meant for his customers.  By turning his contracts’ gray ink into black ink for his bottom line, he busted his customers’ budgets with red ink.  I’ll be damned if that’s going to happen to me.  Since building a modular home forces you to specify everything in advance, there’s not much chance of being surprised by last minute change orders.”

Turning Gray into Black for the Modular General Contractor

My customer was definitely right about modular homes. (Here is how modular homes help you avoid costly, unbudgeted surprises.) However, as I explained to him, there’s plenty of opportunity for a modular general contractor to write his contract in gray ink for the foundation, site work, button-up work, and construction of site built structures.

Eliminating Gray for the Customer

The real issue is not the type of construction, it’s the type of documentation. Whether you build a stick, log, panelized, or modular home, the only way to avoid the damnable red ink is have your builder fully document the scope of work, specifications, and costs. He should do this by itemizing every detail, and he should specify which items are excluded and which are priced as allowances.

For more information about what your modular home contract needs to include, see here and here and here.

What You Need to Know About Ice Dams

Ice dams at the edge of the roof can be quite destructive to your home.  Removing them before they do damage is very important.  But preventing them should be your first priority.

What Causes Ice Dams

Ice dams form when the snow above the eave melts along the surface of the shingles and runs down the roof.  This happens when the attic temperature is above freezing.  The water freezes at the bottom of the roof because the eave, which extends beyond the home’s exterior wall, is below freezing.  Over time the ice builds up and forms a dam.

How an ice dam forms.

How an ice dam forms. Diagram by Owens Corning®.

The reason ice dams often form after a heavy snow is because the snow acts as an insulator, trapping whatever heat enters the attic.  The situation is made worse when storms are followed by extremely cold weather with bright sunny skies.  The solar melt starts the water flowing but the cold freezes it in place.  A series of freeze-thaw cycles further complicates matters.  The result is dams on the gutters and icicles everywhere.

Ice Dams Can Cause Serious Damage

Ice damns can create a lot of havoc with your home because the melting water can backup above the eave and flow under the shingles and into your house.  Your modular home will come with a water proof membrane under the shingles at the eaves, but when the conditions become extreme the dams reach higher up the roof than is covered by the membrane.  The leaking water can damage insulation, drywall, paint, and framing.  It can also fuel the growth of mold.

There are two ways to handle an ice dam:  manage it at the eave, where the freezing occurs, or deal with it in the attic where the melting starts.

Handling Ice Dams at the Eave

One way to take care of the eave is to install heat tape.  Electricity running through the tape warms the eave enough to reduce ice accumulation.  It helps if you install the tape before the first snow storm.  Otherwise you will need to first remove the snow.

Use a snow rake with a long handle to safely remove snow from your roof.

Use a snow rake with a long handle to safely remove snow from your roof.

Another way to handle ice at the eave is to use a snow rake.  It helps if you keep up with this throughout the winter.  But don’t use a shovel, ice pick, hatchet, hammer, chisel, chainsaw, etc.  They will almost certainly damage your shingles.  Moreover, they can endanger your health.  Salt will melt the ice, but it will also damage your landscaping.

This attic ventilation system brings in the cooler outside air through a soffit and vents out the warmer attic air through a ridge vent.

Attic ventilation is typically done by bringing in the cooler outside air through a soffit and venting out the warmer attic air through a ridge vent.

Preventing Ice Dams in the Attic

A better way to deal with ice damns is to stop them before they start, which requires you to reduce the temperature in your attic so the snow doesn’t melt on top of the shingles.  The most important step you can take to control the attic temperature is to ensure the attic air is circulated with the outside air.  The ventilation is typically done by bringing in the cooler outside air through a soffit and venting the warmer attic air out through a ridge vent.  The system will only work as designed if baffles are in place at the lower side of the roof.  Otherwise the attic floor insulation will block the air flow from the soffit into the attic.

How baffles installed at the lower side of the roof ensure that the attic floor insulation does not block the air flow from the soffit into the attic.

The general contractor should verify that baffles are in place at the lower side of the roof so the attic floor insulation does not block the air flow from the soffit into the attic.

Ventilation and Ice Dams

Even if you have a good ventilation system, heat can build up if too much of it escapes into the attic from the home.  This can happen when there is insufficient insulation in the attic floor or if the insulation is poorly installed.   Air infiltration from the story below into the attic can be a significant source of unwanted attic heat.  Inadequately insulated attic duct work is major culprit.  So are uninsulated folding attic stairs and recessed can lights installed in the ceiling of the story below.  The same holds for bathroom fans that vent improperly into the attic.

Modular Homes and Ice Dams

With a modular home, most of problems that cause ice dams are the responsibility of the general contractor.  For example, here is information about sealing a modular home against air infiltration.  If an ice dam forms on your home, ask your general contractor to help you determine the cause.  But don’t wait to remove the dam.   The damage could be more expensive to fix than remedying the cause.

Matching Siding and Shingles on Your Site-Built Structures

Matching Siding and Shingles from the Modular Manufacturer

Recently, we built a large T-Cape with an oversized site-built garage and front porch.  As we usually do, we asked the modular manufacturer to ship matching siding and shingles for the garage and porch.  However, they suggested that we buy the materials locally because the weight of the long modules combined with the weight of the extra siding and shingles was more than they recommended.  We were fine with this because we knew that local vendors carried the same brand of siding and shingles.

Matching Siding and Shingles from the Local Vendor

Although we were able to buy the materials locally, we discovered after shingling half the garage that the shingle color didn’t match what was installed on the home.  It turned out that the modular manufacturer was buying shingles made in one of the factories owned by the shingle manufacture while our local suppliers were buying the “same” brand and color made in another of the their factories.  Unfortunately, the shingles from the two factories were noticeably different in color.

The colors of the siding and shingles on the garage match the colors of the materials on the home.

Matching the color of the siding and shingles on a garage with the home sometimes require you to purchase the materials from the modular manufacturer.

The situation became more complicated when we learned that there were no suppliers within 250 miles who carried shingles made from the same factory used by our modular manufacturer.  Fortunately, the shingle manufacturer helped us out by shipping matching shingles to one of the local suppliers.

To be fair, this problem is not typical.  Usually you can buy materials locally that match those installed by the modular manufacturer.  Even so, I recommend that you ask your dealer if he’s confident you can buy matching materials locally.

Matching Siding and Shingles for Two Years Later

There is one situation in which I more strongly recommend that you buy matching siding and shingles from the modular manufacturer.  That’s when you are delaying construction of a garage, porch, or other structure that will use these materials, and this delay is likely to be a couple of years.  Otherwise you might be unable to purchase matching materials because the manufacturer of the materials has discontinued making them.

On the other hand, it’s true that two years later your “matching” materials won’t exactly match those already installed on your home.  The sun’s ultraviolet light will have faded some of the color.  But at least you’ll have a closer match.

For more information about selecting matching modular materials, see Modular Home Specifications and Features and The General Contractor’s Responsibilities for Building a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.