Modular Manufacturers and Modular Dealers

Selecting a Modular Dealer and Modular Manufacturer

Inside the Pennwest/Manorwood Homes Factory
Inside a modular home factory. 

Shopping for modular dealers also means shopping for modular manufacturers. To make the right decision, you need to evaluate both the dealers’ services and the manufacturers’ homes. Even when a dealer and manufacturer are the same company (that is, when the modular manufacturer sells its homes through a company-owned retail center), you will want to evaluate the manufacturer’s services separately from its homes.

Most modular manufacturers, however, sell their homes through independent dealers. In this situation, it can sometimes be difficult for a customer to judge where the contributions and responsibilities of one end, and those of the other begin. Visiting model homes and talking with past customers will help, but your actual experience of the modular manufacturer’s attributes will be largely filtered through the dealer.

Underestimating the Importance of Modular Manufacturers

Building the Floors at the Pennwest/Manorwood Homes Factory
Building the floors on a jig.

In fact, customers seldom discover the true differences between modular manufacturers. For example, quality differences are sometimes difficult to identify when comparing dressed up model homes, which misleads many customers into thinking most manufacturers offer equal quality. Customers also have a difficult time sorting out whether price differences for a similar plan are due to the dealers’ retail prices or manufacturers’ wholesale prices. In addition, it often appears to customers as if different modular manufacturers are willing and able to build similar plans. Since most dealers work with their manufacturer to help their customers build any of the standard modular sizes and designs typical of the industry, it appears to customers as if what really matters when designing a home is how much design assistance the dealer provides. This overall experience leads many customers to conclude that the most important factors when shopping for a modular home have to do with the dealers’ services. Consequently, it is common for customers to feel they are buying a home from a dealer without regard to his manufacturer’s abilities. The personal contact provided by dealers reinforces this perception, making modular dealers the face of the industry.

Overestimating the Importance of Modular Dealers

Installing an Interior Wall Partition on the Pennwest/Manorwood Homes Assembly Line
Installing an interior wall partition with a crane.

Realizing that most customers attach greater importance to the role of the modular dealer than to the modular manufacturer, many dealers feel comfortable selling more than one manufacturer’s homes, and some even change manufacturers every year or two. They realize that most customers are buying a home from them because of the personal support and services they provide rather than because of the product quality and services offered by a particular manufacturer. Conventional builders feel the same. They know customers buy their homes not because they use a particular brand of window or cabinet or because they buy from a certain supplier. Customers purchase their homes because they provide superior craftsmanship and services for a fair price or because they offer a superior location.

There are exceptions to this categorization, and they almost always involve modular manufacturers who have been able to build an identifiable brand name for themselves. This tends to occur most often in communities close to the manufacturer’s factory. It is also enhanced when top-quality modular dealers forge long-standing relationships with a manufacturer. In these situations, the modular manufacturer’s reputation grows along with the dealer’s. The power of a dealer, however, is particularly evident when the dealer breaks this bond and selects another manufacturer, causing the manufacturer to adopt a new dealer. In this case, new customers are more likely to follow the established dealer (and his new modular manufacturer) than the old manufacturer (and its new dealer). This reinforces the feeling of many dealers that they are more important than the manufacturer.

Installing a Ceiling to the Module on the Pennwest/Manorwood Assembly Line
Attaching a ceiling to the module on the assembly line.

The fact that customers and dealers sometimes depreciate the contribution of modular manufacturers does not mean this is the wise thing to do. A smart customer will want to consider the real differences between manufacturers in specifications, craftsmanship, and warranty service. It is not that the manufacturers’ contributions are more important than their dealers’. It is just that you need to get the best that you can afford from both. You can only do this if you know what each is responsible for contributing.

The Relationship between Modular Manufacturers and Modular Dealers

A Few Pennwest/Manorwood Homes Roof Sections
A few roof sections ready for installation.

Customers are most likely to receive the best that a modular manufacturer has to offer when the manufacturer has a committed relationship with its dealer. That is why most modular dealers form a close affiliation with one or two companies. They may change modular manufacturers every few years for one reason or another, but they prefer to do business with the same company or two because it affords them and their customers several advantages. Other dealers choose not to form an alliance with any particular manufacturers. Instead, they switch from manufacturer to manufacturer every time they sell a home, selecting whichever manufacturer is willing to give them the biggest discount for the home. Sometimes they will pass along the savings to you; sometimes they will keep it for themselves. Either way, this dealer strategy can cause problems.

If a modular dealer is loyal to a modular manufacturer, the manufacturer is going to go out of its way for the dealer and his customers when there is a warranty-service need. It is not that a manufacturer who sells one home a year to a dealer will ignore its warranty obligations. But it will not assume the financial burden of correcting a problem unless it is convinced of its responsibility, especially if it heavily discounted the house to get the dealer’s sale. This may seem unfair, but manufacturers give preferential treatment to their most loyal customers in every industry.

Modular dealers often need the assistance of their modular manufacturer’s engineering and sales departments. This is particularly true when a customer wants to build a custom design or select some nonstandard features. Manufacturers may not always be able to do what the dealer and customer ask, but they will make an extra effort to help a loyal dealer. Sometimes this extra consideration is a big reason customers are able to get the house of their dreams.

Installing Drywall Mud on the Pennwest/Manorwood Homes Assembly Line
Applying drywall mud on an arched opening.

It is a challenge for anyone, not just a novice customer, to master all of the details (such as floor plans, standard features, optional selections, and prices) for one modular manufacturer. It is impossible to master them for several manufacturers at the same time. Each manufacturer will provide the dealer with its basic building specifications, but there will always be many details that are not contained in their lists. Dealers only learn of them by working closely with a manufacturer over a period of time.

Installing the Kitchen Cabinets onthe Pennwest/Manorwood Homes Assembly Line
Installing the kitchen cabinets on the assembly line.

When a dealer works with a new or little-used modular manufacturer, he does not always know what he is selling, since he does not always know what specifications are included in a given package. Likewise, the modular manufacturer may not know what the dealer thinks he is buying. Modular manufacturers and dealers learn a lot about each other’s expectations and preferences through each new home they sell. Many dealers have their own standards that they expect the manufacturer to meet, but there is little opportunity for this information to be shared when a dealer jumps from manufacturer to manufacturer. For example, when a dealer orders a 9-in-12 roof, he might assume that he will receive storage trusses, which will give his customer usable attic space. Consequently, he may include it in his contract with the customer. When it comes time to order the home with a new modular manufacturer, however, the dealer may not think it necessary to inform the manufacturer of this specification, since it was standard with his previous manufacturer. The fact that the dealer will be obligated to remedy his mistake will not make it any better for the customer.

For more information about what you need to know about the contributions of modular dealers and modular manufacturers, see Selecting a Modular Home Dealer in my book The Modular Home.

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