A Modular Raised Ranch Turnkey

Installing a Foundation for a Modular Raised Ranch

In my last post, I talked about the advantages of a modular raised ranch.  Now I’d like to discuss what your general contractor (GC) needs to do to “button-up” one.

A modular raised ranch with a kneewall, drive under garage, and split level entry that is also recessed.
A modular raised ranch with a kneewall, drive under garage, and split level entry that is also recessed.

Let’s start with what your GC needs to do to create a “split” entry at the front door.  Since this requires that he elevate the main floor above “grade” (ground level) at the front of the home, he will need to install a 4’ tall concrete foundation below grade and a 4’ tall wood framed “kneewall” on top of the concrete.   This will make the total height of the foundation 8’ at the front door.  When the set crew places the modules on top of the 8’ wall, the main floor will be 4’ above grade at the front door.  This will leave the basement floor 4’ below grade and place the entry halfway or split between the main and basement floors.

The split entry at the front entrance of a modular raised ranch places the door between the main floor and basement .
The split entry at the front entrance of a modular raised ranch places the door between the main floor and basement .

The foundation walls for the other three sides of your home will also be 8’ tall from the basement floor to the bottom of the modules.  Depending on the lay of the land, the top of the foundation for each of these walls may be set at grade, 4’ above grade, or elevated a full 8’ above grade.  Any walls 8’ above grade can either be concrete or wood framed.  Either way, they will sit atop a 4’ concrete “frost” wall that will be installed below grade, making these walls 12’ tall.  Since the basement floor is at ground level for these 12’ tall walls, the GC can install full sized windows, which will brighten any rooms finished in the basement.  The GC can also install an exit door, which is why these walls are known as “walkout” walls.  If you build a drive-under garage in your basement, the foundation walls will also be 8’ above grade.

Completing the Split Entry of a Modular Raised Ranch

The completion of the split entry of a modular raised ranch requires a bit of work on-site by the GC. After cutting the temporary rim joist installed by the modular manufacturer to strengthen the home for delivery, the GC must build the entry landing, install the front door, and construct the stairs up to the first floor and down to the basement. The walls framed on each side of the stairs, combined with a door at the bottom, will close off the first floor and stairway from the basement. This step is required by the building code, unless you immediately finish the basement. You will have to instruct the GC whether you want him to finish the split stairwell with a railing or half wall. If you select a railing on the first floor overlooking the foyer and the manufacturer does not install it, the GC will have to do so.

The electrician must wire the foyer light so it can be turned on from the top of the stairs, the front door, and the bottom of the stairs. He should wire the front-door light to be turned on from the top of the stairs and the front door. The modular manufacturer should wire the home to facilitate the electrician’s work with both lights. The electrician should also add a receptacle at the landing, and the HVAC contractor will need to bring some heat to the foyer.

Completing the Exterior of a Modular Raised Ranch

On the exterior of the home, the GC will need to install the siding on the kneewalls and walkout walls.  If you cantilever the top modules over the basement, the GC must insulate and cover the exposed area under the overhang. Non-perforated vinyl soffit can be used as the cover.

For more information about building a modular raised ranch, 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.

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Advantages of a Modular Raised Ranch

My First Home – A Raised Ranch

My wife and I bought our first home a year before I learned about modular homes and became a builder.  It was a raised ranch built in the 1960’s.  It had everything we needed: three bedrooms and two bathrooms on the main floor and a drive-under garage, family room, and third bathroom in the basement.  It also had a lovely yard framed by an attractive stone retaining wall.

Like any raised ranch, our home was a one-story built with a split-level entry on top of a raised foundation. The entry was “split” in that it was built halfway between the first floor and the basement.  A platform at the front door connected two sets of stairs, one going up to the first floor and one going down to the basement.

A raised ranch with a drive-under garage and finished basement.
A modular raised ranch with a drive-under garage and finished basement.

To make the bi-level design work, the foundation was elevated 5’ above the finished grade at the front of the home.  The back of our raised ranch had a wood framed walkout with a slider and some full sized windows.

Why You Might Want a Modular Raised Ranch

There are several reasons why you might want to build a modular raised ranch.  Elevating the foundation out of the ground can solve problems caused by a high water table.   It is often easier to minimize excavation costs on a sloped property by building a raised ranch.  Also, if the property has sufficient slope, the low side of the basement can be used for a drive-under garage, which is considerably less expensive to build than an attached or detached garage.

A typical raised ranch floor plan with a split level entry at the front door.
A typical modular raised ranch floor plan with a split level entry at the front door.

In addition, a raised ranch, like a Cape Cod design with an unfinished second story, offers you a chance to affordably expand your living space.  The raised foundation allows you to finish the basement with larger windows.  In addition to providing good natural light, the larger windows allow you to build bedrooms in the basement while meeting the building code requirement for egress.

In designing a raised ranch, you will need to decide whether you want the front of the house flush with the front of the foundation or cantilevered over the top of the foundation. A cantilevered home, which is often preferred for its look, will have a foundation that is a foot or two narrower than the main floor, which means it provides less usable space in the basement.  You will also have to decide if you want the front entry to be flush with the front of the house or recessed.  An advantage to a recessed entry, in addition to its appearance, is that it provides some overhead protection from the weather for anyone entering the front door.

A raised ranch with a cantilevered front, recessed entry, and finished basement.
A modular raised ranch with a cantilevered front, recessed entry, and finished basement.

When thinking about the basement floor plan of your raised ranch, pay attention to where the split-level stairs are located. This is particularly important if you are building a drive-under garage, since the stairs should not intrude into the garage.

Modular Split Level Homes

“Split-Levels” are usually T-shaped ranches that are composed of a ranch on one leg of the T and a raised ranch on the other leg to create a tri-level design. They offer some of the advantages of a raised ranch, although they do not work well on a flat lot with a high water table unless the ranch wing of the house is built on a crawl space. As with a raised ranch, split levels can also be built with either a flush or a cantilevered front and a flush or a recessed entry.  And they can often accommodate a drive-under garage.

A modular split level design with a drive under garage and finished basement. The left wing is a raised ranch, while the right wing is a ranch.
A modular split level design with a drive under garage and finished basement. The left wing is a raised ranch, while the right wing is a ranch.

For more information about building a modular raised ranch, 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.

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Nominal Sizes: When Is a Two-by-Four Not 2 by 4

Nominal Lumber Sizes

A two-by-six is not a 2 x 6 when it’s construction lumber.

The framing materials we use for the walls and ceilings of our modular homes are mostly two-by-sixes, two-by-tens, and two-by-fours.  You might assume, as I did when I first started selling modular homes, that these designations refer to the actual dimensional sizes of the lumber.  But a two-by-six is not 2” x 6”.  It’s actually 1 ½” x 5 ½”.  In fact, the 1 ½” dimension can be as little as 1 3’8” or as much as 1 5/8” and the 5 ½” dimension can be as little as 5 3’8” or as much as 5 5/8”.

Why Is Lumber Labeled with Nominal Sizes

Lumber sizes for residential construction are designated by the "nominal" values assigned to each size.
Lumber sizes for residential construction are designated by the “nominal” values assigned to each size.

In residential construction in the United States the framing materials are designated with a “nominal” value, which approximates its size.  For example, a 2 x 10, which is close to 2” x 10” but actually 1 ½” x 9 ½”, is given the name “two-by-ten”.  This makes sense when you understand a little history.

In the past, the nominal dimensions given to the lumber were the sizes of green lumber before it was dried and planed smooth.  This process shrunk the lumber by about ½” in each dimension.  The lumber sold today for residential construction is already dried and planed.  But it’s still sold in the historical sizes with each size retaining its nominal name.  That’s why your modular home will built with “two-by-sixes”, “two-by-tens”, and “two-by-fours”.

Nominal Sizes of Modular Floor Plans

Nominal values also play a role in designating the width of modular home floor plans.  For example, a “twenty-eight x forty-four” home is actually 27’6” x 44’.  In this case, the width is rounded up by 6”.

For more information about nominal lumber size, see Designing a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.

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Radiant Floor Heat

My Introduction to Radiant Floor Heat

Twenty years ago I visited another modular builder’s residence on a cold February day. It was a nicely appointed cape cod with a front-to-back family room on one side and a complimentary garage flanking the other side. When I entered the family room I was immediately struck by how comfortable I felt. At first I thought it was the number and style of windows that looked out onto a peaceful snow covered patio.  Then I thought it was the decor, which was richly traditional. The builder’s wife, who was giving me a tour, smiled and said, “You look confused, and I bet I know why.  Your feet are warm.” I undoubtedly looked even more confused until she explained that the tile floor had radiant floor heat.

Forced Air Heat vs. Radiant Floor Heat

Have you wondered why you sometimes (maybe always) feel cold even though the thermostat for your forced hot air heating system is set to 72 degrees? It’s not you! It’s because the warm air rises to the ceiling and falls back down as cool air. Your toes become cold why your head stays warm. This effect is amplified by the on and off cycling of the system, which warms you quickly but then chills your bones when the air stops pumping through the ducts.

With radiant floor heat, on the other hand, the heated floor transmits its warmth to the surrounding objects. You remain comfortably warm because the coldest air is at the ceiling rather than your feet, and the floor and everything it touches remains at a constant temperature. By warming you from your feet up, radiant floor heat keeps you feeling toasty at a lower temperature.

Radiant floor heating systems can heat an entire home or individual rooms. Bathrooms, kitchens, and mudrooms are popular candidates for this enhanced comfort. When installed in selected rooms, the temperature is controlled with individual thermostats. The remaining rooms are heated with a conventional system.

Two Types of Radiant Floor Heat

An example of how the tubes are laid out for hydronic radiant floor heat .
An example of how the tubes are laid out for hydronic radiant floor heat.
Materials for electrical radiant floor heat.
Materials for electrical radiant floor heat.

There are two basic types of radiant floor heat: hydronic and electric resistance. Hydronic systems pump heated fluid through small tubes under the finished flooring. The fluid is usually a mix of water and anti-freeze, such as propylene glycol  The heat source is a boiler, water heater, or heat pump, with the heat transferred by the recirculation of the fluid between the floor and the heat source.

Electric resistance systems work with electric wires set underneath the floor. They function much like the wires in an electric blanket. Because they use fewer components and are easier to install, they are less expensive to set up than hydronic systems for single rooms. However, they are more costly to operate.

Installation of Radiant Floor Heat

Both types of radiant floor heating systems can be set in a concrete, mortar, or gypsum bed, placed under the floor covering, or attached directly to a wood sub floor. The tubing for radiant floor heat can be installed in specially made plywood with precut channels, which enables you to install carpeting and wood flooring directly over the plywood. Ceramic tile floors should be cast in a mortar bed or on a cement backer board, while vinyl flooring needs to be placed on an underlayment.

Finished Flooring over Radiant Floor Heat

You can use most any type of finished flooring over either type of radiant floor heating system, although some materials work better than others. Tile, stone, and concrete transfer and hold heat best. Solid wood floors will shrink and expand because of the heat, but the new “engineered wood” floors hold up better. If you install vinyl or laminated flooring, make sure they can withstand the heat. Keep in mind that carpets will reduce the heat flow, as they will act as insulation.

Advantages of Radiant Floor Heat

Radiant floor heat has a few notable advantages over conventional systems in addition to superior comfort.  Many people like the fact that they’re hidden and silent. If you’ve ever lived with banging radiators or whistling registers, you’ll appreciate radiant floor heat. Anyone with allergies will value them because there is no dust- or allergen-blowing ductwork. And for those who want to increase the energy efficiency of their home, radiant floor heating systems are an efficient way to heat, increasing comfort as they reduce energy costs.

For more information about installing radiant floor heat, see Modular Home Specifications and Features and The General Contractor’s Responsibilities for Building a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.

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One-Story vs Two-Story Homes

The Advantages of One-Story vs Two-Story Homes

There are a variety of ways to compare the advantages of a one-story vs two-story modular home.  In part your choice will depend on your personal taste as well as your local real estate market.  But you will likely also consider the distinct advantages of each.  Here’s a list of the advantages most often mentioned by my customers.

One-Story Benefits

  • More living space
    • You don’t need to use square footage for a staircase to the second floor, although you will need one to the basement
    • You might need fewer bathrooms
  • More attic space for storage
  • More basement space for storage
  • More convenience
    • You don’t need to run up and down stairs to cook, clean, keep an eye on your children, do the laundry, or get a snack
  • Safer for younger children and easier for older/mobility challenged individuals
    • You can “age in place” more easily and affordably
The Home Store's Sugarloaf 5 one-story T-Ranch at it's model home center.
The Home Store’s Sugarloaf 5 one-story T-Ranch at it’s model home center.
  • Easier to evacuate in case of a fire
  • Less noise transmission, since sound does not travel through the walls of multiple rooms on the same floor as well as it travels between floors
    • TV or stereo on either floor
    • Foot traffic on the second floor
    • Stair traffic
  • Easier – and cheaper – to heat and cool.
    • More consistent temperature zones, since all rooms flow into each other
    • Trees can provide more shade
    • Second story rooms easier to heat, since heat rises

 Two-Story Benefits

  • Greater separation of public and private spaces
    • More privacy for second story bedrooms, which is especially valued by parents and older children
  • Bigger yard
  • Can build a bigger home on a smaller lot
  • Easier to deliver modules down narrow streets and onto a small, tight lot, since each module can be half the length to create the same square footage as needed for a one-story
  • Safer to open second story windows at night
  • Smaller roof to maintain
  • More expansive views from second-story
  • Good exercise using the stairs everyday
  • Better for the environment, since less land is disturbed during construction
The Home Store's Whately 1 two-story at it's model home center.
The Home Store’s Whately 1 two-story at it’s model home center.

For more information about the benefits of building a one-story vs two-story home, see Designing a Modular Home, Modular Home Specifications and Features, and Finding and Preparing a Building Lot for a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.

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Modular Home Checklists

There are many things to learn the first time you build a modular home.  But if you’re like most homebuyers, you won’t get the full benefit of what you learn, since you’ll likely only build one home.

But you can benefit from what I’ve learned over twenty-eight years building more than 1,200 homes.  To start with you can read my book, The Modular Home, which gathers all this information in one place.

Use these modular home checklists to guide you through the process of building a modular home.
Use these modular home checklists to guide you through the process of building a modular home.

Take Advantage of My Experience by Using My Modular Home Checklists

Of course, it’s hard to use a book efficiently the first time you use the information.  That’s why I’ve created several checklists that cover the most important steps.  Below is a link to each of the checklists.  There’s also a link to this list on the home page of The Home Store’s website.  I hope you find these modular home checklists helpful.

  1. Ensure You Are Ready Willing and Able to Build a Modular Home
  2. Selecting a Modular Home Dealer
  3. Your Modular Home Dealer Customer References
  4. Selecting a Modular Home General Contractor
  5. Your Modular Home General Contractor References
  6. What to Include in Your Modular Home Legalese
  7. Selecting the Right Modular Home Plan
  8. What You Should Ask Modular Home General Contractors
  9. Reviewing Your Modular Home Floor Plans
  10. Reviewing Your Modular Home Elevation Plans
  11. Modular Additions
  12. Building a Universal Design Modular Home
  13. What Your Modular Manufacturer Needs from Your Contractor
  14. How to Air Seal a Modular Home
  15. Making an Offer To Purchase for a Building Lot
  16. Your Municipal Water and Sewer Connections
  17. Reviewing Your Modular Construction Drawings
  18. Potential Permits and Supporting Documents
  19. Your Modular Dealer and Financing Tasks
  20. Your Permit and General Contracting Tasks
  21. Omitting Materials from the Modular Manufacturer

For more information about all the topics covered in the checklists, see my book The Modular Home.

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Building A New Home Is Best For Accessibility

Why Building a New Home Is Better Than Remodeling When You Need Accessibility

What should you do if you need an accessible home?  Should you remodel your current home, buy a more accessible used home, or build a fully accessible new one?

Since there are very few truly accessible used homes, let’s compare remodeling your existing home with building a new one.  Since I believe building new is almost always better than remodeling, I will outline the advantages of building over remodeling.  Of course, if you don’t have the resources and flexibility to build a new home, remodeling will be your only viable alternative.

No Demolition and Shoring Up Expenses

You will not waste money demolishing or shoring up your new home.

Remodeling your existing home to make it accessible can often be surprisingly expensive. You will undoubtedly anticipate some of the costs for adding new features, but you may not plan sufficiently for the cost of the other work required to remodel. Most importantly, you must add the cost of the destruction (taking apart and removing what you no longer want) to the cost of construction (building in the new features). In addition, you must add the cost of shoring up the existing structure of your home so that the new construction can be completed. For example, in addition to tearing down old walls and ripping out old plumbing and electrical, you might need to add structural supports in the ceiling and basement before you can begin. Otherwise, your home will not be structurally sound.

The task of removing walls and shoring up the structure is usually a Pandora’s Box for the remodeler. Often the remodeler can’t know what problems and expenses he is going to run into until he actually starts the demolition. If you ask him to give you a fixed price for the entire project in advance, he will usually build a significant cushion into his price.  If you agree to pay him for “time and materials”, and he uncovers a number of problems that require additional work, he will hit you with a change order that will create cost-overruns for you.  That’s why remodeling often goes significantly over budget.

Remodeling requires the de-struction of your existing home as well as the con-struction of it's new features, which makes remodeling expensive and subject to more cost overruns than building a new home.
Remodeling requires the de-struction of your existing home as well as the con-struction of it’s new features, which makes remodeling expensive and subject to more cost overruns than building a new home.

Greater Equity and Resale Value

Your new home is likely to provide you with greater market value and equity than a remodeled home.

Since the demolition and shoring up your home will not increase its value as much as it costs (only the new construction will), the total cost of the remodeling will often be considerably greater than the value added to your home.  Since much of the money you will spend on remodeling will be lost, your bank’s appraiser will be unlikely to justify a loan for the full cost of remodeling unless you already have a lot of equity in your home or a large down payment.  And should you decide to sell your home, you will likely lose some of the money you spent remodeling it.

Full Accessibility

Since every room in your new home can be designed to be accessible and located where you want it, you will need to make fewer compromises to get the features and functions you want.

Because the remodeler will have to work with your existing structure, he might not be able change the home sufficiently to give you enough of what you need. For example, the remodeler might not be able to locate the accessible bathroom where it would most benefit you.

Efficient Use of Space

Your new home will provide you with the rooms you need without wasting space.

When remodeling your home, you will often have to give up some existing rooms so that the needed features and functional space can be added. For example, one of your existing bedrooms might have to be donated to the remodeling cause so that your hallways, doors, and bathrooms can be widened. When the work is done, you may feel that you have lost valuable space.

Attractive and Functional Landscaping

The site of your new home will be graded and landscaped in ways that are esthetically pleasing as well as usable.

When remodeling your home, you will sometimes have to settle for site work and landscaping that is less attractive. With your foundation, driveway, and walkways already in place, the remodeler is limited in how he can make your site more accessible without detracting from its appearance (often with long ramps) and adding considerably to the cost.

Lower Architect Fees, Custom Design

Whether you wish to customize a builder’s standard plan or design a completely new custom plan, a modular home builder’s fees will be substantially less than those required for a sizable remodeling project.

When remodeling your home for accessibility, you will often are best served by hiring an experienced architect to design a remodeling plan.

Home and Lot Matched in Size

You will be able to match a building lot of appropriate size with a new home that is as big as you need and your budget allows.

When remodeling, your design choices will be limited by the size of your home and your lot. If your home is too small, and your lot does not allow for easy expansion, which can happen in city lots, your design options will be limited.

Right Sized Home

When building a new home of your choice, you will end up with a home that is neither too big nor too small.

If your existing home is already bigger than you need, your remodeled home will almost certainly be too big.  If your existing home is not too big before remodeling, but the remodeler is forced to add rooms in order to meet your needs, your remodeled home may become too big. For example, if you have all of the bedrooms that you need, but they are all on the second floor and you need a first floor master bedroom suite, you will be forced to build an extra bedroom.

Lower Energy Costs

Your new home will be considerably more energy efficient than your remodeled home.

Your remodeled home will usually have higher energy costs. Older homes were not built as energy efficient as new homes are today. Often the budget for remodeling won’t allow for improving the energy efficiency, since to insulate all of the walls and replace all of the windows can be expensive. In addition, older homes have very high amounts of air infiltration (leaks around the windows, doors, and electrical receptacles), and air infiltration is the number one cause of heat loss, even after insulation has been added and windows replaced.

Brand New Fixtures, Fully Featured

With your new home, everything will be brand new with the features you desire.

With older homes, your remodeling budget will require you to keep certain things you would prefer to replace. For example, although you might like to replace your fifteen year old appliances, the cost of the remodeling will probably prevent you from replacing them. In addition, your budget will often prevent you from affordably adding features that you would desire. For example, if you want to add central air conditioning, but you have hot water baseboard heat, you will need to add the duct work in addition to the air conditioning compressor, which will add substantially to the total cost.

Lower Maintenance Costs, Extended Warranty

Because your new home will come with new materials, it will require minimal maintenance. Furthermore, all the parts will be protected by a warranty. In fact, your entire modular home will come with a ten year structural warranty.

Even after your older home is remodeled, it will have higher maintenance costs. All areas and components of your home that are not completely replaced will continue to bear the effects of wear and tear. In addition, the only items that will have a warranty will be the ones installed by the remodeler.

For more information about building a fully accessible Universally Designed modular home, see Modular Home Specifications and Features in my book The Modular Home.  For more information about building an accessible modular in-law addition, also known as an Elder Cottage Housing Opportunity (ECHO), see Building a Modular Addition also in my book.

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Electrical Outlets for the Holidays

Electrical Outlets for Your Holiday Decorations

Now that the holiday season is upon us I’m reminded of one of our homebuyers who added electrical outlets under every window so she could display her Christmas candle lights without extension cords.  She also put two electrical outlets in the stairwell to the second floor so she could string a lighted garland along the railing.  And of course she included some extra electrical outlets on the outside of her home for lighting up Santa’s sleigh and reindeer.  Recalling my homebuyer’s foresight got me thinking about how important it is for homebuyers to think about how they’ll use their home before finalizing their modular home electrical plan.

Today’s modular homes come with many more electrical outlets than older homes, since the building code requires them to be spaced close together for safety reasons.  But this doesn’t mean you’ll have enough electrical outlets.  Nor does it mean they’ll be located where you need them.

Electrical Outlets for Special Purposes

Make sure you have electrical outlets where you need them!
Make sure you have electrical outlets where you need them!

If you’re a craft person, for example, you may want extra electrical outlets in your special room.  You may also want to raise some outlets a couple of feet for your convenience.  The same suggestions apply to an office.  You’ll want to make sure you have enough electrical outlets for your computer, printer, copier, shredder, charger, etc.  Adding electrical outlets in a garage that will do double duty as a work area is also a smart move.

If your living room or family room furniture will not be placed along a wall, you’ll want to include some floor outlets to power the lamps you locate away from the walls. This is especially true with today’s open floor plans, since they provide fewer opportunities to mount outlets on walls.  If you’re using window air conditioners, it might help to locate electrical outlets below the window.  If you enjoy barbecues and lawn parties, you should include extra electrical outlets on the exterior of your home.

Before approving your modular home for construction, give some thought to whether you should include additional electrical outlets in other places for other purposes.  Take advantage of the fact that it’s relatively inexpensive to have the manufacturer add them when it builds your modular home.

For more information about planning your electrical layout, see Designing a Modular Home and Modular Home Specifications and Features in my book The Modular Home.

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You Deserve the Construction Details

Homebuyers Need the Construction Details for Their Home

Our homebuyers often tell us that few of our competitors, stick or modular, provide thorough and detailed construction information.  The reason homebuyers like our emphasis on construction details is that they are almost always novices.  They recognize that they lack professional knowledge, and they’ve heard the stories about cost overruns from their friends.  They’re afraid they’re going to make a mistake or be taken advantage of.  They are comforted by our efforts to patiently explain the construction details and then to document them in writing.

However, sometimes we don’t explain the construction details as well as we could because we forget how much more we know as professionals than our homebuyers.  Our homebuyers sometimes unintentionally contribute to this miscommunication by saying they understand something they’re embarrassed to admit they don’t understand.

We take our responsibility for presenting the construction details very seriously
We take our responsibility for presenting the construction details very seriously

For example, a construction professional knows the significance of this note on a homebuyer’s elevation drawing:

“The ground level elevations are approximate, and the final heights will be determined during the site work”.

The professional realizes that any of the following might be affected by the site work on their homebuyer’s property:

  • How much of the foundation will be exposed above the finished grade
  • Whether kneewalls will be required or a walkout will be possible
  • How many steps will be needed from the ground to their entry doors, porches, and decks
  • Whether railings will be needed on the steps to their entry doors, porches, and decks
  • How many steps will be needed from their house into the garage

Moreover, the professional knows that each of these changes will alter how their homebuyer’s finished home will look and function.  Because homebuyers are unlikely to recognize these implications, the professional needs to explain them in some detail.  Of course, this level of construction detail overwhelms some homebuyers.  And few homebuyers absorb all the construction details.  But even though the professional can’t make every homebuyer understand or recall every word they say, they should err on the side of too much information rather than on too little.  

Presenting the Construction Details to a Novice Is Not Over Explaining

Sometimes construction professionals are concerned they are guilty of “over explaining”.  They would be over explaining if they were talking to an expert rather than a novice.  An expert has mastered the material, so they can be presented new information in their area of expertise in a few simple, brief statements.  But a novice is trying to learn unfamiliar material they don’t yet understand.  When explaining this new material to them, the professional needs to elaborate the details until the novice understands how the parts fit together.

For example, if a construction supervisor tells an apprentice carpenter on his first day to “frame the house”, the apprentice might not know where to begin.  But once the apprentice has framed many houses, the supervisor can say this and the carpenter will know all the steps.  When we say, “Always keep your explanation short”, we confuse the two stages of learning.  What works for the expert isn’t enough for the novice.

Finally, providing the construction details to homebuyers does not necessarily mean being long winded.  Completeness and brevity can go together.  But if a construction professional is going to make a mistake, they should err on the side of completeness.  You as the homebuyer deserve this.

For more information about getting all of the details from your modular dealer and general contractor, see Selecting a Modular Home Dealer, Modular Home Specifications and Features, Selecting a General Contractor, and see The General Contractor’s Responsibilities for Building a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.

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Rain Gutters Will Protect Your Modular Home

Purpose of Rain Gutters        

Many people think the main purpose of rain gutters is to protect the side of their home.  Actually its to protect their home’s foundation by channeling water away from the foundation.  Otherwise water running directly off the roof will dig a ditch along the sides of the foundation, and as the water soaks into the ground, some of the water will work its way through the foundation.  If you choose not to install gutters, the excavator must take extra care to grade your property so all sides slope away from your modular home.  Keep in mind that this solution isn’t as effective as installing rain gutters.

It’s also true that gutters are helpful with protecting the exterior of your modular home from back-splash stain and rot.  In addition, they help shield your landscaping and reduce ground erosion.  Most importantly, gutters shield windows and doors from water infiltration as well as family and guests from being soaked while entering your home.  Gutters are especially helpful for preventing leaks around the thresholds of exterior doors during heavy storms.  Without gutters, the exterior doors will be pounded with rain falling off the roof as well as from the sky.  In such circumstances, the doors will be prone to leak.

In fact, the reason I decided to write about rain gutters is that two of the problems we’ve had from time-to-time have been with homes that did not have gutters because the homeowners wanted to save money.  For sure, gutters are costly.  But homes without them are much more likely to have a leaky exterior door or a damp basement or both.  Since such leaks are not due to a defect in the exterior doors or foundation, they’re not a warranty claim.

The 44' long gutters on the front of our two-story model home are seamless.
The 44′ long gutters on the front of our two-story model home are seamless.

Rain Gutter Material

Gutters are available in four materials:  vinyl, steel, aluminum, and copper.  Each material has its pros and cons for your home.

Vinyl gutters are lightweight, the easiest to install for do-it-yourselfers, and the least expensive.  They come in a variety of colors, and since their color is part of the material, they hold it well.  Another advantage of vinyl gutters is that they won’t chip, dent, or corrode.  However, they can become brittle in extreme cold.

Steel gutters are the sturdiest, which enables them to support ladders and falling branches without damage.  On the other hand they require the most maintenance and can rust if water doesn’t drain properly.

Aluminum gutters are very popular because they won’t rust.  However, they can dent and bend from too much weight, powerful winds, or falling debris.  This is most likely to happen if the gutters are fabricated out of secondary aluminum, which is made mostly of recycled materials, rather than primary aluminum, which is of a higher quality and thicker.

Copper gutters are usually reserved for classic restorations. They’re very attractive, durable, never rust, and never need painting.  During their 75+ year life-time they will oxidize to an attractive green.  On the other hand, copper gutters are the most expensive, which also makes them a target for thieves.

Seamless vs. Sectional Rain Gutters

There are two types of gutters, sectional and seamless.  Sectional gutters are built out of pre-cut pieces that are joined and fastened together as they are installed.  Seamless gutters are created on site using single lengths of gutter that are as long as can be functionally installed.  This eliminates the number of joints that need to be fastened together, usually only at inside and outside corners and downspouts.  Since gutters most frequently fail at the joints and seams, seamless gutters virtually eliminate this problem

Gutters need to be cleaned regularly to prevent them from clogging with debris, which can cause damage to your home.
Gutters need to be cleaned regularly to prevent them from clogging with debris, which can cause damage to your home.

Rain Gutter Maintenance and Repair

Gutters must be maintained regularly to remove leaves and other debris, since these materials will back up the flow of water.  When this happens the gutters will no longer protect the house.  In fact, the overflow can damage the roof and encourage the formation of more ice dams than if you didn’t have gutters.  An option is to use “gutter guards”, which are designed to keep debris out but allow water to enter.  Although these reduce the need for frequent cleaning, it’s still wise to inspect your gutters regularly.

You should also regularly examine whether your gutters are fully attached to your house.  Gutters can pull away from the roof over time due to the weight of snow, ice, branches, and small animals.  Checking for holes and leaks where gutter sections connect is another homeowner responsibility for maintaining well-functioning gutters.

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

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Metal Roofs for Modular Homes

Metal Roofs Are Attractive

I’ve always found metal roofs attractive.  They come in a variety of bright vivid colors and designs to complement any style home. In addition to a traditional vertical seam profile, they can be made to resemble slate, shingles, wood shake, or clay tiles.

This is an example of how metal roofs can resemble shingles or slate.
This is an example of how metal roofs can resemble shingles or slate.

Metal Roofs Are Durable

Metal roofs are especially popular in areas of heavy snow, since they’re strong and shed ice and snow much better than asphalt shingles. They’re also resistant to cracking, shrinking and eroding and can withstand extreme weather conditions including hail storms, high winds, and wildfires.  Their durability is evidenced by the typical 30 to 50 year manufacturer warranty that accompanies metal roofs.  The average mon-metal roof lasts under 20 years.  This means that a metal roof will likely last about twice as long as an asphalt roof.

This is an example of metal roofs with vertical panels.
This is an example of metal roofs with vertical panels.

Metal Roofs Are Green

If you are considering building a “green” home, metal roofs are a better option than asphalt shingles. To begin with, they typically are made from 30-60% recycled material. If they need to be replaced many years down the road, the materials can be recycled.  Compare this with conventional roofing products, including asphalt shingles, which contribute an estimated 20 billion pounds of waste to U.S. landfills annually.  Metal roofs are easier on the environment even when replacing an asphalt shingle roof on an older home, since they can often be installed over the existing roof, eliminating the cost of disposal.

This is an example of how metal roofs can resemble shakes.
This is an example of how metal roofs can resemble shakes.

Metal Roofs Are Energy Efficient

Whether you select a light or dark color, a metal roof will lower your energy costs because it will reflect heat to reduce cooling loads in the summer and help retain heat in the winter.  This is possible because metal roofs now utilize reflective pigment technology, which results in overall home energy efficiency and lower utility bills.  A metal roof may also earn you discounts on your homeowner’s insurance.  Better yet, it can increase the resale value of your home.

This is an example of how metal roofs can resemble tiles.
This is an example of how metal roofs can resemble tiles.

Five Myths about Metal Roofs

Since there is a bit of misinformation floating around about metal roofs, let me quote some facts from the Metal Roofing Alliance about five common myths.

Lighting  A metal roof will not increase the likelihood of lightning striking your home. However, if your home were hit by lightning, your metal roof would disperse the energy safely throughout the structure. Since metal roofing isn’t combustible or flammable, it’s a low risk and desirable roofing option where severe weather is concerned, especially for lightning.

Noise  A common misconception is that a metal roof will be noisier than other types of roofing. When installed with solid sheathing, a metal roof on your home will actually silence noise from rain, hail and bad weather, many times much better than other roofing materials.

Rust  Today’s metal roofing systems are built to last. Steel metal roofing has a “metallic coating” made of either zinc or a combination of zinc and aluminum. This metallic coating prevents rust from forming and is bonded to the steel at the factory. Paint is then applied over the metallic coating to provide the long-lasting color homeowners desire

Dents  In most cases, a metal roof can withstand decades of abuse from extreme weather like hail, high winds, and heavy snow. Today’s systems also have a 150-mph wind rating (equal to an F2 tornado), meaning your metal roof is also safe from wind gusts that can accompany hail storms.

Durability  Many people think you can’t (or shouldn’t) walk on a metal roof, but the truth is that you can safely walk any metal roof without damaging it. Before you walk your roof, however, we recommend you talk to your installed or roof manufacturer first. They will have the details on how to walk the particular roof you have, based on the style you chose and your roof pitch.

Since modular manufacturers only offer and install asphalt roof shingles, you’ll need to have the metal roof installed on site by the general contractor after the modules are set on the foundation.  During the set, it is critical that the general contractor help the crew protect the house against weather damage.  Otherwise any water that finds its way past the unfinished roof will cause serious damage to those parts of the interior of the home already finished by the manufacturer.

For more information about heating and cooling systems, see Modular Home Specifications and Features and The General Contractor’s Responsibilities for Building a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.

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Ductless Mini-Split Heating and Cooling Systems

Mini-Split Heat Pumps

I’d like to mention an option for heating and cooling a modular home.  It’s a ductless, mini-split heat pump.  The technology is not new, but it has improved so much that I’ve recently taken a closer look at it, and I like what I see.

Why Today’s Mini-Split Heating and Cooling Systems are Better

In the past, heat pumps did not work well in the northeast because of the cold winters.  But heat pump technology has improved so much that these mini-split delivery systems can take care of your heating needs on all but the coldest winter days.  They also can keep you cool in summer.

Mini-split systems have also become more viable because today’s building code makes their job easier.  The “thermal envelope” of all homes built today is so energy efficient that heating and cooling systems have to work less to maintain a home’s temperature, even in more extreme temperatures.  Given that modular homes are especially well insulated and air sealed, they make it even easier to take advantage of mini-split systems.

How Ductless Mini-Split Heating Systems Work

Like central forced air systems, mini-split systems place the compressor and condenser outside the home. But they don’t need a single air handler in the basement or attic to distribute the conditioned air through a network of ducts.  Instead they use thin tubing that pumps refrigerant from the outside unit directly to a single wall mounted unit in each room.

Ductless mini-split heating and cooling systems place the compressor and condenser outside the home.
Ductless mini-split heating and cooling systems place the compressor and condenser outside the home.

Advantages of Mini-Split Systems

The use of individual units for each room allows flexibility in where the heating and cooling can be delivered.  Since one outdoor unit can be connected to as many as four indoor units, you can control the heating and cooling in several zones or rooms independently of each other.

Mini-split systems are less expensive than gas or oil central air systems when you factor in the cost to install insulated and well-sealed ductwork that meets the current energy code.  They also offer higher efficiency (up to 27.1 SEER).  Not only is the core technology of mini-split systems more energy efficient, but it also avoids the energy losses associated with the ductwork of conventional HVAC systems, even ones insulated to current energy codes.

The bedroom air handler for this mini-split system is hung above the painting on the wall.
The bedroom air handler for this mini-split system is hung above the painting on the wall.

Another advantage to mini-split systems is that they offer greater interior design flexibility.  You don’t need to enlarge walls or lose headroom in your basement or floor space in your attic to accommodate the ductwork.  The indoor air handlers can be hung on a wall or mounted on the ceiling.  Many systems include a remote control to adjust the system when it’s positioned on a wall or ceiling.

A ductless system is a great solution for building an addition to a home.  You get both heating and cooling for a reasonable price and you don’t need to hook-up to the existing system, which may not be sized for the additional load.

Disadvantages of Mini-Split Systems

There are a couple of disadvantages to mini-split systems.  One, of course, is that they can’t keep your home warm when it is bitterly cold, say below 10 degrees.  You will need a supplemental heating system for those days.  Electric resistance heat is a low cost solution.  Also, keep in mind that heat pumps are not able to bring a cold house up to temperature quickly.

The air handler in the living room for this mini-split heating and cooling system is hung on the wall.
The air handler in the living room for this mini-split heating and cooling system is hung on the wall.

Another disadvantage is that the indoor air handlers of a mini-split system are not silent, since they blow air through a grill.  But they also aren’t loud.  If you are particularly sensitive to a low level whoosh, find someone with an installed system so you can hear it for yourself.

Finally, take a close look at the photo posted here and make sure you’re comfortable with the appearance of the air handlers.  After all, you will likely have one in every room.

Weighing the advantages against the disadvantages, I think the mini-split systems are an excellent option.

For more information about heating and cooling systems, see Modular Home Specifications and Features and The General Contractor’s Responsibilities for Building a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.

 

 

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How to Dress Up a Modular Home Elevation Drawing

The Right Modular Home Floor Plan Sometimes Doesn’t Come with the Right Modular Home Elevation

A couple of months ago I discussed the importance of a modular home elevation drawing.  See here and here.  One thing I emphasized is that home plans on the internet almost always show a dressed up home.  But this doesn’t mean they’re adorned in the way you’d prefer.  It also doesn’t mean that the ones with the right floor plan layout have the look you want.  For example, they may have fancy siding, a taller roof, and a reverse gable.  But the one thing they don’t have is your front porch.

The good news is that you can add a front porch to virtually any modular home plan just as you can add a garage to any plan.  In addition, you can dress up your home with circle top windows, an ornate front door, decorative moldings, a hip roof, reverse gables, gable returns, A-Dormers, scalloped siding, cultured stone siding, a chimney, and a lot more.  Most modular home elevations will display some of these features.  But none of them may have the right combination of features matched to the right floor plan layout.  So you and your dealer will need to add the modular home elevation features you favor to the floor plan you select.

Examples of How to Dress Up a Modular Home Elevation

Here are six examples of how you can start with a relatively simple modular home elevation and embellish it:

Compare the standard modular home elevation of the Crookston one-story plan on the left with the dressed up version of the same plan on the right.

The modular home elevation of the Crookston one-story plan on the right adds a garage and front porch.

Compare the standard modular home elevation of the Barclay cape cod plan on the left with the dressed up version of the same plan on the right.

The modular home elevation of the Barclay cape cod plan on the right adds a larger front porch that also serves as a dormer, a stone facade, and a combination of vertical and horizontal siding..

Compare the standard modular home elevation of the Bellmeade two-story plan on the left with the dressed up version of the same plan on the right.

The modular home elevation of the Bellmeade two-story plan on the right adds a hip roof, three A-dormers, a brick chimney, a more formal front porch, and brick siding.

Compare the standard modular home elevation of the Glamorgan one-story plan on the left with the dressed up version of the same plan on the right.

The modular home elevation of the Glamorgan one-story plan on the right adds a taller roof and a larger garage with a reverse gable and entry doors on the side.

Compare the standard modular home elevation of the Tiffany cape cod plan on the left with the dressed up version of the same plan on the right.

The modular home elevation of the Tiffany cape cod plan on the right adds a front porch, a partial brick facade, and decorative moldings.

Compare the standard modular home elevation of the Gordon one-story plan on the left with the dressed up version of the same plan on the right.

The modular home elevation of the Gordon one-story plan on the right adds a front porch, a taller roof with an A-dormer, a partial stone facade, vertical siding with a scalloped accent, and a circle top window.

Have Your Modular Home Dealer Customize the Modular Home Elevation to Your Liking

As I mentioned in my other two posts (see above), take a second look at some desirable floor plans that you might otherwise reject – because they’re matched with unacceptable elevations. A practical way to do this when you are looking at modular home 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.  Once you select some floor plan layouts that you like, have your dealer show you how he can create some modular home elevations that please you.

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

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A Modular Home that Allows You to Age in Place

I’m a member of the baby boom generation.  Like most people in this demographic, I’m not as nimble as I once was.  Even so, I get around well “for my age”, although I do have the help of a new left hip.  I exercise regularly and don’t need the assistance of a cane, walker, or wheelchair.  I’m proud to say that I can still climb stairs as fast as most 30 year olds.  But this won’t always be so, and it’s important that I recognize that, especially when my wife and I build our next home.

Our T-Ranch model home built to Universal Design specifications. This is one of our most popular homes.
Our T-Ranch model home built to Universal Design specifications. This is one of our most popular homes.

In my experience as a modular home builder, however, many people underestimate the inevitable effects of aging when they design their home.  It’s not because they fail to think about it.  Nor because we fail to bring it up when discussing their selections.  In fact, our T-Ranch model home displays several Universal Design features that should be considered by anyone who wants their home to be user friendly as they age.  But most people have a budget and when forced to make a choice between a feature that will benefit them in the distant future or an amenity they really want now . . .  .  Well you know how that goes.

Adding a bridge can create a level entry without having to build a ramp. The moat keeps the dirt away from the front of the house and allows the water to drain away.
Adding a bridge can create a level entry without having to build a ramp. The moat keeps the dirt away from the front of the house and allows the water to drain away.

The most vivid example for me occurred not long after we built our T-Ranch model home.  Two sisters in their 70’s decided to build a custom one-story that contained many of the Universal Design options in our model.  However, they didn’t choose to eliminate the stairs to their front or back door.  They said they were in good health and able to get around on their own.  I pointed out that it was easier to create a level entrance without ramps if we did this while building their home.  This is always true, but it’s particularly true on a property that’s very sloped, which was true of their lot.  The stumbling block was the extra fill required to build a “bridge” to one of her exterior doors.

There were two reasons they decided against this.  One was because the fill would cost a few thousand dollars, which they could only afford by giving up the hardwood floor in the dining room and living room.  In addition, they didn’t like how the property would look with the extra fill.

Sadly, one of the sisters had a serious stroke two years after they moved into their home.  Although she survived, she could no longer move about without a wheelchair.  Since there was no level entrance, the sisters had a ramp built to their back door.  It was quite sizeable – and by their own admission unattractive – because the door was five feet above the finished grade.  But it was the only practical choice at that point.

When I tell this story, most people are surprised the sisters made the choice they did.  But I’ve found that many people make these kinds of choices because of how strongly they want their dream home to include all of their desired amenities.

Ultimately it’s your choice what you build.  But give serious thought to building a home that meets your family’s needs now and into the future.  Design it so it allows you to age in place without forcing you to make expensive renovations, move, or radically alter your lifestyle when your abilities start to slip.  It’s certainly something my wife and I will do.

For more information about selecting specifications that will meet your family’s needs now and in the future, see Modular Home Specifications and Features in my book The Modular Home.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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