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How Modular Homes Promote Planning Discipline

Over the years we’ve built modular homes for several customers who had stick built their previous home. Since most of them were happy with their home, it’s interesting to consider why they decided to build a modular home next. Invariably, it was because their stick building experience was marred by substantial cost overruns or considerable time delays – usually both. It doesn’t take much to convince these customers that modular homes promote planning discipline in a way that makes them less likely to suffer from sizeable cost overruns and missed deadlines. In fact, they often start the conversation by telling us why modular homes offer better protection against these costly extremes.

One Customer’s View on Why Modular Homes Promote Planning Discipline

“Building a modular is going to force me and my wife to make good decisions up front. Although we’ll lose the opportunity to make changes as our home is built, this will protect us against ourselves. We were our own worst enemies the last time. We signed a contract without knowing all the details. The builder gave us allowances for many of the important materials, such as cabinets and floors. Until we started making decisions, we had no idea that what we wanted cost thousands of dollars more. Not only did the costs go higher and higher, construction took longer and longer. We even got killed with several additional months of interest payments to the bank. I will gladly give up the opportunity to make changes on the fly to ensure greater control of my budget and schedule.”

Another Customer’s View on Why Modular Homes Promote Planning Discipline

“I admit I didn’t spend enough time thinking through the design of my home. Almost immediately after my builder started framing the interior walls, I noticed some design flaws. First, I discovered the foyer closet was too small. Then I decided it was better to make the dining room smaller so the kitchen could be bigger. Next I realized the door to my study was swinging into a bookcase. And it didn’t stop there. Since I couldn’t live with my mistakes, I asked the builder to make the necessary changes, which included tearing down the walls he had already built. Needless to say, he passed all of the additional costs on to me with some very pricey change orders. And by the time these and several other changes were completed, we were several months behind schedule.”

The factory assembly line requires all of the materials to have been selected, which is why modular homes promote planning discipline
The factory assembly line requires the preselection of all materials, which is why modular homes promote planning discipline

Why Modular Homes Promote Planning Discipline

Compare these experiences with what you will have to do if you build a modular home. You and your dealer must complete almost all of the planning steps before beginning any construction. That’s because your manufacturer can’t begin construction without knowing what it’s going to build and how much it’s going to charge. This forces you and your dealer to make final decisions about your home’s design and its building specifications. If you’re pressed for time when stick building, it’s very easy to start construction and postpone the meetings and decisions to a later date. The temptation is to think you and your builder can make things up as you go along. Modular dealers would be just as prone to do this if they could get away with it. The fact that modular homes promote planning discipline is a major advantage to you. As most banks will tell you, poor planning almost always leads to cost overruns and construction delays.

For more information about why modular homes promote planning discipline, see Why Build Modular in my book The Modular Home.

Should You Build a Green Modular Home

You’ve probably read or watched a few stories about why green construction is the way to go. If you’re like most of our customers, you’re asking if the benefits of a green modular home are really worth the cost.

What a Universal Design Modular Home Has in Common with a Green Modular Home

This reminds me of my experience with Universal Design (UD) homes. In the early 1990’s, my company built a model home to UD principles. Following these makes a home more user-friendly for everyone, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. Over the years we’ve sold several UD homes. But few of our customers have selected the complete set of UD options. So it might surprise you when I say that offering these features helped many customers who weren’t interested in UD before visiting us.

Of course, these customers didn’t express interest initially because they didn’t know what UD features could do for them. Once we demonstrated how the features worked in our model home, many of our customers selected them. For example, when we showed those approaching retirement age a low-curb shower or a step-less front entry, we found that many of them felt these features were a necessity. So too with customers who had elderly parents.

Today we have more customers than ever interested in UD specifications. They’ve become more important because aging baby boomers value their performance. Even so, if we forget to demonstrate our model’s UD features, we have far fewer customers interested in them. We also have far fewer customers who select these features when we require them to select the entire package. Not surprisingly, most customers want to select some of the features – but not all.

Select Only the Features for Your Green Modular Home that You Want

Our experience with UD homes is repeating itself with green modular homes. Most customers don’t know if they want green features until we explain the benefits to them. These include (a) energy efficiency, (b) healthy indoor environment, and (c) environmentally friendly construction. Even after appreciating the benefits, customers typically assume they can’t afford a green home, since they think they need to buy the “complete green package”, which is costly. That’s why we allow them to select green features à la carte style.

Not surprisingly, most of our customers prize utility savings and quite a few value healthier home interiors. Although many of our customers care about the environment, only a few have a budget that allows them to do all they would wish to protect our planet. On the other hand, by selecting energy efficient and healthy home features, they actually are helping to protect the environment. And by using modular construction, they are building a home that is inherently green.

How all modular homes are inherently energy efficient, which helps make them inherently green modular homes
Energy efficiency is one of the most important features of a green modular home

Select a Modular Dealer Who Can Clearly Explain Your Green Modular Home Options

Here’s what you can take from our experience. When shopping for a modular dealer, find one who teaches you what a green modular home can do for you and which options provide the best benefits. Make sure the dealer lets you select only the features you want as opposed to their vision of a “complete” green modular home. If your dealer can’t explain green features, find a dealer who can or research them on your own. Then select what you can afford. It could be a couple of energy efficient enhancements and low VOC materials – maybe less, maybe more. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking green features are an unaffordable extravagance.

For a more detailed answer to the question, should you build a green modular home, see Why Build Modular in my book The Modular Home as well as this detailed handout on the benefits of green modular homes.

Architect Designed Modular Homes

Over the years, I’ve built a few architect designed modular homes. In each case, the finished product was among the best-designed homes we’ve built.

One of Our Architect Designed Modular Homes

Front of one of our architect designed modular homes designed by architect Robert Coolidge
Front of one of our architect designed modular homes designed by architect Robert Coolidge

The suggestion to build a contemporary cape cod as a modular home came from the architect, Robert Coolidge, AIA, of Branford, Connecticut. Rob had first thought about renovating my customer’s existing home, but quickly realized that building new would make more sense. When my customers calculated what the local custom stick-builders would charge and how long they would take, they decided to take a closer look at modular construction.

Rear elevation of one of our architect designed modular homes designed by architect Robert Coolidge
Rear elevation of one of our architect designed modular homes designed by architect Robert Coolidge

Rob, my customers, and I spent a lot of time going back and forth with design ideas, discussions about how modular homes are constructed, and general cost information. We had several meetings in which Rob showed me some preliminary drawings, and I told him what we could and could not do and what it would likely cost. He then used the information to refine his design.

Since Rob had little prior experience with modular homes, I had to help educate him about the size of the modules and the structural requirements. Rob and my customer benefited from a trip to the modular manufacturer. The visit enabled them to see how the homes were built and to speak directly with the engineering department. The brainstorming with the engineering staff was particularly helpful. The education was not a one way street, since Rob educated me about the custom possibilities for modular homes. I still think I learned the most.

Kitchen in one of our architect designed modular homes designed by architect Robert Coolidge
Kitchen in one of our architect designed modular homes designed by architect Robert Coolidge

When we began working together, we had hoped to build the two stories out of four modules. But in the end we decided to build the second story, including the entire roof, on site. This required a lot of on-site work, but the finished product was exactly what we all envisioned it to be. Here are some photos: front; rear. Anyone who is unfamiliar with the possibilities of architect designed modular homes would swear the home was built by a custom stick-builder. But attractive design and quality construction were the only things it had in common with good custom stick construction, since it was built faster and for less money.

For more information about architect designed modular homes, see Why Build Modular in my book The Modular Home

Take the Modular Set Inventory Seriously

Subcontractors who finish the siding installation on a modular home need to have all of the materials accessible when they begin their work. Sometimes these materials, which are uninstalled and shipped loose with the house, are buried beneath a lot of other materials. The good news is that you’ll know what the factory shipped as long as you pay close attention during the modular set inventory.

What Can Happen When You Don’t Take the Modular Set Inventory Seriously

The subcontractor for one of my customers did not get fifteen minutes into his work when he called the customer claiming that no J-channel had been shipped with the house. He told my customer, who had hired him directly, that he needed the J-channel delivered within two hours or he would leave and not return for several weeks.

My customer called me in desperation. Unfortunately, we did not have any materials in stock and the local suppliers did not carry a suitable match. The only alternative was to “borrow” some J-channel from another customer’s house and have our modular manufacturer send us replacement materials as soon as possible. Before taking this step, I checked the ship loose inventory, which showed that my set day supervisor had found the J-channel and my customer had signed for it. I then called my supervisor to ask him what he remembered. He told me that my customer had not been paying attention when he conducted the ship-loose inventory, even after my supervisor repeatedly pressed him to do so. My customer told him, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll sign for it when we’re done,” which he did. After reviewing the situation, I suspected the materials were there, but I couldn’t be sure. So I had my supervisor track down and deliver the replacement materials. Unfortunately, it took him four hours to make the delivery, and the siding contractor was gone by the time my supervisor arrived.

Give the Modular Set Inventory Your Full Attention

Before leaving my customer’s house, my supervisor searched for the missing materials; he really wanted to know whether he had made a mistake. Sure enough, he found the J-channel buried beneath a couple rolls of carpet. I learned later that the siding contractor was good to his word and didn’t show up for several weeks, so my customer’s mistake cost him a lot of time. It is worth mentioning that if the J-channel had been missing, many dealers would have understandably informed the customer that he was responsible for replacing it. After all, he had signed a form saying he had been given the materials. My recommendation to you is to give the modular set inventory your full attention.

For more information about why you should take the modular set inventory seriously, see Warranty Service for a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.

Modular Home Payment Terms

Modular manufacturers prefer to be paid cash on delivery (COD), and many only accept these modular home payment terms. But most modular home lenders prefer to make the final payment after the home is set on the foundation. The way most manufacturers and lenders reconciled their conflict is by using an “assignment-of-funds” procedure that legally commits the lender to paying for the home after the modules are set on the foundation.

What Can Happen If Your Lender Won’t Accept the Modular Home Payment Terms

When a customer selects a lender we haven’t worked with before, we contact it immediately after the home is ordered to ensure the lender’s modular home payment terms includes our assignment-of-funds procedure. It seems that every year one of our customers completes their application, gets approved for their loan, and is ready to close before we all realize that the lender will not follow the procedure. This is in spite of the fact that we send the lender and customer a copy of the assignment-of-funds letter soon after the customer orders their home. Even our follow-up phone call to the loan officer to review the procedure doesn’t prevent the problem. We’ve found that some loan officers say yes to our procedure without first running it by their manager. So we now ask the officer to discuss it with whoever is empowered to make the decision.

Lender and a couple discussing the modular home payment terms
Make sure you and your lender agree on the modular home payment terms

Sounds simple, right? Well, we once ran into a problem just before the closing when the lender’s manager was overridden by its attorney. Not even giving the lender the names of the many other lenders in the area that were comfortable with the procedure was enough to change its mind. My customers had to start over at another lender, which caused them to fall almost two months behind schedule.

Make Sure the Lender’s Attorney Accepts the Modular Home Payment Terms

Perhaps the lesson to learn from this is to make sure that the lender’s attorney is on board with the assignment-of-funds procedure. But another lesson is that no matter how vigilant you are, you still may be hit with a frustrating surprise. My best advice, if this happens to you, is to follow the example of my customers, who to their credit were able to hold onto their patience and good humor even though they lost six weeks applying with another lender.

For more information about modular home payment terms, see Financing a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.

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