Planning a realistic schedule and then maintaining it is one of the most challenging aspects of building a new home. There are just too many steps involving too many people with too little control over what they need to do. Every builder has scores of stories about construction delays. Because I’m no exception, I will post several stories about the causes of delays. But in my first post I want to talk about everyone’s tendency to believe in the “accordion solution” to modular home scheduling delays.
The Appeal of the “Accordion Solution” to Modular Home Scheduling Delays
One of my very first sales was to customers who were in a huge rush. This was one reason they wanted a modular home, since modulars are faster to build. We verbally agreed to a time line that included reasonable milestones for each of us. The most critical milestones for my customers involved making final decisions on their house plans and building specifications. This proved quite difficult for them.
Every time my customers requested another revision to their plans or needed another quotation for a different special order product, I informed them that we were falling behind schedule. They nodded in understanding. What I didn’t do was specify how much we were falling behind. I assumed they would recognize that since each revision of the plans always added ten days (sending it to the factory, waiting for the factory to draw it, getting it back to my customers, and waiting for them to review the changes) and each special material quote consistently added another four days, that they could do the math as easily as we did. I was sadly mistaken.
This is when I first recognized the allure of the accordion solution to modular home scheduling delays. Over time I’ve come to appreciate that this “solution” is shared by most of our customers. The accordion solution assumes that a delay to a schedule milestone doesn’t add time to the end of the schedule. Instead the entire schedule gets compressed just like an accordion. The miraculous, expected outcome is that the milestones that follow will happen as previously scheduled – without any delays.
If you think about this, it really doesn’t make sense. But who am I to criticize, since I’ve found myself using the same accordion logic with my subcontractors and material suppliers. “What do you mean you can’t make up the week we lost due to the snow storm?” “I know it took me an extra week to make a selection, but I still need those cabinets on the date we first discussed.” It’s just human nature for us to want what we want when we want it.
Modular Home Scheduling Delays Are Inevitable Because Stuff Happens
Do yourself, your modular dealer, and your general contractor a favor and work with them to set a realistic schedule. More importantly – given that “stuff happens” – be honest to yourself about the effect of delays on the initial schedule. Even more importantly, try to take the inevitable changes with patience and acceptance. Getting upset at your dealer, general contractor, family, or yourself won’t undo the delays any more than playing the accordion.
Many customers forget to inform their modular home general contractor (GC) of important changes to their specifications and plans. A few expensive examples from my experience include adding a walk-out bay that required a full foundation; moving the fireplace or a slider to where the bulkhead was going; or reversing the orientation of the house. Serious and costly mistakes are more likely to occur with changes made later in the process. It is easy to let down your guard while catching your breath.
Forgetting to Inform Your Modular Home General Contractor of Changes
One of my customers forgot to tell their modular home general contractor that they reversed the house plan so that left was right and right was left. They had a good reason for the reversal, since they wanted the living area to receive sunlight rather than the garage. But they had not yet made that decision when they gave their three GC candidates copies of their proposed plans. Their selection of a GC was then delayed six months by several time-consuming problems with getting a building permit.
When their modular home general contractor was given the revised plans, he asked the customers if the plans had changed much. The customers said they had changed the kitchen around, but that was about it, completely forgetting they once had drawn the plan with the opposite orientation.
You would think that the GC would have looked at the plans for himself. But here’s what happened. He told his project supervisor to schedule the excavation and foundation subcontractors; they had been awarded the job many months earlier. He then went on vacation the week the work was done. The two subcontractors showed up with the old copies of the drawings they had received when bidding for the work; the GC’s supervisor showed up with none. The foundation was poured, incorrectly, with the foundation for the garage on the left rather than the right, and the foundation for the chimney and walkout bay on the right rather than the left. The lally-column pads were also spaced incorrectly. My customers discovered the mistake when they visited the site while the foundation was being backfilled. The GC blamed the customers for not telling him about the reversal, and the customers blamed the GC for not looking at the revised plans. In the end, the GC relented, as he should have. But for the remainder of the project they both suffered through a very trying relationship.
Give the Modular Home General Contractor Final Plans and Specifications
It is critical that you provide your modular home general contractor with any changes to your modular plans and specifications. Better yet, provide him with a copy of the final draft of your modular plans and specifications, and have a meeting with the GC to review them.
For more information about why you should keep your modular home general contractor informed, see Selecting a General Contractor and The General Contractor’s Responsibilities for Building a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.
Whenever you purchase land, make sure you complete a title search before building your modular home. If you finance the purchase, your lender will automatically require this. Although it will cost you several hundred dollars to have the title checked, don’t skip this task when you inherit or are gifted land. Having it done early on will protect you from moving forward with other steps that can’t be completed until the title is cleared.
Failing to Complete a Title Search Before Building Your Modular Home
In our first year of selling modular homes, one of my salespeople sold a ranch to a woman who was going to build a home on a lot she was being given by her mother. When her attorney did a title search the day before the closing, he found a title flaw with the property. It turned out that when her mother had inherited the land from her own mother (my customer’s grandmother), the grandmother had actually given the land to both of her children, not just her daughter. So the land was really owned by my customer’s mother and her brother. No one had paid attention to this because the brother had died many years ago, and he didn’t have any children or a will stating what should happen to his share of the land. My customer’s mother falsely assumed she automatically inherited her brother’s share of the property. My customer had to cancel purchasing her modular home when she was told it could take over two years to resolve this matter in court. A couple of years later I noticed in the local paper that she had cleared up the problem. Since she had already bought an existing home, however, she sold the lot.For more information about why you should complete a title search before building your modular home, see Finding and Preparing a Building Lot for a Modular Home in my book The Modular Home.
Hiring family or friends to act as your modular home contractor or one of your subcontractors can create problems unless you spell out their responsibilities clearly in advance. Make sure you have a written agreement that explains the scope of work, specifications, and price in detail. Also, ensure that they will schedule their work in a time fashion.
Hiring Family as Your Modular Home Contractor – Part 1
One of my customers, who acted quite competently as his own modular home contractor, hired his brother to complete the electrical work on his Two-Story home. My customer did a commendable job getting all of the subcontractors to show up on time, and except for one subcontractor, would likely have finished the work ahead of schedule. But this one subcontractor (yes, his brother the electrician) did not complete his work until many weeks after the others had completed theirs. The electrician told his brother that since he was doing him a favor by taking the job, he should understand that he needed to finish his other, “real” work first. He figured that his brother would understand the significant delay, since “after all, we’re family.”
Hiring Friends as Your Modular Home Contractor
Another of my customers, a single man, hired two friends to complete all of the interior and exterior carpentry button-up on his Cape Cod modular home. Although the friends were professional carpenters, they had no experience with modular construction and did not know all that needed to be done. My customer told his friends what he thought needed to be done, but somehow the friends got it wrong. Maybe my customer, who was also new to modular construction, did not understand the scope of work, or maybe he explained it poorly, or maybe the friends thought they knew what was needed and so did not really listen. Since the three of them were friends, they did not think it was necessary to put their agreement in writing. Once the friends discovered that they had more to do than they anticipated, they told my customer that they would not be able to complete all of the work they originally planned to do for the price they quoted. They had not budgeted the extra time or materials, and they already had given my customer a great price. My customer felt this was unfair. He had taken his friends’ word that the job would be complete and had not included additional money in his budget. The friends, however, felt that their original agreement was based on a misrepresentation by my customer of what was required. In the end, my customer borrowed money from his parents and paid his friends to complete the work. I have no idea how their personal relationships faired after the house was built.
Hiring Family as Your Modular Home Contractor – Part 2
Yet another customer, who used my company to serve as the modular home contractor to build her T-Ranch home, hired her brother-in-law to complete the plumbing and heating systems. In hopes of saving money, she hired him on an hourly basis (“time plus materials”). Her brother-in-law did a fine job, from everything I could see. I later found out that she paid more than I would have charged her. I suspect her brother-in-law’s inexperience with modular homes caused him to be less proficient with the work, which caused him to take longer than would a subcontractor with modular experience. The brother-in-law then charged my customer for his “extra” hours.
You’ve probably heard that special modular construction techniques are used to make homes strong enough to be transported down the highway, lifted by a crane, and set on a foundation. What you may not have heard is that the same techniques that are responsible for the unique durability of modular homes also give modular homes a lot more protection against any violent force – “manmade” or natural.
The Structural Durability of Modular Homes
Some of the best stories about the structural durability of modular homes are ones the industry is most ambivalent about telling. These are the tales about homes that fell to the ground during the delivery or set. Industry professionals fear that customers will think these accidents happen frequently or that customers might be expected to accept a damaged module, neither of which is true. Not to tell these stories does a disservice to the industry. I can’t think of anything that offers a more vivid testament than the image of a module sliding off of a carrier as it exits an interstate at 30 miles per hour and rolls down a hill, turning over six times, surviving with only a few drywall cracks and a broken window.
Fortunately, my company has had only one such experience in 26 years. The house was a two-story colonial with an attached in-law apartment. The two small modules for the apartment were shipped on the same carrier as two of the modules for the home. When my set crew lifted one of the two-story modules from the carrier, the carrier tipped over and the small module fell off the carrier and rolled over on its side. As shocked as I was by the accident, I was even more shocked by the condition of the module and my customer’s response. The module survived with only a few cosmetic cracks in the drywall, a broken pane of glass in a window, and an exterior door out of alignment. I apologized to my customer and said that I would build them a new module as soon as possible. They said that was not necessary, since the module was still in very good shape. I explained that I did not feel right having them take a damaged module, but they insisted. After the general-contracting work was completed on the home, none of us could tell that anything unusual had happened. Even after several years, we’ve never had a problem with the module.
The Durability of Modular Homes Can Help them Survive Natural Disasters
The unique durability of modular homes accounts for the many stories of these homes surviving without serious structural damage after being subjected to hurricanes and tornadoes, something no stick-built house could withstand. It explains why a modular motel was found to be the only thing standing after Hurricane Hugo hit a North Carolina town, and why the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave the following report on Hurricane Andrew in Florida: “Overall, relatively minimal structural damage was noted in modular housing developments. The module-to-module combination of units appears to have provided an inherently rigid system that performed much better than conventional residential framing. This was evident in both the transverse and longitudinal directions of the modular buildings” (Publication number FIA-22, February 1993, page 29).
Our Recent Experience with the Unique Durability of Modular Homes
This past year two of our homes – both built several years ago – were hit directly by a rare tornado in Western Massachusetts. The tornado was reported to have winds of 160 mph. Here are two videos about how our homes fared compared to conventionally built homes. Don’t forget to watch the second one, since it includes interviews with the homeowners.