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Design & Style

A Basic Guide to Prefab Construction and Modular Homes

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 3, 2020 • 3 min read

Prefabrication is a building method that's been around thousands of years. Ancient Greeks used prefabricated elements to construct their temples, as did ancient Japanese when building pagodas. In the United States, prefabricated homes first rose to prominence in the early twentieth century when Sears began selling mail-order kit homes that shipped around the country via railroad car. Today, prefab homes are more advanced than ever and are known for their affordability and energy efficiency.

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What Is a Prefab Building?

A prefabricated building is any building made from pre-built structural elements manufactured off-site before they are transported and assembled at the building site.

3 Types of Prefab Homes

There are three main types of prefab homes available to potential home builders:

  1. Modular homes: Modular buildings come in repeated sections—modules—that builders transport to the home site for final assembly. You can place modules in numerous configurations, allowing for a variety of floor plans and custom home options. Once completed, modular housing is classified as official real estate, meaning that prefab home manufacturers must abide by all regional, state, and local building codes instead of federal HUD code. A subcategory of the modular construction method is panelized construction. Builders construct panelized homes from wall panels that they join together in unique configurations at the building site. Panelized homes generally require more interior work and thus have the longest on-site build times of all prefab home types.
  2. Manufactured homes: These prefab homes are completely constructed off-site on a non-removable steel chassis. The chassis is then used to transport the home. Once a manufactured home arrives at the final construction site and is set into its permanent foundation, the wheels, axles, and hitch are removed from the chassis. Manufactured homes must be built according to federal HUD building code, and the overall quality is typically lower than that of modular homes.
  3. Mobile homes: The term “mobile home” was actually the original name for a manufactured home until the Housing Act of 1980 decreed that the word "manufactured" be used instead of "mobile." Today it's more common to use “mobile home” to describe a trailer home built on wheels and pulled by vehicle. Modern prefab mobile homes are considered personal property instead of real estate and must be built to DMV code.
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4 Advantages of Building a Prefab Home

On the fence about purchasing a prefabricated new home for the first time? You'll want to weigh the pros and cons before taking out a construction loan. There are four primary benefits to building a prefab home.

  1. Eco-friendly: The assembly-line building process eliminates waste material, and energy-efficient features like solar panels are less costly to the home buyer when the home manufacturer buys them in bulk.
  2. Short construction time: The majority of the prefab home construction process is completed in the factory in one to two weeks, with only minor finishing work required once the house is assembled at the building site. In addition, the indoor factory setting eliminates the weather delays that are common when building other types of homes.
  3. Cost-effective: Prefab houses cost considerably less per square foot than a traditional home, averaging around 15 percent cheaper in total.
  4. High-quality components: Due to prefab construction taking place in a controlled environment without multiple subcontractors, quality control is a much easier task.

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4 Disadvantages of Building a Prefab Home

While there are many advantages to prefab housing, it still has its share of potential hassles when compared to building a regular home.

  1. Zoning regulations: Not every plot of land is zoned for prefabricated houses, which limits your potential living locations and may make the buying process more complicated.
  2. Less customization: There are only limited options to choose from when it comes to building styles, making it more difficult to personalize your home.
  3. Transportation issues: Transportation may be costly depending on your proximity to the factory. In addition, elements of the home can be damaged during transportation.
  4. Site preparation costs: Depending on your plot of land, unexpected construction costs may arise due to required landscaping, foundation development, and access to utility hookups.

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