Hannah Raine and her husband, both in their early 20s, live in their dream home, and it surprises most people when they find out it is a manufactured house. When the couple first married, they bought her childhood home about an hour from Nashville in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee. Two years later, they purchased land from a nearby friend and planned to build a custom home on the property.
“We had the cash to buy the land when we sold our house, but we discovered building a custom home would take way more money than we had, and would take too long,” says Raine. “We were living on the property in a 26-foot linear camper with our 2-year-old, sharing a full-size bed.”
An ad for the “Lulamae” manufactured home by Clayton captured her attention on Facebook and days later, the couple bought the model from a lot.
“The house came in two pieces and two months later we moved in,” says Raine. “We had some weather delays; otherwise it would have been even faster.”
Raine estimates the couple saved more than $100,000 by purchasing a manufactured home instead of building a home. The Lulamae model is priced from the $120,000s in Tennessee.
Clayton, which has 40 factories nationwide building manufactured and modular homes, sells manufactured homes with 1,200 to 2,400 square feet that are priced from $20,000 to $200,000 depending on the market, size of the home, and amenities. That price does not include the land where the home will reside on, but it is well below the average price of a newly built home, which was $362,700 in September 2019, according to the Census Bureau.
Manufactured homes make up 10 percent of all new single-family homes owned in America, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI), which projects that number to increase in the near future.
Advantages of Manufactured Homes
While both modular and manufactured homes are built off-site, each adheres to different housing code standards, says Ken Semler, CEO of Express Modular, a modular-home builder.
“Manufactured housing is built to meet a federal housing code, which establishes strict standards for the homes but doesn’t prescribe how the homes need to be built,” says Semler. “Stick-built homes (which refers to homes built traditionally onsite) and modular homes are built to the International Residential Code (IRC), which is prescriptive code that tells builders how a home must be built. Almost any plan can be built as a modular design and then assembled onsite like Legos.”
Building efficiencies and reduced labor costs can make homes built off-site more affordable. Semler says building a modular home can save prospective homebuyers 5 to 30 percent over a traditionally built home, while manufactured homes are often 50 percent less expensive than standard homes.
While an attainable price is a prime factor in the popularity of manufactured homes, technology, and design innovations contribute to their value.
The use of robotics and other factory improvements, along with the ability to buy materials in bulk, keeps costs low while improving quality, efficiency and the speed of building manufactured homes, according to a white paper by Clayton and Next Step, a nonprofit housing organization, OFF-SITE BUILT HOMES: An Evolving Industry that Meets Today’s Affordable Housing Needs.
Off-site building typically provides more green building benefits than on-site building, says Megan Foster, interior design manager for Clayton, a builder of manufactured and modular homes.
“There’s less waste when we use machines to cut everything and we can recycle more materials, particularly because they don’t sustain weather damage as materials do onsite,” says Foster.
The off-site construction process allows for homes to be more tightly constructed, which increases their energy-efficiency and lowers utility bills, according to the white paper.
Buyers looking for a healthy home are also attracted by off-site building, says Semler. “A lot of the dust and dirt generated during construction stays at the factory, so when the house is put together onsite, it has better air quality,” says Semler.
Speed is another factor that attracts buyers to off-site building, which saves several months even on a large custom home design, Semler says.
Design-Forward manufactured homes
While a lower price and a faster completion date are welcome, buyers also want a house that reflects their taste and lifestyle.
In recent years, technological improvements have made it easier for manufactured homes to be built with open floor plans and higher ceilings, rather than the boxy designs that were initially associated with off-site built homes.
“We’ve developed thousands of floor plans that reflect the way people live in different regions and the preferences of different generations,” says Foster. “Just because we build for the masses doesn’t mean we’re not on the forefront of design innovations.”
Clayton recently opened a design center where architects, engineers, and interior designers can collaborate using virtual reality during the design process, says Foster.
“Virtual reality creates bridges within the design center so we can make structural changes before we start building the houses,” says Foster. “Our interior designers can use VR to tweak the materials they’re using and show buyers what something will look like.”
Clayton’s interior design team includes researchers who stay current on the colors, textures, materials and designs that appeal to buyers, such as open floor plans, says Foster.
“Lately we’ve seen a shift in interest from the farmhouse style to a more modern look with cleaner lines and then pops of color for interest such as a bright blue island or an accent wall with geometric interest,” says Foster. “Our big focus is on the ‘living kitchen,’ so buyers can choose a larger island in a big kitchen and have the flexibility to build in a craft area or a desk in addition to the island.”
Buyers can personalize their manufactured home with design center choices, but Raine and her husband found that the Lulamae model matched their priorities.
“The details of the home and the character we wanted were already there,” says Raine. “My husband is a contractor, so he recognized the quality of the home right away. It’s built with 2-by-6s instead of 2-by-4s, for example.”
The Raine’s 1,832-square-foot farmhouse-style home has three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
“I’ve featured our house on Instagram and people think it’s a $500,000 house,” she says. “I love that it has real shiplap walls, a big farmhouse kitchen with a farmhouse sink, wood counters, white cabinets and tray ceilings.”
The Raine’s master suite has a walk-in closet and a large bathroom with double vanities, a freestanding garden tub, and a large shower.
“We offer a variety of bathroom designs to make sure the space feels luxurious even in a smaller space,” says Foster. “We have floating vanities and freestanding tubs with windows above them.”
An important priority for many buyers today that Clayton addresses is storage.
“We’re mindful of every inch of space, so we make sure there’s a pantry in every kitchen, pot-and-pan drawers and a versatile utility space with a laundry room, mud room, and storage cabinets,” says Foster. “We play with color and texture in the utility area to make it more interesting and offer open shelving, too, which adds style and is on trend now.”
Features such as keyless entry, smart thermostats, energy-efficient heating and air conditioning, oversized closets, covered porche, and outdoor living spaces are just as much a part of manufactured homes as site-built properties today, says Foster.
Tips for Buying an Off-Site Built Home
To find a builder for manufactured or modular homes, Semler recommends searching in your preferred location and then interviewing a few builders.
“Find out if they have experience building the type of house you want in the location you want,” he says. “Ask each builder how many homes they build each year with the local factory and what the factory can do to customize your home. The higher volume a builder does and the more experience they have with off-site building, the better.”
Foster recommends starting with your price point and then thinking carefully about your lifestyle and needs.
“After you pick a floor plan, you can visit a local manufactured home center to see models in person and to use VR to customize your place with amenities and colors,” says Foster.
Financing and Value in Manufactured Homes
Manufactured homes can be financed like traditionally built homes as long as they are attached to a permanent site and meet construction criteria.
Growing acceptance of off-site built homes is evident in their rate of appreciation. According to the Urban Institute, the value of off-site built homes increased at an average national growth rate of 3.4 percent, nearly the same rate as onsite-built homes, which have an average annual growth rate of 3.8 percent.
“Our commitment is to use technology to improve the quality and efficiency of our designs while keeping the homes at an attainable price point,” says Foster. “We want these homes to feel substantial.”
Michele Lerner is an award-winning freelance writer, editor and author who has been writing about real estate, personal finance and business topics for more than two decades.