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Innovations boost image of factory-built housing

BY JIM WASSERMAN, www.freep.com - May 6, 2007

MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Factory-built housing is touting environmental benefits and a fresh look to win a new generation of buyers as the industry continues to fight an image of cheap design and endure the same housing slowdown pummeling conventional home builders.

Among the industry's innovations: tiny backyard houses where baby boomers can house aging parents, two-story log houses and three-story factory-built town houses.

The century-old manufactured-housing industry still competes with prices estimated at 20% to 25% lower than building on-site and faster move-in time. And its housing remains a fixture of the highways, where trucks haul their wide loads -- half a home at a time -- to their locations. But the nation's housing slump and tighter lending standards for factory-built homes are forcing some changes that tilt toward more upscale buyers.

Growth industry

Fans of what's variously called prefab, modular or manufactured housing say the industry is poised for new growth as architects explore fresh designs and more people associate the housing style with higher standards, better energy efficiency and less construction waste.

Definitions abound for this type of housing and can be confusing to buyers. The majority of mobile homes are built to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development code that industry experts say makes a well-built house.

Modular or prefab homes are fewer in number but tend to be higher-end and more expensive. It's the modular sector that's grabbing the most attention for cutting-edge design.

"In the Northeast it's been a really big business, and it's been going across the country," said Sheri Koones, the author of "Prefabulous," which explores breakthrough factory-built homes. The book features log homes, lodges and mansions -- all built in factories.

Higher-end house construction is "still a small part of our overall product," said Allan Lemley, general manager of a Karsten Homes factory in Sacramento, Calif. "But we expect it to grow."

Fairfield, Calif.-based Valley Home Development has carved out a niche with its new "granny unit." That's in response to a 2004 California law making it easier to build small second houses on existing residential lots.

"A lot of the" manufactured housing "segment has been concerned that its business has slowed. We're going the other direction. We're ramping up," said the firm's owner, Steve Vallejos. "We found out our target market is the baby boomers. They're dealing with their aging parents as well as their kids."

The one-bedroom, one-bath mobile homes measure 400 square feet to 1,200 square feet and cost $36,000 to $65,000.

"The whole process takes about three months, from permits approved to handing them the keys," Vallejos said. The tiny houses are built at the Woodland, Calif., factory of Western Homes Corp., a division of Michigan-based Champion Enterprises Inc.

"The quality of the product today is vastly different than what it was 20 years ago," said Dan DeVarennes, Karsten sales manager. "The consumer has really pushed us. They don't want the old trailers."

Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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