the MERITS of MODULAR

July 23, 1995|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun Staff Writer

For a few long minutes, Roz Frazier's house dangled in the summer sky.

She crossed her arms and watched, standing back a safe distance. She fretted, just a little.

Would her new master bedroom and bath come crashing down, floral wallpaper and all? Would the neighbor's roof be spared? And the larger question, had designer oak cabinets been installed in the kitchen now gliding by above her?

Not to worry.

Ever so gently, at precisely 11:15 a.m., with barely a sound and no rising dust clouds, the second half of Ms. Frazier's house landed squarely on the unfinished walls of a concrete block. Construction workers below the descending sections guided them into place.

No tornado had deposited the two 14-foot by 44-foot pieces of Ms. Frazier's main floor onto a street of closely placed, cedar-sided houses with white porch railings. Rather, a 65-ton crane with thick steel cables lifted each piece off trailers that had traveled six hours from a factory in Southwest Virginia.

But it was still like a bit of Oz in Elkridge, what with a house dropping in.

"That is fast," said Ms. Frazier, a 34-year-old computer programmer at nearby Fort Meade who'd been too excited to sleep the night before. "I can't wait until I can go inside."

Now, she sighed with relief. And about an hour later, the two factory manufactured "modules" were home.

Make that a modular home, not the boxy, prefabricated eyesores of old but a house that actually looks like a house -- and is built like a traditional one too, though in a factory instead of outdoors.

Just two hours after a crane operator lifted two bedrooms, two baths and a dining room in a single swoop, then returned for the living room and kitchen, Ms. Frazier's split-level sat bolted to its foundation, under its roof, ready for the builder to take over. By that point, the home had painted walls and trim. A marble vanity and wallpaper adorned one bathroom. The kitchen cabinets, dishwasher, linoleum tile and closet shelving had been installed.

Modular builders and manufacturers tout their homes as more affordable than comparable site-built homes. They say they can offer faster turnaround and more consistent quality, thanks to assembly-line production that cuts on-site costs and allows for close scrutiny in an environment where rain, snow, hot and cold never matter.

But builders find they have to sell their product as much on the merits of what it is as what it isn't. Often, people confuse modular with manufactured homes, which are more popularly known as mobile homes. Ms. Frazier, at first, was one of them.

"When you say modular, you think of something square and boxy looking," Ms. Frazier said last week, watching the crane continue its work on her house, lifting each side of the roof up on its hinges like the top of a dollhouse.

When she decided to move from her Ellicott City condominium and buy a house, Ms. Frazier, who is single, looked in Meadowridge Landing, a subdivision of modular homes in Howard County. Newport Homes is building 80 beach cottage-style homes starting at $135,900. Ms. Frazier had no idea homes there were modular until Fred Brandt, vice president Newport, told her.

Once a house is shipped and bolted to its foundation, there's nothing mobile about it. Builders can stack the modules -- 12 to 16 feet wide and up to 60 feet long -- or attach them side by side like so many Legos, creating homes of all shapes and sizes -- ranchers, Cape Cods, Victorians, traditional brick Colonials, some as large as 4,000 square feet and up.

"We have gone from cookie-cutter, plain Jane modular housing that people still visualize when you say modular home to very exquisite custom-designed, custom-built homes," said Jim May, president of May Brothers Custom Modular Homes in West Friendship.

The only Maryland-based manufacturer of modular homes -- North American Housing Corp. -- ships 1,500 homes a year to East Coast states, selling products to some 50 builders in metropolitan Baltimore, said Don Lear, director of sales for the Frederick County-based plant.

Nationally, tens of thousands of homebuyers have bought modular homes, with 91,000 units built in 1993 alone, the National Association of Home Builders says. Nationwide Homes, the Martinsville, Va.-based manufacturer of Ms. Frazier's house, estimates that 7 percent of American homes built last year used modular systems. The industry's share of the housing market is growing at 12 percent annually, the manufacturer says.

The builders association estimates homebuyers can save 10 percent to 30 percent on a home with modular components, compared with a site-built house. Area builders listed prices ranging from $50,000 to $250,000, typically not including land. Larger homes can cost well over $300,000, they said.

Building a house in a factory -- which usually takes about eight days -- helps eliminate conditions builders often can't avoid, such as bad weather or delays in shipments of materials, Mr. Brandt said.

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