Your Dream Home Design May Be Just a Factory Away

Move the chair a little to the right to catch the morning sun. Put your feet up on the railing. Admire the tawny cedar in your new home. Breathe deeply in the mountain air, and then allow yourself some pride: You built this little wooden dream.

Vernie and Renee Kinyon now have their dream in hand. They built a small, precut home of laminated cedar on the Cowlitz River in Washington State, just where the river divides and flows around a five-acre wooded island.

From their deck, they can see bald eagles nesting in the island trees.

"We spend every weekend here," says Mr. Kinyon, "and this will be our dream retirement home."

Kinyon and thousands of other homeowners in the United States can applaud a construction trend known as "building systems," which puts a dazzling variety of first- and second-home possibilities within reach of more people than ever before.

Described variously as precut, preengineered, modular, panelized, or log homes, these houses offer a basic design but can be custom-crafted to fit individual tastes, and budgets, minus architect fees.

For the most part, these homes start as fully engineered components manufactured in a factory. Then, transported to the home site, the parts are assembled by either contractors or the home buyer, or both. From Quaker-plain to Baroque-elaborate, precut homes are now offered by hundreds of firms.

Kinyon's 1,180-square-foot chalet-style home cost $54,000 as a package (including doors and windows), bought from Cedar Homes of Washington Inc., in Snohomish, Wash. Add the costs of electricity, plumbing, and so on, and the total cost was about $85,000. Kinyon already owned the land.

"Had Vernie not put the home together himself," says Mike Flanagan, co-owner of Cedar Homes, "the total cost would have been between $100,000 and $120,000." Most manufacturers say the rule of thumb in determining cost is to double the package price to cover the construction cost.

Kinyon already had construction experience. "It took me and a helper 5-1/2 months to build it, working all weekends from Friday night to Sunday night," says Kinyon. "Plus I took a month off from my job. It was pretty simple to build, like a big jigsaw puzzle."

Homeowners say that identifying these homes as "kits" sounds too slapdash today, and "prefabricated" carries the stigma of being temporary. Quality and permanence are what attract owners. And some banks, working with trusted manufacturers and distributors, are more willing to finance projects these days.

"Once you get over the prefabricated stigma," says Ed Langley, president of Excel Homes in Liverpool, Pa., "people realize that these are exceptionally well-built houses." Excel sells mostly modular conventional homes to builders who construct five to 20 houses a year and sell them to buyers.

Depending on the owner's participation in construction, and exclusive of the cost of land, some precut, customized homes prove to be less expensive, sturdier, and constructed in less time than a conventional stick-built house. And some can be more energy efficient.

At the high end of the precut spectrum, when owners customize designs with handcrafted elements and square footage is more than 5,000 feet, homes can easily reach $500,000 or more, not including land or the cost of a road, septic tank, or well.

Building boom

According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) in Washington, D.C., the precut and modular share of the housing market has been about 10 percent for years. "These homes are more common in the Northeast," says Michael Carliner, an economist for the NAHB. "And Colorado has a significant share of log homes being built."

But in a strong national economy, with low mortgage rates, sales of new homes reached 800,000 in l997, the highest since 1978. Many custom companies are experiencing record sales.

"For the last few years, our business has increased at a rate of 40 percent," says Frank Baker, president of Riverbend Timber Framing in Blissfield, Mich., one of the largest timber framers in the country. "But this year's growth is heading toward 60 or 70 percent," he says.

On one level, what draws buyers to many precut homes is an unabashed love of wood in an age of plastic. "We wanted wood and an open floor plan," says Kathy Alfieri of Cambridge, Vt. She contracted with Northwoods Joinery in Burlington, Vt., to construct a post-and-beam frame for a 1,450-square-foot house.

"Then we used stick-frame walls to cut the costs," she says. The end cost was $72,000, not including land or electricity, plumbing, and so on.

At the high end, where the owner is less inclined to wield a hammer, Acorn and Deck House Inc. in Acton, Mass., has built customized, laminated post-and-beam homes for 30 years. The company has built some 8,000 homes throughout the US and in other countries, priced from $200,000 to more than $500,000.

"When people tell us what comes to mind about building a home," says Michael Harris, president of Acorn and Deck House, "they have three fears: The architect will do what he or she wants to do, and not what they want to do. The house will be over budget, and they won't be able to build it. The builder will do a lousy job, walk away, and they will be stuck."

Assuaging these fears, manufacturers emphasize "custom" to match the client's taste. And with a fixed budget, the buyer knows his or her cost from the beginning.

Perhaps the most exotic of the custom-crafted offerings comes from Haiku Houses, a company based in Newport Beach, Calif., which offers homes based on design concepts of country houses from 16th-century Japan.

Using a framework of poles and beams, a Haiku House is a contemporary symphony of redwood, cedar, fir, spruce, and glass, usually with verandas accessed by sliding doors, and a sloping peaked roof of Japanese tiles. Basic models range from about $100,000 to $353,900, again exclusive of land or construction costs.

Business is booming. "Most of the homes we build are primary homes," says Gordon Steen, president and founder of Haiku Houses. "And because of our Web page and marketing, we are building homes in the Caribbean, Japan, Portugal, and Morocco."

Cautions

Nearly all homeowners of precut homes say the first step in considering a home is doing lots of research to minimize surprises and learn from others' mistakes. "We read everything," says Kinyon, "and went to home shows. Some of the big-name companies wouldn't talk to us unless we plopped down $15 for a plan book."

What persuaded them to go with Cedar Homes of Washington was personal service and quality of construction. "About two weeks into construction," says Kinyon, "we had a wall collapse, which was entirely my fault. The president of the parent company, International Homes of Cedar Inc., drove for five hours to bring new logs to us and didn't charge me. I couldn't believe it."

Ms. Alfieri says the key to a successful building experience is finding a contractor with a good track record, plenty of references, and a willingness to explain details. "It has to be someone you can trust," she says, "and someone who will anticipate your questions."

Alan Brown, who is building a post-and-beam retirement home on a lake in Fremont, Ind., suggests doubling the attention to electrical and plumbing plans before building. "We should have spent more time planning the mechanics," he says. "It's worked out, but it's been too slow."

As for resale value, at least with log homes, it's hard to determine. "It's crazy, I know, but people don't tend to sell log homes," says Janice Brewster, editor of Log Home Living. "Maybe when the first generation of owners, from the '70s, start to sell, we'll know."

For modular homes, once the home is constructed, only a practiced eye can spot any difference. Resale value is no different from stick-built houses. Manufacturers like Mr. Langley of Excel Homes claim the homes are of better quality. "The modular industry has done a lousy job of educating the consumer," he says, "but we are going to try to turn that around."

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