By now it’s fair to say most people do not confuse prefab houses with mobile homes. Prefab is simply a different system for building a regular house, of almost any style, producing it in either modules or panels in a factory. With modular houses, there’s a lot of extra engineering involved: After all, at the factory and at the homesite, pieces of the structure have to be picked up by a crane and set in place, first on the delivery rig and then on a concrete foundation — and in between they bounce around for miles on a truck. (Don’t try this with your typical brick colonial.) With panelized construction, sections of walls, complete with innards such as electrical wires, are stacked on trucks, then linked together on site. Look around the Washington area and you’ll see prefabs, except of course you won’t, because when finished they look like regular houses.
People do, however, continue to equate prefab with cheap, or at least considerably cheaper than traditional “stick-built” construction. But there is a wide spectrum of prefab houses and the companies that make them.
At one end you have factories that spit out econoboxes that, despite their superior engineering, can resemble shipping containers. They include the one bedroom, one bath “i-house” by Tennessee-based Clayton Homes, which can be had for a base price of $75,812. Adding upgraded flooring and appliances takes it to about $85,000 including delivery, or about $117 per square foot. ECO-Cottages by Nationwide Homes of Martinsville, Va., offers a 513-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath “Osprey” cottage starting at $59,500, or $116 per square foot. But remember: Prefab prices do not include the cost of the land or the foundation or any necessary site-prep work.
At the other end of the cost spectrum are firms like California-based LivingHomes, which offers high-style contemporary designs at square-foot costs that range from $220 to $250, and much more for custom designs. That doesn’t even include design fees. What you’re getting, the company says, is a soaring architect-designed house — steel frame, lots of glass — for 20 to 40 percent less than a similar house would cost if it were site-built.
Compare these numbers with a 2,200-square-foot house currently offered by Ryan Homes in Clinton, Md. — $121 per square foot including the land it sits on — and the decision to go prefab is not as clear cut as it may seem.