Modular Homes Build on Strong Foundation

Sally Arbogast and her children outside their two-story Cape Cod, a modular home, in La Plata.
Sally Arbogast and her children outside their two-story Cape Cod, a modular home, in La Plata. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

By Barbara E. Hernandez
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 8, 2006

When Sally Arbogast was planning her new house on 47 acres in Charles County, she never thought she would consider a modular home.

"I saw them in different places and thought they all looked like trailers," said the single mother of two. "But once you look at the pictures on the Web site, whatever preconceived notion you had flies out the window."

The Web site that changed her mind is that of Nationwide Custom Homes, a Martinsville, Va., firm that makes modular homes -- that is, houses built in a factory in sections, or modules, then transported and placed on a permanent foundation.

Arbogast found a pretty, two-story Cape Cod -- a model called "Blue Ridge" from the company's Silver Series. She created a three-dimensional model of her floor plan, then adjusted it to add more space. The pieces were delivered to her site and put together by contractor GCI Inc. of Pasadena, Md.

After years of stigma, modular homes are winning over homeowners with their speed, quality and design. The days when they were lumped in with trailers as tacky firetraps seem to have faded as such houses become more mainstream and sophisticated. Now few people can tell the difference between a home built in a factory and one built on site. Even Country Living magazine chose a modular home as its House of the Year 2006 for its "one-of-a-kind design."

Arbogast, 39, said she overcame her prejudices when she saw the advantages of buying a slightly cheaper -- and faster -- modular home.

"The price of stick-built homes was what started it originally," she said. "Then it was the speed at which it could be done."

About 43,000 modular homes were constructed in 2005, up 4 percent from the previous year, said Steve Snyder, executive director of the Modular Building Systems Association. Although the market share is modest -- about 3 percent of new single-family houses sold last year -- they are being promoted in shelter magazines as smart and sustainable choices.

Fred Hallahan of Hallahan Associates, a housing consultant in Baltimore, said about 3,000 modular homes were built in Virginia last year and 1,200 in Maryland, up about 33 percent and 25 percent, respectively, from 2002.

Snyder said modular homes are gaining acceptance more quickly than the traditional manufactured housing. Those are the houses that most people associate with trailer parks; usually they're on pads, not foundations.

The main reason is that modular homes are indistinguishable visually from traditional, stick-built houses. "Modular homes are always on a permanent foundation and can be three stories and up," Snyder said. "We have the same code as stick-built homes."

Modular homes can have facades of stucco, brick, stone or siding. They can have wall-to-wall carpeting, hardwood floors or ceramic tile -- anything found in a custom-built house, he said.

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