The traditional way to build a house has long been described as “stick built homes.” That is, assembling the building, on site, out of sticks – pieces of lumber that are cut and nailed together into walls and roof trusses, linked together and sheathed with plywood on the exterior and drywall on the interior then finished with shingles, clapboard, vinyl siding, adobe or some kind of brick or brick veneer.

There are disadvantages to this type of building; weather is always a factor, shutting down worksites, damaging materials, and making work uncomfortably cold, hot, or wet for construction workers. Measuring, cutting, fitting, and nailing each “stick” into a whole house is tedious and time consuming; mistakes waste material and drive up costs. While most homes today are still stick built, there are many technological advances that shortcut or even eliminate the cutting, hammering, and nailing process without impacting the quality of construction. Today the term of reference is no longer stick built, it is “site built homes” and there are a lot of ways to do it.

The polar opposite of stick built housing is manufactured housing or what is commonly known as mobile homes. These are totally factory built housing delivered to the site in one, two, or three pieces. The pieces, still on wheels, are joined together, and usually not placed on foundations, are provided with skirting to connect them visually to the ground.

Over the years the line between site built and manufactured housing has blurred, but manufactured housing is, in general, titled differently than site built homes; ownership of the former being treated in most states more as a vehicle than a home. There are also differences in the insurance available to the two types of property and they are financed under special “mobile home” programs.

But the lines are growing fuzzy. If you have not been in a mobile home lately, prepare for a revelation. We recently inspected two “double wide” manufactured homes in Los Cruces, New Mexico. The first was a three bedroom unit with two baths, living room with a dining area and a kitchen. It didn’t feel like a “trailer” but it did not feel like a quality home either. Our sales person was unapologetic, explaining that the model unit had few upgrades and could be delivered and set up for around $50,000 exclusive of land.

The second unit, however, was incredible. Aside from the molding covering the seams between the two or three pieces of the doublewide (or maybe it was technically a triple-wide), one would never guess that this was anything other than a quality home. Once the door was closed, the considerable noise from the busy highway in front of the dealership disappeared. An entry hall led to an open kitchen, living and dining room area and an oblique entry to a well appointed study and master bedroom with a fabulous master bath complete with walk-in closet, jetted tub, and oversized shower. The kitchen cabinets and island were an upgrade of very good quality as were the finishes throughout the unit. The thoughtful space planning was particularly impressive as were the yearly energy consumption figures provided by the dealer. The unit, with two additional bedrooms and a family bath could be on the ground and ready for occupancy in the configuration we saw for $98,000.

Manufactured housing is a major source of shelter in the Sun Belt. Our salesperson, James Gildon, from Palm Harbor Homes, one of the larger producers of manufactured homes, explained that 57 percent of new homes in his Southwest state are manufactured; an economical solution to housing even if manufactured homes tend to depreciate like cars (manufactured home dealers, like car dealers often even take trade-ins of older units.) rather than appreciate as site built housing has This may change as the quality of these homes increase and the stigma that has long haunted them disappears. They are not presently, however, practical in some parts of the country. Zoning and covenants prohibit manufactured housing in some locations and land prices in many places discourage them as a highest and best use of property. Also, while it is far easier to finance manufactured housing than it was even a few years ago, some stumbling blocks still exist.

There are also weather considerations. High quality manufacturers construct to code for temperature and snow load but recent events have shown that manufactured housing may not be the best choice for areas in hurricane or tornado-prone areas. On the other hand, stick built construction did not fare all that well in the face of the winds and storm surge along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast lines. A large display in the Palm Harbor office we visited showed a number of pictures of their homes, standing intact, after hurricanes Andrew and Charley while two by fours from stick –built neighboring houses were strewn everywhere.

Still, manufactured housing is an alternative to traditional construction in communities, particularly in the Southwest and Southeast and parts of the Midwest that are welcoming of them. They are also worth considering for vacation homes where they are permitted.

Moving back to site built housing; One shortcut we were surprised to learn about, again during a visit to the Southwest, is home building kits, i.e., buildings in a box. Sears Roebuck pioneered this concept at the beginning of the last century and many Sears houses are still around, commanding a premium price from lovers of the Craftsman style of architecture. Apparently the idea is still alive and well. Sutherlands Lumber, a big box home improvement store in the west, offers a dozen different home building kits ranging from 900 sq feet (they produce even smaller vacation homes) to 41,000 sq. ft. Among the smallest packages, a two bedroom, one bath bare bones model costs $14,000. A 2,100 kit is $42,000. The kits include pre-cut studs, kitchen and bathroom fittings, floor coverings, appliances, windows and pre-hung doors, and so forth. There are other costs involved, land, foundations, shipping, assembly, electric and plumbing installation – but the mass purchase discounts on lumber and other materials available to factory builders, the time savings on the ground from precut and pre-patterned construction, and savings from weather delays – probably save, and we are guessing here as we have been unable to get firm figures – ten to 20 percent over build from scratch construction. Sutherland is mainly a west-southwest vendor, web search on home building kits for more information and additional suppliers.

NEXT; Modular homes, pre-fabs, panelized construction, and other house building shortcuts.