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Assembly required

As factory-built houses take new shapes, they're attracting diverse buyers caught in the housing crunch.

June 12, 2005|T.J. Sullivan | Special to The Times

The two-story house that Jennie Vasquez purchased in Oxnard this year wasn't what she expected at first glance.

It appeared to be a narrow stick-frame house, one of four identical units that seemed to pop up overnight in a quaint downtown neighborhood. It had three bedrooms, a detached garage with an alley entrance and a backyard surrounded by a white picket fence. Surely, she thought, the price tag would be beyond her $400,000 budget.

So when the 39-year-old office worker learned the developer was asking $385,000, she grabbed hold and refused to let go, even after she learned the structure was built in a factory 100 miles away in Corona.

"To me, a home's a home," Vasquez said. "I was losing hope ... because house prices were just going higher and higher. This home just made everything possible."

Now passersby knock on her door to see if any more like it are being built nearby. It's this kind of buyer interest that energizes some factory builders, who claim that assembly lines can play a vital role in helping to alleviate California's housing crisis.

Forget the archetypal mobile home -- the squat, boxy, double-wide that resembles a giant bar of soap. The new generation of factory-built housing ranges from less than 1,000 to more than 3,500 square feet, can have multiple stories and includes some hip designs.

Architects, developers and builders of factory housing contend it can provide a high-quality, timesaving and cost-effective alternative to traditional site-built homes. And enthusiastic buyers from the sandy shores of Newport Beach to the working-class streets of downtown Oxnard are helping prove the point.

Factory-built homes, while still few and far between, are being purchased for primary residences, guesthouses and weekend getaways. And the buyers come from a range of income levels, defying the notion that housing built in a factory is somehow less desirable for those who can afford a site-built dwelling.

Although factory-built manufactured and prefabricated houses differ in several ways, the most fundamental difference is that a manufactured home has a steel chassis, like most mobile homes, whereas a prefabricated one does not. Both have multiple components that are assembled at their final destination on a permanent foundation.

Manufactured housing is being well received in California in both rural and urban areas, said Bob West, president of the California Manufactured Housing Institute, a trade group.

In 2004, 10,370 new manufactured homes were delivered statewide, up from 8,441 in 2003, an increase of 23%, according to the institute. West said he expects an increase of 10% this year.

Two-story models, such as the house that Vasquez purchased in downtown Oxnard, will play a key role in the future of manufactured housing, West said, because they allow more square footage on costly land.

Prefabricated housing, sometimes referred to as modular, is on the rise too, although the Modular Building Systems Assn. in Pennsylvania doesn't track California because the industry is still relatively new in the West.

Not as well known as its manufactured cousin in California, several factories have begun building prefabricated housing, including a plant that went online May 31 on the Hoopa Valley Reservation in Northern California.

William Bobbitt, chief executive of the Hoopa Modular Building Enterprise, said his factory can do anything in a prefabricated form that a site builder can accomplish.

"You're limited to your imagination and what a guy like me running a factory is willing to do," said Bobbitt, who's been in residential construction for 35 years. "I've built in every way possible ... and there is no better way to build that I know of than a modular home."

Silvercrest Western Homes Corp. operates two factories in California that build both manufactured and prefabricated homes.

"As far as construction, these are actually built better when you consider what we have to endure going at 60 mph down the freeway to the site," said Craig Fleming, the company's vice president of sales and marketing.

Opinions vary, however, about the savings over site-built homes -- they generally cost about the same or up to 25% less depending on square footage, type of materials used and location. The many variables make a price comparison difficult. But what appears indisputable is that it's easier to find a small starter home in a factory than in new housing tracts, which have been dominated by large homes in recent years.

Part of any cost savings comes from operating in a factory, where weather and the theft of supplies and tools are not issues. In addition, factories are able to purchase materials in bulk and make more efficient use of them. Speed is also a consideration.

"They have gotten so accurate now in their manufacturing techniques, you can put it together and in three weeks you're all done," said Hal Lynch, a Newport Beach builder and developer.

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