WNY Modular Homes: My Conversation With the Competition

Posted by Andrew Barden on Jul 16, 2020 8:00:00 AM
Andrew Barden

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Barden Building Products is often confused for a modular builder. I’m frequently asked about the differences/advantages of what Barden does vs. other Buffalo modular home companies. (If you don’t know the difference, check out our explanation here.)

The problem is that no matter what I say, my opinion will always be biased because I believe in the Barden panelized system for custom home building.  That’s why I decided to speak with someone from outside the panelized home builders world. 

I recently sat down with a former sales rep for a WNY modular home company to respond to some of the questions I frequently field about modular vs. panelized homes. Here’s our conversation:

The Truth About Building WNY Modular Homes

Q: To begin, tell me what your main sales pitch was as a modular home builder salesperson.

A: I always started with the big 3:

    1. A better-built home because it’s built in a quality-controlled and weather-tight environment.
    2. A home that’s “overbuilt” because it needed to be transported and lifted into place.
    3. Faster construction times because the home is built in a factory while its site is being prepped.

Q: Let’s break those points down a bit further. What was your personal experience with modular building with regards to each of those advantages?

A: With regards to quality, I always thought (our company) did a great job delivering a quality product. I worked for a small local manufacturer who worked hard to ensure a good final product. 

That being said, it all comes down to the manufacturer’s specifications. We took pride in our product quality, but that doesn’t mean every company does. There is often a disconnect between the manufacturer and the company responsible for setting and finishing the home on-site.

I can only speak to my personal experience, but I also felt that we really did deliver an overbuilt home to our customers. 

As for the time benefits … that’s a different story. For some customers, it really was a faster build. But for others -- mainly full custom projects -- the timeline got out of hand on a number of occasions.

Q: Can you elaborate on the timeline for building a modular home?

A: The customers who really saw a time benefit chose a standard plan with minimal custom changes -- no custom materials to source, just straight to building. They could move forward quickly with a relatively smooth (construction) process.

If someone were to come to me with financing ready and a standard plan selected, I would plan 2-3 months for preconstruction and obtaining permits, 6 weeks to build the home in our factory while preparing the site, and a best-case scenario of 8 weeks of on-site finishing work to complete the home. 

We did get backed up at certain times of the year, which could add 1-2 months onto production. Also, if the production deposit was being financed and not paid out of the customer’s pocket, that could add front-end delays up to a few months.  All in all, with no issues, a non-custom customer could expect a brand-new home in 4-6 months.

Custom modular homes were a different story. 

Customizing a floor plan or using a stick-build floor plan added months to the schedule for drafting, revising, and engineering the plans. Modular home also had design and transportation constraints, so if we couldn’t work a feature into the factory build it would need to be completed on-site. This meant having  more contractors involved and more construction time. 

It was really all over the board with these customers, but some I worked with for years before getting through the planning process and completing their homes. You risk losing your efficiencies on-site.  I’ve seen it take 9 months of work on-site before the family could move in.  To be honest,  it wasn’t necessarily a faster process for many of my customers.

Q: I have a few preconceived notions about modular building and I’d love your opinion on them. I know that the home is supposed to be weather-tight immediately when it is delivered on-site, but I also know that sometimes parts of the roof need to be built on-site. How does that work?

A: Typically when the customer stays close to a standard plan, the modules are delivered with a factory roof, which could be lifted and completed right away. No real issues there. There were occasions when a more complicated roof had to be built on-site and the contractors hired to do the work either weren’t on time, did a poor job, or ran into other delays. I’ve unfortunately seen  situations where drywall, carpet, and insulation had to be removed from the brand-new modular home because of water damage.

Q: So modular construction isn’t a foolproof method to prevent weather damage/delays?

A: Definitely not. No builder can control the weather, and projects are subject to human error.

Q: To my understanding, interior finishes in modular homes have very limited options. What was your experience with picking out cabinetry, windows, doors, and other items with your customers?

A: The company I worked with actually allowed their customers to choose from a wide variety of materials and finishes. It caused delays and problems in production.

By the end of my tenure with the company, we were standardizing our selections.  Also understand that we’re talking about a small, local company. In my experience, larger-scale production modular companies didn’t allow the same freedoms as we did.

Q: I’ve seen some photos of open-concept modular floor plans. Even though they’re open, they always feel a bit busy and not as open as they could be. Why is that?

A: Well, depending on the design we could make some open plans very open. A lot of times though, due to transportation restrictions, the homes had to be designed with a dropped header running through the middle of the open space, or even a support post if the span was too long. Anything like a true vaulted ceiling would have to be done on-site, which opened up a whole different set of problems like I mentioned previously. All in all, we were able to deliver open-concept floor plans, but the customer almost always had to make some concessions.

Q: A lot of people seek Barden out because they think we’re a modular builder. They equate modular building with always being the cheapest way to build. Did you always feel like you were giving out the lowest prices around?

A: In some situations, modular was more affordable. But, customization adds to cost, work on-site, delays, and other issues. When all was said and done, our pricing was often comparable to traditional stick builds. I rarely sold it as the cheapest option.

Q: To be fair, I’m doing my best to pick on the weak points of modular builds. Tell me about the strengths. This is a popular way to build; who is it best suited for?

A: There  are absolutely situations where modular is a great choice. In my opinion, modular is a great for buyers who:

  • Have tight budget constraints
  • Are OK with picking out a standard plan
  • Won’t be picky with finishes
  • Want the home done quickly

On the other hand, there were customers who, in hindsight, may have been better off with a different building method. I’m referring to those who had architectural drawings already designed and looked to modular to save money. Many of those customers, however, weren’t sure what they wanted and made a ton of customization changes. 

While most got a well-built, fairly priced home, I can’t say building modular was necessarily faster or less expensive in the end. 

Q: You have more experience in other parts of the industry now. What’s your final conclusion on modular vs. panelized construction?

A: If you have budget limitations, are in a hurry,  and aren’t particular -- and I don’t say that with a negative tone at all -- modular is absolutely the way to go. If none of those things describes your situation, there’s probably a better answer out there for you.

I think the #1 thing I learned is that “modular” and “custom” are mutually exclusive. Modular is great -- it’s cost-effective and fast -- for unmodified production homes. Introducing anything custom into the mix ate away some of its value.

My Take on Our Conversation on WNY Modular Homes

This conversation didn’t do anything to sway my bias toward modular building at all. 

I was surprised to hear the interviewee’s staunch faith in the quality of the modular home product. On the flipside, I expected the myth that modular homes always get built quickly and easily to be dispelled, but not to the extent he provided. 

 

To wrap it up, I now know where modular homes excel and where they don’t! If you’d like to discuss the best method for building your next home, contact me any time! I’m happy to discuss all of the options available with you!

Take a deeper dive into the Barden panelized construction process with our Custom Home Building Guide: 

Custom Home Building Guide: Panelized Home Construction & Building the Barden Way - Learn More

 

Topics: Panelized Construction, Technical Specs, Process, About, Site Prep, Home Customization, Panelized Vs. Modular Home Building

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