the MERITS of MODULAR

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For a few long minutes, Roz Frazier's house dangled in the summer sky.

She crossed her arms and watched, standing back a safe distance. She fretted, just a little.

Would her new master bedroom and bath come crashing down, floral wallpaper and all? Would the neighbor's roof be spared? And the larger question, had designer oak cabinets been installed in the kitchen now gliding by above her?

Not to worry.

Ever so gently, at precisely 11:15 a.m., with barely a sound and no rising dust clouds, the second half of Ms. Frazier's house landed squarely on the unfinished walls of a concrete block. Construction workers below the descending sections guided them into place.

No tornado had deposited the two 14-foot by 44-foot pieces of Ms. Frazier's main floor onto a street of closely placed, cedar-sided houses with white porch railings. Rather, a 65-ton crane with thick steel cables lifted each piece off trailers that had traveled six hours from a factory in Southwest Virginia.

But it was still like a bit of Oz in Elkridge, what with a house dropping in.

"That is fast," said Ms. Frazier, a 34-year-old computer programmer at nearby Fort Meade who'd been too excited to sleep the night before. "I can't wait until I can go inside."

Now, she sighed with relief. And about an hour later, the two factory manufactured "modules" were home.

Make that a modular home, not the boxy, prefabricated eyesores of old but a house that actually looks like a house -- and is built like a traditional one too, though in a factory instead of outdoors.

Just two hours after a crane operator lifted two bedrooms, two baths and a dining room in a single swoop, then returned for the living room and kitchen, Ms. Frazier's split-level sat bolted to its foundation, under its roof, ready for the builder to take over. By that point, the home had painted walls and trim. A marble vanity and wallpaper adorned one bathroom. The kitchen cabinets, dishwasher, linoleum tile and closet shelving had been installed.

Modular builders and manufacturers tout their homes as more affordable than comparable site-built homes. They say they can offer faster turnaround and more consistent quality, thanks to assembly-line production that cuts on-site costs and allows for close scrutiny in an environment where rain, snow, hot and cold never matter.

But builders find they have to sell their product as much on the merits of what it is as what it isn't. Often, people confuse modular with manufactured homes, which are more popularly known as mobile homes. Ms. Frazier, at first, was one of them.

"When you say modular, you think of something square and boxy looking," Ms. Frazier said last week, watching the crane continue its work on her house, lifting each side of the roof up on its hinges like the top of a dollhouse.

When she decided to move from her Ellicott City condominium and buy a house, Ms. Frazier, who is single, looked in Meadowridge Landing, a subdivision of modular homes in Howard County. Newport Homes is building 80 beach cottage-style homes starting at $135,900. Ms. Frazier had no idea homes there were modular until Fred Brandt, vice president Newport, told her.

Once a house is shipped and bolted to its foundation, there's nothing mobile about it. Builders can stack the modules -- 12 to 16 feet wide and up to 60 feet long -- or attach them side by side like so many Legos, creating homes of all shapes and sizes -- ranchers, Cape Cods, Victorians, traditional brick Colonials, some as large as 4,000 square feet and up.

"We have gone from cookie-cutter, plain Jane modular housing that people still visualize when you say modular home to very exquisite custom-designed, custom-built homes," said Jim May, president of May Brothers Custom Modular Homes in West Friendship.

The only Maryland-based manufacturer of modular homes -- North American Housing Corp. -- ships 1,500 homes a year to East Coast states, selling products to some 50 builders in metropolitan Baltimore, said Don Lear, director of sales for the Frederick County-based plant.

Nationally, tens of thousands of homebuyers have bought modular homes, with 91,000 units built in 1993 alone, the National Association of Home Builders says. Nationwide Homes, the Martinsville, Va.-based manufacturer of Ms. Frazier's house, estimates that 7 percent of American homes built last year used modular systems. The industry's share of the housing market is growing at 12 percent annually, the manufacturer says.

The builders association estimates homebuyers can save 10 percent to 30 percent on a home with modular components, compared with a site-built house. Area builders listed prices ranging from $50,000 to $250,000, typically not including land. Larger homes can cost well over $300,000, they said.

Building a house in a factory -- which usually takes about eight days -- helps eliminate conditions builders often can't avoid, such as bad weather or delays in shipments of materials, Mr. Brandt said.

"We can give an accurate delivery date and say it will be under roof and 80 percent complete on the foundation," he said.

From that point, Newport, which builds the foundation, takes another 30 days to put on the finishing touches, build the front porch and interior stairs, install the carpet and several appliances, finish the basement, put up the siding and tie the pre-installed plumbing and electrical systems to the outside world.

"Price has a lot to do with people buying modular homes," said North American's Mr. Lear. "Once they walk through the door, they see not only a good price but a well-built house. When we tell them all the customization you can do, that makes them more excited."

Few people realize the extent to which buyers can customize modular homes, a far cry from years past when options were limited, builders say. Today, advances in computer-assisted design allow blueprints to be altered easily and quickly. Improvements in building materials allow for more open, creative floor plans. The industry has moved more toward customization as the general buying public has come to expect all new homes to offer nearly unlimited choices of features.

Ed Fishel, vice president of Blueprint Builders Inc. in Pikesville, had a modular home built for himself and his wife in Hereford before getting into the modular business. Veering from the typical Cape Cod, he had his builder reconfigure bedrooms, redesign the staircase and put in cathedral ceilings.

"One end is all glass," he said. "That floor plan does not exist in anyone's book. That floor plan existed in my head."

If they choose, buyers can redesign bathrooms, install whirlpool tubs, add or enlarge windows and doors, raise ceilings, put in "his" and "her" closets, cover their floors with hardwood and wrap their bathrooms in ceramic tile.

Ms. Frazier had Nationwide convert one of her model's three bedrooms into a dining room and is having Newport build an additional bedroom in the basement.

Angie Pfeifer, a legal secretary, and her husband, Kenny, a custom furniture builder, bought a modular home in Meadowridge Landing earlier this year because it was an affordable first home that had something for her husband -- a garage -- and something for her, a fireplace.

At first, she said, she and her husband felt skeptical about the modular concept. But they liked the idea of a home built under a roof, not exposed to the elements. They videotaped their home's arrival when it was lowered by crane in March.

MODULAR FACTS

According to the National Association of Home Builders' Modular Building Systems Council:

* Modular home components are constructed in a controlled factory environment to the same building codes as traditionally built homes.

* Modular homes are generally shipped within a 300-mile radius of the manufacturing plant.

* Two or more sections, 12 to 16 feet wide and up to 60 feet long, are combined to create a home. Modules can be stacked to create two- or three-story single-family homes. Modules are 90 to 95 percent complete when they arrive at the building site.

* Modular homes can be completed, on average, in two to four weeks.

* Homebuyers can save 10 to 30 percent on a modular home compared with a site-built house.

* In 1993, 91,000 housing units were built with modular systems. Forecasters expect the industry to continue to increase its market share.

* About 50 modular manufacturers belong to the Building Systems Council of the NAHB.

* Information can be obtained from the Building Systems Council's hot line at (800) 368-5242.

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