Modular homes and stick-built homes are often pitted against each other as people search for housing options that are greener and more affordable. How do they compare? We’ll evaluate some factors that might interest home buyers, but first, let’s figure out what these two housing types are.
What Do These Terms Mean?
Modular homes are, wait for it, homes built in modules. They’re produced in a factory, and are created in sections that are trucked to your building site and assembled there. You might also hear these referred to as prefab homes, or factory-built homes. They’re not the same as manufactured homes—that’s a term for mobile homes.
When we refer to stick-built homes, we’re talking about homes that are built with conventional framing techniques. In this style of construction, lumber is assembled to form the basic skeleton of the home. It’s then sheathed, typically with plywood, and finished to the builder’s or homeowner’s specifications. These types of homes are also called site-built homes.
Modular homes might be a more affordable option than a conventional new build, but again, they might not. Karen Gardner of The Nest reports that a “conventional stick-built, non-luxury home costs about $150 to $250 per square foot. A modular home can range from $50 per square foot up to $250 for some luxury houses.”
Depending on your square footage, the materials you choose and the level of customization you want, you could spend 10-15% less on a modular home, or you might spend just as much on a modular home as you would on a new stick build.
Location is another key factor that determines price point. Your modular home will need to be shipped, and if you’re a great distance from the factory, those transportation costs will be passed on to you. If you’re a great distance from anything, however, the costs of transporting a modular home could be well under the costs of transporting materials and labour for a site-built home.
Many of the ancillary costs associated with new construction will be the same. Land, as well as the costs of excavating and building a foundation will be similar regardless of what kind of home sits on top of it. Loans, permits, insurance and taxes will likewise be comparable.
Resale value is a tricky question that’s worth thinking about as you consider your options. Realtor Bill Gassett of RE/MAX says not to downplay “perceived value” when making your purchasing decision.
He states that despite how far the modular home industry has come in terms of quality, there’s still an undeserved stigma attached to this style of building that can make these houses “challenging” to sell. He advises getting some insight from local realtors about how a modular home is likely to be perceived in your area.
Start to finish, the construction process is in many ways not essentially different. It’s in the actual construction phase where the differences between modular homes and stick-built homes become most apparent.
The design process, for example, might be very similar between new site-built and factory-built homes. Both cases could range from picking a standard floor plan from a design catalogue to creating something totally unique and custom. Conventional developers and modular manufacturers will both have design reps who can help you decide on floor plans and features.
The building site also needs to be prepared in similar ways for both stick-built and modular homes. Typically, a foundation will need to be excavated and sewer and utility hookups brought up to the home.
Every aspect of a stick-built home is typically completed on site. The entirety of a pre-fab home might be completed in the factory, however. That means that construction speed is one aspect of building where modular homes beat out conventional new builds.
Stick-built homes can be subject to a number of delays (supply issues, weather, labour issues) that modular homes don’t have to contend with because they’re factory-built. Brian Abramson of Method Homes tells The Washington Post’s Michele Lerner that modular homes take “50 percent less construction time to complete.”
You may have the option of having the manufacturer construct the shell in the factory and of finishing the interior yourself or with a contractor once it’s on site. That could have a positive impact on the cost of the home, but a negative impact on time.
The modular home industry often identifies modular homes as a more eco-friendly housing option than new stick-built homes. Those claims are based on a few key areas.
Waste is one, and there’s a lot of merit to this claim. In the residential construction industry, waste is a huge and industry-acknowledged problem. Modular homes, by contrast, produce less waste. Because facilities manufacture the same component parts for multiple projects, they can plan, cut and reuse materials more efficiently. Offcuts that might be scrapped in a conventional build, for example, are more likely to be used on another project.
Emissions is another area in which modular homes may have an edge on new stick-built homes. The Journal of Industrial Ecology published a 2012 study that compared construction data from five conventional builders and three modular home companies. The study authors found that greenhouse gas emissions from the modular construction companies were 40% lower than emissions from conventional homebuilders.
That said, the study authors noted that that data can’t adequately be extrapolated because a) modular home manufacturing processes can be very different and b) emissions from manufacturing facilities will depend on unique factors like the size and geographical location of the facility, how far the facility is from the build site and even how far the facility is from its workers’ homes.
The energy efficiency of the home itself might be a third area in which modular homes have a leg up on stick-built homes. It’s possible for modular homes to achieve a much tighter building envelope than conventionally-built homes since they’re often made with materials and techniques that create less thermal bridging. They can also be put together with greater precision and therefore fewer gaps.
As with emissions, however, the actual practices and products of modular home manufacturers vary widely. Any home, stick-built or not, could be designed with high thermal performance in mind, and any home could include energy-saving features.
They won’t be automatically included in any type of home, but in either case you could specify that efficiency is a priority for you and ask what your builder/manufacturer can do to maximize it.
The Final Verdict?
As you might have expected, there’s no clear verdict. The key factors you’ll look for in a quality new home—durable construction, cost, reasonable time to completion and environmental impact—will vary as much between individual home companies as they vary between modular homes and stick-built homes.
As with any major home decision, research, as well as talking to experts and other home buyers about their experiences, will help you make the best decision for you.