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The Incomplete Promise of Manufactured Housing

Updated: Mar 29

Owners occasionally contemplate a manufactured home product for their property. There’s a lot of confusion, uncertainty, and bias around manufactured housing, and it’s hard to find a single source that pulls all these ideas together. Yes, manufactured homes are allowed in Redhill Forest, but regulatory, architectural, and logistical issues are more complicated than you might think.


Manufactured homes (often called modular) are generally built inside large warehouse-like climate-controlled facilities. Because they are assembly line built, there is generally higher and consistent quality over field-built housing.  Today, manufactured homes are solidly built, well insulated, and can come with many interior finish upgrades.


For years, articles and news stories have predicted that manufactured housing would soon replace traditional stick-built homes. The idea of manufacturing at scale, such as car companies, promised to drive down prices, drive up quality, reduce waste, and fill neighborhoods quickly. It hasn’t happened. And though manufactured home companies have grown, their impact on the marketplace (both in America and internationally) has remained negligible.


Some big corporate players include Clayton Homes and Cavco, along with many regional lower volume, niche manufacturers.


Fading West in Buena Vista has built a 100,000 square-foot manufacturing facility and is running with a backlog of orders for mountain communities. Their specialization is single-family products for high-density, small lot developments and modules for multi-story, multi-family apartments.


Why manufactured homes can be appealing

Many writers will tell you that there’s nothing scarier than a blank sheet of paper. And if you’ve never built a home before, when you stand on your Redhill lot, it’s almost overwhelming to think of where you start. What kind of home? How much can you afford? Who can build it for me? Building our Redhill home took almost two years.  As the architect-designer, I was involved in every aspect.  Toward the end of the project, I calculated that about 5,000-6,000 decisions had to be made — fortunately, not all at once!


Living in Eagle County for twenty years, I had ten years of deep involvement in workforce housing development and came to learn a lot about manufactured housing. It’s a great solution for economical, higher-density housing. However, as I learned from my own deep investigation, the advantages are less compelling for a one-off custom home.  Here’s what was appealing:


  • Less expensive to build

  • Easier to get an up-front price

  • Quicker to get a finished product

  • Fewer decisions on materials

  • Easier to focus on pre-designed floorplans


The beginning of a home. The floor plate comes first with pre-plumbing. The plates roll across the factory floor with embedded rails over a period of a couple of weeks. (Author photo)

Interior and exterior walls are framed in. (Author photo)

Standard drywall texture. (Author photo)

Exterior 2x6 walls are insulated, and then exterior sheathing is affixed. (Author photo)

Roof trusses with steeper pitches are built but assembled on-site. (Author photo)

The economics

Manufactured homes are 10-15% less costly than stick-built homes.  However, they’re only one component of the whole picture.  Here’s a rough sketch of costs to be considered.


Land cost: $60,000-$120,000

Excavation, foundation, utilities: $50,000-$100,000

Manufactured home (low end): $200,000-$350,000

Deck, customizations, assembly: $20,000-$40,000

Range: $330,000-$610,000


Realistically, building at the low end of the range would be hard. We’re not seeing any new home products built in Redhill for under $400,000 unless the owner also does much of the construction work.


Clayton Homes (owned by Berkshire Hathaway) and Cavco (Fleetwood and Commodore are several of their brands) are public companies in the lower-cost manufactured home space, with many products that fit into the above example. Most of their models are suburban ranch designs placed on a crawlspace foundation with two modules joined in the center. Architecturally, they look like double-wide trailers.


These lower-cost products hold their cost-per-square-foot down by specifying lower-cost interior finish materials.  You see this in hollow-core doors, weaker cabinet components, vinyl trim, budget counter and floor surfaces, and lower-quality windows. Touring these products makes a nice first impression until you go deeper. There’s a big difference between the thunk of a solid core door with a $75 passage handle over a molded hollow core and a $20 doorknob.


When you move up in price and quality with products from companies such as Dvele, Ideabox, and Smartpads, you are now in the semi-custom home market, and your core building cost can be $400,000 to over $1 million. These products have better and more durable interior finish components.


Going with one of these high-end manufacturers will probably put you in the $600,000+ range, not counting building a detached garage. And a nice 2,200 square foot home with three bedrooms and three baths will push that up into the $700,000 - $900,000 range depending on exterior and interior finish quality.


At 1,119 square feet with three bedrooms and two baths, the Fleetwood Broadmore is a low-cost suburban ranch style under $200,000.

The Dvele Juniper model starts at $570,000 and is 2,000 square feet with three bedrooms and two baths.

The Fuse3 from Ideabox features a great room center floorplan and many windows all the way around. It starts at $400,000, and you can add a matching detached garage later.

The Smartpads Bonnie model is a 1,572 square foot 3 bedroom, 3 bath home in Steamboat. Click this link for specs and a short video.

You’d never know this is a manufactured home. The “mountain modern” interior of a Smartpads house.

A Smartpads master bedroom.  Premium windows add both visual interest and operable control.

Assessing the market. . .Redhill is upscaling

Whether you’re building a stick-built home or going the manufactured route, there are common pitfalls many owners make. The most important one is that they aren’t thinking about resale. While this may be a forever mountain home — divorce, death, job relocation, and financial black swans can mean the house winds up on the market.


The Redhill trajectory is seeing higher land prices and larger, nicer homes (primarily second homes) being built. The short-term rental market is under increased pressure to be eliminated or restricted because it has decreased critical workforce housing in the rural mountain areas. Future Redhill buyers will likely be wealthier and want decent square footage, energy efficiency, and low exterior maintenance designs.


This likely describes the resale world your house will be in. Homes that do not have much curb appeal are constructed of lower-quality materials and are quirky, will not be treated kindly in appreciation value.


The architectural limitations of manufactured housing

Having to be designed for transport, manufactured modules are limited to a 14’ foot width. Roofs do not have high pitches to fit beneath underpasses and power lines. Higher-pitched roofs are added on-site and add cost. Even in snow country, flat or modest shed roofs can be engineered to hold a heavy snow load, and Redhill isn’t generally a high snow area.


Because of their shoebox configuration, manufactured homes tend to be very plain. Some add dormers to break up monotonous roof lines, and others, like Smart Pads, stagger modules to create a more pleasing sense of dimension.


Redhill Forest has seen a lot of variation in architecture (good and bad) over the decades. The HOA’s architectural committee has taken a firmer approach to evaluating new home applications for better curb appeal and architectural interest. Specifically, the plain style of suburban ranch homes is discouraged.


While you should be mindful of home designs that add exterior interest and value to Redhill’s neighborhood, there are also livability issues you should consider. Module width and height limitations may restrict common mountain home designs such as vault ceilings, large floor-to-ceiling windows, and open floorplans for great rooms and dens.


Garages are always a major value-add for Redhill homes. Manufactured homes on crawlspace foundations will require detached garages. Higher-end manufacturers can accommodate designs that sit on top of a fully poured lower level for access to a garage and additional living space. A key discussion point is where a floor cut needs to be made for a code-compliant staircase. Of course, a lower level will have additional buildout costs.


All the work they’re not telling you about

The higher-end home manufacturers (you work with them directly) can supply you with plans and specs for utility placement and foundation. They might be able to connect you with local resources. For the mass market, suburban ranch products are sold through dealers; you should be skeptical if a dealer says they can handle the site prep and “setting” of the homes. Dealers I’ve talked to have no conception of Redhill Forest’s variation and challenges in site placement on lots and working in a covenant-controlled community.


Building in Park County has a lot of hidden friction, starting with a thin talent pool of contractors and tradespeople. Finding good resources takes effort, and getting them on the job is even trickier. Logistics is another hurdle. Contractors are consistently frustrated with having only one concrete plant in the area, and trucking materials out of the front range or from Salida/Buena Vista adds cost. Outside manufacturers generally don’t appreciate these multiple challenges.


Regardless of who you buy your manufactured home from, I strongly recommend finding a good local general contractor to work with. Important pre-decisions need to be made in terms of properly siting the house (see article on Twist), where utilities need to come in, and where the septic and leaching field need to go. A good general contractor can be invaluable in lining up a surveyor and excavator and getting permits through the county.


You or a contractor must also prepare the architectural improvement application for the HOA. In working with owners who have submitted manufactured home plans, we’ve found that their dealers or company representatives aren’t very helpful in providing good examples of exterior materials or renderings. This can lead to a protracted process, extra costs for exterior modifications, or an outright denial.


Transport costs can add up. These charges are usually calculated per mile and number of modules. It can make out-of-state products more expensive.


Unique to manufactured homes, you also have to consider crane access. There must be enough swing room to lift and place modules, and power lines may need to be temporarily moved.


Once the home is set and the interior is ready for delivery, there are usually exterior completion tasks like building a deck, flatwork (concrete) for steps and walkways, grading, and building a matching outbuilding like a garage.


Five Key Takeaways

  • Manufactured housing costs do not provide compelling cost savings over stick-built homes. The same pre-construction and post-construction costs apply.


  • Decisions are streamlined based on a few choices of exterior materials and interior finishes.


  • Given the constrained workforce in Park County, a manufactured home may be a quicker option to get a house on a site. Time savings could be 6-9 months. However, that may also be governed by the manufacturer’s backlog.


  • Lower-cost suburban ranch manufactured home products will be harder to get approved without substantial documentation and examples of how their exteriors can be upgraded to fit into the design continuum from cabin and timber frame to mountain modern. They generally will not return the higher dollar per square foot on resale and have fewer financing options.


  • Higher-end manufacturers offer very attractive modern mountain designs with higher-quality components. They eliminate high architectural fees and the need for “resort quality” tradespeople for interior finish. This makes these products attractive to owners who want a more upscale home.


Why I went with stick-build

I was pretty excited with the promise of better economics, speed, and streamlined decision-making of a manufactured home. After interviewing several manufacturers (none in-state), I settled on Ideabox out of Eugene, Oregon. Their business model is designing their homes, specifying the materials, and then contracting with smaller regional factories to build the product.


I had found a good local general contractor who had built in Redhill for years and was intrigued with the faster time-to-market idea. Along with his foreman, we drove the 187 miles from Redhill to Scottsbluff to visit the small contract plant used by Ideabox.  We were impressed by their work quality, consistency, and substantialness.


An architect owns Ideabox, and the thinking that went into their designs and materials echoes the resort-quality homes we were used to seeing in the Vail Valley. I had homed in on a floorplan well suited to our site and had the requisite three bedrooms. I had concurrently made a list of “nice-to-haves.”  I thought about how we would use the home for ourselves and when we had guests. I considered long-term appreciation and market dynamics.


Things on the list, like a heated garage, larger dual bedroom suites, a pantry, and a separate den, all pushed beyond the efficiencies of the Ideabox plan. However, many of those design ideas worked their way into my own plans. Our wish list of requirements more than doubled the square footage and the cost.


Our family doesn’t regret spending more and getting exactly what we wanted. However, there was a lot to like in my investigation of manufactured housing, and there are more and more emerging options and companies worth considering, especially if you’re not comfortable getting too deep into architectural, mechanical, and design decisions.


Find the right balance

However you choose to build your Redhill home, it’s an exciting and expensive undertaking.

Minimizing your financial risk isn’t just about keeping construction costs low. How your new home is sited, curb appeal, and interior livability are all factors that, if thoroughly thought through, can substantially enhance your long-term asset value.


 

A deeper dive:  Steamboat-based Smartpads has an impressive video library of their various homes. Watching them is not only informative but inspirational. It definitely resets the standard conception of manufactured homes. Click here to visit the Smartpads gallery.



Don Cohen is a Denver native who has built several successful companies. He has worked on major economic development projects on the Front Range and Western slope and has forty years of experience investing in residential and commercial real estate. Don is an owner and former HOA board member at Redhill Forest. The Dreamhouse Book chronicles his experience building his home.

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2 Comments


Nilson goes
Nilson goes
Dec 28, 2023

Thanks for this write up Don. I thought the article was informative and interesting and look forward to the content you publish. I can appreciate the point Mr. Hinton reaches for, but don't agree with the tone, per se. (e.g. "this is what's wrong with the internet".......really? THIS?) I do agree that it's in the community's best interest to be deliberate about what is allowed so that each homeowner's collective investment is protected and standards are respected. Certainly, there are evolving practices in construction. I have owned a construction company for many years. Yes, there are progressions in ALL construction methods, but I would typically associate modular with the photos you have shown. I think there are certainly some tha…


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This is exactly what is wrong with the internet. Many reputable companies are building true houses that are modular and will stand the test of time and after they are in place you can not tell the difference inside or out. I was involved in completing a neighborhood in Castle Pines that today looks as good as when they were built ten years ago. You truly have chosen the worst of the worst. Modular doesn't always mean a home built like a trailer house. Many of these homes are built in controlled conditions with manufactured wood products that are engineered to last longer than on-site building with less maintenance. All kinds of modular construction practices look very much like typica…

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