R.I. pre-fab home market falling into place

Providence New Journal

November 27, 2004 — Contractors discuss the finishing touches on a modular home being built in South Kingstown. The developer, Kara Elizabeth Homes, of Charlestown, has found a demand for homes ranging in cost from $150,000 to $800,000. Modular home building grows in popularity as material, labor costs jump

Modular home construction - homes manufactured in sections and delivered to and assembled on-site - are becoming increasingly popular in New England and Rhode Island, as building material and labor costs rise, and labor availability declines.

"It certainly is (the next big trend), and it's been coming on for some time," said Roland Vukic, president of Hallmark Homes Inc. in Charlestown. "It's the next natural progression. Skilled labor is getting harder and harder to find, and even builders use and install prefabricated items; they're assemblers."

Hallmark Homes sells and delivers modular homes up and down the East Coast, and has been in business since 1975. Sizes range from a startup ranch and up, and prices range from $100,000 and up, Vukic said. Hallmark has four manufacturing facilities in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the standard home they're building is 3,500 to 4,000 square feet. Vukic said the industry has flourished since the 1990s.

"When I got into this business in 1975, I saw the potential for the market, but it was not readily accepted," he said. "The perception was for a long time, that what you were getting" was a cheap ranch, because that's what companies were manufacturing.

"In 1990 or so, there was a change in the industry," Vukic said. "Young people had the understanding that a house produced in a factory must be better, and they really accepted the modular industry. Recently, it's taken leaps and bounds into the luxury end."

For owners of modular homes, the sky really is the limit, according to Rich Morin, president and owner of Kara Elizabeth Homes, formerly based in Vermont and now in North Kingstown. Morin, a native Rhode Islander, brought his company back to the state a year ago to try his success of modular home construction in the Ocean State.

"We do everything from the 400-square-foot addition to the 7,000- or 8,000-square-foot mansion," he said. "The majority of our homes are 100 percent custom. It's whatever the homeowners want."

Kara Elizabeth Home prices range from the $150,000 Cape Cod-style home to an $800,000 luxury home in some of the nicer Rhode Island neighborhoods. The company is the Rhode Island builder for Epoch Homes in Pembroke, N.H., which manufactures homes for all of New England, Morin said. Customers can choose a home design from one of the 200 to 300 that KE Homes has already built, or go to the office and Morin can design one from scratch, using a CAD program, according to the client's wishes. The same is true for Hallmark Homes.

In addition to the flexibility of the amenities, finishes and materials used in the construction of a modular home, obviously benefits for the homeowner, there are advantages for the builder as well, Morin said.

"When you're building with a modular product, you're in a controlled environment, so you don't have to worry about the weather," he said. "And you don't have to worry about subcontractors (for the construction). It takes one more glitch out of the equation."

Vukic also said modular home construction is an improvement on stick-built.

"They're superior for high-wind zones," he said. "Think about it - if you're heading down the highway (with one) at 60 or 70 miles per hour, in a 25-mile-per-hour headwind, it's wind tunnel tested."

These modular homes are also certified as meeting all state building codes; as part of operations, modular home builders are required to have a third-party building inspection during the entire process of fabrication.

KE Homes' clients range, Morin said, and the company is currently working on projects in Narragansett and South Kingstown, and has plans being developed for homes in Portsmouth, West Greenwich, Johnston and North Kingstown.

Both modular home builders said that fast turnaround is another advantage to this type of home. Morin said his homes are built in two and a half weeks in the factory, and it takes another four to 10 weeks on-site doing finish work. When the home arrives - most 3,500-square-foot homes come in four pieces, both said - a foundation is poured, the home is assembled, plumbing and electrical lines are connected, and flooring and molding and granite counters are installed.

Morin said he would like to build 15 to 20 modular homes in Rhode Island each year, with a few spec homes and the rest custom. Vukic said he builds about 20 here every year, although his biggest modular markets are in densely populated states like New York, New Jersey and North Carolina. The Rhode Island market, he said, is increasing.

"It's catching on very well, but there is still a pocket of resistance," he said.