The Dabbling Crafter

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Buying a Factory Built Off Site Custom Home

Surprise! We recently moved and built a new home. It was a year and a half adventure. I will try to give a honest review of our experience with building a home off site. This was a long process, so sorry for the length.

We weren’t going move again. The plan was to eventually build on to Ugly House and to retire there. I honestly loved all the renovations we made to the home and was excited for the next phase of renovations we had planned. 

One April weekend I was out of town buying supplies for a bathroom renovation we had planned, and my husband called me with an interesting offer. We had to been contacted asking if we wanted to buy an acreage. My husband had often commented to the owners that their acreage was his dream property, and as they retired and move into town, they had remembered his comments. I came back from my trip early, and we headed out to take a look. As we drove down the half mile winding tree-lined driveway and the lake came into view, it was game over. Ugly House had been beat by 20 acres of once in a lifetime lake front property. Land like this doesn’t come available in our area.

A week later the paperwork was being drawn up to buy the property. Our future plans were thrown out the window. Ugly House was a project to be finished by another family.

Initially we hoped to salvage the original farmhouse. We love historic homes. Well okay, I love historic homes. However, the cost of renovating, moving and, adding on was prohibitive. We decided to build. 

Anyone who has built before knows that building a house is not for the faint of heart. We found a floor plan we loved and had four different contractors give us estimates. They were expensive. Like a 100k over our budget expensive. We could have made them work, but we would have been stretching ourselves to stay in Ugly House until the home was built. Not to mention on-site builds take time especially with the unpredictable Midwest weather. Each minute we were in Ugly House was time were paying two house payments. Not to mention we didn’t want to show and sell while living in Ugly House. I worked from home, we have 5 dogs and 3 kids. The house would be a nightmare to keep clean and leave for showings. (We couldn’t have known then, but COVID changed the housing market completely. We had 10 so people inquire about buying our house the minute we announced we were building. We sold it directly to a couple we knew and never had to list it.)

At this point, we had officially owned the property for 6 months and had been pursuing building for 9 months or so. My husband had a client recommend a company that builds the homes off site and moves them on a foundation. We started working with that company. From the first interaction, we were very clear. Budget was our #1 concern. We could jazz up a house down the line (we do love DIY) so a floor plan in our budget was paramount. We had plans drawn up, and walked through another build they did. We worked with this company from October 2019 until March 2020. We (finally) got an official estimate. $100,000 over the budget they had promised to stick to. We walked away and a week later the world shut down. (Fun fact. Apparently their company was sold and decided to stop building off site and never told us. Their current operation couldn’t handle the plans they drew up for us so they were calling around trying to subcontract the entire job to another contractor including one of the contractors we had already got an estimate from directly.)

On a random day off, I stopped by Custom Touch Homes in Madison to tour their homes. After an hour with a sales associate, I had plans drawn up and an official estimate to take to the bank. It was incredibly fast. Everyone else took weeks to draw up plans then weeks for get bids and create an estimate. The reason everything goes quickly with their operation is because they have everything in house including the architect. One of the biggest hold ups during a build is the scheduling of subcontractors. Especially in a COVID world, this was helpful. This particular business basically went on lockdown. They kept their workers safe by keeping everyone else out and doing a ton of safety checks. We didn’t even get to see our house in person until it was almost done.  

Once we had the bank paperwork done (which took a couple of weeks even with preapproval) and contract signed, our house was scheduled. Honestly, the process was so quick and well organized that I sometimes had to step away and take a breath. I had a notebook full of what I wanted in the floor plan and all the finishes (I had after-all been planning this for a year now and I am very much a type A person). Even with all that pre-planning, I felt overwhelmed at the speed of everything. I think if you aren't prepared, you could get put on the spot and pick something you don't love. 

After the contract is signed but before building starts, you customize and finalize your floor plans. You have a choice day where you pick all your finishes. They do have a set of materials to pick from, but you can deviate from those. For example I had a particular flooring picked out for my bathroom in Ugly House. I gave them the information, and they ordered it for this house. I also had a dream bath tub picked out, so that was special ordered as well. Something that I found VERY helpful on choice day was my mood boards. Before choice day I had created a vision/mood board for each room with the finishes I wanted. I had made lists of what color tile, cabinets, floors I was looking for. So instead of feeling overwelmed to make all the house decisions on one day, I could just find the finishes that matched what I had carefully picked out over the past year. I also could look at the house as a whole rather than in pieces. I would recommend this for anyone that is building. 

Once building starts, our sales associate sent us weekly updates and pictures on the progress. Their set-up is basically 4 lanes of houses inside a massive building. The first houses in each lane are getting framed. Second house in the lane is getting electric and so on. So each department basically goes down the line and does their job. Slowly the house makes it way down the lane until it’s the last house. Then big warehouse doors open and the house is slid on a truck to be delivered. You have one contact person through the entire process. The house moving day is really quite easy. The house movers do all the work with getting power lines moved. You just wait for the house to show up and they handle placing it on the foundation. It's pretty remarkable to watch (and very unnerving). I have a video of the process on my instagram.

Here's the progress of our house in their warehouse:

I think one of the misconceptions I run into when I tell people we used an off site builder is that this is a mobile, manufactured or modular home. There’s nothing wrong with those homes, but this home is 100% stick built. It’s framed all in one piece like your on-site homes. It wasn’t pieces when it was delivered.  They make the house strong enough to be easily moved as one unit. There’s some preliminary research by FEMA that these types of homes actually are stronger than on-site homes based off post hurricane damage data. 

Over-all the process was  easier than the traditional contractors we were initially dealing with simply because there were no subcontractors. They didn’t need to get bids from them or schedule them. The process took 2 months from the date they started. The moving of the house took about 12 hours to get on the foundation (more on why that was longer than expected to come). Also our house didn’t go over budget because they don’t have to worry about a subcontractor bid not being accurate. The inspections are done just like an on-site build, but because they can do them as part of their assembly line, they are also faster. 

In the spirit of transparency, there are two things to talk about. First of all, while they make all kinds of modifications based on whatever your heart desires, their homes do have some limitations. There are size restrictions since it does have to fit on a road. Our home is rather large at around 3,700 sq feet with the basement, but it had restrictions on width, length, and height. So I could make all the floor plan edits I want, but it still had to fit in that footprint. You also have to stick to a ranch style which initially I did not want. However, with a walkout basement, we don’t have a traditional ranch. I would have pitched the vault in our living room higher if I could have. Also, there are some truly beautiful custom homes out there that my house can’t hold a flame to. There is a reason some builders are more expensive. The materials and craftsmanship is worth their asking price. You also don't get to see and tour your home as often since it's on their premises, not yours. We didn't have any issues with something being done wrong, but that's not uncommon during a build. We also decided to wait on a big deck on the front and a garage and do those separately. The cost on those two items seeemed high compared to other contractors.

Second, there was one aspect of the house build that was a sore point and added a couple of months to the build. We used the off site builder’s sister company to build the walk out basement. We weren’t going to finish the basement initially, so it was just the foundation, walls and some electrical/plumbing. We thought since they worked exclusively with these off site builds, they would be better equipped to build the foundation and coordinate with the house builder's specifications. Also, in theory, they are doing all the basement work while the main house is being built so they finish about the same time. Not so much. 

That relationship was tough. The sister company was hard to work with because they lacked communication. Sometimes I would hear nothing and see no one for weeks. As an example, the day of the house move, the house moving company had to get on the phone and very sternly talk with the head contractor to get him to our property, because the basement wasn’t ready. The house movers had to spend several hours moving dirt so the house could be moved up the hill...something that should have been done well in advance. I noticed after we closed that all the windows in our basement are the wrong color. I’m still missing a screen for a window because they brought me the wrong one. They put the stair railing into the drywall with anchors and it came out within a month. The construction site wasn’t kept clean, and I had to clean up cigarette butts and spilled spoiled milk when we moved in (yeah...not ideal on closing day). They did come and fix the railing within a couple of weeks. I didn’t bother pushing back on the windows because honestly I just wanted to be done with them. 

After we moved in and closed, we realized that building a home isn’t really done when you move in. We decided pretty quick the unfinished basement wasn’t going to work for us. So we hired an awesome general contractor to do that work (which is still ongoing). We also hired a landscaper to hopefully do something with the mud pit around the house. Five dogs and three kids do not do well with a dirt yard in the spring. Also, the bones of our house are pretty standard, so I'm wanting to add more custom touches here and there.

Feel free to message me any questions you may have. I would recommend the process especially if you are on a time crunch or need to stick to a budget. 


Friday, June 8, 2018

Electric and Water in a Vintage Camper


This week's post is for all those people out there with a vintage camper, thinking of getting one or just curious how we deal with two of the main concerns/components of a vintage travel trailer: electricity and water.

When we got Myrtle, the water had already been removed (apart from the toilet...I guess. The previous owners said they had used it, but we never even tried that out.) The electrical was the original 1963 electrical and hook-ups and according to the previous owner "We didn't get it checked out, but it seemed to work fine."

Hmm. Does that make anyone else feel a bit uncomfortable? The walls had been recently replaced (including all the supporting wood) and the exterior resealed. So, the last thing I wanted to do was dig into the walls and replace electrical. Also, I know nothing about electrical. This would have been a project heavily supervised by my more handy relatives.

So, what to do? We did use the original wiring for 1 camping trip for a light. However, the previous owner had hardwired a window A/C unit in, and I can not imagine that the wiring system was designed to take on that kind of load.

After a couple of camping trips, I decided it was time to figure out a solution. The number one thing recommended to us as we started renovating our home was to wait renovate until we had lived in it for a few years. Its an excellent way to figure out exactly what your family wants and needs.

We do not use a refrigerator while camping. Our trips are just a couple of days, so a heavy duty cooler does the trick. (FYI: We also have a separate one for drinks which really helps keep the ice in the food cooler) We discovered through a couple of camping trips we only need electricity for: (1) lighting in the camper, (2) charging our phones occasionally, (3) a small single serving coffee maker,  and (4) *maybe* the A/C. However, to be honest if it's hot enough to use the A/C we generally aren't going to be camping with young kids.

Once we knew what we needed to the electricity for, it was pretty clear an extension cord would be enough power. (With a separate A/C power cord if we were going to run that). I created a solution from a problem. What I mean is, the previous owners took out all the original windows. (I have recently acquired some "new" original ones that will slowly make their way back into the camper). On the front windows they just covered up the area with insulation and sheet metal. While that's less than ideal aesthetic wise, it does make it much easier to create some sort of pass though for an electrical cord.

Using PVC pipe, a hole cutting drill bit, screws, butyl tape and glue, I created a way to pass through the extension cord into the camper without having to prop and window or door open. I have a threaded cap that goes over the opening when we're not camping or using it so there's no issues with bugs or mice getting in.

I hide a power strip and all the cords in a vintage luggage case when not in use. Also, in order to create a "switch" for the lights, I used a simple remote outlet on the overhead lights. The remote is attached to the wall with a command strip.

The second issue is water. We buy our drinking water in separate gallon jugs (and keep in the drinks cooler), but we still need water to clean dishes, wash hands and brush teeth. Our solution for this problem was the original sink (which will get a paint job in the future) with a bucket underneath and a 5 gallon water tank over the sink. I made a stand for the tank so it could hang over the middle of the sink.

We use biodegradable soap while camping so the waste water won't hurt the environment. The only complaint I have with this system is that it's a bit hard to wash large dishes in the small sink. I wish we had a tank that was less deep and was taller. (So, I'm on the hunt for one that fits that criteria). The 5 gallons lasts our family two full days with a bit left over.

It's not luxurious per se, but we're people that really just wanted something that was one step up from tent camping with a bit of style. I think Myrtle perfectly fits the bill. (And no grey water tanks to deal with!)

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Friday, April 6, 2018

DIY Dog Water & Food Dish Stand


Since my last post was for the cat people, I decided it was time to share one for the dogs.

Something we have discovered with four dogs (!) is that we need large dog dishes for water and food. Otherwise we find ourselves refilling them every couple of hours. Nobody got time for that! We also found out early on that they like to dump their water dish all over the floor. Which is especially problematic with a little one that thinks it's really cool to spread wet foot prints throughout the house. (Okay...they are really cute wet foot prints) A stand/holder for the dishes is a must.

However, they don't make stands for large dishes. About 10 years ago, my husband made a stand for our large dishes, but that was starting to look pretty darn rough. It was time for an update. I decided I wanted something that was open on the bottom so we could clean up any water drips. I also wanted something that looked nice. It was a pretty easy process to make this stand, so read on, grab a couple of supplies and get it done!

Piece of plywood (Long and wide enough for both dishes to fit. Most home improvement stores have pre-cut wood so you don't have to buy a large piece of wood if transportation or cutting is an issue)

Table saw/circular saw (to cut the wood to length as needed)

Jig Saw (A jig saw with the ability to do some scroll sawing is helpful because you can adjust your angle as you go along)

Drill & Drill Bit (The big should be big enough that the jig saw blade can fit through the hole)


Table Legs

Stain or Paint

Sealing Layer (Polyurethane)

Dog Food/Water Dishes


1. Cut Wood to Length

The first thing was getting the piece of wood a correct length. You will want a couple of inches around the dishes so you don't compromise the wood as you cut the circles.

2. Trace and Cut Circles

Once you have the wood cut to the correct length, you will need to flip the dishes over to trace around the lip of the dishes. Once you have traced around the dishes, you will need to account for the lip. Make a second circle within the larger circle to make a smaller hole so the dish will be held up. Erase the larger circle to avoid confusion.

To cut the circles, first drill a hole on the smaller circle towards the inside. This hole needs to be big enough that a jig saw blade can fit within the hole. Cut on the line in a circle. You may need to take it slow in order to make the curves. Repeat with the second hole.

3. Sand

Use some sandpaper to sand off the rough edges around the circle you cut out. Also sand down the rest of the board so it's smooth and ready for finishing. You can also use the sandpaper to round any sharp edges.

4. Stain or Paint and Seal

You can stain or paint the board/legs (which ever is your preference). Once you are done, you will need to seal the board and legs several times over. This surface is going to get some major moisture either from drool or water. Follow the directions on the label which usually includes a light sanding between layers.

5. Attach Legs

Using the appropriate hardware (the package will indicate what hardware to purchase) to attach the legs you purchased to the board. You're done!

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