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. 

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