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Factory-made housing's bright outlook

Factory-made, precut housing has an image problem. Though at least equal in quality to more conventional, site-built frame housing _ and superior in many instances _ houses manufactured in a plant are still held suspect by many buyers. According to Home Plan Ideas magazine, this prejudice exists regardless of whether the precut house is panelized, modular or a log home.

Is this dislike justified? Probably not. It has more to do with culture than good sense. In the United States, home buyers like to be active participants in the home-building process. They want to be able to drive by their lot every day or every few days and see exactly what is happening.

This isn't true in Japan or Europe, where factory-built homes are common.

Some of the American market's prejudice may also be rooted in confusion over terms. A precut, prefitted factory house is often confused with the manufactured home (the legal definition for the common mobile home). Constructed to meet less stringent building codes, the quality of a mobile home is not up to the same standards.

Ironically, the anti-factory bias exists at a time when kit homes sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. at the turn of the century are in unprecedented demand.

Today's precut homes must meet the same building code requirements as any residence in the nation. Placed side by side, a precut home is rarely different than a similarly designed, similarly furnished conventional home.

The only precut style that will seem dramatically different is modular, but that difference is only evident when the structure is being delivered to the site.

"A modular home will face more resistance if people see it being delivered," says Ann Madison of Ryland Building Systems, a Maryland-based panelized builder."Because the sections are already built when they arrive, it stands out as a very different kind of building."

Factory homes are expected to make steady gains in this decade. Consider these arguments:

A factory has a much greater degree of cost control over the building process, which ultimately means savings to the consumer. For example, large factories can buy wood in greater volume and contain some rising costs.

Plants can control waste better. A framer with a hand-held power saw will never utilize a sheet of plywood with the same economy as a factory worker with a $50,000 laser-guided machine.

Industry analysts say both the number of skilled construction workers and the breadth of their skills are declining. Housing factories will have a distinct advantage because they can build more units with fewer people and greater quality control.

Precut home companies are slowly developing a better-equipped network of builder-dealers. These reps are the critical link between the factory and the consumer.

Knowing this, leading-edge companies are giving builder-dealers computer programs to aid in home design, brochures to educate buyers and an ever-expanding selection of floor plans.