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The advantages of factory-built homes

(ran HP edition)

Question: We recently visited some friends in New England who live in a magnificent home. I was shocked to learn that it was a factory-built house.

I always thought that meant mobile home. Are there advantages to factory-built houses?

Answer: Factory-built houses have been around for a long time. In fact, if you live in an older neighborhood, there may even be some of the factory-built houses ordered from a Sears Roebuck and Co. catalog between 1908 and 1940. It's just about impossible to tell that they were not built on the site.

The success of the Scandinavian factory-built houses has changed the way Americans perceive this type of structure, which was pretty much confined to the mobile home market until the late 1970s. Note that, while early mobile homes often were uninsulated, leaky and inefficient, those made in recent years have improved considerably.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are some definite advantages to buying houses that have been built in a factory and put together at your site. In particular, factory-built houses usually have these characteristics:

Efficient assembly-line production. Site-built houses, on the other hand, may have inefficient labor, materials damaged in bad weather, wasted materials and costly labor because they take longer than factory-built houses to construct.

High-quality, standardized construction to exact specifications.

Low rate of wasted material.

Minimum construction and assembly time.

Computerized design.

Lower cost to the buyer.

Keep in mind that you probably won't find the diversity of home styles in factory-built units that you will in on-site building. You're also not guaranteed of quality just because the house is built in a factory; you need to be sure that the manufacturer is doing a quality job and using quality materials and workmanship.

For home buyers looking for low cost, there are many factory-built houses that could meet their needs. Your friends' home sounds like a quality, well-built product, and they may have been able to get it at a lower cost and in quicker time than they would have if the house had been built on-site.

Energy researchers have been looking at factory-built houses for some time, and there have been significant advances in the energy efficiency and comfort levels in these houses. In many parts of the world, factory-built houses are becoming very common.

Check out A/C system

Question: We're looking for a new house. We'd like to make sure that the home we buy will keep us cool in hot weather. Is there anything special we need to look for?

Answer: Whether you're looking for a new or resale home, someone else has probably made the decision on what type and size of air conditioner to put there. You ought to find out if the system has been sized properly, if it has been maintained and serviced, and if it is energy efficient.

To find out if the system is the right size, contact an air-conditioning contractor and tell him what the house is like, how much square footage needs to be cooled, what the insulation level is and what size system (how many British thermal units) has been installed. Based on this information and knowledge of your lifestyle and family size, a contractor should be able to tell you if the unit is the right size.

Turn the unit on and listen. Squealing belts may mean little previous maintenance. Clattering noises from the outdoor fan or indoor blower may mean the bearings are worn out. Get a professional to check out the system if you suspect that there might be a problem.

You also should make sure that the unit responds when the thermostat setting is raised or lowered. This will give you a chance to hear noises when the system turns on or off.

If you suspect that there may be a problem, it would be a good investment to have a contractor inspect the system. You also might consider contacting your utility company. The company should be able to provide a free or low-cost energy audit before the purchase, which will give you information on the air conditioner. Careful inspection of the system now may save you some big repair bills and an uncomfortable house later.

Ken Sheinkopf with the Solar Energy Research and Education Foundation in Washington will answer questions about energy conservation and home comfort. Write to him in care of the Orlando Sentinel, P.O. Box 211, Orlando, FL 32802-0211.