Tiny Tuesday: Manufactured vs. Modular

Mobile homes, despite the name, aren’t all that mobile. Though it’s built on a chassis for transport, a mobile home (also known as a manufactured home, which sounds more neutral) almost always has its wheels removed upon arrival at its final destination. The house is jacked up, then set down on piers on a slab or deep foundation. Since the chassis is not designed to bear directly on a base, there’s usually a crawlspace underneath.

A modular home is even less mobile. It’s built in one or more flat-bottomed pieces which are transported by flatbed truck. Once on site the modules are removed from the truck and anchored directly to a slab or deep foundation. Unlike a manufactured home, a modular home has no chassis, and can be placed directly on a base with no airspace between the ground and the underside.

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Manufactured homes cost $35,000 to $55,000 new. Trailer parks make manufactured homes even more affordable – residents typically own their homes but rent the land. Unlike other real estate, manufactured homes tend to depreciate quickly, and this characteristic is a major driver of wealth inequality. Fortunately, homes built more recently hold their value better.

The reason for this is quality. Originally, there was no authority to regulate manufactured home construction in the US. Since the 1980s, HUD has managed codes for manufactured housing specifying everything from materials (no asbestos!) to foundations (making the homes less susceptible to frost and flood damage) to waterproofing (reducing maintenance costs).

Modular homes can be any size, but single modules that resemble manufactured homes (like the ones built by Vermod) start at $100,000. Since they’re not designed to be moved more than once, they are governed by the International Residential Code (IRC), and they appreciate over time consistent with conventional housing. A modular home typically has better insulation and air-sealing than a manufactured home (in part because there’s no airspace underneath), which reduces fuel costs and makes the annualized price competitive with a manufactured home.

But a lack of financing options means a modular home buyer needs to pay much more money up front than a manufactured home buyer. That makes modular housing a nonstarter for many people. Vermod is working with lenders to offer financing that can bring the cost of a modular home within reach.

All this and more was explored in a recent episode of Vermont Edition, which you can listen to here.

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Sukkah 2017

Two years ago I built a temporary outdoor room in celebration of the Jewish holiday Sukkot. Last year I missed my chance because I traveled to China for the duration of the holiday. This year it was time to plan and construct a new sukkah.

I salvaged some 4×4 posts and decking lumber from another job, and used these for the four corners of my 6-foot-by-6-foot sukkah. I cut points in the ends of the posts hoping to drive them into the ground, but the earth was too rocky and so I dug postholes instead. I buried the posts leaving a couple feet exposed, tamping down the surrounding soil so they wouldn’t budge.

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Four posts and four columns.

Next I attached a board to each post raising the height to 7 feet. I used screws for easy disassembly. I framed the top of the boards with four fallen branches, again with screws, to support the roof. Then I laid a fifth branch across the middle to keep the roof from sagging.

One of my two purchases for the project was a pair of 2-foot-by-8-foot trellises, which I used as the starting point for the roof. I laid them across the branches and secured them with a couple of screws. Then I covered the top with some leafy branches. It feels a little like having a pile of yard debris on the ceiling, so I’ll think of something more deliberate for next year.

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Roof trellises and support branches.

The other purchase was six yards of white cloth, which I used to wrap three sides of the structure. I stapled the cloth to the four corner columns with an ordinary stapler, wrapping the ends around and reinforcing them with extra staples. Because the cloth is only 42 inches wide, there’s a space around the top and bottom, giving the sukkah only partial privacy but a pleasant airiness.

Alas, Sukkot ended Thursday night and I will disassemble the structure soon. Looking forward to next year!

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Tiny Tuesday: You Gotta Start Somewhere

Real estate agents often describe a small house as a “starter home” – implying, in the truest American tradition, that the owners will get a bigger one as soon as they can afford. Some people do trade up to accommodate kids or absorb a higher income. Others find that small suits their needs, and stay in the “starter home” for most of their adult lives.

And then there’s Luke Thill from Iowa, who built his own starter home but will probably never move into it. Luke lives with his parents and plans to keep that arrangement for a while longer. He’s 13.

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Luke Thill and his “starter home.”

According to this Des Moines Register article, Luke bankrolled the whole project himself. He reclaimed 75% of his materials, spent $1500 he earned from lawnmowing and online fundraising, and bartered labor – for example, he cleaned a neighbor’s lawn in exchange for the neighbor, an electrician, to help him wire the house.

The 89-square-foot groundbound house has a shed roof and a front deck. Inside is a kitchen with hot plate and refrigerator, a living room with couch and TV, and a sleeping loft. There’s no plumbing, which means the house cannot be a legal dwelling. Nevertheless, Luke uses the structure for homework and entertaining friends, and he sleeps there a couple nights a week. He plans to eventually sell it and use the proceeds to build a larger house on a trailer that he can bring to college. A starter home, indeed.

“Everyone had to have a big house, and now people have changed and realized it’s not practical. You can save money, travel the world and do what you want instead.”
Luke Thill