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From Stigma to Stardom

With an expanding market, modular homes defy stereotypes.

Last year, Timothy McGrath of McGrath Custom Homes in Herndon finished construction on a three-story, 6,000 square foot home in Warrenton.

Two months ago, the home was featured on a show called “Pre-Fabulous” on the Do-It-Yourself television network.

Yet for all its "pre-fabulous" luxury — a gourmet kitchen, a great room, a stone fireplace hearth, hardwood floors, a sunroom, a large deck, a wine cellar and a two-car garage — the home got on TV because of a much different pretext.

The home was modular.

It didn’t happen overnight, but modular homes have grown up.

“There’s a stigma out there that ‘modular’ means ‘double-wide,’ when in fact this is far from the truth,” said McGrath, who has been building homes for 20-plus years.

When he started, McGrath was putting up regular “stick built” homes, also called “site built” homes. Over the last few years, he has transitioned from stick built to modular, and, in the coming months, he plans to focus solely on building modular homes, also called “systems built.”

“We want people to see that systems built homes offer a higher quality and efficiency and have the same if not better look than stick built homes,” said McGrath.

THE PROCESS for building a modular home begins in a warehouse. The home is built in parts, inspected and then distributed to the site where the local builder puts it together.

“Systems built means the home is built in a climate controlled environment where weather doesn’t ever touch the house interior,” said McGrath. “Also, there’s about 30 percent more wood in a modular homes and most of that is going toward the structure of the house.”

Explaining how modular homes are built, McGrath said that the parts of a modular home often have to be lifted by a crane. “If I picked up a stick-built house with a crane, even one I’ve built, it would fold up,” he said.

Because of laser-precision wood cuts and factory like building conditions, modular homes are more sturdy and sound, said McGrath, adding that they have to be lifted and put on trucks for delivery.

Also while at the warehouse, modular homes go through an assessment based on strict building codes.

“During construction, they go through 300-plus inspections to ensure that they have the highest level of quality,” said Jessica Giovinasso, marketing director for McGrath Custom Homes.

Over the years, modular homes have been able to reach a larger market. One of the main reasons for this has been the ability of modular home designers to go beyond what most people envision.

“Modulars have been able to better fit the market,” McGrath said, adding that there are now thousands of modular home designs. “They’re no longer cookie cutters.”

THE TIME IT TAKES to build a modular home is also a big factor that attracts customers, according to modular home builders.

Clark Crews of E & L Builders, Inc., who started in modular homes in 1997, said that once construction starts, a modular home can go up much faster than tradition stick-built home.

“We’ve set a house in October and had people move in in December,” said Crews. “The houses come [to the site] about 80 to 85 percent complete.” Crews is nearly finished building a 4,000 square foot home in Alexandria that has a brick exterior front wall. Crews is amazed at all the different designs and possible features that modular homes offer these days, which he says is helping business to pick up.

While the actual building process is much quicker, the pre-construction process for modular homes takes just as long as it does for traditionally built homes. McGrath said he still has to get permits and complete the site work, like laying the foundation, before construction begins. “After that process is over, though, I can cut the time by two-thirds,” said McGrath.

Besides new homes, many of McGrath’s projects come in the form of additions. Modular additions, he said, can save time and money. “People do not want to move out of the area, but they want a bigger house,” he said. “Many have large lots that would allow them the capability to expand on their home without the stress of moving.”

Despite the benefits of building a modular home, the biggest misconception people often have, according to McGrath, is one related to price. “There is a savings, but it’s not as big as people think,” said McGrath, adding that savings are usually less than 10 percent.

Crews also said that cost savings usually run between 5 and 10 percent.

McGrath, whose business concentrates on markets in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, has an upcoming project in Ashburn, where the company will build five modular homes. McGrath estimates that they will be sold for about $1 million.

“Five years ago that would have been inconceivable,” he said.