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Buyers discover their homes are pre-fab

Posted at 8:41 AM, Nov 11, 2010
and last updated 2014-07-01 09:39:25-04

Remember when a pre-fabricated home meant a 1970s-era aluminum trailer sitting up on cinderblocks?

Not anymore. Today's factory-built homes are so well designed and constructed that it can be almost impossible to tell they were not built on site.

But that has now created controversy in one subdivision where buyers claim they were never told before the sale they were buying "modular" homes.  They say their dream homes now carry a stigma and may be harder to sell.

No clue until plumber checked pipes

Michelle Parnell looked out the kitchen window over the new subdivision she bought a home in.

It was Parnell's dream home, until a plumber told her something that left her "shocked, absolutely shocked."

Parnell asked asked the plumber, as he was making a minor repair, why her house had plastic tubing everywhere, instead of copper pipes.

"I asked the question. 'Why does the piping look so different, from everything I am accustomed to? And the plumber said that's because this is a modular home,'" Parnell said.

Pre-fabricated at a factory

It turns out Parnell's home, like several others in the subdivision, was "modular construction." Her home was pre-fabricated at a factory, then delivered by truck in several pieces.

But this is not your grandmother's mobile home. These are so well designed, and sitting on real foundations, that several of the buyers say they never knew.

Parnell's neighbor, Casey Marquette, says he thought his home was site built, or "stick built" as it's sometimes called, until he found sections bolted together in a crawl space under the house.

Would not have bought the house

Marquette says, "We were under the impression it was a stick-built home." I asked him 'would you have bought this home knowing it was modular?" His answer, no.'"

Their lawyer feels the homes will now be worth less as a result.

"The home buyer is going to attach a stigma, right or wrong, to a modular home that would not be attached to a stick built home," said attorney Peter Burrel.

While it is impossible to know who was told what at the time of the sale, Burrell claims no paperwork ever stated his clients' homes were pre-fab. He also showed me the MLS listings of the two homes, where the houses were simply listed as "single family," not modular.

"I frankly feel the developer has an obligation to tell the people they were selling homes to if it is a site built or modular home," said Burrell.

The developer responds

But the developer, a company called Potterhill Homes, told me the company does not hide anything and has even been written up in national publications for their modular construction.

"We believe it is a superior building process, so every chance we've had to tout modular construction we've shared with the media,"  said Potterhill Homes President Carolyn Rolfes. "We've always been open and honest about the construction process."

Rolfes says modular homes actually hold up better because they are glued and bolted for transport, not simply nailed.

But she says -- and we were unable to find otherwise in extensive searching -- that there are no state or federal laws stating a seller must disclose modular construction.

"There isn't any law that says you have to confirm the construction process,"  said Rolfes.

Parnell and Marquette say they feel obligated to tell potential buyers of their dream homes that the house they are looking at was pre-fabricated at a factory, then trucked in and bolted together on site.

Simple way to avoid problems

So don't let this happen to you: Don't fall so blindly in love with a newly-built home that you fail to hire an independent inspector who has no connection with the developer. Parnell and Marquette now wish they had done that.

A good inspection could have easily prevented this post-sale surprise.

Nothing in this report alleges any problems with modular construction.  Many builders claim modular homes that are bolted to a concrete foundation hold up better to storms and say because they are insulated at the factory, they are more energy efficient than site built homes..

Pros and Cons of Modular Construction

Modular Home used in ABC's Extreme Makeover Home Edition