TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.
As factory-built houses take new shapes, they're attracting diverse buyers caught in the housing crunch.
By TJ Sullivan
Los Angeles Times
The two-story house that Jennie Vasquez purchased in Oxnard this year wasn't what she expected at first glance.
It appeared to be a narrow stick-frame house, one of four identical units that seemed to pop up overnight in a quaint downtown neighborhood. It had three bedrooms, a detached garage with an alley entrance and a backyard surrounded by a white picket fence. Surely, she thought, the price tag would be beyond her $400,000 budget.
So when the 39-year-old office worker learned the developer was asking $385,000, she grabbed hold and refused to let go, even after she learned the structure was built in a factory 100 miles away in Corona.
"To me, a home's a home," Vasquez said. "I was losing hope … because house prices were just going higher and higher. This home just made everything possible."
Now passersby knock on her door to see if any more like it are being built nearby. It's this kind of buyer interest that energizes some factory builders, who claim that assembly lines can play a vital role in helping to alleviate California's housing crisis.
Forget the archetypal mobile home — the squat, boxy, double-wide that resembles a giant bar of soap. The new generation of factory-built housing ranges from less than 1,000 to more than 3,500 square feet, can have multiple stories and includes some hip designs.
Architects, developers and builders of factory housing contend it can provide a high-quality, timesaving and cost-effective alternative to traditional site-built homes. And enthusiastic buyers from the sandy shores of Newport Beach to the working-class streets of downtown Oxnard are helping prove the point.
Factory-built homes, while still few and far between, are being purchased for primary residences, guesthouses and weekend getaways. And the buyers come from a range of income levels, defying the notion that housing built in a factory is somehow less desirable for those who can afford a site-built dwelling.
Although factory-built manufactured and prefabricated houses differ in several ways, the most fundamental difference is that a manufactured home has a steel chassis, like most mobile homes, whereas a prefabricated one does not. Both have multiple components that are assembled at their final destination on a permanent foundation.
Manufactured housing is being well received in California in both rural and urban areas, said Bob West, president of the California Manufactured Housing Institute, a trade group.
In 2004, 10,370 new manufactured homes were delivered statewide, up from 8,441 in 2003, an increase of 23%, according to the institute. West said he expects an increase of 10% this year.
Two-story models, such as the house that Vasquez purchased in downtown Oxnard, will play a key role in the future of manufactured housing, West said, because they allow more square footage on costly land.
Prefabricated housing, sometimes referred to as modular, is on the rise too, although the Modular Building Systems Assn. in Pennsylvania doesn't track California because the industry is still relatively new in the West.
Not as well known as its manufactured cousin in California, several factories have begun building prefabricated housing, including a plant that went online May 31 on the Hoopa Valley Reservation in Northern California.
William Bobbitt, chief executive of the Hoopa Modular Building Enterprise, said his factory can do anything in a prefabricated form that a site builder can accomplish.
"You're limited to your imagination and what a guy like me running a factory is willing to do," said Bobbitt, who's been in residential construction for 35 years. "I've built in every way possible … and there is no better way to build that I know of than a modular home."
Silvercrest Western Homes Corp. operates two factories in California that build both manufactured and prefabricated homes.
"As far as construction, these are actually built better when you consider what we have to endure going at 60 mph down the freeway to the site," said Craig Fleming, the company's vice president of sales and marketing.
Opinions vary, however, about the savings over site-built homes — they generally cost about the same or up to 25% less depending on square footage, type of materials used and location. The many variables make a price comparison difficult. But what appears indisputable is that it's easier to find a small starter home in a factory than in new housing tracts, which have been dominated by large homes in recent years.
Part of any cost savings comes from operating in a factory, where weather and the theft of supplies and tools are not issues. In addition, factories are able to purchase materials in bulk and make more efficient use of them. Speed is also a consideration.
"They have gotten so accurate now in their manufacturing techniques, you can put it together and in three weeks you're all done," said Hal Lynch, a Newport Beach builder and developer.
"Normally, if you're doing stick-frame construction, you're really closer to seven months," said Lynch, who designed homes in the Lido Peninsula Resort, some of the first two-story manufactured homes to be approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets the guidelines for manufactured housing.
Vasquez, who looked at new tract and existing houses, said her factory-built home was the only way she could get into the market in her ZIP Code, where the median home price was $580,000 in April.
"I thought it was a little small, but you've got to start somewhere," Vasquez said of her two-bath, 1,187-square-foot home, which she shares with her fiancé, Daniel Gonzales, and their combined four children, ages 14 to 22.
For others, like Melodee Curran, a manufactured home provides a chance to cash out and pare down possessions.
Curran, along with her husband, Richard, had been living in a 3,200-square-foot house in Fullerton when, in June 2004, they purchased one of the 1,000-square-foot, two-story manufactured homes that Lynch designed at a Newport Beach mobile home park. Initially the beach house was intended as a weekend retreat. But within a few weeks, the couple realized the small home better fit their empty-nest status, and they put the big house on the block.
"We were going to live in our house in Fullerton until we died," she said. "But it only took about six weeks before we started saying, 'What are we doing in Fullerton?' "
The Currans, both in their early 60s, paid $245,000 in cash for the home in Lido Peninsula Resort, where their monthly rent on the land will be about $1,300. For that they received a fully furnished home, a tiny boat in a nearby slip and, as Melodee Curran noted with a smile, lunch in the fridge on move-in day.
Then there's Eileen and Ward Adams, who went with the weekend getaway plan at the opposite end of the same park, Lido Peninsula Resort.
The Adamses paid about $185,000 for a two-story, 1,000-square-foot home fresh from the factory and rented a space with a partial bay view for $1,600 a month. The couple, whose full-time residence is a Midcentury house in Burbank, plan to stay in the beach home on the weekends, walk the 200 paces to their sailboat in a nearby slip, stroll to restaurants and enjoy the good life without having to pay a fortune for it.
"If you had a new place with a partial bay view, you'd be talking about $2 million," said Ward Adams as his home dangled from a crane.
The benefit for the Adamses was that they could see the kind of home they were purchasing before taking the leap. They walked through the park at Lido, where many of the homes are located, and talked to neighbors.
It is more difficult to find models of prefabricated housing, in part because many of the projects are still in the development stage, particularly those modernist prototypes that push the design envelope and may not necessarily be more affordable than site-built homes.
"Relatively affordable architecture" is the descriptor preferred by Michael Sylvester, a Huntington Beach business consultant in prefabricated housing who created the website fabprefab.com in 2003.
"I had originally assumed that the kinds of people who would go into it would be young professionals … the house matches their Saab, or whatever," Sylvester said. "It's been interesting to see how many people who've moved into it are baby boomers, empty nesters, people who want to pare down."
But for those wanting more space instead of less, Silvercrest has larger models, including one that is 3,700 square feet and includes four bedrooms, 3 1/2 bathrooms, a flagstone fireplace, a wet bar, 10-foot-high ceilings and recessed lighting.
As factory housing has evolved, so have the practices of banks and mortgage lenders.
Stuart Tyrie, vice president of the national builder division of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, said lending for manufactured and prefab houses on owner-occupied land "very closely mirrors the regular mortgage market."
Asked what a buyer with strong credit might expect when borrowing $350,000 to purchase a home, Countrywide Home Loans said through a spokesman that there would likely be no difference between the interest rate for a prefabricated house and a site-built house. However, lenders still charge a slightly higher interest rate for a manufactured house.
Clay Dickens, vice president of Community West Bank in Goleta, which loaned $25 million to buyers of manufactured homes last year, said lenders are slowly catching on but that it can still be difficult for some buyers to find financing.
"It's another level," he said. "A new level of housing that really hasn't been a factor out here."
California has simply lagged behind the rest of the country with regard to factory building, but that it's certain to catch up, said Don O. Carlson, editor and publisher of the national magazine Automated Builder, a 31-year-old publication that covers all segments of the industry.
Several Southern California developments are using factory-built housing. Marvin Kapelus, whose Fabricante Development Inc., based in Oxnard, sold Vasquez her home, is in the process of developing 22 similar units as part of a mixed-use project in the Ventura County town.
A senior community in Borrego Springs, the Road Runner Golf and Country Club, features only homes manufactured by Silvercrest priced between $197,000 and $266,000, with 30-year land leases and monthly rents starting at $620.
And then there are companies such as Precision Integrated Homes in Newport Beach, which sells prefabricated homes that can be used as guesthouses, offices or pool houses, taking advantage of a state law intended to make it easier for homeowners to construct so-called granny flats on their property.
"This is a great option for the housing shortage," said Glenn White, president of Precision Integrated Homes.
SIDEBAR: The prefab structure concept has withstood the test of time
Factory-built housing has been around longer than the United States.
A prefabricated house provided shelter for a fishing fleet in 1624 in Cape Ann, Mass., according to the book "Prefab," by Allison Arieff and Bryan Burkhart. The panelized wood structure had been built in England and shipped across the Atlantic.
Prefabricated structures also were used in the frontier American West. Prospectors in the mid-19th century, for example, had house kits shipped to them during the Gold Rush. Better known are the Sears, Roebuck & Co. homes of the early 20th century that could be ordered from a catalog and shipped to a building site.
The return of soldiers to civilian life after World War II inspired even more prefabricated efforts. Among the solutions were steel homes built on an assembly line by Lustron Corp., and William Levitt's prefabricated structures in Levittown, Pa., where prices started at $9,000 in 1947.
Although trailer homes succeeded in the wake of Wallace Merle Byam's Airstream travel trailers, some efforts to build truly portable houses never made it into production. Philosopher and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, for example, built a prototype of his Dymaxion House in Wichita, Kan., in the late 1940s, but failed to make it beyond that phase because of a disagreement over design with his business associates.
The prototype, which is on permanent display at Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, suspended a circular aluminum house from a central mast and could be shipped in a metal tube. It was expected to cost about the same as a Cadillac at the time — less than $5,000.
Manufactured homes: the inside story
Factory-built housing falls into two categories: manufactured homes and prefabricated or modular homes.
Though a manufactured home today may appear dramatically different from the stereotypical mobile home, it is built on a steel chassis and constructed to federal standards instead of local building codes.
A prefabricated or modular house does not have a chassis and must meet local building codes, the same as a site-built home.
The components of both manufactured and prefabricated houses frequently come fully wired, plumbed and equipped with appliances. Final assembly on permanent foundations occurs at the site.
More information about the housing types is available online.
• Manufactured Housing Institute, http://www.manufacturedhousing.org
• California Manufactured Housing Institute, http://www.cmhi.org
• Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., http://www.fleetwood.com
• Silvercrest Western Homes Corp., http://www.silvercrest.com
• Modular Building Systems Assn., http://www.modularhousing.com
• Hoopa Modular Building Enterprise, http://www.hoopamodular.com
• FabPreFab, http://www.fabprefab.com
• Precision Integrated Homes Inc., http://www.pih-inc.com
• R. Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House, http://www.hfmgv.org/museum/dymaxion.asp
• Automated Builder magazine, http://www.automatedbuilder.com