Thinking Outside the Modular-Home Box


Question: I have always thought of modular houses as little plain boxes until I recently saw a very attractive large one. Are modular houses good for someone on a tight budget? Are they generally energy-efficient?

Answer: It is a popular misconception that all modular houses are cheap, unattractive boxes. There are reasonably priced models available with cathedral ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and contemporary styling. Others are as large as 6,000 square feet and cost more than $500,000.

Modular houses can be particularly attractive to someone on a tight budget too. You can start with a relatively inexpensive, modest house plan and add pre-built sections as your budget allows and as your family grows. Most modular houses are also energy-efficient.

Some modular house manufacturers offer "owner completion" programs to lower the building costs. The manufacturer delivers the sections and places them on your foundation. You complete the drywall, carpentry, exterior trim, final electrical hookups, lay carpet, etc.

Modular houses are so efficient because they use sturdy construction methods and materials. The sections have to be strong enough to survive the transportation on a truck to your building site.

Another reason for their low utility bills and high quality is that they are built in a factory, so the building materials are not exposed to weather during construction. The automated factory environment allows for strict quality control and use of alignment jigs and precise fastening methods.

One of the best modular house designs for efficiency is a contemporary solar design. These homes are very attractive with an open floor plan, high ceilings and large glass areas. With the proper design, they also can stay comfortable in the summer with minimal air-conditioning.

Though many site-built homes use 2-by-4 studded walls, most modular houses use stronger 2-by-6 studded walls, often on 16-inch centers. This provides more wall cavity for extra-thick insulation.

It is important to check the building specifications for the modular home manufacturers you are considering. Some use efficient, airtight construction with caulking and gaskets around each electrical wall outlet box. Most use glue, in addition to nails, to attach the drywall.

Write for (or instantly download at Update Bulletin No. 626, a list of 36 manufacturers of modular houses, areas they serve, seven exterior diagrams and floor-plan layouts and typical materials and construction specifications.

Include $3 and a business-size self-addressed stamped envelope and mail to James Dulley, Los Angeles Times, 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244.

Thin Vinyl Planks Might Salvage Wood Deck

Q: The wood on our deck is sound but it looks bad. Use of a pressure washer only chewed up some spots and made it look worse. Would composite planks that I could put over it work well?

A: Your problem is not uncommon and many people make it worse by incorrectly using a pressure washer. They continue to increase the pressure to try to clean the wood, and it literally blasts the wood surface away.

There are many types of synthetic materials you can place over an existing deck. Try some of the thinner vinyl decking planks. They snap into place on small clips that are attached to the old decking.

Vinyl Window Frames Aren't Easily Painted

Q: I have older vinyl windows that have held up well. One of them is near the flue from my fireplace, and the frame is badly discolored. Is there any good way to paint the frame beige again?

A: Vinyl window frames are not meant to be painted because the color goes completely through the material; however, there are paints that will adhere to the frames. Take one of the sashes to a paint store for advice.

The soot, which has worked into the vinyl, may cause some painting problems. You might try lightly sanding the discolored frame surface first to get down to the original color, then apply just a clear satin finish over it.

Unit's Airflow Path Won't Affect Efficiency

Q: I have an old central air conditioner with a side air discharge. I just built a deck that is fairly close to the unit. When I replace it, should I switch to a top-discharge model, and are they better?

A: Many manufacturers offer both styles, and neither style is, in itself, an efficiency improvement over the other. The interior condenser coils are designed for the particular airflow path through them.

If your deck is at least 3 feet from the unit and does not appear to impede the airflow, either style will be fine.


Take an online tour of James Dulley's house and see the money-saving improvements and products he tests:

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