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Prefab homes go upscale, with prices to match

Homes like this one in Wellesley are putting an end to the idea that prefabs are boxy, cheaply made structures.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

WELLESLEY — The new $2 million Colonial near Wellesley Center comes with plenty of the features considered standard in this high-end community.

A grand foyer opens into an oversize living room with an elegant bluestone fireplace and surround-sound speakers. It boasts six bathrooms, four bedrooms, a granite-marble kitchen, first- and second-floor decks, and mahogany floors throughout the 5,900-square-foot space.

But there is something dramatically different about the soon-to-be-occupied residence: It was prefabricated, brought to Wellesley in pieces from a Pennsylvania factory.

Manufactured housing, once considered to be cheap, drab construction and tarnished by a trailer-park image, has taken an upscale turn. In certain neighborhoods, prefab homes now blend in seamlessly with their conventional neighbors. They can be custom designed and loaded with luxury amenities, built to almost any size and shape.


Because the construction is done indoors, it’s not affected by weather. That means prefab homes can be built faster and with fewer delays and cost overruns than those constructed onsite.

Homeowners Scott and Alena Poirier and their two young children expect to move into the Wellesley modular home this month.

“We’re very excited,” said Scott Poirier. “We planned this as our dream house.”

The builder, Haven Custom Homes, based in Selinsgrove, Pa., shipped the house to Massachusetts in sections that have been assembled over the past few months on a 21,000-square-foot lot.

“Twenty-five years ago, they tended to be smaller box homes — ranches, split levels,” said Mark Leff, senior vice president of Salem Five bank and former president of the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts. “You were limited to Formica counters and linoleum flooring. Their image was a step up from the doublewide [trailer]. Today, we see some multimillion dollar homes built with modular construction.”

Francine Townsend, cofounder and principal of Marshfield-based Sandcastle Group, the general contractor for the Poiriers’ home, said her company plans to put together another modular home in Wellesley that will cost about $3 million.


“Over the last 10 years our business has evolved to the higher end,” said David Mertz, vice president of sales for the modular home builder Simplex Homes, of Scranton, Pa. “Our designs have gotten a lot more elaborate — better windows, better cabinetry, and energy-saving measures.”

Those upgrades also put such homes out of the reach of many buyers.

“It all comes with a price tag,” Mertz said.

Overall, manufactured houses in the United States remain cheaper than site-built ones. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average price of a manufactured home in 2010 was $138,126, compared with $204,553 for a house built the traditional way.

Less-expensive modular homes tend to be those built with a basic design and few modifications, said Townsend, whose company handles both the high and low ends of the market. “The people who keep it the simplest get the most savings,” she said.

Modular homes represent about 2.5 percent of new housing construction in the United States, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Manufactured home construction, which suffered along with other forms of residential building during the recession, increased 18.7 percent between the first quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of this year, according to Hallahan Associates, a firm that tracks the industry.

Jeff Rhuda, an executive with Symes Associates, a conventional-home builder based in Beverly, said modulars have improved enough to compete with site-built houses.


“I’ve looked at some and their quality control is excellent, and so is their construction,” Rhuda said. But for some buyers, he said, old perceptions are hard to shake.

“There is still sort of a stigma they have to overcome,” he said.

Despite those remnants of a reputation for shoddy quality, top-of-the-line modulars retain their value, said Elaine Bannigan, owner of Pinnacle Residential Properties in Wellesley.

“We’ve sold a number of luxury modular homes,” Bannigan said. “After you explain to people the differences and what the construction is, no one has a problem with it.”

Builders also cite the environmental benefits of prefabricated structures.

Because individual segments have to withstand the stresses of travel, they are sealed securely, improving energy efficiency.

Sue Hawkes, chief executive of Collaborative Cos., a Boston real estate marketing firm, said that boosts their appeal for prospective buyers.

“It’s evolving into something very positive,” Hawkes said. “But there is a pecking order of priorities. First and foremost, people have to like the way it looks.”

In one important way, modulars are identical to site-built homes: They must conform to state and local building and zoning codes. Additionally, modulars have to meet safety standards set by the state Department of Public Safety.

But there are unique complications associated with the logistics of moving a house by truck. Transportation of prefab sections on highways and local roads requires careful planning and coordination with public safety officials, and the journey itself can be tricky.


On Thursday, a modular office toppled from a tractor-trailer truck on Route 128 in Newton, backing up traffic.

Energy consultant Peter Kelly-Detweiler and his wife, Julie, live in a 4,500-square-foot modular home built on seven acres, a half-mile from Scituate Harbor. The $600,000 house was made partially with reclaimed materials, including beams from a house built in the 1700s in Norwell.

“We love it,” Kelly-Detweiler said. “People come in and they can’t guess that it’s modular.”

The Poiriers, owners of the $2 million Wellesley prefab, began planning a move from Boston about two years ago.

Scott Poirier, a Boston finance executive, was familiar with manufactured housing and decided it was the most economical way to build a house that could be customized to suit his family.

The property they eventually settled on came with a small house on it, which Sandcastle had demolished.

Although some parts of the house, including the mahogany floors, were added after the modules arrived, many features came in place, including wiring, plumbing, and bathroom vanities.

Poirier did most of the basic design and hired an architect to polish final plans.

The goal was to make it look as if everything had been specially built on the Wellesley lot, not in a factory. For instance, he said, the roof incorporates varying heights and slopes to add character.

“I definitely took pains in my design process to make sure the house did not look flat and boxy — like a modular house,” Poirier said.


Robert Preer can be reached at