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Modular homes are gaining in popularity while offering several advantages over traditional site-built homes. For those short on time and money, a modular home may be just the answer.

Even if you've never heard of modular homes, chances are you've seen or wandered through modular construction. Modular buildings today look the same as structures built on site, and they have become a popular choice not only for houses but also for such properties as schools, banks and office buildings.

Modular homes should not be confused with "manufactured" homes, commonly called "mobile" homes. While both are primarily assembled in a factory, they are built to different standards. Modular homes are designed to meet the same state and local building codes as traditional stick-built houses. Manufactured homes are built to federal standards set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and many communities restrict where manufactured homes may be placed. Since modular homes are built to meet all local building codes, you can plop your new home down anywhere stock-built housing can be constructed.

Modular homes are 90-95 percent complete when they are shipped from the factory. They arrive at your site in two or more sections. Computerized design techniques allow buyers to choose from a wide range of home styles and customize the homes to meet their needs. It's not a cookie-cutter world.

The National Association of Home Builders" Building Systems Council says "home buyers can realize considerable savings by choosing a home constructed of modular components over a traditional site-built house." Since such homes take less time to build, you can save money in interest on construction loans. Your builder also has fewer subcontractors to hire because the homes arrive on site with most of the work already done.

The choice for consumers is not modular or stick-built. In today's world, most stick-built homes include modular parts such as roof trusses and window elements. The choice is more modular or more stick-built.

A modular home can be assembled within a couple of weeks. Because all of the manufacturing work is done in a factory, the components are not exposed to the elements and you don't have to deal with slowdowns due to bad weather. Inspections are conducted in the plant. The modules can be shipped with your carpeting, wall finish, cabinets, countertops and bathroom fixtures already complete.

Once the home arrives on site, a local builder or contractor takes over. The modules must be joined together and utilities hooked up. The on-site work can usually be done in two to six weeks.

In addition to the initial savings you get with a modular home, many builders also tout their energy efficiency. This can mean big savings in utility bills as the years go by.

Building Systems Magazine reports modular homes are most popular in the Midwest and South. North Carolina led the nation last year in the number of modular homes being built in a single state. However, the magazine finds the greatest percentage of modular homes are being built in a five-state area -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. The magazine says "the modular industry is still in its infancy" in western and Pacific states. The one exception -- Colorado.

More than 30,000 homes are being built with modular construction each year. If you're worried about financing or insuring a such a home, don't be. They're handled like any site-built home.

For information regarding modular home manufacturers and contractors in your area, check the Building Systems Council web site for a list of its members. Modularcenter.com also provides links to modular home builders around the country and showcases modular building designs.

Carol Ochs is a Washington-based reporter who covers new home trends.

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