Green Prefab Homes: Will They Save You Money?

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Would home buyers be enticed to invest in a prefab house over a custom-made one if the home had all they ever wanted in a sustainable home: from solar panels to a green roof and LEED certification?

As the greening of the real estate market continues, and buyers scale down their square footage and focus on energy-efficient living, prefabs are entering a new phase of potential popularity.

But these aren't the cheesy, cookie-cutter prefab (aka modular) homes of the 1970s and 1980s.

Consider Nationwide Homes' Eco-Cottage, a 523-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom dwelling that boasts bamboo floors and a tankless water heater. It has a base price of $59,500. Then there's the solar-ready mkGlidehouse from Blu Homes, with its formaldehyde-free cabinetry, for between $250 and $350 per square foot.

Good prices, to be sure, for all those premium green extras that can jack up prices on any house. But are these prefabs a bargain -- and greener -- than custom-built homes?
That's tough to answer. According to SmartMoney, a custom-built green home can cost up to 20 percent more than prefab. Blu Home's website says that a custom green home costs up to $400 a square foot.

But with prefab, don't forget about its extra costs. You have to tack on the expense of land, and of excavation and utility hookups. And the overall price will vary, according to the size of the prefab you chose, its location, layout and any extra features.

Today's prefabs come in a wide variety of designs, from the pared-down Eco-Cottage to more contemporary styles that resemble mid-century modern masterpieces. And prices can escalate to as much as $4.2 million for star-architect Daniel Libeskind's 5,500-square foot Villa, a recent topic in The New York Times. The home is billed as a sustainable prefab made of wood and aluminum, and accented with zinc ribbons. It includes thermal insulated walls and solar thermal system.

Prefab builders argue that their way of construction -- piecing together factory-made modular forms -- is greener than onsite building, because it is so precise and therefore wastes fewer materials. But building from scratch can also be sustainable if local products are used and recycling and reclaiming techniques are employed.

Green prefabs are certainly coming of age, and if you're house-hunting, they're worth considering for their sophisticated design and sustainable amenities.

But whether green prefabs are cheaper than custom will depend on where you dig your foundation and how many solar panels are up on the roof. In the long term, however, you'll definitely save some green.
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