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New Kit Houses Make It Easier to Control Cost, Look and Convenience

For Clare and Gary Freeman, heaven on earth is situated along a rugged canyon in the middle of far west Texas. There, three years ago, they bought some land with the idea of building a house on it. No matter that the nearest town, Fort Davis, is 25 miles away, or that the dirt road to the property, which sits at an elevation of 6,000 feet, sometimes isn’t even passable. The Freemans, who for more than 30 years had called the bustling, fast-growing city of Austin their home, knew that this was where they wanted to be.

Gary, 71, had just recently retired as a biology professor at the University of Texas. For a year he and Clare, 72, weighed their options. Find a homebuilder? Neighbors told them horror stories about local contractors. Build their own home? A prospective neighbor had been doing that for more than 25 years and still wasn’t finished, “so we figured that was not the way for us to go,” Clare says.

Instead, the Freemans bought their house brand-new, in the form of a kit, over the Internet in mid-2007. It was delivered from the factory on a tractor-trailer, ready for construction. Last October, a little more than a year after they’d ordered the house online, they moved in.

The Freemans may well be in the vanguard of older homebuyers who are looking for outside-the-box answers. Increasingly, Americans at or near retirement age are finding their dream homes among an ever-wider selection of prefab or kit houses, which are typically built in a factory and then shipped to their ultimate destinations, assembled and finished.

To be sure, the nation’s economic crisis has hit the prefab home industry as it has the housing market in general, given the scarcity of lending. On the plus side, though, prefab construction has built-in advantages that mean lower risks in terms of time and money over houses built piece by piece on a site. Factory-built homes, including mobile homes, typically go for less than site-built homes: $41 per square foot versus $93 per square foot, based on 2007 statistics. Some of the savings come because building a house in an indoor factory process wastes less time and materials than building in the elements, says Robert Robotti of Robotti & Co., a New York-based investment adviser.

But the appeal of prefab isn’t just price. Many buyers are looking for architecturally striking designs that don’t resemble the cookie-cutter models offered by most homebuilders and developers, and, as Sam Grawe, editor-in-chief ofDwellmagazine points out, prefab isn’t the “trailer-trashy industry” that it used to be. Maybe buyers are relocating for retirement or aiming to downsize after their children have left home. Maybe they’re looking for a lower-hassle way to add a small cottage, office or studio to property they already own. Maybe they want a “greener,” more energy-efficient house, or a house that will be easier to live in as they grow older.

Or maybe they just want a hand in designing a home but don’t want to start from scratch with an architect. Collaborating with FlatPak of Minneapolis, the Freemans in Texas worked out a house with huge glass windows and doors set within wall panels made of a tough fiber-cement material. “It’s a box,” says Clare.

“But,” Gary quickly adds, “it’s a very nice-looking box.”

An old idea renewed

FlatPak is one of a few dozen companies across the United States that sell prefab or modular homes with distinctly modern or unconventional designs. Hundreds of other companies sell more conventional factory-built homes that typically offer much less in the way of customization and curb appeal.

FlatPak is reviving the idea of the mail-order house from the early 20th century, when Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Aladdin and others sold more than 100,000 such houses across the country. Today, rather than thumbing through a catalog the size of a phone book, prospective buyers compare various models, options and costs online.

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