Definitions for New Buyers: What Exactly Is Prefab?

"Pre-fab": Though this term sounds modern, it’s actually a very old practice in the building of homes. And these days, it can be quite gorgeous. Today we bring you the second installment in our series on types of homes a new buyer has to choose from. Part 1 was on condos. Part 2, as you may have guessed, is prefab.

Defining "Prefab"

The term prefab means “pre-fabricated,” which refers to the fact that the pieces of the home, such as walls, roof, floors, etc. are assembled off-site, usually at a factory dedicated to that purpose. The “kit” for the home is then shipped to a vacant parcel (wherever the buyer desires the home be built) for assembly.  Pre-fab can also refer to mobile homes.

This is hardly a new phenonenon. Historically, mail order kits for wooden homes were popular in the United States before WWI, and were even available for order from the Sears Catalog Homes. Today’s prefab can offer some of the greenest building materials available in home construction. Companies often dedicate themselves to using recycled/reclaimed building materials to make their home kits. The result is an attractive and eco-friendly alternative, such as produced by Seattle based FabCab.

what is modern day prefab

Prefab Communities

The most common place to find prefab construction in abundance is in suburban locations where dense housing communities are constructed to create instant neighborhoods. These homes can be excellent options for people who seek an all new home, with all new materials, and a close relationship with nearby homeowners. Sometimes the homes aren’t built yet: the site has been chosen and the builder, but you can still make selections about finishings, colors, flooring, etc. An example of such a development is this prefab Pacific Lifestyle Homes community in Vancouver, WA, pictured here. 

However, frefab pops up in urban locations too, in condo projects and sometimes mixed-use (retail and residential or live/work) projects, specifically because such construction can be both ecologically and economically friendly, and thus fits into the new construction priorities of so many cities in the US today. 


Because the basic parts are already assembled upon delivery, prefab homes don’t require as much labor as a traditional home does to construct. And, builders have more leeway because building codes applied to conventional construction don’t always apply to prefab construction.

If you are not building from a kit, but rather buying an already assembled prefab home, you may find it is much less expensive than a comparably sized traditional home. Even if not, if you purchase one of the modern eco-friendly homes, your utility bills will likely be much less, and your maintenance costs may also be far lower if the materials in your home are extremely durable.


If you’re thinking of buying a piece of property and building a prefab home thereon, be sure to check your zoning. Manufactured homes aren’t always permitted in every location. They may also not always be welcome. For instance, in Portland, where I live, there is a very successful company that assembles prefab homes in the style of tall, skinny Craftsmen. They are so slender, the builder can fit two or three on a lot meant for one home with normal dimensions. Several neighborhoods have mounted a “stop the skinny houses” campaign against these homes, making it difficult and unpleasant to build and buy them.

Another potential disadvantage: maintenance. Though the prefab home could cost you less to maintain than a home more vulnerable to the elements, you should still expect to need an expert to fix something somewhere along the line. Prefab homes typically have warrantees, but once they expire, repairs are on you. And if your home boasts a complex, one-of-a-kind system known only to the manufacturer, you may have a hard time finding local help for your repairs. Plus, not all prefab is built from those durable materials. A solid home inspection is still in order before you buy.

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Anna Marie Erwert writes from both the renter and new buyer perspective, having (finally) achieved both statuses. She focuses on national real estate trends, specializing in the San Francisco Bay Area and Pacific Northwest. Follow Anna on Twitter: @AnnaMarieErwert