Prefab, Modular, and Kit Homes—What's the Difference?

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By Kate Reggev
Get ready to disentangle the specific modes of construction for homes with ready-made parts.

You don’t have to spend your days watching HGTV to know that the world of homebuilding can be complex and riddled with unexpected delays, unforeseen problems, high costs, and even poor construction. As a way of avoiding these problems (and countless others), builders, developers, designers, and architects have developed a range of homes that are composed of prefabricated, modular, or kit-of-parts pieces that can allow for lower costs, faster and easier on-site construction, and even higher quality spaces. But what’s the difference between a prefab home, a modular house, and a kit home? Here, we delve into the differences—and similarities—among these manufactured residences.

Prefab Homes

In 2015, Vipp, the Danish industrial design company known for its iconic trash cans and all-black kitchens, introduced a 592-square-foot prefab unit called Shelter.

In 2015, Vipp, the Danish industrial design company known for its iconic trash cans and all-black kitchens, introduced a 592-square-foot prefab unit called Shelter.

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Prefabricated homes, often called "prefabs," refers to a broad range of residences that have been constructed using panels or pieces that were fabricated before their arrival on site. The panels or parts are usually manufactured in standard sizes and sections that will allow for easy shipment on the back of a trailer (in the United States, this means a typical maximum width of 8’-0", a maximum height of 9’-0", and a maximum length of 28’-0") and simple assembly.

Designed as a prefabricated home in South Africa, this prototype aims to provide affordable housing and stimulate the economy by creating construction jobs.

Designed as a prefabricated home in South Africa, this prototype aims to provide affordable housing and stimulate the economy by creating construction jobs.

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The term "prefab" is actually an umbrella term that refers to a range of residences that are built using materials that are pre-assembled, including modular homes (more on these later), panelized homes, and manufactured homes (made out of transportable sections). Prefabricated homes can be mass-produced (resulting in a more cost-effective home because of the multiple uses of a single mold, for example), or they can be custom-built (and probably not as economical), and today are strongly associated with residences that are modern and contemporary in style.

Modular Homes

Scott Wallace and Tara Coco turned to Lake|Flato Architects and its modular Porch House system for a family compound on the banks of the Blanco River in Wimberley, Texas. The design integrates private spaces with public gathering spots, including a deck that serves as an outdoor living room.

Scott Wallace and Tara Coco turned to Lake|Flato Architects and its modular Porch House system for a family compound on the banks of the Blanco River in Wimberley, Texas. The design integrates private spaces with public gathering spots, including a deck that serves as an outdoor living room.

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As we previously mentioned, modular homes are a type of prefabricated home where the components, called modules, of the house are created in sections in a factory and then transported to the home site for construction and assembly. Modular homes are frequently constructed out of individual sections that have multiple possible configurations including being stacked on top of each other, side-to-side, or end-to-end, thus allowing for a variety of shapes and sizes. 

Six modular, concrete boxes comprise a five-bedroom home on Martha’s Vineyard, in Chilmark, Massachusetts. Designed with the sloping seaside site in mind, it was built to guard against potential erosion: connected by interstitial wood paneling, each of the six units can be moved in just a week and fully installed in a few months.

Six modular, concrete boxes comprise a five-bedroom home on Martha’s Vineyard, in Chilmark, Massachusetts. Designed with the sloping seaside site in mind, it was built to guard against potential erosion: connected by interstitial wood paneling, each of the six units can be moved in just a week and fully installed in a few months.

With modular homes and other prefabricated residences, the quality of the individual sections is typically quite high, because the repetition of creating the same module again and again reduces errors, and factory conditions can be more controlled than the conditions on an active construction site. Imagine trying to to paint a wall while someone else in the room next door is cutting wood: sawdust can easily sneak in and get stuck to the wet paint, making for a less-than-perfect wall in a brand-new home. This type of situation wouldn’t happen in a factory, where pieces can even be outfitted with HVAC and lighting fixtures in place. 

Kit Homes

Zip Kit Homes spent over a decade building many different residences—over 500 homes and multi-family projects. After experimenting with all different types of building construction—standard site-built homes, panelized homes, and modular homes—they recently launched kit homes to offer precision-built, sustainable, small homes that can be shipped anywhere in North America. They also offer many site-built floor plans that are both energy-efficient and simple to build. 

Zip Kit Homes spent over a decade building many different residences—over 500 homes and multi-family projects. After experimenting with all different types of building construction—standard site-built homes, panelized homes, and modular homes—they recently launched kit homes to offer precision-built, sustainable, small homes that can be shipped anywhere in North America. They also offer many site-built floor plans that are both energy-efficient and simple to build. 

Finally, kit homes are a specific type of prefabricated home that experienced tremendous popularity in the first half of the 20th century and are now a growing option in the prefab home sector. Kit homes have also been known as mail-order homes or catalog homes because of their early production by manufacturers like Sears and appearance in their catalogs. Potential purchasers were sent the Sears catalog in the mail, which featured, among other products, a range of kit homes in varying sizes, styles, and floor plans—from small, humble bungalows to larger, more elaborate Colonials, all at a specified price. Interested parties would mail in money and then receive a kit that would contain all of the materials needed to build the home. 

kitHAUS  prides itself on its stylish, modern prefabs that are built on-site by a team of company employees. Their patented aluminum system takes only a few days to construct, and the homes boast superior energy efficiency, owing to insulated floors, walls, and ceilings as well as glazed doors and windows.

kitHAUS  prides itself on its stylish, modern prefabs that are built on-site by a team of company employees. Their patented aluminum system takes only a few days to construct, and the homes boast superior energy efficiency, owing to insulated floors, walls, and ceilings as well as glazed doors and windows.

Kit homes aren’t a typical prefabricated home in that large components aren’t constructed in an off-site factory, like they are with modular homes. Instead, individual pieces are pre-cut to the exact specifications needed to build the home and numbered according to building guides—almost like IKEA furniture, if the pieces were numbered!—so that no cutting or measuring is required on site, saving time and money through saved labor costs. Today, kit homes aren’t nearly as popular as they were one hundred years ago, but there has been interest in reviving this classic way of building homes, and many kit home companies now offer options with renewable energy and eco-friendly options.