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Boise’s newest affordable homes are small, factory-built and don’t skimp on features

Is Boise ready for small but close-to-Downtown modular homes?

It seems so. Dana Zuckerman, developer of Dwell Silver Street near Collister Drive, put four 600-700 square foot homes on the market and had full-price offers on all of them. It's a national trend and Boise's a part of it.
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It seems so. Dana Zuckerman, developer of Dwell Silver Street near Collister Drive, put four 600-700 square foot homes on the market and had full-price offers on all of them. It's a national trend and Boise's a part of it.

Dana Zuckerman didn’t know what to expect when she went to list for sale the four factory-built modular homes she installed on a Boise lot.

The homes were much smaller than most houses. Three had less than 600 square feet, with one bedroom and one bathroom each. The fourth, with 719 square feet, offered two bedrooms.

“It was really an experiment,” said Zuckerman, a first-time developer who previously worked as an urban and land-use planner in Chicago and New York and serves on the board of the Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s urban-renewal agency. “I wanted to see if Boise was ready for smaller homes in an area close to other amenities.”

Listed for between $145,000 and $165,000, the homes were first advertised on a Friday three weeks ago. By the next Monday, after a weekend open house, multiple offers had come in on all four. One has been sold, and the other three are in closing.

Which means Zuckerman’s experiment worked. It offers a lesson for developers and Boise officials: If you build low-cost housing in Boise, buyers will come. Even if you must build small. Even if you must turn to a modular-home factory to build them off site and truck them in.

Zuckerman’s wooden homes are on one-third of an acre in the Collister neighborhood, set among one- and two-story duplexes and traditional homes in the 3000 block of Silver Street. They are 3 miles west of the Capitol in Downtown Boise and two blocks from a bus stop and shopping at the Collister Center on State Street.

Low-cost homes are increasingly rare in Ada County. Through June 30, the median price in Northwest Boise, which includes the Collister neighborhood, was $275,000 — nearly five times the Ada County median household income of $56,346. Ninety new homes sold for a median price of $389,000.

Last year, fewer than 8 percent of the homes sold in Ada County cost less than $160,000. Of the 821 homes sold in that price range, only six were new, according to the Intermountain Multiple Listing Service.

“We knew there was a need for affordable housing in Boise,” said Alicia Ralston, broker with Ralston Group Properties, which marketed the homes for Zuckerman. “We were still surprised by the number of people who came to the open house, who we received phone calls from and received offers from.”

More than 100 people contacted Zuckerman and Ralston while the homes were under construction. An investor offered to buy all four, but Zuckerman wanted them to go to people who needed affordable homes and would live in them. Two of the buyers are retirees and two are millennials. The actual sale prices were not disclosed.

“Dana did this project for the right reasons,” Ralston said.

‘Provides everything I want, affordably’

One of the buyers is Martha Brabec, 33, a Foothills restoration specialist with the city of Boise. She attended the open house and submitted an offer that day. Her home is scheduled to close Tuesday, Sept. 12.

Brabec has rented since she moved to Boise six years ago. Today she rents a small house in West Boise and rides a bicycle to her job at the Jim Hall Foothills Learning Center. She said she had looked at property listings for months without finding anything she could afford.

“As a youngish professional, single woman, buying property in the city of Boise, in an area where I can still bike-commute to and from work, seemed impossible until I found those properties,” she said.

The houses are attractive, she said, and it is a bonus to be able to move into a newly built home.

“I’ve never had central air conditioning,” she said. “I’ve never had a dishwasher. I’ve never had a garbage disposal. Having all of those amenities in my own home was really appealing.”

What are modular homes?

Mention the term “modular” and some people think of portable classrooms at crowded schools, or office shacks used by construction contractors at a work site. They’re inevitably compared to manufactured homes, since many companies build both.

Zuckerman said factory-built homes cost her much less than on-site construction would have.

In size, her houses are comparable to single-wide manufactured homes, formerly called mobile homes. But they come with many of the same features that site-built homes offer: vaulted ceilings, wood cabinets and siding, laminated floors, quartz counter tops. They also come with an installed refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, washer and dryer.

Large windows throughout the home allow in plenty of natural light. Each home features a wooden front porch. Parking is provided in back.

Kit Homebuilders West, of Caldwell, built the homes. Each was assembled as a complete unit and fitted with appliances. They were trucked to Boise and set atop concrete foundations by a crane.

Kit, Champion Homes in Weiser, Fleetwood Homes in Nampa and other builders prebuild modular homes with various floor plans up to 3,000 square feet. Larger houses are constructed in pieces, or modules, and assembled at the property.

Builders typically sell such homes through dealers, such as Nampa’s United Family Homes, to people who want to install them on specific sites.

Early factory-built homes after World War II earned a negative reputation because they used lower-quality materials than site-built homes. Like mobile homes, they also depreciated quickly in value.

Modern modular homes are built to higher standards and can equal the appearance of traditional homes.

But the number of modular homes in the United States remains small. U.S. News & World Report said there were only about 14,000 in 2014, less than 1.5 percent of all homes built that year.

Special requirements for modular homes

Leon Letson, a Boise city planner who handled Zuckerman’s planning application, is unsure how many modular homes have been placed within Boise.

The homes fall between regulations for site-built homes and manufactured homes, Letson said. They must have a permanent foundation and meet requirements for roof pitch, entrances and construction materials.

“We’re still figuring out how to handle it best and making sure we’re getting that quality product and something that isn’t impacting livability,” he said.

One neighbor complained about Zuckerman’s development, saying he would have preferred a single house. Zuckerman razed a house that formerly occupied the lot.

Letson said putting the parking behind the houses gives Zuckerman’s small development a neighborly look and encourages the homeowners to talk with neighbors walking past.

Zuckerman said she wants to provide more affordable modular homes. “There will be more,” she said.

Letson said buyers will want them.

“As everyone who owns a home or is trying to buy a home or trying to rent a home is aware, there’s a real demand for housing in the Treasure Valley and Boise, in particular,” he said. “Projects like this would probably be a good answer moving forward in how we provide things for people.”

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell

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