Building a Kit Home in the Caribbean

Published: 15th September 2009
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During the 1910's the prefabricated home made it's first appearance in the United States. By the end of the 1950's Sears Roebuck & Co offered mail order homes in 447 different designs. Styles ranged from the elaborate with art glass windows to the simple cottage that could be used for a family on their summer holiday.

Homes would be delivered on a train and would come with a 75 page instruction booklet to advise the customer on how to assemble the 10,000 or so pieces. A housewife could order details, such as kitchens, and room layouts to suit her family. Floor plans were customisable and so was financing, with the option of leasing a piece of land to build upon.

Nowadays, several companies offer kit homes and will ship them to the Caribbean for you to erect on your prepared site. For this two part blog, I have spoken with two different companies to understand what is possible in the world of wooden prefabricated homes, now much more commonly referred to as kit homes.

Caribbean Wood Products, is primarily an international wood broker who can supply hardwood flooring and decking; they also supply kit homes. Topsider Homes is a kit homes and buildings specialist that has been operating since 1968. The companies will help us look at the benefits, how to prepare, how to select a supplier, and what is involved. Next time around we will look at selecting and customising your home plans and taking delivery.

The ups and downs of building a kit home
When deciding whether to go with the kit method, these are some of the benefits and the downsides to consider:

Speed - the kit home can be built faster than building in the traditional method. Once the design has been selected, then the supplier will manufacture the parts using their tried and tested processes and ensure that it all fits together.

Choice - many designs are available that can be customised to suit the tastes and needs of the owner. Manufacturers often provide customisation right through the home, including kitchen cabinets and where the electrical sockets are situated.

Quality - you are aware up front of what the quality should be, especially if you have done your homework. You know the materials being used and what you will be getting for your money. The woods used are typically hardwoods that are rot and insect resistant. Most often, the threat of hurricanes will have been considered and factored into the design.

Support - the manufacturer/supplier will be there for you and will help you decide on the building spot if necessary. With long term support this can take the pressure off and will also iron out any issues that you have along the way. Topsider has a client services department and a technical department, who have knowledgeable staff to assist you, and can even help you to recruit your builder.

Control - you will have more control over what the house looks like, the materials to be used, etc. than perhaps if you used local builders and architects. The companies have done it all before and can use their knowledge to provide outlines on how long the build will take, and what will be required to complete it. The experience of the companies will make some of the unknowns become known and take out some of the risk and fear for the owner. In addition, Topsider Homes insists that the builder takes regular photographs of the build, so that the quality of the build and the process can be checked and supported.

The major downside could be the customs charge from accepting the kit home into particular islands. Some Caribbean islands prefer local builders to be used and local products where possible, and will tax you for going outside of this.

There will still be some issues during construction, as there appears to be with every build project. Minor delays and perhaps some cost miscalculations will occur. By finding out as much as possible beforehand, and planning for this, errors and delays can be kept to a minimum.

Selecting your site
Fortunately we have the professionals at hand to direct us on this important matter. Caribbean Wood Products' Michael Kehl and Topsider Homes' Andre Dumont suggest the following:

99% of the time most people, smitten by the natural beauty of the Caribbean and its relatively inexpensive beach front and other land prices, vis-à-vis the US or Europe, buy first and then start thinking about what to build. Some of the major issues to consider in buying property for a kit home (or any home in the Caribbean) are these:
1. Duty and tax rates on imports (not just building materials, but furniture, cars, etc.)

2. potential shipping logistics (is there easy road access from the nearest port)

3. availability of local builders and contractors;

4. infrastructure (phone, Internet, water, sewer, electric, as water-catchment, desalination or cisterns, solar and wind, etc., all add expense)

5. security (if this is a vacation home, how will it be secured when you are gone?)

6. is the soil suitable for building? Although most soils are not a problem, some require beefed-up foundations or other special consideration including for septic tanks, if required.

7. what drainage is there - Is the land in a low lying area or flood plain.

8. topography - Is the land on a steep hillside or some other difficult building circumstance? (Editor : Even if the land is on a steep hillside, some kit houses are manufactured to contend with this, such as the pedestal design where the house sits on one pedestal, and so only touches the ground in one spot).

9. the normal common sense issues relating to it being in "at-risk" area for tidal surge, storm patterns, etc.

Beware of encumbrances, including:
- Easements - An easement can be public or private, and include right of way, utilities, and occasionally, views.
- Restrictive Covenants - These can restrict use of the land and may include zoning or use restrictions and/or deed restrictions
- Building Moratoriums - Be sure you can build. Some areas restrict or suspend the number of building permits issued.
- The budget for purchasing and building on undeveloped land.

Selecting your supplier
Ideally, you will have a good relationship with your supplier and know that you can trust them to be there for you if you need them. Experience and knowledge really count here, as do other customers' reviews of them.

In preparation for this, it would also be wise to consider some of your own factors such as:
- budget
- how fast do you need your home erected
- choice of designs
- materials

and then what is offered from the supplier in terms of:
- the suppliers experience of shipping to and building in the Caribbean
- services and support offered
- guarantee of materials

Well we have covered a fair bit on our journey through the world of kit home building but still have some way to go. In our next blog we will be looking at how to select the design of your home, and what might be required to take delivery of it.

Thank you very much to Caribbean Wood Products and Topsider Homes for the information, knowledge and advice that they have supplied for this blog.

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