Michael Seemann's eyes locked on the 16,500-pound "box" as a crane lifted it from the back of a truck on a street in Long Beach. The rectangle of wood and windows looked like a piece of a life-size dollhouse with a cutaway revealing a kitchen and living room.
"Crazy fast!" he said from the sidelines as workmen lined up the piece of his new home with concrete walls extending from the foundation.
In roughly four hours, a new three-story house took shape on the spot where more than 4 feet of water from superstorm Sandy's surge wrecked the home in which Seemann and his wife had started a family.
"It's crazy watching them pick up those boxes and spin them around," Seemann said on that morning in April. "It's hard, but they make it look easy."
Some Long Islanders, facing tough decisions over whether to repair or rebuild from Sandy's damage, are exploring modular housing as a fresh start.
The speed with which these homes can be built may be their greatest selling point for families who have had to live in trailers and hotel rooms or bunk with relatives since Sandy struck on Oct. 29. Data from the National Association of Home Builders show a faster average building time for modular homes -- five months, compared with 6.9 months for a traditional "stick-built" house.
Modular housing also may offer modest cost savings over traditional houses. The median permit value for a modular house -- that is, the structure's estimated value as listed on housing permits -- was $133,000 nationally, compared with the $168,200 value of a "stick-built" home, according to 2010 data compiled by the home builders group.
By last week, the Seemanns, having moved in their belongings and furniture, were waiting for installation of the gas meter so they could begin living in the new 1,800-square-foot home, which cost about $300,000.
Seemann, 34, a firefighter in the City of Long Beach, said he and his wife paid for the house with a combination of insurance money, a Small Business Administration loan and a loan from his father. The couple also still must pay off the mortgage of their demolished, one-story home.
He said if the couple had taken the more traditional route, "we'd still be watching the house get built."
"Since the day that it was 'set,' constantly, every day, somebody comes by," he said. "They stop, they look, they walk around the house. All my neighbors are happy. They can't wait for us to actually be back."
At Westchester Modular in Wingdale -- despite its name, it is located in Dutchess County -- it takes eight days to build the components of a house. After the boxes are hauled on flatbed trucks to their destination and set on the foundation, the homes take about a month to finish.
The preliminary work of selecting a design, getting permits and securing financing also takes time, but manufactured-housing companies say the entire process generally encompasses three to four months.
On the Island, prospective homeowners contract with local builders who see it through to completion.
Budgets called 'hurdle'
With homeowners dealing with insurance adjusters, the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, getting financing can be daunting.
"Budget is the biggest hurdle," said Anthony Guillaro, general manager of Phoenix Construction, the builder on the Seemanns' home.
Brian Draizin, owner of Melville-based Next Generation Modular Homes & Additions, a local building company that works with Excel Homes, a Pennsylvania-based factory, said he's seen potential customers wrestle with the same thing.
"Everyone had the same problem: Insurance wasn't paying enough, they aren't paying fast enough," he said. Draizin said that he's tried to bring people together who have dealt with the Small Business Administration, insurance adjusters and FEMA, so that they can compare notes.
For those who want to stay close to the water, a new start can cost roughly the same as that of fixing up their damaged home and complying with new codes.
"By the time they raise and repair their house, we can give them a new house," Guillaro said.
Sales up after superstorm
Sandy appears to have spurred more modular-home sales, according to Fred Hallahan, president of Baltimore-based Hallahan Associates, which tracks the manufactured-home industry nationwide. In the first three months of this year, 390 modular homes were in the manufacturing process or completed in New York, up from 290 during the same period in 2012, Hallahan said.
"The good portion of that jump of 100 homes would be in this section of New York State that is attributable to hurricane Sandy," he said.
He projects that modular housing will be up 15 percent in the first half of the year, compared with last year, rising from 759 to 875 houses.
New York led the nation in the number of manufactured homes built last year, with 1,523 of the roughly 13,000 modular homes constructed nationwide, Hallahan said. While most homes still are built the traditional way, modular represents about 2 percent nationwide and 6 percent in New York.
Manufactured housings' greater popularity in the Empire State is due in part to the fact that high land and labor costs in places such asLong Island mean that money can be saved by doing the work in a lower-cost area, such as Dutchess County.
The controlled factory conditions and the economy of scale offset some of the costs. For instance, modular homes need 20 percent more timber than a traditionally built home in order to withstand a highway journey and the process of being lifted into place by crane.
At a monthly weekend tour of Westchester Modular's factory this spring, John Colucci, vice president of sales and marketing, led 24 people across the factory floor past nearly finished boxes to the saw where each house has its start.
"How many Sandy victims here?" Colucci asked. Two couples raised their hands. Colucci told them that one home -- the Seemanns' -- was nearly finished. "We've got quite a few more Sandy houses going through the line," he said.
Under a roof where neither rain nor snow slows construction, homes begin as timber that becomes floors that are then put onto rollers that move along metal tracks in a U-shape. Along the way, the assembly line halts for addition of wall frames and drywall, insulation, electrical wiring and roofing, and a white coat of paint on the interior.
After the tour, Fumi Nakamura, 68, whose waterfront house in Massapequa was damaged in the storm, said he and his wife were looking at factory-built homes as an alternative to repairing and raising.
"I don't think it's safe to lift the home," he said. "You knock it down and build something, it's going to look nice."
By this month, the couple had decided to go with modular because it would be easier, and they hope to begin building in three months, Nakamura said.
The couple had not yet decided on a builder or a manufacturer, and had not demolished their home.
Factory-built homes can be customized in ways not possible years ago. Computer-aided design can create three-dimensional virtual "walk-throughs," in which windows and walls can be moved with a mouse-click. The disadvantage is that making changes is very difficult once a design is finished and a house is under construction.
"With stick framing, you have the versatility to make changes on-site," said Artie Cipoletti, vice president of DaVinci Construction in Wantagh, a company that builds traditional homes. Sometimes people make poor design decisions in haste that they can correct later if the house is being built in the traditional way, he said.
"You're better off taking a little breather in between and look at what you've got, and make changes and evaluate as you go," he said, "rather than close things up real quick to get in and overlook things that could be a potential problem down the road."
Cipoletti also noted that "stick-built" homes offer more possibilities for roofs.
New house, more space
When Sandy's wrath hit Long Beach, Michael Seemann, from the fire department's dispatch office, listened to the wind and rain. Firefighters were sent to car fires and burning houses.
Seemann and his wife had prepared for the storm by moving their possessions onto table tops and their bed. Seemann's wife and infant daughter evacuated to stay with family in Massapequa.
"Pretty much everything in the house was destroyed," he said.
The single-story house, built in 1924, was shifted off its foundation and its soaked walls were heaving. He said the house on the 30-foot-by-100-foot lot -- which public records show he bought for $399,000 in 2006 -- was 70 percent damaged.
Repair costs would have been around $230,000, he said. That was before figuring in the cost of elevating the home, which architects and contractors say can run upward of $80,000.
"It was just too much money to fix an old house," he said.
With the decision made to go modular, the couple opted to increase their home's size, with two stories of living space above the garage and a backyard deck.
"We realized building a one-story house on a FEMA foundation was not as beneficial to us, even though it would cost less," he said. "We'd outgrow it as a family, and it was kind of useless to spend that money and outgrow it."
While the loss of their old home was painful, they are moving forward.
"We got a new house," he said, "and we're going to make new memories in it."
THE MODULAR PROCESS
Procedures. Homeowner chooses and finalizes home design, signs contracts, secures financing and obtains permits. Land is surveyed.
Foundation and site work. Site is excavated, foundation poured and drains installed.
Site preparation. Foundation work completed, route of modules from factory to site is determined and delivery scheduled.
Modular home set. Modules arrive on-site and are put in place with a crane. Modules are fastened together, stairs finished, wires, pipes and ducts installed.
Exterior finishing. Siding, masonry and painting are completed; gutters, chimney, garage, patio or deck completed.
Interior electrical. Circuit breaker and meter installed; wires connected to junction box; electrical inspection performed.
Plumbing. Plumbing hooked up to public sewer system or septic system; gas pipes installed; plumbing inspection performed.
HVAC. Air conditioning and heating systems installed and inspected.
Interior finishing. Walls patched and painted; doors installed, hardwood floors or carpet installed.
Exterior final finish. Garage, outdoor lighting and landscaping completed.
Closing. Final cleanup of site and final building inspection; occupancy permit issued and homeowner moves in.
Source: Adapted from Pennsylvania-based Excel Homes list