I promised a fair assessment of Penn Lyon Homes, so here it is: The good, the bad, and the ugly of designing and building a home with Penn Lyon Homes Corporation, as experienced by one of their most outspoken modular home customers. Make no mistake about it, Penn Lyon will receive praise and chastisement befitting their actions (or lack thereof) throughout the entire review process. The following statements can be backed up with emails to/from factory representatives, pictures, or if necessary, affidavits from various subcontractors who helped bring this project to completion.
I invite, even challenge, representatives of Penn Lyon Homes Corp. to substantiate or refute any of the details in this narrative on this website. This account, above all else, is intended to be a factual and fair account of our experience with their modular home factory so that others may make an informed decision about purchasing a Penn Lyon home. May I be so bold to suggest that factory representatives read this carefully, and take immediate action to correct what is broken within their organization? May I further suggest that potential customers inquire about the status of items they may find concerning prior to committing to purchase a Penn Lyon modular home?
If you read this website from the beginning, you will learn how Penn Lyon Homes became the modular home factory to build our house. There is no doubt, Penn Lyon Homes employs some sharp, forward-thinking individuals willing to build houses and/or buildings other modular home companies will not even consider (i.e. a completely custom SIP/modular hybrid house). This "can-do" attitude, primarily from VP of Sales, Mickey Locey, is what ultimately got us to sign on the dotted line.
Step 1: The Drawings
Our first real experience with the Penn Lyon came during the design phase. Since the interior and exterior layout was completely designed by my wife and I (after a lot of research and drafts), there was a lot of back and forth with the Penn Lyon design team to turn our pencil drawings into CAD (computer) drawings. This process turned out to be both long and tedious.
We would receive a drawing, return it the next day asking for (say) 10 minor changes, then we would get new drawings about two weeks later with 8 or 9 of those 10 changes made, and sometimes even a few additional ones that we never asked for. Every single iteration cost us about two weeks time, and required us to comb over the complete drawings to make sure "extra" changes weren't made to items we had previously approved. After months of this (September 2007 to January 2008), we were no longer in a position (or had the patience) to wait, and we signed an agreement without "perfect" drawings.
I work in the computer industry. I can't help but believe that this long, drawn out (need I say painful) process of updating drawings could have been shortened to just hours, or at the most days, using a little modern technology. In my line of work, we routinely use WebEx (www.WebEx.com), and there are several others. This technology allows us to meet our customers online and share computer screens. Penn Lyon could allot a certain number of hours where the customer and the artist make changes to plans in real time. It takes seconds to move a wall in CAD, why should customers wait a full month to see a wall moved, determine they don't like it, and move it back? Why shuffle all this paperwork using fax machines and snail mail? Design in real time, and you can go from concept to production much, much, much faster. This inexpensive solution would save Penn Lyon (and their builders) a lot of time, frustration, and wasted effort AND make customers much happier. Remember, this may very well be the customers' first contact with Penn Lyon. Why not make it a good one by showing off the talents of your organization? Quite frankly, our experience with the design process was nothing less than painful, and it very easily could have been much better. Mickey, Roger, David, are you listening?
As stated, we needed to move forward with the construction phase, or we were going to lose our option to purchase the land. In utter frustration, we took the latest designs, made hand-written changes to them, and signed the plans together with our builder/dealer (Avalon). Again, not one of the changes inked in was so difficult that it couldn't be corrected real-time in just minutes, but I digress.
Step 2: Upgrades
Once all the walls, windows, and doors were positioned properly, the next not-so-fun fun part came when we tried to adjust upgrades and options to meet our budget goals while adding the most appraisal value to the house. The trouble appeared to be that no one seemed to know the cost of items quickly or easily. We went back and forth (essentially driving blind) hoping that some combination of options and upgrades would meet our budget goal.
Product pricing and negotiations are likely to be a very difficult nut to crack. As a consumer, it would be much easier if we simply had a "menu" with the cost of each upgrade clearly stated (i.e. upgrading to solid core doors will cost you $x/door). The consumer chooses options a, b, and c and knows immediately that this adds the specified amount to the cost of the house. Customers would also know that option "A" (i.e. Cherry cabinets) is simply out of their price range.
The trouble is (if you've ever done anything is sales) that things rarely have a "fixed" price. This product (modular houses) has margin goals like any other product. If a salesman exceeds those margins, he is a hero. If he doesn't meet them, he meets with his manager. With a modular house, there are TWO layers of salesmen. One layer is in the factory. They try to make the most possible on the wholesale product. The second layer is at the modular home dealer. Their goal is to make the most they can on the retail markup. Ultimately, the consumer pays both paychecks. If I could make one suggestion here, make it simpler for consumers to choose options by letting them know the cost of upgrades up-front. Maybe a "base price" then add line items for the upgrades chosen?
Other than being difficult to assess the actual cost of particular upgrades, my only other gripe here is that the actual cost of some upgrades seemed WAY out of whack (i.e. a $3,500 fireplace surround), others (i.e. upgraded base moulding) seemed perfectly inline with what you would expect. Again, an "upgrades menu" would be most helpful to consumers.
Step 3: Engineered Drawings
After the contracts were all signed, our CAD drawings went to engineering. This is where they add plumbing and electrical to the plan. This is also where they calculate the various stresses on the structure and make structural changes accordingly. This is also when heating and cooling loads are calculated.
It took us - months - to get our engineered drawings. Since these plans are required to apply for a building permit, this added yet another delay. However, in the interest of fairness, this was the very first house of its kind. Not only was the design completely custom, it was being built with structural insulated panels (SIPs), and very few of the engineers involved were familiar with them.
There were many details to be worked out prior to the engineers putting their stamp of approval (and license) on the plans. When it finally arrived, the engineering package submitted for permitting consisted of 154 pages! It also contain more than one half dozen seals / signatures from engineers are Penn Lyon, Murus, PFS, and one engineer with a Massachusetts structural engineer stamp.
If I have one complaint about this process (other than how long it took), it is communication. We never expected our plans to breeze through engineering however, every time we asked for a status update, we were told that the drawings were just about to be released, when they really were not. All we ever wanted, or expected, were truthful answers - nothing more. When you tell us we will get something on Friday, we expect it on Friday, not the following Friday. If you don't know when something will be completed, say so. Be honest!
Step 4: Production
Finally, we arrived at the point where our plans were ready to be turned into a house, and we finally found one area where Penn Lyon absolutely excels (and yet another reason Penn Lyon should get their plans done as quickly as possible). Our modules were built exactly when we were told they would be. Admittedly, we were a little surprised at this because of the slow pace of the previous steps however, Penn Lyon did absolutely build our house on time once the plans were released to production.
Penn Lyon still owes me some pictures of the build! I wanted to document this entire project both in words and pictures. I've asked several times for some pictures and have not yet received a single one. Bummer.
Step 5: Delivery - July 21-22, 2008
While we expected to receive all four modules on "delivery day," we actually received only three modules on the first day. The final module, and an accessory trailer, came the next day. Apparently, Penn Lyon is able to avoid some road taxes by shipping the "same" module twice. In our case, we received two "B" modules. While we were able to see through the white duct tape disguise (the "B" module delivered on day 1 was actually our module "D"), it must apparently fool state officials, because I was told it is common practice. As someone who benefits from the collection of these road taxes (and likely paid for them in the delivery charges), I am inclined to suggest that this practice be investigated.
In any case, it was a site for all to see as the talented drivers backed the huge 58' modules down our driveway.
While the cost was minimal, I did have to pay for a local police detail on delivery day because for some reason it wasn't included in the delivery charges. As it turned out, it was a good thing we had that detail because the large trailers blocked the narrow country road for quite a while.
Once the trailers were unhitched and the trucks were gone, we finally got a good look at our creation. Melissa was brought to (happy) tears by the sight of the detailed wood work composing the main staircase. Unfortunately, mother nature felt that we needed some water, in the form of torrential rains, over the next several days. While the modules were shrink-wrapped in heavy plastic, water got in and ruined some things. Most unfortunate was the destruction of the beautiful oak staircase. This brought my wife to tears of sadness. We were assured by Avalon and the Penn Lyon representative (Jeff Cashner) that this would all be taken case of at no cost to us.
Step 6: The "Set" July 29-31, 2008
When the weather finally cleared we were ready for "set day." The "set" is the process of removing the modules, and other materials, from their travel trailers and setting them into position on the foundation with a crane. At the end of the set, the house is generally weather-tight.
There was yet another unexpected expense on set day. We needed to hire a large tow truck (one used to tow heavy trucks and buses) to move the modules into place for the crane to lift them off their trailers. This also should have been included in the delivery and set fees, but rather than argue the point, I paid the tow truck driver and am now adding this $750 to my list of gripes / cost overruns.
This set process went smoothly while the Penn Lyon set crew worked diligently from sun up to sun down. I have to say, it is probably a good thing an OSHA inspector didn't stop by. I am fairly certain he would agree with me, this guy should not have been resting his arms under a 10 ton module. Incidentally, this picture was taken after I attempted to get this guy to see the error of his ways. Despite some obviously risky behavior, no one was hurt during the set, and we were finally ready to proceed with all that came next.
Step 6: Post Set
At this point all Penn Lyon needed to do was remove their travel trailers from our property, fix the water damage, and stand behind their work. Unfortunately, getting them to do anything post-set in a timely manner was/is challenging at best.
It appears to me that one individual at Penn Lyon, Mr. James Cicero, needs a lesson in customer service. Besides calling me personally to lie about why his service crew didn't show up, he appeared to spend more time making excuses than getting the job done. Given the long post set story, I will provide full details in a coming story.
Mr. Green Dreams