One consequence of the fact that cars have such a short life span is that your car has more up-to-date technology than your house. For example, even basic cars have a lot of things that aren’t found in many homes, including:
- Air conditioning
- Electric window openers
- Electric door locks
- Off-grid electrical power
- An energy dashboard displaying voltage, fuel tank level, and (often) fuel efficiency
Sometimes I wish my house had AC
Here in Vermont, where most homes lack air conditioning, people have been known to invent an excuse to go for a drive when the weather is hot — just so they can sit somewhere cool for half an hour. Similarly, when a power outage turns the whole neighborhood dark, some people sit in their car and listen to the news on their car radio. In both these cases, people prefer their cars to their homes — because their cars offer better or more dependable amenities than their house. (Assuming, of course, that the gas tank doesn’t run dry.)
There really isn’t any reason that cars need electric window operators; after all, we still turn a crank to open the casement windows in our homes. Nor is there any need for cars to have electric locks; after all, we still use metal keys for our house doors. So why do car makers provide (expensive) amenities for cars that Americans don’t expect in their homes? I’m not sure, but I think the reason is that these amenities don’t cost very much.
If car manufacturers had to charge $1,000 more for a car with electrically-operated windows than one with hand-cranked windows, many buyers would choose the car with window cranks. But economies of scale allow car manufacturers to install electrically operated car windows for about the same price, or only a little more, than windows operated with a crank — so electrically operated windows have become standard.
Why don’t manufactured homes have cheap high-tech features?
So why can’t these same economies of scale be applied to manufactured housing? That’s a good question.
The answer is complicated. It’s certainly true that many entrepreneurs have tried (and are still trying) to make affordable high-tech manufactured housing. Even though the world lacks good successful examples of this approach, it’s not for lack of trying.
It’s certainly easier to build a house in a big factory than outdoors in the rain and snow. The reason that high-tech manufactured housing isn’t cheaper than site-built housing is that the manufactured housing industry is burdened by high transportation costs — and hasn’t found a way to eliminate site work (installing a driveway, foundation, electrical service, water service, and septic or sewage service, as well as setting modules with a crane and some siding and roofing work).
Double-wide modulars have captured the market for entry-level homes in rural areas. But double-wide modulars don’t have electric windows or energy dashboards.
Most people like houses that look traditional
Even if home builders started offering houses with all of the amenities and finishes of a new car, it’s far from clear that most buyers would want such a house. Many home buyers prefer older houses, perhaps because an older building reminds them of a house they grew up in, or conjures up images of a beloved neighborhood. While many housing experts wonder why we are still building houses the way we did a hundred years ago — one at a time, assembled on site by hand — it’s worth pointing out that most home buyers like homes that are a bit old-fashioned.
If manufacturers could spit out new homes that look like a UFO or an oversized Toyota Prius, most of us wouldn’t want to buy one — even if it had electric windows.
Ouch! A repair bill for $1,000!
Of course, there is a downside to the gadgets in our cars, as anyone who has had to pay for repairs on an out-of-warranty car lock (or anyone who has to replace a missing car key) will tell you. A spare car key used to cost 99¢ at the hardware store; now you are lucky if you can buy one for less than $100.
When car manufacturers adopt the latest technology, car buyers have to accept the minuses as well as the pluses. Cars are more dependable than ever, but when something goes wrong, repairs are often extremely expensive.
There are also downsides to the fact that we’re still building homes the way we did a hundred years ago. For example, builders still aren’t implementing the recommendations for improved envelope airtightness first made by building scientists in the 1980s.
Personally, I’m not particularly interested in electric window operators or electric locks. However, I do appreciate the fact that car manufacturers have improved the durability and efficiency of their products. I also appreciate the fact that most cars have an intelligent energy dashboard — so that at a glance I can see my electrical system voltage, the amount of fuel left in my gas tank, and the average number of miles per gallon that my car has been burning.
Will houses ever resemble cars?
In response to my recent article on residential ventilation (“How Much Fresh Air Does Your Home Need?”), several GBA readers posted comments suggesting that residential ventilation fans should be controlled by sensors that can detect high levels of carbon dioxide or undesirable compounds like formaldehyde.
I have no idea whether such sensors will ever be routinely installed in our homes. But if that day comes, we can be sure of two consequences: (a) many people won’t notice if the sensors are malfunctioning, and (b) repairs will be expensive.
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Garage Door Openers Are Always On.”