, also known as pre-cut houses
, ready-cut houses, mail order homes
, or catalog homes
, were a type of prefabricated housing that was popular in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Kit house manufacturers sold houses in many different plans and styles, from simple bungalow
A bungalow is a type of house, with varying meanings across the world. Common features to many of these definitions include being detached, low-rise , and the use of verandahs...
s to imposing Colonials, and supplied at a fixed price all materials needed for construction of a particular house, but typically excluding brick, concrete, or masonry (such as would be needed for laying a foundation, which the customer would have to arrange to have done locally).
A stick-built home is one constructed entirely or largely on-site; that is, built on the site which it is intended to occupy upon its completion rather than in a factory or similar facility...
, balloon-framed kit houses were built as permanent, not temporary structures, as the manager of the Sears, Roebuck lumber department explained to a United States Senate
The United States Senate is the upper house of the bicameral legislature of the United States, and together with the United States House of Representatives comprises the United States Congress. The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Article One of the U.S. Constitution. Each...
committee in 1919:
A ready-cut house should not be confused with a sectional-portable house, which can be taken down and moved by being unbolted. A ready-cut house is a permanent house and the method of its construction is not different from any other frame house where the lumber is framed (or cut to its proper length, notched, etc.), by hand by carpenters.
Unlike modular home
Modular buildings and modular homes are sectional prefabricated buildings or houses that consist of multiple modules or sections which are built in a remote facility and then delivered to their intended site of use...
s, which are built in sections at a factory, in a kit house every separate piece of lumber
Lumber or timber is wood in any of its stages from felling through readiness for use as structural material for construction, or wood pulp for paper production....
was shipped already numbered and cut to fit its particular place in the house, thus eliminating the need for measuring and cutting, and likewise the waste of time (especially in the days before power tools) and of materials. Thus, kit home manufacturers claimed to save the customer as much as 30 to 40 percent over traditional building methods. This description by researcher Dale Wolicki of kit house manufacture by the Gordon-Van Tine Company was typical of other kit house companies' efforts as well:
All designs were standardized to maximize efficiency and reduce waste in materials and labor. Lumber and hardware were purchased in bulk. The factories had skilled employees and special machines to cut difficult pieces such as rafters and staircases. Lumber was pre-cut to length, guaranteed to fit, ready to nail, and labeled for easy assembly. Floor joists and bridging, sub-flooring, finished flooring, studs, rafters, sheathing, clapboards, shingles, stucco, plaster or drywall, columns, railings, doors and windows, hardware, nails, and paint for two exterior coats were included in the order. Plumbing, electrical, and heating systems were available for an additional charge. Although the lumber and hardware were standardized, the designs were not and buyers were encouraged to personalize their order. Many models had two or three floor plans, while the exterior could be clapboards, shingles, stucco, or framed for brick. Walls, windows, and doors could be moved, added or eliminated. Porches, sun rooms, flower boxes, trellises, balconies, built-in cabinets, and a variety of door and sash patterns were available at an additional charge.
Delivery and construction
Depending on the size and style of the plan, the materials needed to construct a typical house, including perhaps 10,000-30,000 pieces of lumber, would fill one or two railroad boxcar
A boxcar is a railroad car that is enclosed and generally used to carry general freight. The boxcar, while not the simplest freight car design, is probably the most versatile, since it can carry most loads...
s, which would be loaded at the company's factory and sent to the customer's home town, where they would be parked on a siding or in a freight yard for unloading. Once the materials arrived, a customer would arrange for a local carpenter or contractor to assemble the house on a piece of land owned by the customer; or a customer who was handy with tools might assemble all or part of the house himself in several weeks or a few months' time.
The resulting houses were indistinguishable in quality and appearance from those built by traditional methods, if not better, yet were often significantly cheaper to build because of the savings on carpenters' and contractors' wages; and the cost of high-quality lumber bought from a large kit house company often was lower than at the local lumber yard. In addition, some companies, including Sears, Montgomery Ward
Montgomery Ward is an online retailer that carries the same name as the former American department store chain, founded as the world's #1 mail order business in 1872 by Aaron Montgomery Ward, and which went out of business in 2001...
, Gordon Van-Tine, and Harris Brothers, offered cash discounts and generous mortgage
A mortgage loan is a loan secured by real property through the use of a mortgage note which evidences the existence of the loan and the encumbrance of that realty through the granting of a mortgage which secures the loan...
terms. For most homeowners, the complete cost of building a kit house was about double the catalog price, allowing for the construction of a foundation and labor costs. The price of land or a city lot on which to build would be another expense.
In addition to their pre-cut houses, some companies also sold only the house plans (with the homebuyer purchasing all the materials locally) or non-pre-cut versions of their houses (at a lower price), leaving it up to the buyer to arrange for construction and carpentry work. According to the Sears Archives, "Sears actually encouraged builders of Modern Homes to save money by ordering their lumber from local lumber mills. Sears wanted Modern Homes to be cost-effective for buyers, which often meant purchasing materials locally and not from the few and geographically distant Sears lumber mills."
Furthermore, some companies would provide reversed versions of their homes or make other modifications upon request. For example,
Sears was . . . a very able follower of popular home designs but with the added advantage of modifying houses and hardware according to buyer tastes. Individuals could even design their own homes and submit the blueprints to Sears, which would then ship off the appropriate precut and fitted materials, putting the home owner in full creative control.
In addition, with some companies, homebuyers could choose the quality of materials. Gordon Van-Tine offered discounts for customers who chose lesser-quality siding, roofing, doors, windows, and trim. Sears offered "Honor Bilt" homes, with the finest quality materials, as well as "Standard Built" homes that were "best for warmer climates, meaning they did not retain heat very well,", and "Simplex Sectionals," made from prefabricated panels that could be bolted together, intended for use as temporary structures or summer homes.
Kit houses were promoted through catalogs available at lumber yard
A lumber yard is a retail location for lumber and wood related products used in construction and/or home improvement projects. Lumber yards can also provide services such as the use of a planer and other large machines....
s and hardware store
Hardware stores, sometimes known as DIY stores, sell household hardware including: fasteners, hand tools, power tools, keys, locks, hinges, chains, plumbing supplies, electrical supplies, cleaning products, housewares, tools, utensils, paint, and lawn and garden products directly to consumers for...
s, through the mail-order catalogs published by large retailers like Sears and Wards, and through advertisements in popular magazine
Magazines, periodicals, glossies or serials are publications, generally published on a regular schedule, containing a variety of articles. They are generally financed by advertising, by a purchase price, by pre-paid magazine subscriptions, or all three...
s. Dale Wolicki lists Saturday Evening Post
, National Geographic
, and Good Housekeeping
Good Housekeeping is a women's magazine owned by the Hearst Corporation, featuring articles about women's interests, product testing by The Good Housekeeping Institute, recipes, diet, health as well as literary articles. It is well known for the "Good Housekeeping Seal," popularly known as the...
as examples of magazines where Gordon-VanTine advertised. Prospective customers could arrange to inspect kit houses in their vicinity or visit a company's factory to tour model homes.
The ease of construction and cost savings of kit houses appealed to many would-be homeowners across the economic spectrum, from blue-collar worker
A blue-collar worker is a member of the working class who performs manual labor. Blue-collar work may involve skilled or unskilled, manufacturing, mining, construction, mechanical, maintenance, technical installation and many other types of physical work...
s to the affluent. For example, in 1928 Walt Disney
Walter Elias "Walt" Disney was an American film producer, director, screenwriter, voice actor, animator, entrepreneur, entertainer, international icon, and philanthropist, well-known for his influence in the field of entertainment during the 20th century. Along with his brother Roy O...
and his brother Roy
Roy Oliver Disney was, with his younger brother, Walt Disney, the co-founder of what is now The Walt Disney Company.-Early life:...
built two kit houses made by Pacific Ready Cut Homes on lots they owned in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles
Los Ángeles is the capital of the province of Biobío, in the commune of the same name, in Region VIII , in the center-south of Chile. It is located between the Laja and Biobío rivers. The population is 123,445 inhabitants...
The popularity of kit houses was attested in a roundabout way in the 1920 silent comedy One Week
starring Buster Keaton
Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton was an American comic actor, filmmaker, producer and writer. He was best known for his silent films, in which his trademark was physical comedy with a consistently stoic, deadpan expression, earning him the nickname "The Great Stone Face".Keaton was recognized as the...
, which shows Keaton constructing a build-it-yourself house that turns out all wrong.
Kit house companies
A number of companies offered kit houses, and sometimes also offered rudimentary "industrial" and summer cottages lacking bathrooms, as well as garage
A residential garage is part of a home, or an associated building, designed or used for storing a vehicle or vehicles. In some places the term is used synonymously with "carport", though that term normally describes a structure that is not completely enclosed.- British residential garages:Those...
Duplex commonly means double or twofold.It may also refer to:* Duplex , a two-unit apartment building or condominium* Duplex, a common electrical receptacle with two NEMA type 5 plugs* Duplex locomotive, a type of steam locomotive...
es, apartment buildings, barn
A barn is an agricultural building used for storage and as a covered workplace. It may sometimes be used to house livestock or to store farming vehicles and equipment...
s and other farm buildings, and even outhouses. Over 100,000 kit homes were built in the United States between 1908 and 1940. Companies offering kit houses during all or part of their corporate existence included:
- Aladdin Homes, Bay City
Bay City is a city in the U.S. state of Michigan located near the base of the Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron. As of the 2010 census, the city's population was 34,932, and is the principal city of the Bay City Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is included in the Saginaw-Bay City-Saginaw Township North...
, Michigan – 1906 to 1981
- Bennett Homes, North Tonawanda
North Tonawanda is a city in Niagara County, New York, United States. The population was 31,568 at the 2000 census. It is part of the Buffalo–Niagara Falls Metropolitan Statistical Area. The city is named after Tonawanda Creek, its south border...
, New York – 1902 to 1935 or later
- Fenner Factory Cut Homes, Ready Built House Company, North Portland, Oregon – 1912 to 1928
- Gordon Van-Tine Homes, Davenport
Davenport is a city located along the Mississippi River in Scott County, Iowa, United States. Davenport is the county seat of and largest city in Scott County. Davenport was founded on May 14, 1836 by Antoine LeClaire and was named for his friend, George Davenport, a colonel during the Black Hawk...
, Iowa, with additional plants in St. Louis
St. Louis is an independent city on the eastern border of Missouri, United States. With a population of 319,294, it was the 58th-largest U.S. city at the 2010 U.S. Census. The Greater St...
, Missouri, Chehalis
Chehalis is a city in Lewis County, Washington, United States. The population was 7,259 at the 2010 census. It is the county seat of Lewis County.-History:...
, Washington, and Hattiesburg
Hattiesburg is a city in Forrest County, Mississippi, United States. The population was 44,779 at the 2000 census . It is the county seat of Forrest County...
, Mississippi – 1907 to 1947
- Harris Homes, Harris Brothers Company, Chicago
Chicago is the largest city in the US state of Illinois. With nearly 2.7 million residents, it is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States and the third most populous in the US, after New York City and Los Angeles...
, Illinois – 1913 to 1960
- Hewitt-Lea-Funck Company, Seattle, Washington
- Liberty Homes, Lewis Manufacturing, Bay City, Michigan - 1925 to 1973
- Pacific Ready Cut Homes, Los Angeles – 1908 to 1940
- Sears Modern Homes
Sears Catalog Homes were ready-to-assemble kit houses sold through mail order by Sears, Roebuck and Company, an American retailer. Over 70,000 of these were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940. Shipped via railroad boxcars, these kits included all the materials needed to build a house...
, Sears, Roebuck, Chicago – 1908 to 1940
- Sterling Homes, International Mill and Timber Company, Bay City, Michigan - 1915 to 1971
- Wardway Homes, Montgomery Wards, Chicago, Illinois – 1910 to 1931 (actual manufacture of homes was subcontracted to Gordon-Van Tine)
Kit house companies left the business for various economic reasons before, during, and after the Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...
; some went bankrupt, while others returned to their original function as suppliers of building materials. And after World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...
, homebuyers flocked to the new, inexpensive tract house subdivisions springing up across the country.
Although none of the traditional kit house companies are still in business, pre-cut log home
A log home is structurally identical to a log cabin...
kits are offered by a number of manufacturers. And beginning in 2006, for a few years Lowe's
Lowe's Companies, Inc. is a U.S.-based chain of retail home improvement and appliance stores. Founded in 1946 in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, the chain now serves more than 14 million customers a week in its 1,710 stores in the United States and 20 in Canada. Expansion into Canada began in...
supplied plans and materials (not pre-cut) for small stick-built
A stick-built home is one constructed entirely or largely on-site; that is, built on the site which it is intended to occupy upon its completion rather than in a factory or similar facility...
homes called Katrina Cottage
Katrina Cottages are small residential shelters designed and marketed in the United States in the wake of Hurricane Katrina . They were designed as a response to the inadequacies of the trailers issued to flood victims by the Federal Emergency Management Agency...
s, with walls designed to withstand 140 mile-per-hour winds, intended to provide temporary housing for Gulf Coast residents who had lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was a powerful Atlantic hurricane. It is the costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the five deadliest hurricanes, in the history of the United States. Among recorded Atlantic hurricanes, it was the sixth strongest overall...
. Initially offered through Lowe's stores in Mississippi
Mississippi is a U.S. state located in the Southern United States. Jackson is the state capital and largest city. The name of the state derives from the Mississippi River, which flows along its western boundary, whose name comes from the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi...
Louisiana is a state located in the southern region of the United States of America. Its capital is Baton Rouge and largest city is New Orleans. Louisiana is the only state in the U.S. with political subdivisions termed parishes, which are local governments equivalent to counties...
, in 2008 Lowe's began offering the cottages at all of its stores nationwide. However, although initially "hailed as the new Sears & Roebuck house," the program faced strong opposition from local governments in the Gulf Coast region who feared the cottages would lower property values, and by mid-2011, Lowe's had discontinued its product line.
[Jarvie, Jennie. "Post-Katrina cottages get a lukewarm welcome," Los Angeles Times, 16 Dec. 2007, accessed 6 July 2011]
- Aladdin Homes company archives at Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University includes complete sales catalogs from 1908 to 1954
- Bungalow Floor Plans at about.com home plans by Sears and a few other companies, 1908 to 1921
- Gordon Van-Tine website by Dale Wolicki includes much company information as well as photographs of GVT homes as they appear today
- House Plans from Books and Kits - 1900 to 1960 at Antique Home Style
- "Mail-order houses" article by Rosemary Thornton in the Christian Science Monitor, 12 June 2002
- Kit Home Information at The Arts and Crafts Society
- Kithouse.org Historical information and extensive bibliography on kit homes by architectural researcher and author Rebecca Hunter
- Kit Houses at the National Trust for Historic Preservation Library Collection, University of Maryland includes bibliography
- Sears Modern Home images at searsarchives.com
- Searshomes.org by Rosemary Thornton, researcher and author of several books on kit homes
- "Steadily Enlarging Demand for Ready-Cut Houses," The American Exporter, Vol. 91, No. 4, October 1922, pp. 73-75.
- Vintage House Plans at Antique Homes more than three dozen catalogs of kit homes by various manufacturers from 1903 to 1971
- Wardway Homes history of Montgomery Ward's pre-cut houses, with some plans and recent photographs