A century before home buyers could open an app and thumb through scores of Colonials, Cape Cods, and Tudors, they could open a printed catalog and thumb through pages of homes for sale, in all different styles. And then they could order them through the mail!
The catch: These homes had to be put together, beam by beam, from more than 10,000 pieces of precut lumber, fitted windows, doors, and a building plan, like life-size Lincoln Logs. Niceties such as indoor plumbing and electricity weren’t usually included. But from the turn of the 20th century until about World War II, inexpensive “kit homes” allowed hundreds of thousands of Americans to become homeowners.
Catalog image and floorplan of Sears Magnolia model, and Magnolia kit house located Benson, North Carolina
Today, DIY homes may be staging a resurgence as online retailing giant Amazon and other websites are bringing a new generation of build-it-yourself homes, in sizes from tiny to two-story, to the masses. Enterprising wannabe owners, stymied by high home prices, are turning to kit homes as cheaper alternatives for additions, vacation abodes, and even primary residences. And they can purchase them with the click of a mouse for just a few thousand dollars.
But while buying a kit home online may be a snap, assembling one is a whole other challenge.
“Building your own home from a kit is a very quaint and romantic notion,” says Rosemary Thornton, who has written seven books on kit homes. “But we’re not building homes on the prairie anymore.”
Even back then, the packages of materials that came from big retailers such as Sears, Roebuck and Co., Montgomery Ward, and the Aladdin Co. didn’t quite include all that was needed for a home. Buyers still had to procure land, build a foundation, and install plumbing, electrical, and possibly septic systems.
Today’s kit-home buyers need all that, plus a plethora of local permits. And since many Americans aren’t used to putting together anything more complex than an Ikea bookcase, they’d need to call in the pros for the complicated stuff.
This could make a return to kit homes a tough sell. But it isn’t stopping a new wave of companies and some enterprising buyers from giving it a shot.
The ultimate DIY project
Rob Jenewein purchased this Allwood Eagle Point kit home.
Since Allwood Industrials began selling its imported kit homes on Amazon in 2014, sales have tripled, says Tapani Pekkala, owner of the Palm Beach Gardens, FL–based company. This year, he expects to sell about 3,000 total assemble-yourself structures. Of that figure, he estimates about 450 to 500 will be at least 800 square feet—large enough to live in year-round.
(Amazon did not respond to repeated requests for data on its kit home sales.)
Layout of the Allwood Eagle Point cabin
Most of Allwood’s customers are buying the kits for their vacation homes. As home prices have risen further out of reach for many would-be homeowners, more buyers are interested in saving a few bucks by purchasing residences they can put together themselves.
“Amazon has done wonders for us,” Pekkala says. “We never thought we could sell structures this large with these price tags online.”
Models range from 250-square-foot cabins to residences exceeding1,300 square feet. Prices start around $7,500 and go up to nearly $60,000. In comparison, the average price of a tiny home of 400 square feet or less is about $60,000, as Ryan Mitchell, managing editor of the Tiny Life, told realtor.com®.
“The cabin kits are designed for people who have never, ever built anything. … Some people say it’s like building a Lego house,” Pekkala says. “But when you go past 250 square feet and add that second floor, you probably want that professional crew.”
Those rock-bottom prices are appealing to buyers like medical device salesman Rob Jenewein, 35, who lives in the suburbs of Minneapolis. When he inherited a piece of lakefront property a few hours away in Chanhassen, MN, he wanted to put up a vacation cabin similar to the one he enjoyed growing up. So he called local builders for some quotes.
It was a discouraging process. “I didn’t really want to spend $200,000 to build something,” recalls Jenewein. He envisioned a cabin for hunting and fishing trips and where he and his wife and two daughters could use for weekend getaways.
So he began researching “build-it-yourself cabins” that were relatively cheap to put together. Eventually he found an 1,108-square-foot, two-story, three-bedroom, one-bathroom cabin for about $44,000 from Allwood.
Jenewein estimates he spent just over $100,000 on the cabin, which was finished in May. That included hiring a local builder, pouring a foundation, and installing a well and septic system. The home was also wired for battery and generator power.
“It’s kind of a blind leap of faith ordering something you haven’t walked through,” he says of the finished product, which he’s very pleased with. “You’ve spent $45,000 on a bunch of wood and you don’t know what’s going to come up.”
Kit homes: Sales premium or liability?
The original Sears ad for George Lugeanbeal’s home
Of the roughly 250,000 kit homes sold in the previous century, about 90% are still standing—and some of them even come up for sale. Many of these homes were from Sears, which sold about 70,000 kit homes and offered 447 models and prices that ranged from about $500 to over $5,000. A dozen or so other companies offered kit homes during their heyday, in the early part of the 20th century.
Those companies included one started by visionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Before his company, American System-Built Homes, was shuttered in 1917, about two dozen of the homes were constructed.
Some of these older kit homes come with a historic cachet, says Catarina Bannier, a Washington, DC–based real estate agent with Compass.
“In more expensive areas, in neighborhoods where people are more aware of history, there’s a certain pride,” says Bannier, a kit home enthusiast. “And there’s a certain premium.”
For example, a two-bedroom, one-bathroom Sears home she listed in a wealthier community sold for 40% over its asking price last year, at about $635,000, and it wasn’t even in good shape.
“The buyer was very into it,” Bannier says.
She sold another kit home—a three-story, five-bedroom, five-bath model from the now-defunct Lewis Manufacturing—for $2.7 million in the DC area.
“[However], in lower-priced areas, sometimes people are insulted,” she says of buyers who view kit homes as lesser than traditional, stick-built structures constructed on site. In these neighborhoods, kit homes will often sell for a discount.
Shipping label for a Sears catalog house
Some folks don’t even know they own a kit home—and are intrigued when they learn they do. More than a decade after George Lugeanbeal bought his three-bedroom home in Jacksonville, FL, he found a shipping label on the underside of an old floorboard during a kitchen renovation. But it disintegrated before he could get a good look. Later, he discovered another shipping label, this time with a clear address, on the backside of a window. He looked up the address and learned it was for an old Sears shipping yard near its former Illinois headquarters.
Cover of 1922 Sears Modern Homes catalog
Initially Lugeanbeal assumed the house, which he bought with his wife in 1992 for $120,000, was simply built with Sears lumber. So he purchased an old Sears catalog to check it out.
“Everything that catalog started showing up as parts in my house,” says Lugeanbeal, 56, an IT professional. He soon learned he was living in a Model 179 Sears home. It was listed in a 1912 Sears catalog for a whopping $939.
“It doesn’t even have a name, which makes it rarer and cooler,” says Lugeanbeal, who has since become a kit home enthusiast.
Lugeanbeal discovered he lives in a Model 179 home, which was listed in a 1912 Sears catalog for $939.
Photo provided by Lugeanbeal
Could kit homes experience a resurgence?
The era of catalog homes began to come to a close in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when fewer buyers could afford even the cheapest models. But it was really World War II, and the diversion of building materials to the war effort, that was the death knell of catalog homes. After the war ended, homes were becoming more complex, with new electrical and plumbing systems; building codes had tightened; and many buyers simply wanted fancier residences.
For those same reasons, many kit home experts don’t expect them to come back.
“The world has moved on,” says author Thornton. “We have an expectation of central heating. Heck, we have an expectation of central air.”
Rebecca Hunter, who’s also written books on kit homes and buildings, points out that today’s prefab and modular homes are perhaps a more appealing alternative. For these homes, entire walls and even rooms are mass-produced in a factory, simplifying assembly and keeping costs down.
So the new generation of kit homes may not catch on with the mainstream. But they still have fans among budget-conscious buyers looking for a small, simple home.
“I have zero regrets,” buyer Jenewein says of his kit cabin. “I’d recommend it to anyone.”
Source: Housing Trends Feed