Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Kit House - 12,000 easy pieces

Auburn Halifax kit house
Kit houses, which were popular in the first half of the twentieth century, were called by many names: mail order homes, pre-cut houses, catalog homes, mill-cut and pre-built homes. Kit house manufacturers sold houses in a number of different styles, ranging from modest bungalows to stately colonials. The kits were sold at a fixed price and included all materials needed for construction, with the exception of brick or stone, and the laying of the foundation needed to be done in advance
In 1919, the manager of the Sears Roebuck lumber department explained to a U.S. Senate committee about the permanence of their kit houses: “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 cut to its proper length and notched by hand by carpenters.”

 Sears Lumber Identifying Marks. (2007 R.T.)
Where modular homes were built in sections at a factory, a kit house had every individual piece of lumber shipped, already numbered and cut to fit its particular place in the house. This eliminated the laborious need for measuring and cutting in an age before power tools existed. Kit home manufacturers claimed their packaged homes saved customer 30 to 40 percent over traditional building methods.

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, sunrooms, flower boxes, trellises, balconies, built-in cabinets, and a variety of door and sash patterns were available at an additional charge.

Sears Magnolia in Benson, NC
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, yet they were often significantly cheaper 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. Some companies such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, Gordon-Van Tine, and Harris Brothers, offered cash discounts and generous mortgage terms.

Guthrie, Oklahoma Sears House

Can you imagine going to a store and picking your next home from a catalog or the excitement of the arrival of a kit house by rail box car would create for a small town? I’d bet it was something that was talked about for a long time. 

While touring Guthrie, Oklahoma, on their town trolley, I saw the cute Sears home in the photo above. Have you ever seen a kit house?

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  1. This is a fascinating post to me. I love houses! My grandparents had a house (but not a Kit House) similar to the "Charlotte" in the picture. They lived in the northwest corner of Ohio. It's amazing how people used to order everything through catalogs. I guess it was the forerunner of ordering online.

  2. Interesting Post today, I have heard of the sears houses but never seen one, I like the looks of the charlotte. I live in a modular home but would rather have one of these kit ones I think,looks more like a real house. thanks for sharing.
    Paula O

  3. That was so interesting. I have heard of kit houses before but these are much more then I have imagined. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Our first house was a Sears house! We bought it in 1984 from an estate and it was 50 years old. We found the plans for it when we were fixing it up - we redid the electricity, plumbing, heating system, part of the roof, put in insulation...we pretty much took the place apart. Never did finish everything by the time we were moving to another state, and I was glad that our next house did not need so much work.

  5. Fascinating article, Vickie. I've never seen a kit house that I know of, but I love looking at floor plans and designing houses, so these were of special interest. I've seen new homes that are built similar to the Auburn Halifax house pictured.

  6. I've heard of the Kit Houses but never knowingly seen one. We live in a pre-fab or manufactured home which is built at the factory and assembled down the middle on the site. I guess it's a variation. But what size of vehicle transported all the materials for a kit house and I guess they hired a carpenter when it came or read the directions and assembled it themselves. Thanks for the post. sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. The kit houses were shipped by rail. By the time the kit houses had been created, most towns had rail service. What I read said the kits would take up two rail cars. Some skilled men built the house themselves, but others hired help. They would have the foundation laid while waiting on the kit to arrive.