Monday, February 24, 2014

Mail Order Homes

Mail Order Homes, also known as Kit Homes or Catalog Homes, were a type of housing popular in the first half of the 20th century. The most famous, and most successful, company to sell these homes were Sears, Robuck and CO. Sears started selling various home goods through catalog in 1888, after noticing that many farmers were having to spend lots of money at overpriced general goods stores. Their solution was cutting out the middle man and sending the product straight to the consumer. Sears was very successful in this endeavor, recording record profits for years to come. By 1906, most of their products were selling famously, except for their lumber. It ended up just sitting their in their warehouses and they weren't sure what to do about it. Frank W. Kushel, who was put in charge of the fledgling building materials department, came up with the idea for getting together all the components needed for building a house and selling it to consumers. Richard Sears loved the idea and the company started selling Kit Homes. Sears was by no means alone in this idea, as many companies starting in and around that same time developing whole house kits. The Aladdin Company, based out of Bay City, MI, is credited as being the first company to offer Kit Homes, starting in 1906. What Sears had that Aladdin and many other companies didn't was a hugely successful catalog that was in just about every American's house.

Kit Homes were shipped by railway and then typically trucked to a home site. Depending on the size of the home being built, it could include anywhere from 10,000-30,000 pieces of lumber which filled just about two boxcars. While everything needed to build the actual house was included, there were no bricks, cement, or mortar. This meant that you would have to at least get a handyman or contractor to help you with the house, that is if you weren't up to it yourself. With help, the Kit Homes could be put together within a few weeks, or a few months. Each home was delivered with detailed instructions on how to build it, so you weren't completely lost if you wanted to do it yourself. Constructing Kit Homes became a family or neighborhood event, similar to a barn-raising. It was all very different from house building today. Today, you have a company put one together for you, like a subdivision house, or you have an independent contractor do it for you. All those companies back in the 20th century made it easy for even the most dimwitted person to build a house. It wasn't the affair that we all see now. My grandfather built his house by himself, and so did his father. While Kit Homes may have been easy to build thanks to instructions, I still believe that earlier generations were just more educated on handyman work. I have never heard of anyone building their own house these days. It just doesn't happen unless you're already a builder. Even then, they typically need other builders to help with specialties.

Kit homes were by far the more economical choice back then. Kit Homes could cost you as low as $300 and no more than $3,000 (prices would eventually go up until about 1930). By doing the work themselves, people could cut out the contractors for most of the building process. Companies like Montgomery Ward and Sears also could get building materials at much lower prices than a lumber yard, so they were able to pass the savings down. Mortgages were also affordable and didn't discriminate like many real estate agencies and banks. All these companies wanted to know was whether you owned the land you were building on, and whether you had a primary income. Considering how hard it was for many African-Americans and certain immigrants to get decent mortgages at that time in America, the Kit Houses were a miracle. The Kit Homes could be bought completely pre-cut with instructions, or many other ways to cut down the cost. You could have the pieces sent without being pre-cut, or have cheaper materials sent, or even just the house plans with no materials. It all depended on what was the most cost effective for the customer. Depending on where the customer lived, it may be more economical to buy materials from a local shop that happened to have cheaper materials. Sears and Montgomery Ward also knew that tastes changed all the time and included additions to past models. You could even design your own house and send the blueprints to the manufacturer so they could make all the pieces for you. There was not a shortage of options when it came to Kit Homes.

House prices depended on the size of the house, grade of materials, and amenities inside. Electricity and indoor plumbing were still pretty novel early in the 1900's and it cost a little bit more to have them in your home. For most of the companies, the houses all had fancy names like, The Washington or The Ardmore. Advertisements for these homes wasn't limited to catalogs. You could find ads inside lumber yards, hardware stores, and any other home improvement center. Ads were also put out in popular magazines like National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post, and Good Housekeeping. You could even take a tour of a Kit Home if you were willing to drive to one of the manufacturer's outlets. The advertising for Kit Homes really paid off because it became a huge sensation. It didn't matter if you were a blue collar worker, or incredibly wealthy, you wanted to get one of these unique homes. Walt and Roy Disney even bought a couple for themselves in 1928.

Alas, the Kit Home bubble burst during the Great Depression. Many companies dropped their Kit Home divisions and went back to selling building materials. Montgomery Ward decided to get out of the business when they weren't making a profit in mortgages anymore. The reason for the bubble bursting was not because people couldn't pay their mortgages, in fact, the New Deal encouraged people to refinance existing mortgages to a lower rate. People just lost interest in building their own homes, and the fad died away before WWII with Sears ending their line of Kit Homes in 1940. Many families instead went for the new inexpensive tract houses found in subdivisions. The three Bay City, MI companies, Aladdin, Sterling, and Liberty, stayed in the business the longest, though they would all go out by the 70's and 80's. You can still buy Kit Homes today through manufactured home companies, but they mostly are for log cabins. The closest we've come to seeing a resurgence of Kit Homes were the Katrina Houses sold by Lowe's Home Improvement starting in 2006. These homes were meant to be permanent solutions for housing issues in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas. They were designed specifically to withstand hurricanes and high water. While they filled a certain niche, Gulf Coast politicians feared that they would drive down property costs, so they eventually died away too in 2011.

Kit Homes are very hard to find, unless you know where to look. Sears sold by far the most, and all their records were destroyed during some routine "house cleaning" in the 60's. That being said, there are still many ways to identify a Kit Home. There are whole websites dedicated to it, so if you are curious whether you live in a Kit Home, or if that house down the road is, then go do some research! There are a surprising amount of Kit Homes in my area (Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor, MI) and my wife and I even saw one yesterday in Lansing. Once you see the designs, the houses are pretty hard to miss. Happy hunting!


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