Kit Homes Buckhannon WV
White Sulphur Springs, WV
Better Business Bureau, Bundoran Farm, EnergyStar
Falling Waters, WV
New Martinsville, WV
In the early 1900s, homeownership was far out of reach for many Americans, particularly immigrants and those with limited finances. But that was about to change. Borrowing an idea from a friend who sold pre-cut boats by mail, brothers Otto and William Sovereign founded the Bay City, Mich.-based company Aladdin in 1906 and soon after began selling what they called knocked-down houses through magazine ads and catalogs.
The concept was clever, innovative and controversial: Deliver to consumers a mail-order package that includes everything they need to build a home -- from precut lumber, roofing materials, siding and flooring to doors and windows, paint, varnish, doorknobs, even nails. Every item was numbered and corresponded to the detailed instructions and diagrams that accompanied each package.
As explained in Aladdin's 1908 catalog, the term knocked-down house meant just what it said: A house that has been sawed out, put together, then systematically knocked down and the parts gathered together to send out to purchasers to be put up again. The company promised that there is no back-breaking, muscle racking, sawing, measuring, figuring or fitting to do. We do all that in our mill. Your Ë?work is driving nails. Or, the company suggested, purchasers could hire an ordinary man to assemble a home. The houses were delivered to prospective homeowners by rail, arriving in one or two boxcars, depending on the size of the project.
Among the first knocked-down houses available from Aladdin were summer cottages, auto garages and boathouses, as well as dwelling houses. They were intended to serve as outbuildings and secondary or vacation homes, though naturally some were used as primary residences. Prices for homes that appeared in the company's 1908 catalog ranged from $357 for a 660-square-foot two-bedroom bungalow to $592 for a 720-square-foot two-bedroom dwelling house (complete with a toilet room.)
Though critics were split on the viability of the concept, it caught the imagination of the homebuying public and sales took off. Seeing an opportunity, other companies soon began to offer what came to be known as kit homes, including Sears Roebuck, the mail-order company founded in 1886. Sears Book of Modern Homes debuted in 1908, offering 22 styles of kit homes made with a high degree of material and modifiable to fit the tastes of any homebuyer. Prices for the homes ranged from $650 to $2,500.
Over the next few decades, Sears would offer a total of 447 different styles of houses at three expense levels. The Honor Bilt homes were the highest quality, with clear-grade (no knots) flooring and cypress or cedar shingles, according to company literature. The Standard Built and Simplex Sectional homes were no less sturdy, though they were more simply designed. The company also offered farm buildings, garages, summer cottages and even outhouses, which could be had for $23.
By 1920, Sears was shipping 125 units per month. A record 324 units were sold in May 1926. But sales peaked in the next few years; the Depression hit the business hard. Sales of Sears kit homes recovered a bit through the 1930s and continued until 1940, with more than 100,000 houses sold over four decades. Aladdin sold its renamed Readi-Cut Homes until as late as 1954; a total of 75,000 had been sold since the early 1900s.
The fact that many of those early-century kit homes still exist testifies not only to the quality of materials provided but to the skills of the homebuilders themselves. And the kit-home legacy lives on in the modern modular and panelized homes that are still popular with homebuyers today.