The house is in the mail: Homes made to order are just a stamp away

August 09, 1992|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Contributing Writer

Like dollhouses, some dream homes come in boxes. In the early part of the century, a two-room, no-bath cottage could have been snapped up from a Sears mail-order catalog for $146.25, not much more than some hobbyists might pay today for a miniature counterpart.

Between 1908 and 1937, Sears, Roebuck & Co. sold more than 100,000 houses by mail. Among some 450 models available was a modern, two-story, eight-room home for $1,400 and "The Magnolia," a 10-room Southern Colonial mansion, which sold for $5,140 in 1918. The Sears kits included blueprints and building materials -- sometimes even furnishings. Some plans suggested where a Sears sofa might look good or the perfect spot for a Sears piano. The company used the mail-order home business as a marketing tool for its products.

This concept of kit homes has precedents in history. As early as the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci wrote about building off-site and transporting to a permanent foundation. The 1849 California Gold Rush precipitated factory-built housing. In the San Francisco area alone, thousands of iron and wood dwellings were shipped from the East Coast and erected.

Today, as new homes are beginning to sell again after a sluggish economy and depressed building spell, an increasing number of consumers are opting for buying their houses by mail.

There are two routes for purchasing homes by mail. One is to buy the plans and hire a local builder or contractor for materials and construction. The other is to buy a precrafted home. Some buildings are precrafted in the factory and packed and labeled for Lego-like assembly. Others are shipped nearly 90 percent finished, arriving in complete sections. The National Home Builders Association estimates that at least 16 percent of the million homes built last year were precrafted.

Precrafted technology also saves money in installation time and materials (with everything precut to size, there's less waste). Time reduction may be significant: Thirty days for precrafted homes vs. 90 days or more for "stick-built." However, transportation of materials for precrafted homes will add to the cost.

There are several types of precrafted homes, including log homes that fall into the post-and-beam construction category. Installation is much like an old-fashioned barn-raising: Workers wedge the tenons of their huge timbers into precut mortises and secure the giant pieces together with pegs.

Modular or panelized homes are built section by section in a factory, then shipped to the job site, where a crew can assemble them in days. Often the exterior walls are shipped with windows and doors, insulation and siding in place. Wiring, dry wall and interior walls may also be part of the package. Such standards allow a variety of decorating options, such as paint, paneling or wallcoverings for walls, and lighting that includes track, recessed and decorative sconces.

Save a bundle in fees

Many other new homes are being built with architectural plans offered through one of dozens of sources by mail. As an alternative to custom-building, purchasing home plans by mail can save a bundle in architect's fees. Such fees often are a percentage of the building cost, typically from 7 percent to 15 percent.

Purchased home plans typically include a single set of blueprints, about seven in all, which are needed for the contractor, building permits and the bank. (The plans adhere to standard building codes that are followed all over the country, although sometimes additional modifications must be made.) The price for the plans used to be around $150, but today's average is closer to $300. Some plans can cost around $1,000.

The blueprints to some of the most desirable custom details often come with the package. With Tulsa architect Patrick Fox's plans for an elegant 2,580-square-foot English Tudor home, the instructions for replicating a dramatic cast-concrete fireplace that dominates the living room are included. All you need is a stone craftsman. At least two families purchased the plans through Home Plan Ideas, a quarterly magazine that walks its readers through an assortment of houses photographed in color, the plans for which are available by mail.

More than just blueprints

But it's more than blueprints that people are looking for when they transform layouts into homes.

Readers who fell in love with the shingle-style house designed by Lonnie Goff and featured in Home Plan Ideas were especially enamored of its cozy character. The architect, who originally designed this house for himself, combined unfinished redwood shingling and fieldstone trim so that the home would tuck neatly into his Rhode Island neighborhood. But the architecture obviously suits a variety of geographic settings; 15 sets of plans adapted from the design were sold nationwide.

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