Historically coined as mail-order homes, kit homes have been constructed across the United States since the early 1900s. Over the years, the term Kit Home has molded into many different offerings such as; panelized homes, mill-cut homes, pre-cut homes, catalog homes, prefab/prefabricated homes, and mail-order homes.
Do any of those terms sound familiar? Well, chances are, if you’ve been in the market for new construction, you’ve come across at least one of the offerings.
As the US housing market continues to grow at an exponential rate, builders are hard-pressed for lumber and labor. Kit home suppliers directly help address the labor shortage for builders while providing a one-stop-shop for building materials.
Now, let’s get into the details to determine why kit home construction is becoming the preferred method for builders and homeowners across the country.
Table of Contents
What Is A Kit Home?
The term Kit Home refers to a pre-designed, pre-cut, ready to assemble package of building materials used to construct anything from a small cabin to a large timber frame home or multi-family structure.
Kit homes are not to be mistaken with modular or manufactured homes as they are constructed on your property, stick by stick or panel by panel.
A Brief History of Mail Order Homes
Kit homes made their debut in the United States in 1907 as an offering in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. For the first time in history, people were able to browse home designs and order the materials necessary to construct the plan themselves without needing to involve a third party.
At the time, this transformed residential building practices. It gave individuals in rural parts of the US the ability to construct a permanent residence despite the scarcity of skilled trade. Fast forward over 100 years, and kit homes are in greater demand than ever before!
Kit Homes in 2023
Over the last hundred years, technological advancements have helped transform kit home construction into the most efficient, streamlined, and cost-effective route for new construction projects nationwide.
Let’s take a look at how kit home construction has changed over the years.
Advancements in Architectural Design
One historical pitfall to kit home construction was the inability to customize the design. You were limited to the plans outlined in the catalog and had to choose a home that best fit your needs.
With the help of modern design software, kit homes can be custom designed, structurally engineered to your local requirements, and shipped to your doorstep within a few short months.
Panelized Wall & Roof Systems
Panelized wall and roof systems have practically replaced traditional 2x framing in many home kits, resulting in a more efficient and streamlined construction process. Several panelized systems have been developed over the past 100 years. Still, the most common, tried-and-true form of panelized construction involves the use of Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), Insulated Concrete Panels (ICP), or Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF).
Structural insulated panels are a type of panelized wall system that is composed of structural OSB sheathing and EPS (expanded polystyrene) or GPS (graphite polystyrene) foam insulation. The panels are pre-cut using precision accuracy and delivered ready to be assembled on the job site.
The development of a panelized home system has helped builders across the country streamline their construction process without compromising quality to the end-user. To learn more about the movement toward panelized construction, check out the Green Builder Media article on the rise of Alternative Building Systems.
Prefabrication Using CNC Machinery
The development of CNC (computer numerical control) machinery in the mid-1900s has had one of the most significant impacts on kit home construction overall. CNC machinery provided the precision and production capability needed to diversify the kit home market.
Before CNC machining, each component of a kit home was measured and cut by hand in an off-site facility, then shipped as a bundle to the end-user. This limited the design and production capabilities of kit home providers.
Pairing CNC machinery with modern design software allows for the production of various designs in a streamlined manner. A carpenter doesn’t cut the materials piece by piece on a job site. They are programmed into sophisticated software, cut with laser precision, and labeled for assembly.
In the short video below, you’ll be able to see a CNC machine in action, prefabricating Doug fir posts and beams.
What is included in a home kit?
When shopping the internet for kit homes, it is essential to understand what is included in each kit because no two kits are created the same. Some kit home providers focus specifically on an exterior shell package, while others focus on a more all-inclusive turnkey offering.
In order to generalize all kit homes, we’ve selected the most common materials you’ll receive in a standard kit.
Architectural Design and Structural Engineering Services
This includes the construction documents needed to assemble the structure and the structural engineer seal of approval required for permitting in your local area.
Exterior Framing Package
The exterior framing of a kit home typically consists of wall and roof paneling (or 2x framing) and a basic weatherization package.
Interior Framing Package
Interior framing arrives as a bundle of 2x lumber that is pre-cut and labeled, ready to be assembled stick by stick on the job site.
Exterior Windows and Doors
Exterior windows and doors aren’t included in all home kits, but many companies offer them as an addition. Our timber frame home and cabin kits feature Pella windows and doors throughout.
Exterior Siding and Trim
Another component that is generally offered as an addition, is exterior siding and trim. Our standard kit includes a hardy cement board siding with many other options to choose from.
How Much Do Kit Homes Cost?
Like any other type of home, many different variables impact the pricing of kit homes, from the quality of material to the complexity of the design and, most importantly, what’s actually included in the kit.
To give a general sense of the variability, our kits at Integrity Timber Frame range from $85 per square foot to $120 per square foot.
Comparing Different Home Kits
As more kit home suppliers enter the market, it is increasingly important to understand what you’re getting in your kit and how that is reflected in the price. Although two companies state that they supply an exterior framing package, what does that actually mean?
Example: Company A may supply 2×6 wall framing with no interior or exterior finish, while Company B’s exterior framing package includes SIP wall paneling, exterior siding, trim, windows, and doors.
The moral of the story is that it is best to compare every kit apples to apples to ensure you are finding the supplier that best fits your goals, rather than solely shopping based on price.
How Design Can Impact Pricing
Many people expect the classic mail-order experience when shopping for kit homes, where you select the model you like and have it shipped to your lot for construction. With the development of strict building codes and improvements in structural engineering, that is no longer the reality.
Once you have chosen the kit that you would like, the plans must be structurally engineered for your local area to ensure everything is up to code. In certain situations, such as building in the Rockies, you have to factor in additional variables like snow loads. In cases where the plans do not meet the structural requirements, supplementary material is factored into the design, increasing the overall price of the kit.
The complexity of design is another factor that impacts the overall pricing of the kit as it correlates with the amount of material needed for construction. Considering that most kit homes are constructed in a panelized fashion, homes with complex rooflines and intricate floor plans are more expensive to frame. The panels are cut in 8-24’ foot spans, so the efficiencies of panelized construction are reduced when you get too complicated with the framing.
Cost Savings with Home Kits
The core value of building a kit home comes from the efficiency of the process and the efficiency of the structure.
Panelized kit homes help builders work more efficiently, up to 80% quicker in some instances. Considering that labor accounts for roughly 40% of the typical construction budget, kits help considerably reduce the overall construction cost.
When constructed with a high-grade panelized system, kit homes are also incredibly efficient in the sense of sustainability. The airtight nature of a well-insulated SIP wall and roof system provides lifetime cost savings to the end-user when compared to alternatives.
Are Kit Homes Worth It, or Are They Just A Trend?
Kit homes are here to stay. Kit homes are not a trend. The development of modern building kits is the solution to a much more significant issue on a national scale. The problem is the decline of skilled labor, which has played a substantial role in the overall housing shortage in the US.
Skilled labor has been declining subtly in the US since the recession in 2008. Following basic supply and demand principles, as the labor force decreases and the demand for trades increases, skilled labor is becoming more expensive and harder to come by.
Panelized kit home systems help solve the issue by supplying a high-quality home with streamlined assembly capabilities—all in all, allowing builders across the nation to work with much greater efficiency.