The evolution of the modular home can be traced back to the early twentieth century, when Sears and several other companies began selling kit houses. As the name suggests, kit houses included all of the parts needed to assemble a house. Precut lumber, nails, flooring and so on, was all assembled and then shipped by boxcar to the general location of the building site. From there, it was loaded onto trucks and delivered to the site where the home was to be assembled.
As the predominant supplier of these kit homes, Sears, Roebuck and Company put out a catalogue called the "Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans." Included in the catalogue were numerous styles and designs for the prospective home owner. The very first catalogue offered 44 different house designs, with prices ranging from $695.00 to $4,115.00. That was for the raw materials. Delivery and assembly charges were extra.
Beginning in 1908 and going up to the year before the United States entered World War II (1941), approximately 75,000 of these types of homes were ordered. The process went as follows. People would send in a dollar and select the design they wanted for their home. A materials list and a set of blueprints would be mailed to the customer and he would be able to look everything over. Next, the customer would make payment for the materials and the materials would be assembled and shipped to the customer site. They would arrive by train, usually in two boxcars and the customer would than arrange to have them transported by truck to the building site.
It could take several weeks to get everything in place before assembly could begin.
The customer could not just get a couple of his friends and put up the house like a child would build a cabin out of lincoln logs. A foundation had to be laid and, in most cases, a professional crew would be hired to do the assembly. Even with the extra steps, it was still less expensive than building a similar-sized home out of stick construction.
As the Depression struck in the early 1930s, business for the Sears mail order homes dropped significantly. With sales down about 40%, the enterprise started losing money. Catalogue sales of homes was no longer a profitable business. Sears began to wind down the business and by 1940, they were no longe offering homes through their catalogue.
For a period of time, America was occupied with World War II and not much attention was paid to developing the modular home. As the War ended, suddenly, their was a great demand for affordable housing. All of the Veterans had returned and young families were looking for affordable housing. Traditional stick built housing could not keep up with the demand. Enterprising new companies sought to fill the need by developing the first, real modular homes. Homes built in sections at a factory location began to gain traction. Using an assembly line production process, homes could be turned out a faster rate than homes built on site. Initially, the design was kept rather simple. Rooms were basically boxes of different sizes that were joined together on site. The roof and some other features were completed at the site. Costs were reduced and many of the buildings built over 50 years ago are still standing and being occupied by homeowners.
Modular homes used to be compared to mobile homes (manufactured homes), but today, most realtors and other experts will tell you there is really no comparison. Other than both types of homes being designed and built off site, the construction is quite different. Modular homes are as strong or stronger than conventional stick homes. They are reinforced and can hold up very well in storms and hurricanes. The are very energy efficient and hold their value (and appreciate) over time. They must be built on a foundation and when finished, are indistinguishable from a traditional home. Mobile homes can not make any of those claims.
Today's modular homes have advanced technologically to the point where they are the preferred method of construction for many hotels, fast food restaurants and homeowners. Modular homes are able to be custom designed at the factory to rigid standards. They can be several stories high and have arched ceilings. Architectural plans of just about any description can be accomodated. With quality, equal or superior to well built, on site homes, quicker setup times and lower prices, it is no wonder that modular homes have found their place in the housing market.