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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Inside, Mr. Goff created a flexible, zoned plan, which allows the master bedroom suite to be closed off, and provides some privacy for the other two bedrooms. A great room is tied to kitchen and porch, where the family gathers. "The room is open, with a big ceiling and big fireplace," said Mr. Goff.

Scale is what really enhances the openness of the plan. The walls are 10 feet high, and windows rise to 6 1/2 feet. The windows and doors are proportioned to the vaulted room's 20-by-28-foot dimensions. A study, whose walls are painted a crisp spring green, features a bank of windows whose shape is echoed in the room's pine mantel. Exposed collar ties also are clad in pine, but the ceiling, woodwork and bookcases are painted white so the room is kept light.

Individualized accents further warm the Goff home. In a 10-by-16-foot entry area, for example, Olga Goff, an interior designer, created a stencil in a diagonal pattern painted over the hardwood.

Such personalization is even more possible with the accessibility of computer design. Adaptations can be made to basic floor plans, which give more of a customized touch.

Heidi and Steve Rebelowski browsed through dozens of home-plan books before they found a Virginia Cape wood-sided home that they chose for their East Lyme, Conn., property. They paid $200 for the plan from Home Planners Inc.

"The design was mostly what we wanted," said Heidi Rebelowski. "We did make modifications. There was supposed to be a walk-out terrace, but because our property sloped, we changed it to a walk-out basement and higher deck. Instead of building a big garage, we had it framed so that it's now a room. Where there was a window in the kitchen, we made a framed-out bow. And we put in skylights."

Plans to suit your budget

You can tailor your favorite house plan or precrafted house design to suit your budget. Interior designer Ann Buse of Cincinnati wanted a hand in the plan of her family's vacation home in Michigan. She worked with Town & Country designers to tailor the home's layout to its site and take advantage of a water view, enhancing the indoor-outdoor relationships.

"We decided to have glass all along the back side of the house. Inside, we wanted a contemporary open space," she said, explaining the loftlike appearance of the two-story living area.

What was interesting about the construction was that all the framework went up first, and the windows were cut out later. "Our neighbors at first thought we weren't going to have any windows," said Ms. Buse.

The framework took only a week, but the interior finishing took about six months. "It's a prefabricated house," said Ms. Buse, "but it's first quality."

If that remark sounds defensive, that's because not long ago any kind of prefabricated housing used to connote lesser quality. Manufacturers such as Town & Country are changing that image. They pride themselves on having crews of second-generation craftsmen so there's a real quality consciousness and attention to detail. Their diligence is being rewarded.

Town & Country received a design award last year from House Beautiful magazine for a 4,000-square-foot white cedar and fieldstone home built in Lake Geneva, Wis. The three-level Lake Geneva home features cathedral ceilings, which give it a loftlike spaciousness. But its tour de force is a striking timbered arch in the living room, which echoes a half-circle window above two pairs of French doors. The doors open to a deck that spans the house and overlooks a golf course.

Although many of the styles of housing offered by mail are traditionally American, there is interest internationally. A woman from Brazil called Tampa, Fla., architect George D. Smith of Curry Smith Jaudon Architects Inc. to inquire about a house featured in Home Plan Ideas. The original 5,000-square-foot colonial home pictured cost about half a million dollars. She was undaunted and paid $1,000 for a set of drawings -- but asked Mr. Smith to convert them to centimeters.

Town & Country Homes even reports a healthy interest in its log homes by the Japanese. The concept of log cabins in Japan or a colonial mansion in Ipanema may seem odd. But with this global economy, such international exchanges are more feasible. Who knows? If you have a yen for a Japanese teahouse or pine for a Swiss chalet, perhaps some overseas companies might offer the same service.

Selected sources

* Home Planners Inc., 3275 W. Ina Road, Suite 110, Tucson, Ariz. 85741; (800) 322-6797.

* Home Plan Ideas, Special Interest Publications, Meredith Corp., 1716 Locust St., Des Moines, Iowa 50309-3023; (515) 284-2584.

* National Home Builders Association, Consumer Hot line for a list of manufacturers of modular or panelized homes; (800) 368-5242, Ext. 162.

* Town & Country Cedar Homes, 4772 U.S. 131 South, Petoskey, Mich. 49770; (616) 347-4360.

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