Construction of an Idaho Pre-Cut Home (© Idaho Pre-Cut Homes) 


Generally speaking, a kit home is a house that’s designed and perhaps even partially manufactured off-site, then shipped en masse to a home site for assembly, often by you.

It’s not a new idea. In 1906, the Aladdin Co. began selling kit homes. In 1908, Sears famously got in on the act; the company sold tens of thousands of kit homes nationwide before World War II.

The types
Kit homes generally fall into one of four categories:

1) Log homes. There are about 600 producers of log homes in the industry, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Log homes can be built of full Lincoln Log-type logs, or of milled logs.

2) Panelized homes. In this construction method, chunks of the home such as wall sections and roof trusses are made in a factory before they are shipped out to the home site for final assembly. One element that’s growing in popularity is structural insulated panels (SIPs), in which a chunk of wall is assembled with its insulation and wiring “built in” so the entire piece can basically be dropped into place and bolted together.

3) Timber-frame homes. Once a common construction style, this method uses a strong “skeleton” framework to hold up the rest of the house. As a result, the rest of the house often can be easily customized.

4) Geodesic domes. These energy-efficient houses were pioneered by Buckminster Fuller. They’re constructed of hundreds of triangular panels.

Counting up the benefits
There are lots of reasons to build a home from a kit, but saving wheelbarrows of money isn’t always one of them, says Rich Binsacca, author of  “
Kit Homes: Your Guide to Home-Building Options, from Catalogs to Factories.” 

Why? Though the price tag for a kit home is usually much lower, the price usually includes only a weather-tight shell; you still have to outfit the rest of the home with everything from plumbing to cabinets to light fixtures, Binsacca and others say.

Rich Horn, sales manager for Northeastern Log Homes, says, “We caution homeowners that about one-third of the price is what we supply, and the other two-thirds is what they control.”

Owners of kit homes do benefit in other ways. “The real savings comes when you start building and you find that certain things have already been laid out for you,” Pickett says. The walls, the roof, the floor — the company has already figured out how those are going to work, and cut them out and perhaps even pre-assembled them, he says. That saves time. (Depending on the home you’ve chosen, a kit home can be framed in anywhere from several hours to a few days with a small crew, versus more than a week with a gang of carpenters building a traditional “stick-built” home that uses dimensional lumber, Binsacca says.)

And time is money: One industry study found that a 2,600-square-foot home with pre-built trusses and panels was constructed in just 37% of the man hours of a similar, stick-built home — and was a lot less wasteful.

Here’s another huge benefit: Because of their nature, kit homes are often quite changeable by the owner, at little or no extra cost. At Tilton, N.H.-based Shelter-Kit, the homes that go out the factory door are “almost always customized,” says owner Dave Kimball. “Nobody calls up and just says, ‘I’d like a (standard) 24-by-24-foot barn,’ and we ship it out.”

Your step-by-step guide
Want to tackle a kit home? Here are step-by-step tips to keep you on track:

1) Know your building codes. Even as you’re in early discussions with your kit-home maker about exactly what your home will look like, download or get permit applications from your local government’s building department and send them to the kit-home company.

Why? You’re looking for special or unusual requirements for your new home. For example, homes built in heavy snow areas will require extra bracing, and the designer needs to take that into account.

Also, it’s possible your local building department won’t know about kit homes. “On rare occasions, we’ll talk to a building inspector who’s not familiar with the buildings,” says Kimball of Shelter-Kit. He says that once the inspector is told that the company’s homes pass national building codes, “we’re good to go.”

2) Talk to your lender. You probably need a loan to buy your home. “I think kits are … often easier to get loans from smaller banks than from larger banks,” Kimball says. Why? Those banks seem more open to lending for less-conventional homes, he says. The lender also may want a say in who builds your abode; the bank wants to make sure it gets a quality product out of the deal. “Depending on what kind of equity position you’re bringing to the table … they are going to determine” whether you use a contractor or can build it yourself, says Horn of Northeastern Log Homes.

3) Do your home (site) work. Get the necessary work done to the home site before your home arrives. At the least, that means completing your foundation. (Your kit-home company should give you thorough details on what’s required.) In some cases, the septic system and even electricity can be installed after construction.

4) Be prepared. Have everything ready when the kit home arrives. This includes having plenty of space to accommodate a large truck or 18-wheeler and having a work crew ready to spring into action.

5) Be neat. The last thing you want is to mess up a piece of your house. Keep the pieces off the ground by resting them on two-by-fours, and place tarps over them to keep them out of the weather, Kimball says. 

6) Follow the manual. Kit homes come with detailed instruction books that are usually dozens of pages long and specific to your home. “Our advice to all of our customers is to always have the manual open, and always have someone in charge of the manual,” Kimball says.

Further, he says: “Always go from Step One to Step Two. Never from Step One to Step Three. If you think something is wrong, and you’re about to pick up a saw to cut something, call us. Because you don’t have to cut anything,” Kimball says of his company’s homes. (Some companies’ homes do require cutting during your construction process.)

7) Whom to hire? If you decide to hire someone to build your kit home for you — and it’s not uncommon to do so — ask the kit-home company, or that company’s local dealer, for contractor recommendations in your area. You’re looking for contractors who have assembled similar homes in the past.

8) Make yourself a hired hand. Don’t trust yourself to build your home, but still want to take part? Hire yourself out to your contractor as a strong back. You can help raise your own roof while saving money on labor, Horn says.

9) Know what you’re getting into. “If you want to build one of these yourself, the sweat equity is tremendous, the satisfaction is high,” Horn says. Be aware, however, that you’re going to “devote every waking moment” to the project until the shell is completed, he says. Be prepared for the entire project, inside the home and out, to take eight to 12 months until you have a “turn-key” product, he says.

Now stop reading and start dreaming. And it wouldn’t hurt to go practice with your nail gun.