The Return of ‘Catalog Homes’

Sets of pre-approved housing plans can lower construction costs, shorten timelines, and encourage more badly needed housing production.

1 minute read

March 29, 2023, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Two white two-story Sears Roebuck catalog homes in Tuscumbia, Alabama

Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress / Sears Roebuck homes in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

As more cities turn to pre-approved ‘housing catalogs’ to streamline permitting processes and stimulate more housing production, Molly Bolan describes the not-so-new concept in Route Fifty. As Bolan explains, “In the early 20th century, Sears, Roebuck and Co. published catalogs with home designs. Customers could choose a plan and send away for the materials to build their ‘kit home.’”

In recent years, cities such as Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Stockton have developed their own catalogs of pre-approved plans for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and other ‘missing middle housing’ types aimed at reducing costs for homeowners and making it easier to build new housing units.

The Sears Catalog homes inspired the city of South Bend, Indiana to create a “catalog of pre-approved plans for infill housing in an effort to incrementally increase housing stock in their neighborhoods without fundamentally changing the character of those communities,” says Tim Corcoran, the city’s community investment planning director. According to Corcoran, “The plans are geared to smaller lots that are common in cities, rather than the larger plots that exist in the suburbs.” The city hopes the catalog will lower ‘soft construction costs’ and incentivize more housing construction. 

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