At the turn of the century Sears and Ward published several specialty catalogs including building materials. In 1908 Sears started offering house plans, and Ward followed in 1909. For one dollar, hopeful homeowners could buy blueprints, together with a detailed inventory listing the building materials that’d be needed to build their own home. An enclosed order form enabled buyers another option: They could order their lumber, hardware, paint, roofing and other building materials from Sears or Montgomery Wards.
The house plan catalog promised that the typical homebuyer would save about one-third the cost with a Montgomery Ward mail-order home (compared to traditional construction). Accompanying text explained the reason for this savings: "The factory that supplies us is the largest factory in the world. They buy millions of feet of lumber at a time, enough so that the lumber may be thoroughly air dried before being kiln dried. "We sell to you at a price which your local dealer can not meet because he would have to pay as much or more to the jobber”.
"One Order Brings You Everything!” exclaimed Wardway Homes. "At Ward’s, in single order you can get everything you need to complete your home with the exception of masonry materials…. Architectural services, plans and specifications, all lumber and millwork, heating, plumbing, window shades, screens, storm sash, hardware, electric wiring and fixtures; even electric power plant, septic tank, pumps, electric refrigerator, garage, etc., … you do not have to deal with a dozen different concerns and have a dozen different bills of varying amounts and perhaps of unexpectedly large size, all due at about the same time. When you send your single order to Ward’s, you deal with one concern only. You know in advance exactly what your complete home will cost.”
The early housing catalogs were crude and clumsy. Ward’s first 1909 house plan catalog featured 34 pages and 24 descript, rather dated-looking Victorian houses, as well as a few outbuildings, barns and chicken coops. Overall, the pre-cut housing catalogs didn’t undergo dramatic change from one year to the next. Revised editions typically featured a new home on the cover with updated prices inside. In 1917, the name Wardway Homes made its first appearance and the houses were assigned names instead of numbers, and 22 of the 45 designs offered could be ordered with pre-cut lumber.
Wardway Homes referred to their houses as ready-cut, a system they claimed would save the builder thirty to forty percent in costs compared to traditional construction. All designs were standardized to maximize efficiency and reduce waste in materials and labor. Lumber and hardware were purchased in bulk. Wardway employed skilled workers and special machines to cut difficult pieces such as rafters. All lumber was pre-cut to length, guaranteed to fit, ready to nail and labeled for easy assembly. The pre-cut package was shipped with all the materials needed to build to the house (not including masonry or concrete), and referenced to blueprints and an instruction book.
Unlike Sears, who invested heavily in new mills and an architectural staff, Montgomery Ward chose another route. It subcontracted its orders for pre-cut homes to an eastern Iowa lumber mill that offered its own line of mail-order homes, Gordon Van Tine. Founded in 1908, Gordon Van Tine offered catalogs of building materials and house plans much like Sears and Montgomery Ward. Sometime during 1921 Gordon Van Tine took over Wardway Homes in its entirety, including house design and catalog production. Many of the designs offered by these two companies were identical homes with different names. For instance, The Wardway Danbury, an attractive and well-designed bungalow, was the same as the Gordon Van Tine Model #537. The Bellevue, a spacious Wardway foursquare was identical to the Gordon Van Tine #508.
In 1927 Montgomery Ward introduced their mortgage program. "Easiest Payments!” noted a faux sticker on the cover of the catalog. "Our terms are easiest because the low selling prices of our Wardway Homes have reduced every monthly payment to the smallest amount possible on a home designed for permanence. Our Loan Plan - which enables you to use our money at a very low interest rate - saves the average purchaser hundreds of dollars”. The Wardway mortgage application asked about the lot size, its cost and to whom the lot was titled. Like the comparable mortgage application from Sears, the Wardway application asked for the homeowner’s age, marital status and occupation. In 1927, Wardway offered 60% mortgages at 6% interest and a minimum monthly payment equal to 1% of the outstanding loan amount. One year later, they were offering 15-year fully-amortized notes and 75% loan-to-value ratio. If the homebuilder owned his own lot, the 75% loan-to-value ratio was immediately satisfied. In other words, he could build a home of his own with no cash out of pocket. The applicant was expected to provide free labor or pay for the construction costs out of pocket.
In 1930 Montgomery Ward inserted flyers in the catalogs introducing a new program: Wardway’s certified contractors were available to oversee the home’s construction (either by the home owner or their individual contractors), or manage construction of the entire house with approved contractors. With their generous mortgage and certified contractor programs Wardway Home orders increased despite the slump in traditional residential construction during 1930. In the fall of 1931 Montgomery Ward hired Sewell Avery, President of the United States Gypsum Company, to guide Montgomery Ward out of economic trouble. He was best known for his incredible financial sagacity and his ability to peek around dark economic corners. Within days, Avery slashed Montgomery Ward’s workforce and eliminated departments that distracted for their general merchandise business. Without announcement, Wardway Homes closed quietly in January 1932. It is estimated Montgomery Ward sold approximately 25,000 houses in the 23 years it sold house plans and pre-cut homes.