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A Bigger and Better House for the Money
by Bob Brooke


The Sears Catalogue offered just about anything a homeowner could want or need, including, the house, itself. Catalogue shoppers could order a Sears kit house from 1908 to 1940. Customers purchased and built upwards of 75,000 homes in 447 different designs during that period

Types of Sears Kit Houses
But Sears didn’t innovate home building. The company based its blueprints on what was popular at the time, and while they weren’t the first or only company to do mail-order houses, they were among the most memorable because people could buy damn near anything in their 500+ page Catalogues. Their Modern Homes kits, and even the home buying process itself, were part of their Catalogue retail sales.

Called Sears Modern Homes, the company produced three different product lines based on budget: high-end Honor Built homes, Standard Built homes that were popular with young families, and Simplex low-budget homes that were mostly used as vacation cottages.

High-end Honor Built homes used the best quality materials that Sears could source, These came with what at the time was state of the art heating, plumbing, and electricity. While these features weren’t in every single Sears home, they still set the stage for home builders to realize what people wanted in their homes because of how much their quality of life had improved. Honor Built Homes were sturdy and designed for four-season living. They came with cypress siding, knot-free flooring, and complete inside trim.

Standard Built Homes, on the other hand, were meant for warmer climates, since they didn’t retain heat well.

Sears designed Simplex Homes, designed primarily as summer cottages, came with a basic plan that buyers could customize.

What Did Sears Kit Houses Include?
Sears kit houses arrived in 10,000 to 30,000 pieces, complete with a 75-page assembly book. The parts of the average house weighed about 25 tons and came in a boxcar. The invention of plasterboard and asphalt shingles allowed customers to do much of the work themselves. Neighbors often helped build some homes “barn-raising” style.

Designs ranged from simple to elaborate, and styles included Colonial, American Foursquare, Mission, Tudor, ranch and stone or shingle cottages. “The Magnolia” was a 10-room, plantation-style Colonial home that sold from 1918 to 1922 for $5,140 to $5,972 while the simple Winona sold for $744 to $1,998. There are only six Winonas still standing and several have been listed as historic landmarks.

Sears Modern Homes came in all sizes and price points. Most ranged in price from several hundred dollars to $3,500. And for those who needed it, Sears also provided financing. All a future homeowner needed was a plot of land to build one on.

Today, prefab homes are accepted and commonplace. In fact, builders are using factory-made trusses, windows, and such even more to help keep costs at a reasonable level. Back when Sears sold kit houses, they were the future , enabling many customers who couldn’t otherwise afford a custom-built home to have one at a fraction of the cost.

Why Were Sears Kit Houses So Successful?
When Sears began selling house building kits in 1908, it was just more feasible to build a house pretty much anywhere because there just weren’t as many homes because of the smaller population.

During the first decade of the 20th century, there was a housing boom taking place as people wanted to escape the crowds and disease of the cities. Automobiles were still in their infant stages and the car culture known today hadn’t yet arrived, but trains and trolleys began extending to greener areas beyond towns and cities, making it possible for people to visit or work in a city.

The large Victorian-style houses already there were few and far between and out of reach of working class first-time home buyers. Sears realized that quality housing that could be built easily was a must for the quickly-growing population as World War I veterans came home and started families, and immigrants flooded into the country.

Freestanding suburban or rural homes were more likely to stand alone in undeveloped lots instead of planned tracts that were set aside by federal and state governments and/or builders that had uniformity in mind. A Verona or Wabash model home built in Pennsylvania could look just like the same as one ordered and built in Missouri, but neither was designed to look exactly like the other homes on the block.

Sears Modern Homes offered a wide variety of styles for customers to choose from, ranging from simple and rustic to luxuriously decadent. They weren’t all the three-bedroom Craftsman ranchers seen in Los Angeles or the compact ones that made up Levittown in southeastern Pennsylvania and Long Island. In fact, the Chateau and Atlanta models were the forerunners of today’s McMansions.

And in keeping with Sears’ roots in selling to rural Midwesterners, they even had a Catalogue for farmhouses, barns, and other farm buildings.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, suburbs weren’t a common sight. Sears could keep manufacturing costs down compared to standard builders and competing catalogs because they had their own manufacturing facilities by then and were able to mass-produce wood, asphalt, insulation material, hardware, and everything else needed to produce a home.

In addition to keeping home building costs 40 percent lower than traditional building, purchasers also had the option to bring their own blueprints to Sears to get them modified for far less than going to a builder or an architect. Customers could swap out certain elements and more or less customize their new kit home.

Sears also offered mortgages with liberal lending terms to home buyers, which made them an attractive option for widows, the self-employed, and people who otherwise had problems qualifying for traditional bank loans.

How Many Sears Houses Are Still Out There?
Of the 70,000 to 75,000 Sears kit homes sold from 1908-1940, it’s estimated around 70 percent of the original Sears homes built from kits are still standing today.

Since Sears delivered their kit houses by railroad, they can be found as far north as Canada and Alaska. Mostly, they can be found in places that railroads served and where Sears factories played a major role in the local economy, such as Cincinnati and former factory towns in the Midwest—Michigan, Illinois, Ohio. Charleston, West Virginia also has quite a few Sears homes.

For those homeowners who may wonder if their home is a Sears kit house, there are a few things to look out for. Was the house built between 1908 and 1940? Does it have
stamped lumber in the basement or attic and shipping labels on the baseboards and other millwork? And finally, does the deed and other records of the home purchase list Sears as the architect? In addition, because Sears also offered mortgages, did the previous owner have a Sears mortgage or not? .

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