I just received this article in my Realtor newsletter and wanted to share it with you. I don't know about you, but I loved looking through my grandfather's old Sears Catelog---epecially the house plans, there were so many choices! Living in Texas surrounded by craftsman and ranch houses I would have to say the Victorian styles were my favorite with their excessive decoration and beautiful turrets. I guess that's why I love San Francisco so much--ha, I never put the two together. Anyhow, enjoy!
Beyond the nostalgia of understanding how your parents and grandparents grew up, a new generation of home owners are drawn to the turn-of-the-century catalog homes.
Pick your dream house from a catalog and have it shipped to you piece-by-piece. That was the idea behind these once popular ready-to-assemble homes sold through mail order by the department store Sears in the early 1900s. And home owners today are rediscovering the charm of Sears kit homes.
Sears got into the building business in 1895, when it sold precut lumber to far-flung farmers. It started selling more than 40 house patterns in 1908.
By the 1920s, plans and supplies for any one of 90 Sears Modern Home designs advertised in the department store’s thick catalog could be ordered, giving Americans everywhere from rural towns to big cities an unprecedented opportunity to build a unique home. All purchases, along with a 75-page instruction booklet, arrived on a freight-train boxcar, with each piece of lumber marked to make construction quick and easy.
“A large percentage was built by the home owner; it was very much a do-it-yourself project,” says Chapa. “Today, they might subcontract it out.”
For more than 40 years, Sears sold about 370 house plans for $1 (making their profits on the supplies). They sold about 70,000 houses during that time, according to historian Rose Thornton, author of “Finding the Houses That Sears Built.” Exact figures are difficult to obtain since the department store later discarded its sales records.
The History and Appeal
For all of its trappings of romance and nostalgia, the Sears kit house embodies the American Dream of owning a home unlike any other residence on the block or even in town. Who wouldn’t want to own a Sears kit house, which had a reputation of being well-built and well-designed?
To be one of the first in your community to build a Skywater, Bonita, or Vallonia model in the 1920s and ’30s would be akin to assembling a Martha Stewart-brand home now. The completed construction would make your home the talk of the neighborhood and demonstrate that you owned the latest and greatest design and technology.
Unlike Stewart, Sears “sold everything from bungalows to neo-Tudors, from the very simple to mini-mansions,” says Jim Chapa, who is writing a field guide to Sears houses with Rebecca Hunter.
Our nation’s extensive railroad system brought Sears’ mail-order plans and materials to almost every state but Hawaii and Alaska. However, they tended to be clustered in the Midwest and Northeast, where it was least expensive to ship from a Sears mill.
“Those who bought Sears kit houses were not wealthy; they were working-class people,” says Hunter, who wrote “Putting Sears Homes on the Map.” The largest known collection of Sears kit homes — 152 — is in Carlinville, Ill. Standard Oil Co. had the dwellings built for its employees.
Sears also sold mortgages, which turned out to be a bad move during the Great Depression when home owners by the thousands defaulted on their loans. While Sears got out of the lending business, it never really recovered its losses and eventually stopped selling architectural house plans in 1940.
The Resurgence of Kit Homes
More than six decades later, interest in Sears kit homes continues to grow as home owners rediscover the solid homes that their parents and grandparents grew up in.
“They’re not worth more unless there’s an educated buyer who puts a premium on a Sears house,” Chapa says.
Who might like a Sears house? Historic-preservation buffs and anyone who appreciates a well-designed building made with quality materials.
“They think it’s the coolest thing,” says Hunter, who regularly fields calls from real estate professionals about homes they believe to be built from Sears plans. “People are very conscious of how well-designed and built these are.”
How to Identify One
- Start on the outside. See if it matches a house in one of the early Sears catalogues or Thornton’s book. Reproduction catalogues also can be found online.
- Measure the exterior, document the window layout and the roofline, and see if all those measurements correspond to what’s in the catalogue. Take into account that the original plan may have been altered and any subsequent additions.
- Check the rafters in the basement, crawl space, or attic. If these timbers come from a Sears kit, they will have a distinctive stamp. Cary, Ill., practitioner John Trandel recently sold an A-frame house that he suspected was a Sears model, judging from the floor plan and the position of the kitchen. Yet the house had an uncharacteristic stone facade. Trandel found a beam inside with the Sears stamp. He mentioned the find to the seller, who was surprised. He later learned the home was built in 1925; the stone facing was added in 1930. It’s important to note that not all Sears homes were built with wood supplied by the company.
- Seek shipping labels. These can be found on the back of millwork and moldings, Thornton says. A Sears label will have the address 925 Homan Ave., Chicago — the company’s headquarters in the early 20th century.
- Search for home mortgages and building permits. These sometimes can be found in local government records with the architect “Sears Roebuck” written on it.
Shipping to the west was very expensive, so I doubt there are many Sears homes in the Bay Area. And it seems that only 5,000 Sears homes have been identified. So, if you can spot any of these telltale signs of a Sears kit home, you are one of the few 75,000 living in a part of American architecture history. Here is a link with more examples of a few Sears homes standing today.