Friday, December 7, 2012

Sears Kit Homes 101

If you know me in real life or are Facebook friends with me, you have probably heard me rattle on about Sears Houses. If you ask me a simple question about them, I will talk your ear off and give you way more information that you thought you wanted. I am a bit obsessed with these houses. Ok, a LOT obsessed. I drive around my town looking for them. When I see one I yelp with joy and take pictures.

 Allow to me to share with you some of the Sears homes I have found and to give you some insight on these amazing pieces of American history...

The invention of the Model T in the early 1900s caused many people to pack up and head out of the crowed city and into the peaceful suburbs. Soldiers were returning home from World War I and many immigrants had come to live out the American Dream. At the time, many young families did not have a home of their own. They either lived with their elders or in boarding houses.

Houses were in short supply and HIGH demand.

In 1908 Sears Roebuck Company decided to add houses to their very popular mail-order catalog.  Houses in the form of a "kit" that you built YOURSELF. (Now they were not the first company to think of this idea. Others like Aladdin and Montgomery Ward were also in the Kit Home business, however most people only remember Sears). By buying a kit home, you would create immediate equity - around 30%. That was a very affordable and smart choice for many.

                                                 The Crescent

Image source:
House-Plans/1928-Sears/Crescent.htm                                              Whitehall, Pennsylvania

From 1908-1940 there were about 370 different house plans. Prices ranges from $450 to $9,000 with the average being about $2,000. There was something for everyone; bungalows, foursquares, tudor revival cottages, and even trailing edge victorians.

Buyers simply picked out the design of their liking, then Sears sent (by railroad) one or two boxcars filled with the materials to build their dream house (excluding masonry and plumbing materials due to weight). The boxcars contained about 30,000 pieces and a 75 page instruction book written so that "a man of average ability could build the house in 90 days"-that was Sears' promise. Everything was labeled and each piece of lumber was pre-cut and stamped to make the assembly go as easily as possible.

This was a golden idea. Sears was essentially creating more customers for themselves. After all, all these newly built homes would need ovens, lamps and furniture. In the 1920s Sears hired an interior designer to draw in the ideal furniture placement in all their house plans. It was pretty helpful.

                                                      The Osborn


Catasauqua, Pennsylvania
Coopersburg, Pennsylvania
 Catasauqua, Pennsylvania

In 1911 Sears even started giving out mortgages. There was ONE financial question, "What is your occupation?"   If you answered it, you got a mortgage!  Horay!

In the 1920s sales of Sears Kit homes were booming!

                                                                           The Verona
                                                                              Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
The Maplewood
Image source:
homes/images/1927-1932/1932_3302.jpg                         Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Unfortunately in 1931 sales plummeted after the Great Depression. Sears was forced to foreclose many of their mortgages. Rosemary Thornton said it best "Think of that public relations nightmare!!  Sears was foreclosing their BEST customers on the houses they built with their own HANDS." 


In 1940 Sears closed their Modern Homes department and destroyed all their records.

That means that there is no way of knowing where these kit homes are.

Architectural  Historians, like Thornton, have gathered information mainly from old Sears Modern Home catalogs purchased off of places like ebay.

In total there were about 370 different houses. Thornton says that she tends to find the same 65 houses. (See her book below)  It is very possible that some house designs were never purchased.

                                                                              The Dover

                 Image Source:

                                                                                           Allentown, Pennsylvania

It is sometimes difficult to identify a Sears house. Think of all the remodeling that may have been done over the last 100 years or so. Plus Sears allowed buyers to customize their houses, adding a few feet to the depth or possibly changing a wall or a window here or there.

You will find most of them are within 2 miles of a railroad (think of what a pain it was to haul the material from the train station to your building lot).

Many of them are on the main streets of towns, (think the areas that were heavily built up in the 1920s).

                                                                          The Belmont

                                                                Allentown, Pennsylvania

Sears allowed you to reverse the floor plan if you wanted.
Now an important fact to remember is that just because a house looks like a Sears House design, doesn't always mean it is one. The architects Sears used purposely modeled their homes after popular styles of the day. That is why when you look at pictures of Sears houses, they mostly seem like the houses you see everyday! The only way to 100% know if it is a Sears kit home is to see stamped lumber, shipping paperwork on the back of mouldings or trim, or to see the shipping label or mortgage paperwork.

                   Stamped lumber helped the home builder assemble the pieces of the kit house

                                             The Fullerton


                                                                                                          Whitehall, Pennsylvania

                                                                            The Lewiston

 Image source:                                                
                                                                                               Whitehall, Pennsylvania
Sears sold around 75,000 kit homes from 1908-1940.

Think you've seen one?  Are you maybe living in one?!   Please write to me!

*** 98% of what I know about Sears Kit Houses is from Rosemary Thornton. Her blog  and her books "The Houses that Sears Built" and "Finding the Houses that Sears Built" are a WEALTH of knowledge, information, and pictures. She has dedicated her life to finding Sears homes and educating people on them. Most of the people living in kit homes have no idea they are in one!***

I'd love to hear everyones' thoughts on these beautiful houses. Any questions? This post is just skimming the surface on the topic. Have anything to add?  I'm always looking to learn more. If I get enough questions, I'll probably do a follow up post with Q and A's  ... how exciting for a house nerd like me!

Thank you for letting me share one of my passions with you  :-)



Lori Ann said...

I am so fascinated by this concept! I never knew such a thing existed. thanks for sharing this great info :)

Rose Hascall said...

I loved all your information on Sears homes. I grew up in South Omaha, Ne. It was the packing house center of the U.S. Families came from all points of the world to work in the packing plants, Germans, Poles, Irish to name a few. Lots of railroads,too,because of the packing plants. There are tons of Sear's homes or look alikes in the old parts of South O. Very interesting. I am planning on reading more on Rosemary Thorton's site.

Laura said...

We think we're living in a Fullerton built in 1925 or 26. We haven't been able to find any stamped boards yet, but many of the nails that we've seen are stamped. The floor plan on the Fullerton is almost exact to our floor plan, though.

CoffeeandCream said...

Laura, Sears offered the option to purchase your lumber locally. So in that situation, some kit houses do not have stamped lumber. I would love to see pictures of your house! If you get the chance, please e-mail me some. Do you have the "good morning" stairs that go into the kitchen?

Carol OurSearsKitHome said...

What a wonderful post! I, too, am an afficionado of Sears Kit homes, have books and info on them, and am living in my second one.
Check out the sidebar on my blog where there are 2 pages about our 1909 Maytown. (Our Home History and Our Home's Transformation)
Have you read "Houses by Mail", by Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl? One author lives in a Maytown, and it is featured in an introductory article. Plus there are great stories from other homeowners about their houses.
I'm following on Pinterest, and your blog, now!

Kaylyn said...

WOW this is SOOO interesting. I didn't know about any of this. Crazy. :) XOXO your newest follower.

CoffeeandCream said...

Wow, so wonderful to hear from you. I actually do already follow your blog and have been drooling over your beautiful Maytown :-) Thank you for writing me. I do have "Houses by Mail" and read it almost every day! It's so wonderful to connect with you :-)

Ashley Richards said...

I love this history lesson. Fascinating! I'm from McGehee, AR (very much a train town) and I've seen similar homes in this area. I'm not sure if they are Sears homes but I'll ask my dad (he is a contractor in this small town and would know if the wood was stamped). Thanks again for the knowledge.
:) Ashley @ Mrs. Mama

Michelle said...

Oh, wow! I knew about the mail order Victorians, but not that they made regular houses. Those look like so many of the houses I pass every day...wonder if any of them did come from Sears...

Becky Jo said...

I noticed that Limeville Pike Osborne in Coopersburg, too! I live just outside of Reading, Pa and am Sears obsessed. I found a nice four square on Macada in Bethlehem, not far from the Linden intersection. We should swap notes

Becky Jo said...

I think we are searching in some of the same areas for Sears homes. I live just outside Reading, but have looked around Bethlehem due to working in the area. I found a nice Sears four square on Macada, not far from the Linden intersection.

Edilberto Durano said...

Cool! These are nicely built and gorgeouly designed kit homes. I love to own 'em all!
Ed of

Lara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edilberto Durano said...

These are beautifully designed. I would love to live in one of these houses.
Ed of

Anonymous said...

This church is a sears kit

ScaryGodmother said...

Did "The Osborn" ever have stone pillars a la "craftman style"? I swear I drive by one near the high way where I live. It's one of my fave homes to admire.
PS: thanks for an interesting post.

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