When Homes Came in a Box From Sears, Ready to Assemble

By Bill Primavera

A while back I received a call from a 92-year-old gentleman telling me that he had read every one of my articles since I started writing as The Home Guru. I was quite flattered.

When he told me that he wouldn’t consider having anyone else sell the house that he had lived in since he was married, I was delighted. But, when he told me it was a Sears, Roebuck house, built from a kit, I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to see it.

My enthusiasm dampened a bit when he added, “But I warn you, to reach my home you must climb exactly 50 steps up from the street.” Okay, I’m game, I thought. If this 92-year-old man can cut it, certainly I can, too!

When I arrived at the home in the “quarry” neighborhood of North White Plains with my real estate partner Michael Pierce, we climbed to the flat plateau in the sky where the charming Sears home is perched, almost exactly as it was constructed in 1930.

Our host let us into the house and the first room we entered was the kitchen.  There, on a small 1930s porcelain table, was a tall, neat pile of perfectly cut out – you guessed it – copies of my Home Guru columns.

Having been married to his first wife for more than 60 years, then left a widower for a while, he had remarried and was relocating to New England. The home he was leaving behind for another generation of home adventurers was also delightful as a piece of Americana.

Sears, Roebuck and Co., first conceived of selling ready-to-assemble homes by mail order in 1906. High inventory costs threatened to close their building supplies department until a new manager named Frank W. Kushel had the idea of letting the factories ship supplies directly to the buyers in the form of complete home kits.

The trustworthiness of the Sears catalogs already helped the buying public become comfortable with the idea of buying items sight unseen. By the time the first Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans was printed in 1908, customers were ready to trust Sears with what was likely to be the biggest purchase they would ever make.

Kits weighed 25 tons and were shipped by railroad boxcar and sometimes truck. Often families would wait at the train station in a state of high anticipation. Like Ikea today with furniture, the innovations and efficiencies Sears brought to its home kits made home ownership affordable to families who previously could only dream of having a house of their own.

The innovative “balloon-style” framing helped reduce the hours needed to assemble a house by 40 percent compared to standard methods of construction. In fact, the process of assembling the homes from kits was simple enough that neighbors sometimes pitched in to do the job themselves, barn-raising style. All the major pieces were numbered, every beam, shingle and clapboard, and the nails came in just the right amount so there would never be any guesswork for the novice builder.

Today that attention to detail helps owners identify their houses as being authentic Sears Modern Homes, as the numbers are still visible on many of the untreated pieces.

Modern Homes incorporated the newest technologies for comfortable living, gradually adding central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity to most of their designs. They also utilized the newly invented drywall and asphalt shingles, which were light, easy to install and fire resistant.

From 1908 to 1940, about 75,000 homes were sold through the mail-order Modern Homes program. There were 447 different housing styles available, eventually branching into three distinct lines: Honor Bilt, the most expensive line with the highest grade of materials; Standard Built, recommended for warmer climates; and Simplex Sectional, the smallest and simplest design.

Not only did prospective homeowners have choice, but these designs allowed for great customization. Floor plans could be reversed, breakfast nooks and ironing board cabinets added and trim customized. Sears even assembled home kits based on any other home design.

Sears offered mortgage financing for a few years, but the Great Depression caused many loans to go into default, and the company ended the service soon thereafter.

It’s not always easy to identify a Sears home, especially as homeowners were given such great freedom in customizing the designs. To determine if a home is from Sears, check to see if it was built between 1908 and 1940. (Keep in mind that a few old kits were sold through 1942.) See if there are any shipping labels or the aforementioned printed numbers in the home framework. Another good sign of a Sears Modern Home is a record of a mortgage issued by Sears.

Even after all these years, Sears homes are still prized by collectors and are known for being of high quality in even their most humble variations.    

Bill Primavera is a realtor associated with William Raveis Real Estate and founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is www.TheHomeGuru.com.  To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.