Reader Story: How My Daughter’s School Project Introduced Me to a New Hobby

I got a huge present for my birthday last week: a history of our house.  Back in April, when we were in the thick of restoring our old parlor, I became obsessed with the house’s story.  I wondered who built it, how I could renovate in keeping with its past, and how its quirks — like the hexagon-shaped living room — came about. 

The history told us that the house was not built in 1910 as the deed says, but 1916, that the original roof was made of tin, and that the first and second owners also had four children. It was humbling to imagine boisterous families like ours making do in a house that, at the time, was two-thirds of its current size and had only one bathroom.

Because I love this house as if it were inside me, instead of the other way around, I will cherish this history.  And in honor of stories, hobbies, and houses, I asked reader Lara Solonickne, whose passion I admired, to write a guest post on a special kind of historic house in America that you may not have heard of: Sears kit houses.

Thank you Lara for writing this guest post:

Last year my third-grader had to create an exhibit for the Chicago Metro History Fair. We decided to cover the topic of Sears homes — the ready-to-build kit houses that Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold through mail order.  I had read articles about Sears homes in our local newspaper, and I thought it was a good topic for young kids.

All kids understand the idea of buying things from catalogs, but the idea of buying a house through a catalog and building it really blew their minds!  And Sears homes are hidden treasures that kids can discover in their own neighborhoods.

My daughter wanted to include photos from actual Sears houses in our area.  I inquired at the local libraries and historical societies. They gave me a few leads, but no one had ever done an architectural survey to identify where the catalog homes were.

I Stumbled Upon an Unfilled Need and Became Inspired

I realized that if I did not start identifying these historic homes and making the list publicly available, no one else would.  We live in a land of teardowns, and it’s important to know a house’s history before hitting it with a wrecking ball.

I love old houses of the 1920s and 1930s, and Sears homes are true reflection of the practical, do-it-yourself American spirit. Young families of that era sacrificed to achieve the American dream of owning a house, and someone (me!) needs to recognize them.

I started a simple blog and initially posted the house photos that my daughter used in her history fair exhibit.  Then I started the detective work and began scouring the neighborhoods by the train stations in search of more Sears houses.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Sears houses embody the popular architecture of the era — they wanted to sell tried-and-tested styles.  I soon learned that there were other companies selling similar homes through catalogs, including Montgomery Ward, Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, and more.  This further complicates the identification process.  And, over the decades, homeowners have often done extensive remodeling to the exteriors that conceals the original design.

Catalog Houses:  Surprisingly High Quality at an Amazingly Low Cost

From 1915 to 1941, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold about 70,000 ready-to-build kit homes through mail order.  Over the years, there were 370 different house designs to choose from in their Modern Homes catalogs — some houses could be purchased for as low as $20 per month over 15 years.  This price included the plans and most materials, including the pre-cut wood, paint, shingles, and nails.

Sears Newcastle from the 1935 Modern Homes catalog.

A Sears Newcastle (1939) in Mount Prospect, Illinois.

Sears sent all the components to the customer by train in two boxcars, which is why Sears homes were usually built near railroad tracks.  Buyers would unload the materials and transport them to the home site.  Some buyers built the homes by themselves, and others paid contractors to do it.

Sears kit homes can be found all over the United States.  There are large groups of Sears homes in Illinois, Ohio, and New York. No one knows exactly where all the 70,000 Sears homes are located since Sears, Roebuck and Co. destroyed their sales records. Only about 12,000 homes have been identified, and most are still undiscovered.

Even today, the charming Sears models are very popular with homebuyers. The homes were built with top quality components —many featured cypress wood siding, cedar shingles, and oak and maple floors.  Often they were built with extra care because the people constructing the houses were building it for their own families.

Are You Ready to Start Looking for Catalog Homes in Your Neighborhood? Here’s How!

1.  Check guide books and catalog reprints for pictures.

You can get usually get these reference books from your local library:

2.  Determine when the house was built.

The year the house was built is important because you can see if the model you were considering was even available then.  Sears, Roebuck sold their first home in 1909 and stopped selling homes around 1941.  If the home was not built during those years, it’s not a Sears “Honor Bilt” house.  And it’s unusual to find a Sears house built before 1920.

The county records in my area are notoriously incorrect, and often the date of construction they report can be a decade off.  I check old municipal directories and phone books for the first listing of the address.  I consult historic plats of surveys at the historical societies to narrow down when a house was built.  I search old newspaper articles online to obtain owner names and see whether there was an announcement about the family moving into their new home.

3. Find images of the original structure, before alterations.

I check historic photos if I can get them from the historical society.  If you can see what the home looked like before renovations this can be a big help in the identification process.

4.  Check real estate listings.

I look at online real estate websites to see if there are interior photos and measurements available for a house.  That way I can compare them to the original floor plan in the catalog.

5.  Authenticate the house if you can.

Now, even armed with all this information, I do not have enough to authenticate a house as from Sears or another manufacturer.  All I can provide is an educated guess that a house is from a catalog.

The best way to authenticate a house is to check the framing in the basement or attic for stamped lumber.  The catalog home manufacturers often put part numbers on the framing boards so the builders could determine what part went where.  Depending on the manufacturer, these part numbers could be stamped in ink or handwritten in grease pencil.  (Before 1920 Sears did not mark the lumber.)

You can also authenticate a house from mortgage records (for instance if Sears, Roebuck held the original mortgage) or from original building permits (for instance if Sears, Roebuck was listed as the architect).

Sears Wilmore from the 1936 Modern Homes catalog.

 

Sears Wilmore (1937) in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

The building permit for the Sears Wilmore. “Sears Roebuck (Stock)” is listed as the architect.

I’m not an architectural historian and am not being paid, so the authentication process is too time-consuming for me.  I just post any information I find about a certain house on my blog (sometimes too much information) and hope that in the future a current homeowner will do the authentication work. I have gotten a very poor response rate when I have attempted to contact homeowners directly so I’ve given up on that.

Finding Sears Homes — An Inexpensive Hobby for the Whole Family

Locating Sears homes is a fun pastime for the family, and you can learn a lot about local history in the process.  You’ll never look at houses the same way again, and you’ll become very cognizant of architectural details.

Today we were cutting through a neighborhood on the way to school, and my daughter shouted out, “Mommy! Sears house!” I really need to get back there with my camera…


LaraSolonickneLara Solonickne is a busy mom from the Chicago suburbs. In her free time, Lara is on the tennis court or blogging about house histories at Sears Homes of Arlington Heights and Mount Prospect.

 

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27 comments

  • Robert Lorenz December 18, 2013, 2:21 pm

    Looking for contacts for historical/options A Lewis kit home “CODY” built in 1953 I have original catalog as well as all shipping invoices

    Reply
  • Lara September 17, 2012, 3:19 pm

    Yes, it would cost a lot less. Architectural plans themselves could cost a few hundred dollars, and Sears would provide the plans to you. Sears said you could save as much as 40% by buying one of their kits. Most of that savings was in carpentry costs. The lumber Sears provided was pre-cut at the factory to the appropriate lengths. With traditional construction, someone had to hand-saw everything (before power tools). Also Sears said that the lumber middlemen would mark up the cost but Sears could get you the lumber direct from the source for less. So there was cost savings in a number of different areas with a catalog house.

    Reply
    • Amy September 20, 2012, 10:22 am

      Thanks for taking the time to respond, Lara!

      Reply
  • Amelia September 17, 2012, 10:46 am

    Hi Lara,

    I enjoyed reading the entire article. Would this ready-to-build kit cost much lesser than the on-site construction? Sorry for asking this newbie question as I really do not have any idea how this one goes.

    Reply
  • Jennifer August 23, 2012, 9:45 am

    This is a great post! I am interested in learning how many Sears homes may have been built in New York City (most likely, they would be in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx or Staten Island). Does anyone have any advice on how to begin such a search?

    Jennifer

    Reply
    • Lara August 23, 2012, 8:21 pm

      Hi, Jennifer! There were Sears homes built in NYC. I can send you the addresses of a few if you email me. Unfortunately, no one is compiling a publicly available database of the Sears homes and where they are located nationally.

      Reply
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  • mari July 27, 2012, 4:39 am

    I also love old houses and knowing their history. It is also a great activity for the kids and maybe become a builder or architect someday.
    mari´s last post ..Hampton Real Properties on a Five Year Record Sales

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 9:13 pm

      Hi Mari,

      Nice to meet another old house lover! I agree that it’s a fun activity for kids, especially ones that are architecturally inclined.

      Amy

      Reply
  • Sara Tetreault July 19, 2012, 1:26 pm

    Great post and love the pictures! When we lived in Washington, DC (waaaay back in our early married life 1990-1995) and owned a row house on Capitol Hill, our good friends lived in a Sear’s home. It was darling and detached – which can be desirable when you share walls with your neighbors! We live in a Craftsman bungalow house now and it’s not a kit but easily be one.
    Excellent guest post, Lara!
    Sara Tetreault´s last post ..Helping Kids Remember a Vacation

    Reply
    • Amy July 29, 2012, 3:40 pm

      Hi Sara,

      Your time as young married in Capitol Hill sounds like fun, even if you were super close to your neighbors. Thanks for clearing up the Craftsman question!

      Take care,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Elizabeth Carmody July 19, 2012, 11:28 am

    Fascinating article. Are the Sears kit homes the same as Craftsmen homes? If there are any Sears kits homes in the Dallas area, they are certainly in peril as the cottage teardown and building of a McMansion syndrome is alive an well in Big D. The idea of a home in a kit continues to exist in the form of log cabin kits as well as environmentally friendly houses (which I recal reading about in a magazine a few years back).

    Reply
    • Amy July 29, 2012, 3:38 pm

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Yes, I know, we have a McMansion syndrome here too, as I’m sure many people in America can attest too. It’s sad, especially when there is real history and architectural beauty being destroyed. Not sure about the Craftsmen houses, but I know several other companies like Montgomery Ward did sell kit houses. And you’re right about log cabins and those tiny eco-friendly houses. What a curious mind you have!

      Amy

      Reply
  • Kerry @ Made For Real July 18, 2012, 6:52 pm

    So fascinating. Funny how you see these houses sometimes and bypass the thought of all the history. I recognized many of the styles you shared here. My husband and I love looking at houses (that is until our most recent move… forced house-hunting isn’t near as much fun)!!

    Reply
    • Amy July 18, 2012, 8:04 pm

      Hi Kerry,

      I know, it’s really a fun tidbit of history that makes looking at houses more fun. Sorry about the un-fun aspect of your last move! Moving can be really tough on everyone. I hope you found a house you’re happy with.

      Take care,
      Amy

      Reply
      • Kerry @ Made For Real July 18, 2012, 9:34 pm

        Thank you, Amy, and… Happy Birthday!

        Reply
        • Amy July 29, 2012, 3:33 pm

          Thank you, Kerry, for the birthday wishes!

          Amy

          Reply
  • Anonymous July 18, 2012, 6:24 pm

    Most of the bunglow homes here in Rosemont,22301, are Sears homes,including ours. So funny that you posted re that.

    From, you fan over in 22301

    Reply
    • Amy July 18, 2012, 8:03 pm

      No way, I can’t believe your house is for real a Sears house! I know there was a sales office in Washington, D.C. so it makes sense that there might be a higher concentration in this area. How did you find out that you have a Sears house?

      Amy

      Reply
  • Jen @ Jen Spends July 18, 2012, 11:06 am

    Loved this post! As a longtime fan of bungalows, I know all about kit houses. We have many in our area. They’re so fascinating, and I wish we could still order nicely crafted house kits today! I have a hunch that the house we are trying to buy is a kit house, but so far I haven’t had luck uncovering an exact match.
    Jen @ Jen Spends´s last post ..A construction birthday party theme

    Reply
    • Amy July 18, 2012, 1:02 pm

      Hi Jen,

      I know, didn’t Lara write a good post? That is amazing that you might actually be moving into a kit house. Have you looked through some old catalogs?

      Amy

      Reply
      • Jen @ Jen Spends July 18, 2012, 3:00 pm

        She did a great job, and it’s so cool that it matched one of my keenest interests right now. I’ve been looking at catalog pictures on various websites, and thanks to this post I have a few more links to look through when I have some time.

        Reply
        • lara July 19, 2012, 7:19 am

          [blush] thanks, ladies! Amy, can’t wait to read about your house history and Happy Birthday!

          Reply
          • Amy July 29, 2012, 3:34 pm

            Hi Lara,

            Thank you for taking the time to write your guest post for Frugal Mama, and for the birthday wishes!

            Amy

            Reply
  • Jeff Royce, Frankly Real Estate July 18, 2012, 10:36 am

    This post made me want to see what Sears homes were here in the DC area. I did an MLS search of homes that sold over the last 7 years that had the word “Sears” in them. Unfortunately Sears is used in different contexts here ( agent names, roads, near the Sears store) so these are not all Sears houses. Also, I’m sure many Sears houses have been sold and not listed as such, but this is at lease a starter list of Sears homes in the DC area: http://goo.gl/xYKMK

    And the list of current homes for sale or under contract with the same limitations I mention above: http://goo.gl/QWp1b

    You can add search terms on both of these pages. It might be interesting to just include just the years 1909-1941 or add the name of your city to narrow it.

    Reply
    • Amy July 18, 2012, 1:06 pm

      Hi Jeff,

      I’m glad you share our interest in kit houses! There is a team of real estate agents in the DC area who are very interested in kit houses. Check out Kit House of the Week at DC House Smarts: http://dchousesmarts.com/kit-house-of-the-week/

      Thanks for writing in,
      Amy

      Reply

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