There was a time in our history when Sears houses were a fast selling item. The Sears and Roebuck Company, thanks to the build up of rail routes across the United States, did a brisk business in selling kit homes. The house kits, marketed as Sears Modern Homes along with a seventy-five page instruction manual, were shipped by rail, usually requiring about three boxcars to ship everything, and over about three decades during the early 1900’s Sears and Roebuck made about 100,000 sales.
A shipment might have a total weight of 25 tons and over 30,000 different parts. Amazingly, Sears offered over about 400 style of homes with a price range from about $1,800 to well over $5,000. The lowest price range for a house at one time was actually between $650 and $2,000 depending on rooms and options. The buyer had a large range to choose from that fit just about any budget.
It’s an interesting story about how the Sears Modern Homes idea came about. Sears and Roebuck had offered in their catalog building materials that was stored in their Chicago warehouse. That business was slow and the materials were piling up. A man by the name of Frank Kushel who was in charge of the Sears building materials department approached Richard Sears with the concept of offering the kit homes. Selling kit homes would certainly use up much of the current stockpile. Kit homes had been offered for sale a few years earlier by a Michigan company but didn’t possess the marketing clout held by Sears. Richard Sears agreed and the first home kits were included in the company’s 1908 catalog. There were twenty-two different house plans in the first catalog with prices starting out at $650 up to $2,000. Designs offered increased as the years went by.
The lumber was supplied to Sears from a local Chicago lumber yard before the company eventually bought a facility in Cairo Illinois. The Sears Modern Home came without plumbing, electrical and heating units but the company also offered these for sale separately. In addition, beginning in about 1915, Sears offered financing usually with mortgages of five to ten year duration. As mentioned above, while there were a few other companies involved in the house kit business, Sears had a decided advantage having over 3 million people of their catalogs mailing list. This supplied an immediate marketplace for the house kits.They also had the advantage of mass producing the materials.
Sears Modern Homes were also quite popular for people who happened to live in areas without an abundance of natural building materials nearby. If you happened to live in a desert area with a rail line in place such as Belen New Mexico, a Sears Modern Home was a good alternative if your budget allowed. The buyer would of course need to secure the lot and put in a foundation. Sears didn’t actually design homes but offered the more popular home designs of the time. The customer had many options within the design chosen such as the number of bedrooms desired, etc. The Sears home in Belen New Mexico, which is listed on the town’s “walking tour” brochure for tourists, was constructed around 1910, about the same time as the AT & SF Railroad built it’s train depot and adjacent Harvey House dining room.
The largest single sale of Sears Modern Homes was a $1 million dollar transaction in 1918 between Sears and Standard Oil whereby the oil company purchased an entire neighborhood to house their workers at the Standard Oil operation in Carlinville Illinois. )ne hundred and fifty six of the Sears Modern Homes were shipped to Carlinville and another thirty-six were shipped to nearby towns. At this time, the Standard Oil order represented the largest mail order transaction to date. As a marketing tool, Sears used photos of several of the Carlinville homes on the front page of their catalogs. The neighborhood of Sears Modern Homes in Carlinville Illinois represent the largest single grouping of these kit homes and an excellent place to view them. Today, you can find Sears Modern Homes all around the U.S. from Virginia to California. As an example there are several Sears Homes in Newton Falls New York, Bucksport Maine and Hopewell Virgina among other sites.
Ironically, aside from the Standard Oil purchase in 1918, the largest sales year for Sears Modern Homes was in 1929, just on the eve of the Great Depression. Sales were growing to the extent that Sears opened regional sales and shipping offices. Although Sears did sell homes through the depression years, they were hit by mortgage defaults since they were the main finance arm for their house kits. In some cases they had to take back homes and try to rent them out. The Great Depression coupled with World War Two and the onset of tract housing all combined to cause sales declines for Sears Modern Homes. Tract housing is where a developer takes a large piece of land, build similar type homes on that property and then subdivides the lots for sale. In a way, what Standard Oil did in 1918 in Carlinville Illinois with over fifty Sears Homes was tract housing. The only real difference was that they did it with Sears Modern Homes kits. In addition to the factors mentioned above, local construction codes which were changing added to the sales decline. Sales of the Sears Modern Home came to an end in 1940.
Sears Modern Homes also had upgrades during the years they were sold. Drywall eventually replaced plaster and fittings were improved. Using drywall helped make the construction much easier. Indoor plumbing and central heating were just two things introduced by Sears. The Sears home buyer had the option of these improvements along with several others. The legacy of the Sears Home was that they did put out a quality product at an affordable price. By large scale production they were able to keep costs down while still selling quality materials. You may also find our article on Victorian Homes interesting on our WesternTrips site.
(Belen New Mexico home photos are from author’s private collection)