Do You Have a Sears Kit Home?
Tips for Identifying Sears Catalog Houses
Auburn-Halifax Model Kit Home. (2007 Rosemary Thornton)
Is that good-looking bungalow of yours a Sears Kit Home? How can you find out? What should you look for? And what does it mean to have a Sears Kit Home?
Each month, I receive dozens of emails from people asking these very questions. Here's the short version of things you can look for to decide if your home is a Sears kit home.
Is your home stamped or labeled?
Sears Lumber Identifying Marks. (2007 R.T.)
Sears homes were shipped via boxcar and came with a 75-page instruction book. Each kit contained 10,000–30,000 pieces of house and the framing members were marked to facilitate construction. These many decades later, those same markings can help identify a home as a Sears kit home. The lumber was marked on the tall side of the lumber and can be found 2–10 inches from the end of the framing member. If you can't access attics or basements, you might be able to see marked lumber by opening up the bathtub's plumbing access door. However, not all Sears Homes had marked lumber!
Look for shipping labels. Shipping labels can be found on the back of millwork and mouldings. I've also found these labels in various places in the basement, such as under a staircase. On the shipping label, you might see an address, such as "925 Homan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois." This was Sears headquarters in the early 1900s. Or, it might read, "Sears Roebuck, Chicago, Illinois." Also look for stamps or marks showing that the millwork was shipped from Norwood Sash and Door (in Ohio), which was a supplier of Sears millwork.
Sears Mill Work labels. (2007 Rosemary Thornton)
Use a field guide and city records
Compare the house in question to the photos and floor plan in a field guide to Sears Homes. Pay special attention to the placement of windows and doors, chimneys, bathroom and kitchen vents, etc. The home's footprint should be a perfect match to the Sears Home. Even a few inches off is a deal killer. Individual rooms should also be a spot-on match to the floor plan shown in the field guide. This is a very important point. However, "reversed floor plans" were an option that Sears offered their home buyers, so the home may be a mirror image of the floor plan shown in the field guide.
Visit the courthouse to learn more. From 1911 to 1933, Sears offered home mortgages. Check grantor records from 1915–1940. Sears stopped offering mortgages in 1933, but when a mortgage was paid in full, the mortgage was released, so you're going to look for that document, too. Another thing to look for is original building permits. Some locales retain these aged documents. On the building permit, one line should state "architect's name." This is where the name "Sears Roebuck" may appear.
Evaluating building materials
Sears Porch Column Design. (2007 R.T.)
Plumbing, electrical and heating equipment was not included in the basic kit home but could be purchased separately. This enabled customers to choose "good, better or best" quality. From the late 1920s to 1940, Sears plumbing fixtures sometimes were stamped with an "R" or "SR." On pedestal sinks (bathroom) and kitchen sinks, the mark is on the underside, near the front. On bathtubs, it can be find in the lower corner, on the side furthest from the tub spout.
Another clue suggesting that you may have a Sears Home is the presence of Goodwall Sheet Plaster (sheet rock). Each 4' by 4' sheet bore the stamp "Goodwall" on the backside.
About two dozen of Sears most popular house designs had a unique column arrangement on the front porch (see photo). Five-piece eave brackets (the diagonal support brace between the roof line and the exterior wall) might also be a sign that you have a Sears Home.
Plinth block. (2007 R.T.)
Sears Homes may have square blocks on molding joints at staircase landings and other complex joints. While framing members were pre-cut, some of the moldings and baseboard trim were not pre-cut (due to variances in plaster thickness). To simplify construction, Sears homes often have a block at the point where complex joints meet. This probably made construction much easier for the novice homebuilder.
When was your home built?
If your home was built before 1908 or after 1940, it is not a Sears Home.
Sears kit homes from 1908–1940
In my travels, I've discovered that more than 80% of the people who think they have a Sears Home are wrong. There are many reasons for this, but put simply, there were several other companies selling kit homes on a national level, such as Gordon Van Tine, Aladdin, Lewis Homes, Harris Brothers, Sterling Homes and more. It's likely that the name "Sears kit home" has become a generic label for "kit homes."
What is a kit home? In the early 1900s, many wanna-be homeowners purchased kit homes from mail order catalogs. Shipped by boxcar, each kit contained thousands of house pieces. Framing members were numbered to facilitate construction. Blueprints were drawn with the novice homebuilder in mind, listing each numbered framing member and its precise placement. Kit home manufacturers provided instruction manuals for the builder.
Sears Roebuck promised that "a man of average abilities could assemble a Sears kit home in about 90 days." No detail was overlooked, as both manual and blueprints instructed homeowner as to the correct spacing of the 750 pounds of nails.
Compared to conventional construction, homeowners saved about 30% by building their own home from a kit. About 50% of the kit homes were built by the homeowner and the balance were professionally built. In 1908, Sears estimated that a contractor would charge $450 to build a Sears home.
Sears kits were made with the finest materials, including cypress for all exterior components (window trim, clapboard, fascia and soffit) and first-growth, top-grade southern yellow pine for framing members. Kitchen and bath floors were solid maple (tongue and groove).
Osborn Model Bungalow. (2007 Rosemary Thornton)
Over its 32 years of selling kit homes, Sears offered more than 370 house designs, including bungalows, Colonial and Tudor Revivals, Foursquares, Cape Cods, Prairie style and more. Sears sold about 70,000 kit homes from 1908–1940. Increasingly complex house designs, the Great Depression and federally sponsored mortgage programs (FHA) were the three primary reasons that Sears closed their Modern Homes Department in 1940. The only way to find these homes today is by through architectural surveys because many years ago, Sears destroyed all the sales records (probably during a corporate housecleaning).
Article © 2007, Rosemary Thornton, searshomes.org
Rosemary Thornton has been researching and writing about Sears Roebuck Kit Homes for years and is considered the foremost authority on them. She has published several books including"The Houses That Sears Built," which is now in its third printing as well as giving several lectures a month on Sears and other kit homes.
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