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If you think houses built from kits are shoddy, cheap and obvious, think again. Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold about 70,000 homes in all 48 states through their mail-order Modern Homes program, with 370 designs that you might not readily recognize as a kit home. Sears kit homes were shipped via boxcar and came with a 75-page instruction book. Each kit contained 10,000 - 30,000 pieces and the framing members were marked to facilitate construction. Many decades later, those same markings can help identify a home as a Sears kit home. So if you're wondering if that adorable little bungalow with the big eaves (or even your own house) is a kit home, read on for signs that will help you identify if it is indeed a historically significant Sears kit home.
- Verify the construction date. If the home was not built between 1908 - 1940, it cannot be a Sears Home.
- Check the home's floorplan, footprint (exterior dimensions) and room size, using a field guide to Sears Homes, such as "Finding The Houses That Sears Built" (2004, Gentle Beam Publications) or "Houses By Mail" (1986). 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 floorplan shown in the field guide. This is a very important point. However, "reversed floorplans" were an option that Sears offered their homebuyers, so the home may be a mirror image of the floorplan shown in the field guide.
- Make note of characteristic column arrangement on front porch and five-piece eave brackets. 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.
- Check for a square block on molding joints at staircase landings, where moldings meet at odd angles. 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.
- Look for stamped lumber on the exposed beams/joists/rafters in the basement, crawl space or attic. The lumber was marked on the tall side of the lumber and can be found two - ten 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; these labels can also be found 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 (Ohio), which was a supplier of Sears millwork.
- Visit the courthouse and inspect old building permits and grantor records. 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.
- Inspect plumbing fixtures for marks, such as "R" or "SR". 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 found in the lower corner, on the side furthest from the tub spout.
- Look for markings on back of sheetrock. Another clue suggesting that you may have a Sears Home is the presence of Goodwall Sheet Plaster (sheetrock). Each 4' by 4' sheet bore the stamp "Goodwall" on the backside.
- Pay special attention to roof lines and chimneys and other details of construction. Sears Homes were purposefully designed to look like the popular housing styles of the day. The Neo Tudor (shown here) was a very popular housing style in the late 1920s and early 30s, but not all Neo Tudors are Sears Homes. If the home's footprint (exterior dimenions) is not an exact match to the exterior dimensions of the subject house, then it is probably not a true Sears Home.
- Keep in mind that front porches are most likely to have been modified.
- Contact the local historical society for help and leads. However, keep in mind that more than 80% of the people who think they have a Sears Home are incorrect (see Warnings).
- Sears did not sell 100,000 homes, as is commonly reported by the media. In their 1930s promotional literature, Sears reported, "100,000 homes now backed by our guarantee" (see 1934 Sears Modern Homes catalog, rear cover) but this "guarantee" encompassed the sales of Sears building materials, too. Sales numbers obtained from stockholder reports show that Sears actually sold about 70,000 - 75,000 of their kit homes. This number is much more likely, especially in light of the fact that Aladdin Homes, based in Bay City Michigan, sold about 75,000 kit homes during their 75 years in the kit home business.
- The simpler the design of the home, the more difficult it will be to verify that it's a Sears kit home.
- 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."
- Somewhere between 30 - 50% of Sears Homes were modified and customized when built, making identification of these homes difficult. "The Houses That Sears Built" tells the story of a homebuyer who wanted two feet added to the whole width of his 35-foot wide bungalow. Sears happily agreed to this modification, charging the wanna-be homeowner a mere $64 for the extra 70 square feet!
- How to Identify Kit Homes
- How to Research the History of Your House
- How to Inexpensively Increase the Value of Your Home
- How to Buy a Home
Sources and Citations
- The Houses That Sears Built, Rosemary Thornton, Gentle Beam Publications, 2004
- Finding The Houses That Sears Built, Rosemary Thornton, Gentle Beam Publications, 2004
- "California's Kit Homes," Rosemary Thornton & Dale Wolicki, Gentle Beam Publications, 2004
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