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Kit Houses

Sears enabled onsite home construction, with floor plans and pre-cut lumber shipped by railroad.

by Vince Farinaccio

In the early 20th century, Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered quite a few advantages for the prospective homeowner interested in buying a Sears Modern Home through the company’s mail-order catalogs.

Sears had been advertising and selling materials for the construction of its homes since 1908 when the first of its catalogs, titled Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, was issued. Eight years later, it introduced “kit houses” that allowed purchasers to assemble their own homes using a set of floor plans and pre-cut lumber shipped with other materials by railroad.

As the Sears Archives website notes, “precut timber, fitted pieces, and the convenience of having everything, including the nails, shipped by railroad directly to the customer added greatly to the popularity…” Drywall and asphalt shingles, both inexpensive to manufacture and easier for a homeowner to install, were part of the package.

Prospective homeowners buying a house from Sears, the website acknowledges, would save in other ways as well since “a precut house with fitted pieces…would take only 352 carpenter hours as opposed to 583 hours for a conventional house—a 40 percent reduction.”

Although homes that could be assembled upon the delivery of materials were purportedly a do-it-yourself project, Old House Journal Magazine explains, “more often, the actual construction was left to—or at least required considerable help from—a local builder.”

Sears, it should be pointed out, was not the originator of the pre-cut home. Other businesses had marketed similar kits prior to Sears, including the Richards Company of Milwaukee, whose offerings boasted designs by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. According to Old House Journal Magazine, Wright “entered the pre-cut home market himself when he produced a number of designs for…American System-Built Houses” in 1911. His tenure with Richards Company ended in 1916, the year Sears introduced its kit.

The Sears line, which included the more costly Honor Bilt [sic] homes, the moderately priced Standard Built houses and the cheaper Simplex Sectional dwellings, offered American families a range of economic choices, but Sears, Roebuck and Co. still had more to offer those seeking a home. Sears increased the allure of its mail-order homes by offering loans in 1911 and credit for building material in 1918. Loans would typically run five years at 6% interest but could extend as much as 15 years, according to the Sears Archives website.

By June 1929, the New York Times was reporting that “a new department to supervise the construction of homes on lots owned by customers has been organized by Sears, Roebuck & Co. The new plan, according to the company, is intended to enable prospective homeowners to buy a house built complete on the lot with some of the worries incident to construction eliminated.”

The announcement was four months before the start of the Depression in the U.S. which, according to an article in the N.J. Herald in 2017, signaled “the beginning of the end of the Kit-Home era.”

By April 1933, the company was offering a less expensive four-room-plus-bath home that, according to the New York Times, was “designed to meet a low-cost housing market…” While those wishing to build the home themselves could purchase the materials for $598, Sears, as the NJ Herald notes, continued to offer “actual house construction by contracting with local carpenters.”

The company told the New York Times in 1933 that its new four-room-plus-bath designs would be built “at a price not exceeding $2,500 anywhere east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River” and that prospective homeowners could soon procure houses from Sears by visiting an appointed authorized dealer and selecting their home from the models on display. “The purchaser merely will make the first down payment, and arrange for subsequent monthly partial payments,” readers were told.

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