Vol. 8 No. 26 - March 19, 2008


Some houses once came in boxes

Reel time

A Sears Catalog home, the Arlington Model, had a starting price of $1,294.

Some people love pub crawls, I can’t resist a good house crawl. Since I’ve crawled through more houses than I care to remember during the past 21 years, it takes something a little different to leave an impression on my real-estate-soaked brain, something let’s say like a house that came in a box.

Some years back in the Long Island, N.Y., town where I lived and worked, there was the annual tour of homes, an event I never missed. This particular tour featured a Sears Modern Home marketed from the Sears Catalog right alongside furniture, appliances, and the kids’ socks. Sears homes were ready to assemble houses sold through mail order by Sears Roebuck and Company between 1908 and 1940.

There were over 70,000 of these homes sold during these years and most of them are still being used as private residences, with clusters of Sears houses designated as unofficial historical sites. Nevertheless, it has been difficult to determine just how many are still around since owners, especially in more upscale regions of the country, may not want to acknowledge that they own one.

The home kits were comprised of more than 30,000 pieces and were shipped via railroad boxcars. It included all the materials needed to build an exceptionally sturdy and well-designed home. Friends, relatives and neighbors, as well as some hired local workers, assembled many of the houses as neighborhood and community activities.

The homes utilized balloon-style framing, which used precut timber and fitted pieces that did not require a team of skilled carpenters. In addition, Sears popularized the latest technology, including central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity, all novel in the early part of the 20th century.

And Sears was certainly innovative in quality and quantity of designs offered. Over the program’s 32-year history, 447 different house models were offered. The prices ranged from $725 to $4,000 and most of the kits were sold in the Northeast and northern Midwest states. Some of these homes in Westchester County north of New York City are selling in today’s market well over a million dollars.

As a byproduct of its catalogue houses, Sears created a mortgage company to finance the homes. This program continued until 1934 when the fallout of the Great Depression forced it to cancel the program.

I never forgot the first Sears kit home I saw. I loved the craftsman styling of the house and the only-in-America concept of ready-to-assemble homes. I know I have a lot more house crawls in my future, and probably a few pub crawls too, but they all won’t stay with me like this one did It’s American ingenuity at its finest.

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