Do you own a Sears kit house?
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 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 to 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 home.
Listed below are some basic clues you can look for to decide if your home is a Sears kit home. More details can be found in one of Sears-home-expert Rosemary Thornton’s books on the subject or Katherine Cole Stevenson’s “Houses by Mail.”
- Look for stamped lumber in the basement or attic. This stamp will be located in two places on each piece of lumber. The stamp will be at the butt end and also on the face of the lumber. Typically, the stamp on the face of the lumber can be found 2-10 inches from the end of the framing member.
- Look for shipping labels. Shipping labels can often be found on the back of millwork (baseboard, door and window trim, etc.) or in the basement, sometimes around or under the basement stair case.
- Use a field guide. Compare the floor plan, room size, placement of windows, chimney, bathroom and kitchen vents, etc., with graphics and pictures in manuals such as Rosemary Thornton’s “Finding the Houses that Sears Built.”
- Look for ephemera and paperwork. Look in the attic and basement for any paperwork that might reveal that you have a Sears home.
- Consult courthouse records. From 1911 to 1933, Sears offered home mortgages. Look at grantor records form 1915 through 1940. Sears stopped offering mortgages in 1933, but when a mortgage was paid in full, the mortgage release was recorded, so you are looking for that document as well.
- Examine hardware fixtures. Plumbing, electrical and heating equipment was not included in the basic kit but could be purchased separately. These fixtures were pictured in the back pages of the Sears Modern Homes catalogs and were offered in different grades – good, better, best. This enabled customers to save a little money on their plumbing, heating and lighting fixtures.
- Check the plaster. Another clue that you have a Sears home is the presence of Goodwall plaster. In the 1910s, Sears began offering a new product called “sheet plaster” (sheetrock). The Sears product was known as Goodwall Sheet Plaster and each 4-by-4 sheet bore the stamp “Goodwall” on the backside. If, during remodeling, you discover this sheet plaster, that suggests that you may have a Sears home.
- Look for clues outdoors. About two dozen of Sears’ most popular house designs had a unique column arrangement on the front porch. This was distinctive to Sears and is an easy way to spot Sears homes from the street. Columns also featured interconnecting stick work and flared blocks at the top. A house with this design is most likely a Sears home.
- Check building permits. It was discovered that Sears Roebuck was occasionally listed as the architect on original building permits. Occasionally on permits the words “House supplied by Sears Roebuck” appeared on old city plat.
House detail photos courtesy of Sears Archives and “The Houses That Sears Built” by Rosemary Thornton.