Sears Kit Houses: Affordable Housing in the Early 20th Century

By Donna K. Keesling

Between 1908 and 1940, nearly 75,000 homeowners picked out a house from the Sears, Roebuck and Company’s Modern Homes catalog and built their houses from the materials that arrived a few weeks later. The houses ranged in size from small cottages without a bathroom to multi-story homes complete with sleeping porches and porte-cocheres. Everything you – or your favorite contractor – needed to build the home, except for stone and bricks, was included in your purchase.

The mail-order homes satisfied the growing need for affordable housing as middle class families left the cities for the suburbs. Trolley and railroad lines made it possible for people to live in the suburbs and continue to work in the city. And as some companies built factories on land outside the city, there was a need for housing for their employees. Ready-to-assemble houses from Sears provided sturdy, inexpensive “modern” homes.

The Sears catalog homes were called “modern” because they included the latest in home conveniences – central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity.[1] Some of the more lavish homes featured “the sought-after amenities of the day, including built-in china cabinets, mirrored closet doors, dining nooks, kitchen cupboards, built-in ironing boards, telephone niches and medicine cabinets.”[2]

The first catalog, titled Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, appeared in 1908 and featured plans for twenty-two different houses ranging in price from $650 to $2,500. By the time the last catalog was published, 447 different home styles had been offered through the Modern Homes program.[3]

Although there is no official count of the number of homes sold through the Modern Homes program, estimates range from 70,000 – 100,000 homes between 1908 and 1940. According to the researchers at SearsHouses.com, approximately 2% of houses built during this period were from Sears kits.[4]

Three lines of homes, at different price points, were eventually offered: Honor Bilt, such as the Elsmore, pictured below, featured cypress siding, cedar shingles, and clear-grade flooring, Standard Built was advertised as being best for warmer climates, and Simplex Sectional with simpler designs including summer cottages, outhouses, garages, and farm buildings.

Sears Modern Homes, 1919. Courtesy of Rachel Shoemaker Collection, Internet Archive

Sears opened Modern Homes sales offices so that customers would be able to meet with a Sears representative to select and order a home. In 1930, forty-eight offices were located throughout the country. By 1939, only nineteen sales offices were in operation.[5]

The materials needed to build each home typically arrived by railroad and were then trucked to the home site. The kit included lumber, roofing, wiring, flooring, windows, doors, hinges, doorknobs, cabinets, nails, screws, paint, and varnish. Optional materials included window screens, storm windows, plasterboard, plumbing, and heating and electrical fixtures. The lumber was usually pre-cut and labeled. In addition to blueprints, a construction manual with step-by-step instructions was included.

A Sears Modern Home house was lower in price than a home built using other construction methods because the materials were mass-produced. Rather than subcontract work and pay middlemen, Sears purchased factories to produce the kit materials. Purchases included a lumber mill in Marion, OH, a lumber yard in Cairo, IL, and a mill work plant in Norwood, OH. A lumber mill was opened in Newark, NJ in the 1920s.[6]

Construction time was less than with traditional methods because the materials were pre-cut and fitted. And construction was easier due to Sears’ use of balloon style framing, drywall – a new building material at the time, and asphalt shingles.[7]

In 1911, Sears began offering financing. Eventually the company offered credit for the building materials and advanced capital for labor expenses. According to Regina Cole, writing for Forbes, the terms were easy – a down payment of twenty-five percent of the cost of the house and lot, and six percent interest for five years with a higher rate for up to fifteen years. The loan application did not ask applicants about race, ethnicity, gender, or finances – making home ownership possible for buyers who were unable to obtain a loan from traditional mortgage sources. The financing program ended in 1934.[8]

Sears was not the only company selling mail-order houses; however, it was reportedly the largest. According to one source, Sears sold 324 houses in May of 1926.[9] Other companies offering kit houses included the North American Construction Company/The Aladdin Company (Aladdin Homes) in Bay City, MI, Bennett Homes in North Tonawanda, NY, Gordon-Van Tine in Davenport, IA, and Montgomery Ward & Company (Wardway Homes) – another mail-order catalog retailer.

Like many other retailers, Sears was severely impacted by the Great Depression. In 1934, Sears was forced to liquidate $11 million in mortgages. In 1940, because of loan defaults and shortages of building materials, the Modern Homes program ended.

According to the authors of Houses by Mail, thousands of Sears Modern homes survive throughout the country. Beginning in the late 1970s, as people began rehabilitating houses built in the early 20th century, some discovered that they owned a Sears home. Interest in studying and restoring the Sears houses has grown over the years.[10] You can use the Kit House Hunters website to see lists of Sears houses in various communities.

Do you think you might live in a Sears Modern Home? Some indicators that your house is a Sears house include framing and support beams stamped with a letter and number (to simplify assembly) and shipping labels affixed to the back of millwork (molding and trim). And if the original owner financed through Sears, mortgage records will include Sears Roebuck or the name of one of the company’s trustees.[11]

Rose Thornton, noted Sears house-kit author and speaker, maintains a website titled Sears Modern Homes. On the website, she includes nine ways that can help you determine whether your house is a Sears house. See Identifying Sears Homes for Rose’s suggestions. A more comprehensive identification process is provided on the Kit House Identification page of Historic New England’s website.

Sears played an important role in the early 20th century by helping to provide affordable housing to Americans. Through the Modern Homes program, Sears “simplified the process of selecting, financing and building houses for more than 100,000 families across the country” by “offering well-conceived floor plans, premium materials and quality construction at reasonable prices.”[12]

[1] “What is a Sears Modern Home?” Sears Archives, last updated March 21, 2012, http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/.

[2] Regina Cole, “The Sears House Was The American Dream That Came In A Box,” Forbes, October 23, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/reginacole/2018/10/23/the-sears-house-was-the-american-dream-that-came-in-a-box/?sh=30604765731b.

[3] “History of Sears Modern Homes,” Sears Archives, last updated March 21, 2012, http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/history.htm.

[4] “Sears Houses in the U.S.” Sears Houses.com, accessed December 19, 2023, https://www.searshouses.com/home.

[5] Rosemary Thornton, The Houses that Sears Built: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sears Catalog Homes (Norfolk, Virginia: Gentle Beam Publications, 2004), 75.

[6] “Sears, Roebuck & Company,” Historic New England, accessed January 3, 2024, https://kithouses.org/topic/sears-roebuck-company/.

[7] “What is a Sears Modern Home?” Sears Archives, last updated March 21, 2012, http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/.

[8] Regina Cole, “The Sears House Was The American Dream That Came In A Box,” Forbes, October 23, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/reginacole/2018/10/23/the-sears-house-was-the-american-dream-that-came-in-a-box/?sh=30604765731b.

[9] “History of Sears Modern Homes,” Sears Archives, last updated March 21, 2012, http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/history.htm.

[10] Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl. Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1986), 19.

[11] Jon Gorey, “When Sears sold the American dream.” Boston Globe Media Partners, July 27, 2017, https://www.boston.com/real-estate/real-estate-news/2017/07/27/when-sears-sold-the-american-dream/.

[12] Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl. Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1986), 43.