When Sears sold houses

As the once-mighty Sears retail empire faces bankruptcy, the 99% Invisible podcast features the houses Sears once sold through its mail-order catalog.  Yes, houses.

built-by-customers

From 1908 to 1940, the Sears Modern Homes Program offered complete mail-order houses to the would-be homeowner — what would come to be called “kit homes.” Customers could select from dozens of different models in Sears Modern Homes Catalog, order blueprints, send in a check, and a few weeks later everything they needed would arrive in a train car, its door secured with a small red wax seal (just like the seal on the back of a letter).

This seal was to be broken on arrival by the new owner, who would open up their boxcar to find over 10,000 pieces of framing lumber, 20,000 cedar shakes and almost everything else needed to build the home — all the doors, even the doorknobs.

The lumber came precut, kind of like a giant Ikea set, along with an instruction booklet. Sears promised that, working without a carpenter and only rudimentary skills, a person could finish their Sears mail order home in less than 90 days.

[…]

Then, in 1911, Sears began offering mortgages to their customers. Like everything else, they made these easy — maybe too easy. The Sears home mortgage program started out as one of their keys to success. In lowering the barrier to entry, it had allowed Sears to sell far more kit homes far faster than any of its competitors. But when the Great depression Hit, things got ugly fast. The company ended up foreclosing on tens of thousands of its very own customers. It was a public relations disaster.

After years of declining sales, Sears would finally close its Modern Homes department in 1940. A few other kit home manufactures — ones that hadn’t sold mortgages — survived, but the Sears kit home boom was over. Then came World War II, and with it, the next modern housing boom, featuring the rise of the suburbs and the prefab home — the kinds of homes we know today.

Once largely forgotten by history, historians and architecture enthusiasts are tracking down Sears homes that are still standing all over America – many of whose owners have no idea their houses came from a catalog.  There’s an outside chance some of them may have had Allstate compact cars, also sold by Sears, in their driveways.

Sears didn’t come to Canada until long after it closed down its mail-order house program, but a company called Aladdin Homes filled the void.

One thought on “When Sears sold houses

  1. Andrew Bore says:

    My parents’ house was an Eaton’s catalogue house. When they replaced the original windows, the windows still had the shipping information on the frames.

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