Fans of Sears homes are leading an effort to identify and perserve these kit-built houses from the early 20th century
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In some cases, the houses were more modern than the communities in which they were built. Electricity and municipal water systems were not available in every locale where Sears homes were sold. To meet this need, Sears advertised houses without bathrooms well into the 1920s. And for $23, you could always purchase a dandy outhouse. This also explains, in part, why Sears sold heating, electrical, and plumbing equipment separately, and not as part of the kit.Skip to next paragraph
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Eventually, Sears offered about 370 different models, all designed by architects working for the company. Buyers could customize any of them choose a different style roof, add more windows or change the size of them, or raise the roof and add two more rooms upstairs. The company let people essentially design their homes, if they wanted to and could afford the changes.
Noticing Sears's success, other companies Montgomery Ward, Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine also entered the mail-order house business. Often their success paralleled Sears's. But Sears had that popular catalog and enduring name recognition, so that today the term "Sears home" is often used incorrectly for all kit-built houses of the 20th century.
Over the years, three qualities of home emerged. Honor Bilt was the best and most expensive. Standard Bilt (also known at one period as Lighter Built) was for warmer climates. And Simplex, or Econo Built, models were modest two-room buildings ideal for use as summer cottages or hunting shacks.
Sears began offering mortgages for its houses in 1911. Easy payment plans made home-buying more easily affordable by the masses, and the loan qualifications were quite lax. A 1920s Sears mortgage application asked a few simple questions about the house and lot, but asked only one financial question: "What is your vocation?" If that blank was filled in, the applicant was given a mortgage.
Who knows how many African-Americans, single women, and new immigrants who would have otherwise been "red-lined" by the conventional mortgage companies of the day were able to build a home of their own because of Sears?
Testimonials received from new Sears homeowners bore names suggesting that immigrants constituted a fair percentage of their customers. A sampling: Engelfried, Fitzjearl, Harrar, Hauser, Humpal, Jung, Kaczmasek, Kromp, Letzerich, Lichtenwalter, Mackrodt, Mommaerts, Olpp, Owry, Papay, Schlag, Sechler, Siennicki, Von Lehmen, and Waldhier.
The sale of Sears homes peaked in 1929, according to the 1965 book"Catalogues and Counters, A History of Sears, Roebuck and Company." That year, sales volume hit more than $12 million.
But as the nation entered the Depression and economic woes deepened, sales dropped. In 1930, sales slid to $10.7 million, and in 1931, the number dropped to $8.4 million.
The lack of home sales wasn't affecting just Sears, of course. The United States housing market as a whole was in trouble. Housing starts for the country were down 53 percent in 1930, reported the Chicago Tribune.
During the early years of the Depression, Sears continued to sell houses, but more modest ones. Its best-selling home was the Crafton, a 600- to 800-square-foot residence that was offered in four different floor plans, and cost between $911 and $1,165 (about $10,845 and $13,869 in today's dollars).
In 1932, Sears Modern Homes department began operating at a loss for the first time since 1912. The company's annual report stated that sales of the mail-order homes had dropped 40 percent in one year.
For the next few years, there would be stops and starts, but the losses of 1932 marked the beginning of the end.
To make matters worse, Sears had to foreclose on hundreds of its mortgage customers. Those easy-to-qualify-for mortgages began to haunt Sears, and in 1933 the company stopped offering them.
In 1934, Sears liquidated more than $11 million of its home mortgages and closed the Modern Homes department. At a time when the average Sears house cost well under $3,000 (and mortgages were typically a fraction of that amount), this was a staggering sum. Foreclosing on (and evicting) customers from their homes became a public-relations nightmare.
In 1935, the Modern Homes department was reopened, but the days of Sears "easy payment" mortgages were over. The creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 had solved Sears's most-pressing problem: financing.