In 1908, Sears Roebuck and Co. was a cutting edge company. Long before there was Amazon or other services to deliver all we could possibly need to our front doors, Sears was doing the unthinkable: Delivering entire homes to families all over the country.
Known as “kit homes,” these packages arrived by train, and they contained everything needed to build a home. The best part was the price. The families could build the homes themselves with the kit, and that meant that they got a modern home (for the time) at a fraction of the cost.
Sears Was Ahead of its Time With Kit Homes
Sears was shipping entire homes before the conveniences we enjoy now were even thought of. These days, the idea of the average American building their own home, with or without a kit with all needed materials, is laughable.
However, in the early 1900’s American life was much more rugged. People worked dangerous jobs that were very physical to feed their families and to make ends meet. It was not nearly the absurdity that such a task is in today’s age of convenience. The economic boom of the early twentieth century made for a perfect environment for Sears kit homes.
Sears’ Kit Homes Gave Many Families a Shot at The American Dream
Sears’ kit homes were sold as part of what was known as the "Modern Home Program." During the early 1900’s, many cities were becoming crowded and industrialized, and the good-paying jobs meant uprooting one’s family to move to said cities to chase them. During this time of dangerous living, it was important for families to have a stable income and homestead.
Sears’ kit homes made this possible in a way no other company had. They allowed America’s middle class an easy transition to a much safer life in the suburbs at a fraction of the cost.
Sears Kit Homes Helped Shape Today’s American Suburbia
The Sears Modern Home Program was all the rage between 1908 and 1941. This was because they offered an affordable way for families to have their own homes at an affordable price, and in an efficient form. However, they really helped shaped the predecessor for modern American suburbia.
The consumers of the kit homes were largely American middle-class families fleeing the filth, disease, mass immigration, and poverty of America’s crowded, industrialized cities. These homes made it possible for a large swathe of the American populace to enjoy life in suburbia once they reached a certain socio-economic class.
The Mail Order Kit Homes Were Not the First in Their Class
Sears debuted the Modern Home Program via the very early incarnation of its famous catalog, and it was wildly successful. However, there were other companies who sold similar mail-order homes. They could not hold a candle to Sears, though. Further, Sears had been helping families build their own homes prior to the rollout of the kit homes.
As early as 1895, the Sears catalog featured building materials that could be shipped via train to would-be homeowners around the nation. The lumber and other housing materials predated the actual kits and would give Sears a head start on the competition.
The 1908 Catalog Debut Would Start a Decades-Long Trend
Sears home kits would become the preferred choice of fast track home owning for suburban America. Between 1908 and 1941, there were an estimated 100,000 units sold, in any number of varieties. The homes were affordable, durable, and as much a status symbol as anything else, as they represented a family’s official entry into America’s suburban middle class.
Perhaps the most significant part of all of this is that here in 2019, the suburbs are still an important part of American life, and Sears kit homes helped create them. There are even some of these homes still standing today, though the exact number is uncertain.
Sears Kit Homes Were a Brilliant Baseline For the Sears Brand
Sears kit homes were perhaps the baseline for what would become decades upon decades worth of catalog success for Sears. By 1911, the kit homes catalog sold more than just homes. It also gave prospective buyers more models to choose from and showed the homes in much greater detail.
The interiors were clearly outlined in grand detail in the catalogs. In order to seal the deal for its customers, Sears showed the interiors fully furnished – all from Sears, of course. This cemented the chain as a brand that provided all the prospective homeowner could possibly need.
Sears Did Not Limit its Business Model to Suburbia
Far from content to simply cater to potential suburbanites fleeing increasingly overcrowded cities and looking to join the middle class in greener, quieter pastures, Sears set its sights on the folks living in the quietest areas of all: rural America. The company adjusted its offerings to cater to a more rustic American lifestyle, and they were off.
Introducing the Modern Farm Buildings and Barn catalogs in 1923, Sears began offering all kinds of enticing goodies to farmers, such as tool sheds, barns, and other farm fares. The pieces were quick and easy to assemble – and, of course, affordable.
The Modern Homes Program Was A Dream Come True For All Involved
Building or purchasing a home is very expensive. It always has been, and it always will be. That is where Sears kit homes came in. They were able to ship pre-cut homes in a box around the nation, and the nature of the homes meant that they took a fraction of the time to build – roughly 352 hours with carpenters working on them. This compares to about 583 hours with a more traditional home building process.
This was an especially convenient perk because even if a family could not build the home themselves, it would not take much money to have it built professionally.
Sears Kit Homes Also Opened The Door To the Loan Business
Beginning around 1911, Sears began offering loans on these kit homes as well. In modern times, almost no one buys a home without a loan. However, in the early 20th century, if you wanted a home, you generally had to have the money to pay for it. But not with Sears.
Most loans ran about five years, and the interest rates were low – averaging at about 6%: Some loans ran as long as 15 years, and there was even cash available for paid labor for the building of the structures.
What Modern Americans Think of When They Think ‘Sears’
The modern version of Sears was known for appliances, apparel, home products, and just about everything else the average suburban housewife could possibly want to buy either from a catalog or from a department store. However, houses are generally not what modern people think of when they think Sears. But without the kit homes, the modern Sears never would have existed.
Sears kit homes introduced America to the shopping catalog. They were the reason for the idea that one should be able to buy just about anything from one marketplace. The catalog was the 20th century’s answer to Amazon or Wal-Mart, and it came about due to the Sears kit home.
Sears Kit Homes Introduced the Concept of Customization
There were 447 versions of the Sears kit homes available between 1908 and 1947. In addition to this wide variety of choice, the floor plans themselves could be altered. They could even switch materials to the customer’s liking. This was definitely a departure from the row houses in cities that were all nearly identical. Sears kit homes gave rise to what we see as the modern custom built home.
This introduction to variety, thanks to the unsung heroes of Sears’ Modern Homes Program, the architects, would forever change the landscape of American home buying and building.
Sears Kit Homes Are Not Yet Relegated to the Dustbins
Of course, most of the Sears’ kit homes from the early 20th Century are long gone. After all, the first ones were built more than a century ago. However, as we mentioned before, some of them are still around. In some cases, they are even for sale. They are not dilapidated, as you might think either. Further, at least some of them seem to be quite large and selling for much less than their modern equivalents.
For instance, there is the Elmhurst version of the kit home in Anderson, Indiana goes for just $370,900. It also appears to be in excellent condition, maintained well since it was built in 1932.
There Were Income Tiers For The Kit Home Buyers
Just as some of the kit homes that are still available today are reasonably priced, there are some that are quite expensive as well. While the beautiful kit home in Indiana is quite inexpensive as houses today go, there is one in California on that same list that goes for well over $2 million.
The same was true in the days of old. There were tiers for the kit homes, with the customers’ incomes in mind. That way, all levels of middle-class income could be accommodated. The highest tier was the Honor Bilt variety, with Simplex Sectional and Standard built just below.
Kit Homes Were Born of a Need to Save Money
Frank W. Kushel enjoyed a 25-year relationship with Sears. That is because he saved them from near bankruptcy. Kushel was a department worker during the time when Sears was shipping lumber and other home building materials in the days prior to the kit homes. It was he who realized that the company could cut corners by not storing the building materials in warehouses and instead, shipping them straight out via railroads.
Thanks to Kushel’s intervention, Sears became the mail order home leader by far. They even managed to sell 324 units in just one month at one point, in May 1926.
Sears Was Shrewd When It Came To Attracting as Many Customers as Possible
Once Frank W. Kushnel helped Sears save itself and the Modern Homes were doing well, the aforementioned tiers of homes were introduced. The Honor Bilt homes were the best, with smooth, pre-cut, connecting parts. The Simplex Sectional and Standard built models were not as smooth; after all, there would be knots in the flooring, and generally, there would be no pre-carved staircases.
However, all of the homes were sturdy and well built. Sears made sure that the quality was the key, and that every family could have a Sears kit home, regardless of income.
The Depression Was the Beginning of the End of the Sears Kit Home
In 1929, the stock market crashed and spurred what we now know as the Great Depression in America. People lost their life savings, their businesses, and, yes, their homes. Sears was not immune to the economic downturn, mostly because of the loans side of their business.
Soon, the company would have to liquidate $11 million dollars in loans. That side of the business was shut down. Only houses were sold during the depression, and the Modern Homes program never quite seemed to recover. Once the lending and lot ends of the endeavor were over, the program floundered and eventually died.
Sears Optimistically Tried to Save the Modern Homes Program
After 1934, there was another economic boom in which the housing market enjoyed a semi-recovery in the post-depression era. However, Sears had lost copious amounts of money in its loan business, and it was no longer in the business of mortgages, lending, or lot sale. Sears exclusively sold its original catalog specialty: homes.
It would turn out not to be enough. Corporate executives at the company envisioned a return to the less complicated days of booming sales of Sears kit homes, but it was too late. Their more sophisticated businesses had killed the Sears kit home.
The End of Sears Kit Homes
Between 1908 and 1940, Sears changed America’s housing landscape. They opened up the suburban American dream to those who would have been stuck in cities otherwise. They created the dividing line between poor people living in the city and people with upward mobility moving out to the suburbs.
Sears mastered the kit home industry, and to this day, its variety of brilliant creations can be seen across the nation. While the people who originally purchased the homes and waited anxiously at railroads to pick up their new homes are long gone, that does not mean the magic of the Sears kit home does not remain.
Kit Homes Created the Sears We All Came to Know and Love
The Modern Homes program may have sold its last home in 1940, but it certainly had an impact that would last for many more decades. There was the fact that The kit homes are the reason for the existence of the Sears catalog, and they spurred the appliance lines that Sears would come to sell long after the kit homes were just a distant memory from times gone by.
The iconic Sears catalog would go on to sell everything from toys to apparel for the whole family to, of course appliances until the company finally went bankrupt.
In October 2018, Sears filed for bankruptcy. It had been bought out by KMart in 2004, with the name being changed from Sears, Roebuck &Co. to Sears Holdings. This was, just like with the kit homes, another desperate attempt to save the company. Sears has been through many such periods.
These attempts are not working, though, as the company started the year in 2019 by closing another 80 of its retail stores. Whether or not Sears will survive this latest of its many setbacks remains to be seen. What we do know, though, is that its iconic Modern Homes changed America’s landscape and real estate industry forever. Far from its heydey with its kit homes, Sears is now bankrupt.