Sears Mail-Order Homes

Jun 8, 2021 1 comments

What’s the heaviest thing you can buy from Amazon? The internet says it’s a 1,500-pound, 6-feet tall gun safe, but back when Sears was the go-to marketplace for everything mail-order, the American retail behemoth even sold houses. The buyer could choose from among hundreds of designs, pay in installments, and have the complete house shipped via railroad boxcars in separate piece of lumber, each numbered and carefully cut to fit its particular place in the house. All the buyer needed to do was find a local carpenter to do the assembling.

Sears Mail-Order Homes

The idea of selling pre-fabricated homes through mail-order catalogues was not invented by Sears, Roebuck and Co., but they were definitely the most successful among the companies that sold them. Between 1908 and 1940, the company is believed to have sold between 70,000 to 100,000 homes—the exact number was lost when during a corporate house cleaning someone accidentally destroyed the home sales record.

In 1908, Sears issued its first specialty catalog for houses, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, featuring 44 house styles ranging in price from $360 to $2,890. These early houses, however, were not prefabricated. Sears simply provided the raw materials; the buyer had to cut the timber to appropriate dimensions themselves. The first pre-cut timber pieces were offered in 1916. According to Sears, building a house with pre-cut lumber reduced construction time by up to forty percent. Sears also provided wallpapers, paint and varnishes, lath, shingles, roofing and windows. Doors and windows in particular were pre-assembled and trim pre-cut and shaped. However, the package did not include the foundations, masonry cladding, or plaster because providing masonry would have increased overhead cost reducing customer satisfaction in terms of cost.

Sears Mail-Order Homes

Sears Mail-Order Homes

An average Sears Modern Home kit had approximately 25 tons of materials, with over thirty thousand parts. To keep cost low, certain items such as indoor plumbing, furnaces, electrical wiring and bathroom were offered as options. Sears also offered a plasterboard product similar to modern drywall as an alternative to the plaster and lath wall-building techniques which required skilled carpenters and plasterers, all done to keep prices low and appeal to prospective buyers.

The delivery chain logistics of the Sears Modern Home was very efficient for the time, with customers receiving updates when a product was shipped and their expected date of arrival. The materials were usually sent through rail, because it was efficient and relatively inexpensive. Most houses would fit into two boxcars, but they were generally delivered in stages as the construction progressed. The customer received a detailed list of the materials scheduled to arrive, their origin and expected arrival date. Then each supply point mailed a postcard to the customer to say when each component had actually been shipped. Once the shipments arrived at the local train depot, the customer arranged for them to be transported by cart or by truck to the building site.

Sears Mail-Order Homes

A Sears Modern Home in Hopewell, Virginia. Photo: liz west/Flickr

Sears Mail-Order Homes

Another Sears house in Hopewell, Virginia. Photo: liz west/Flickr

One of the greatest challenges Sears faced was dealing with the misconception that prefabricated meant substandard. While many people were fascinated by the technological innovation, they were distrustful when it concerned their own homes. Finding ways around the biases of government institutions and of individual clients was one of the achievements of Sears' marketing strategy.

The houses were generally erected in the balloon framing construction style, clad in cypress shingles, masonry or stucco. The interior was finished with high quality materials such as oak, pine and maple woods. Despite being “pre-fabricated” Sears used materials of excellent quality, and there are plenty of Sears houses, some eight decades old, that still stand today.

Sears Mail-Order Homes

In order to gain a competitive edge over other companies, Sears also offered financing plans with mortgage loans to customers. Although this allowed Sears to sell far more kit homes that any of its competitors, offering mortgage was the single worst decision that Sears made. When the Great Depression hit, many customers defaulted on loan payments resulting in increasing strain on the Modern Homes program. By 1934, Sears was forced to foreclose on tens of thousands of its very own customers, and this action eroded the trust middle-income families had on Sears. Additionally, the cost of foreclosing, reconditioning, maintaining and selling the houses was in itself prohibitively expensive. That same year, Sears was forced to liquidate the Modern Homes department.

Sears relaunched the Modern Homes program after a brief hiatus, but with the country recovering from the biggest economic depression of the century, sales remained low. Modern Homes was eventually a loss maker. Over the period from 1906 to 1934, Sears sold homes worth $87 million, with a profit of $43 million. But when mortgage loans losses were factored in, profit converted to a net loss of $2.6 million.

The last Sears Modern Homes catalog was issued in 1940, but the company continued to sell kit homes into the early 1942. In the thirty-odd years the company did business, Sears sold thousands of homes mostly to customers in East Coast and Midwest states, but Sears homes can be found as far south as Florida and as far west as California. The largest grouping of these houses are located in the city of Elgin, Illinois, where one community has more than 200 verified Sears homes.

References:
# Amanda Cooke and Avi Friedman, Ahead of Their Time: The Sears Catalogue Prefabricated Houses, Journal of Design History
# Timothy Dahl, Sears Sold 70,000 Homes From Their Catalog. Are You Living in One?, Popular Mechanics

Comments

  1. I lived in Williamsburg, Ohio, Clermont County where at least 3 Sears homes still exist today in June of 2021.

    ReplyDelete

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