What is a Sears kit home? Sears, Roebuck and Co. was one of several companies that sold complete home-building kits by mail order between 1906 and 1946. Sears was not the first; "Sears didn't even jump on the bandwagon until 1915," said architectural historian Rebecca Hunter, author of "Putting Sears Homes on the Map."But Sears is the name people recognize."
How were Sears homes built? Buyers received, via boxcar, about 30,000 numbered pieces and a 75-page instruction booklet.
What were Sears homes like? Sears kit homes came in many sizes and styles, from simple one-room cabins to 10-room houses. Many of the plans were copied from popular architects' designs, then mass-produced to be affordable for working-class Americans.
How many were built and how many are left? Sears didn't preserve its sales records, but it's believed that approximately 75,000 kit homes were sold between 1915 and 1940, according to Rosemary Thornton, author of "The Houses That Sears Built."
Are there many in the Twin Cities? No, although kit homes were popular in many other Midwestern cities. Hunter spent several days driving around the Twin Cities looking for kit homes and found very few. She attributes that to the influence of strong local labor unions and powerful developers who had an interest in encouraging people to buy and build locally. Kit-home sales also were concentrated around Sears Modern Home sales centers, Thornton said. There was no sales center in Minnesota.
How much did they cost? Prices ranged from less than $200 for a one-room cabin to nearly $10,000 for the 10-room "Magnolia" in 1920, right after World War I, according to Hunter. (Two years later, the price had dropped by nearly a third.) The "Ashmore" sold for $1,608 to $3,632.
Are they more valuable today than comparable homes? "In communities that are into historic preservation, you can often get more money for a kit home," Hunter said. "People think it's cool to own a mail-order house."
How can I tell if I have one? It may not be easy. "Mail-order house manufacturers copied every style of the year, so the houses look like every other house on the block," Hunter said. Start by comparing the home's exterior to pictures in Sears catalogs, she suggested, then look for mortgage records or Sears parts numbers on building materials. "More than 80 percent of people who think they have one are wrong," according to Thornton. Some owners have a kit home from another company, or one built with Sears materials but not from a kit.
Are original, untouched Sears homes more valuable than remodeled ones? That depends on the remodeling. As with any vintage property, a sensitive update can increase the home's value, but an update that clashes with the home's architecture will detract from its value and appeal. "The greatest threat facing Sears homes is not demolition, it's ruination through bad remodeling," Thornton said.