How To Look At A House

McGarry and Madsen's home inspection blog for buyers of  

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Is this old home a Sears Catalog house?

Monday, October 1, 2018

About 75,000 Sears and Roebuck kit homes were built around the U.S. between 1908 and the closing of Sears home construction division in 1940. Most were constructed before the onslaught of the Great Depression in 1930. Because they were delivered by railroad, Sears homes are also usually located in or near a town that had rail service during that era. 

   The houses were a large-scale do-it-yourself project, with the buyers assembling the pre-cut lumber by following instructions in a 75-page construction manual. Early models were offered with or without a bathroom. An optional outhouse kit was also available.

   The photo above is of an Elmwood model we found in Cross City, Florida, which was on a railroad line that has since been converted to the Nature Coast Rail Trail. Trying to pick out the Sears homes in the older part of Gainesville and several surrounding towns is a pleasant distraction for us in our daily home inspection travels. It’s sort of an architectural version of birdwatching, and the field guide for spotting old Sears homes is Houses By Mail (Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl, Preservation Press, 1986). It has reproductions of the catalog pages for the most popular models Sears offered. Here’s the Elmwood model on page 114.

   The open sleeping porch at the second floor—which was popular before air conditioning—has been enclosed, along with the front porch, but a little back-and-forth examination of the two images will show that the bones of the home are identical to the Sears model. We did not visit with the homeowners to confirm the history of the house and it may be possible that it was a look-alike constructed by a local contractor. But, although the Sears designs were immensely popular during their time, they were rarely replicated by traditional home builders because the kits were such a great deal. More often, a local builder was hired to assist in the construction. 

   However, several other companies also offered home construction kits, including their mail-order catalog rival Montgomery Ward. Here are a few ways to check and be absolutely certain that a home is a Sears kit:

  1. Because the homes were made from pre-cut lumber that was numbered on the side of each piece near one end, you can look for a stamping on the lumber pieces (visible in the attic or crawl space) with a letter followed by several number digits, such as “D124.”
  2. Some hardware fixtures like doorknobs and hinges, where still original, will be stamped with the Sears name or initials “SR.” Also, a remnant of an old Sears shipping label sticker might still be attached to the back of any trim lumber or moldings.
  3. Documents for the house construction, such as the original Sears construction manual or blueprints may be discovered in a closet or attic. Building permit records, if still available at the courthouse or building department, will list “Sears and Roebuck” as the architect of the home.
  4. The original homeowners, their children, or long-time neighbors may be able to verify the Sears pedigree.

   Another resource, with additional tips on verifying an authentic Sears kit home and plenty of history about the homes, plus stories of several communities that have neighborhoods with clusters of them, is The Houses That Sears Built - Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sears Catalog Homes (Rosemary Thornton, Gentle Beam Publications, 2004).

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Here’s links to a collection of our other blog posts about OLDER AND HISTORIC HOUSES: 

What is "Ocala" block? 

What are the most common plumbing problems with older houses? 

• What are the most common problems with older houses? 

Why is an old fuse box/panel an insurance problem for homebuyers? 

Why is there no bathroom electric receptacle in this old house? 

• Does a home inspector expect the  electrical system of an older house to meet current code standards?  

    Visit our OLDER AND HISTORIC HOUSES page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.

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