Sears Is Fading, But Memories Of Its Mail-Order Homes Endure

Thanks to the Internet, you can buy just about anything online and have it shipped to you in a few days or less.

The process is reminiscent of the early 1900s, when people turned to mail-order catalogs to find things to buy. And — amazingly, for the time — they could even order homes via catalog.

Sears, once America's largest retailer, was just one company that sold homes this way. Now that its parent company has filed for bankruptcy, owners of some of those homes are lamenting the end of the Sears era.

"You realize you live in an example of what Sears was able to accomplish back in the day when they were the biggest catalog seller in the country," says Andrew Mutch, who owns a Sears home outside Detroit.

In its first catalog in 1888, Sears sold watches and jewelry. The catalogs proved to be popular, and over time different products were added and tested — including houses.

The Sears Modern Homes catalog debuted in 1908, and it offered all the material and blueprints needed to build a house. The pieces that arrived in the mail were meant to fit together sort of like Legos, so buyers could build the houses themselves or hire contractors.

"You would order everything from your light fixtures, to your lamp, [the wall covering], kitchen cabinets, the whole thing, whether you get a garage or not. And then it just shipped to you," preservationist Eric Dobson told NPR's Allison Keyes in 2014.

Sears was not the first company to offer mail-ordered "kit homes," but by the time the catalog was discontinued in 1940, Sears is estimated to have sold between 70,000 and 75,000 houses.

The homes originally cost between a few hundred dollars and a few thousand. The Martha Washington model, for example, originally sold for $2,688 to $3,727 (or the equivalent of $35,713 to $49,518 today), but in 2016 one sold for more than $1 million.

Some mail-order house enthusiasts estimate that about 70 percent of Sears houses are still standing today.

Eric Romain owns one of them, a Vallonia model in Royal Oak, Mich., and his area in particular has quite a few kit homes.

"I can drive five minutes, or I can ride my bike and see six different model homes that are identical to mine," he says.

Romain says Sears homes are more or less like other catalog-sold homes of their era, but their stories and their role in helping grow the middle class are what make them notable.

"Being middle class and being able to go buy and own a home that you can build with your own hands" makes the houses special, he says.

Romain has fond memories of the Sears store where he grew up in Saginaw, Mich. He used to go there with his dad to buy Craftsman tools.

"It was part of the landscape of the shopping mall growing up," Romain says. If it closes, he says, "I cannot even fathom what that will be like."

Mutch and his wife, Wendy, run the Kit House Hunters blog, where they share the work they and other researchers have done to identify kit homes around the country.

Mutch bought a Hamilton-style house in Novi, Mich., back in 2003. It was one of the homes in the original Modern Homes catalog of 1908, though this particular one was built in 1926.

When Mutch purchased the home, he received a rather unusual housewarming gift from the previous owners — a binder of information on Sears homes.

He says he already knew it was a Sears home since he bought the property from friends but that he purchased it for its character.

Mutch began researching Sears homes after the son of the house's original owners reached out to him and shared photos of the house under construction.

It was that interaction that motivated him to research Sears kit homes.

"I realized not only was this a house, but there's this whole story behind the house," Mutch says.

"I associated Sears with this big, iconic brand that everybody knew. It wasn't some obscure store. Every town had a Sears store," Mutch says. "It had been there forever."

He isn't old enough to remember Sears in its prime, but he says he and other kit home owners are saddened by the company's financial troubles.

Rebecca Hunter, author of Putting Sears Homes on the Map, grew up shopping at Sears stores. "It's where you went when you didn't have any money to shop at the other stores," she says.

Hunter acknowledges smaller homes, including the kit houses, are being torn down and replaced by McMansions.

"Construction has changed and people's desires have changed, and not many people want an 800-square-foot little six-room cottage anymore," she says.

But Hunter hopes to continue finding and researching Sears houses and other kit homes.

"The whole kit home phenomenon is pretty unique to architecture in the United States of America. So therefore I feel very strongly that we must save at least a percentage of these houses," she says.

Ayesha Abid is an intern on NPR's business desk.

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