Have you ever thought about going to a building materials store like LOWES or Home Depot, going to the DIY (Do It Yourself) section and buying a KIT to build your 100% house by yourself? It sounds crazy, right, but when we talk about the American Dream and the strength of the real estate market here in the United States, we can go back in time and see how the mixture of the American Dream, made very tangible by home ownership, and the do-it-yourself concept came together and at the beginning of the century Sears (a major retailer) created the HOME KIT - Sears Modern Homes, which was marketed between 1908 and 1942, almost 40 years of success.

In this article I'm going to share with you everything I've learned and studied about this curious piece of kit, which for me shows not only how this country works, but also how the real estate market has always been a driving force behind the American economy and sleep.

How it all began

At the dawn of the 20th century, the United States was going through an era of rapid and profound change. With industrial and urban growth, a new scenario was beginning to emerge for the real estate market. The economic boom of the time, combined with growing urbanization, led to an unprecedented demand for affordable, quickly-built housing.

 

Against this backdrop, an innovative concept emerged that would revolutionize the way Americans thought about building houses: kit homes. These kits, sold mainly through catalogs, promised a practical and economical solution to the growing demand for housing. Customers could choose from a variety of house designs, receive all the parts needed for construction and often assemble the house with the help of detailed instructions or hire local labor for the job.

 

The company that stood out and became synonymous with this movement was Sears, Roebuck and Company. Its innovative vision and ability to adapt to the needs of American consumers positioned it as a leader in the kit home market, paving the way for a revolution in the real estate sector.

A little about Sears, Roebuck and Company

 

Sears, Roebuck and Company didn't start out as the retail giant that many recognize. In fact, its origins were much more modest. Founded in 1886 by Richard Warren Sears as a watch mail order company in Minnesota, it quickly expanded to include a wider range of products in its catalog.

 

In 1893, Alvah Curtis Roebuck joined Sears, and the company was renamed Sears, Roebuck and Company. The pair complemented each other perfectly: while Sears had a natural instinct for marketing and sales, Roebuck brought technical skills and a meticulous approach to the business.

 

By the beginning of the 20th century, Sears had solidified its reputation as one of the leading catalog retailers in the United States. The Sears catalog, often referred to as "the Book of Dreams," became a familiar presence in homes across the country. It offered a wide range of products, from clothes and furniture to tools and farm equipment.

 

But it was in 1908 that the company took a bold step by introducing kit houses to its catalog. This offer allowed customers to buy all the materials needed to build a house, delivered directly to their property. This pioneering move was motivated by the recognition of the growing demand for affordable housing in a rapidly urbanizing America.

 

Over the following decades, Sears continued to innovate and expand its product range, always keeping ahead of the needs and desires of American consumers. Its success was not only due to the quality of the products or competitive prices, but also to its ability to capture the spirit of the times and offer practical solutions to the everyday challenges faced by Americans.

The History of Sears Home Kits

 

In 1908, Sears, Roebuck and Company made its debut on the real estate market with an innovation that was destined to transform the industry: house kits. These kits, offered in their catalog, were not just isolated sets of tools or building materials, but complete packages that included almost everything needed to build a house from scratch.

 

During the 1920s and 1930s, Sears kit homes gained immense popularity. This was driven in part by the growing mobility of Americans, the promise of autonomy in building their own homes and the affordable prices Sears offered. It is estimated that between 70,000 and 75,000 of these houses were sold during this period. A variety of models were introduced, from small cottages to more luxurious homes, allowing families from different income brackets to buy a house.

 

The genius of Sears' business model was its simplicity and efficiency. Customers could browse through the Sears catalog, choose a house model that suited their taste and budget, and place their order. Sears would then send all the materials needed to build the house - from beams and boards to nails and paint. Each kit came with a detailed manual that guided buyers through each stage of construction. For those who didn't feel confident about building on their own, Sears even offered the option of hiring construction services through the company itself.

 

These kits were transported by rail, taking advantage of the vast US rail network, and were delivered to the train stations closest to the buyer's location. From there, the buyers were responsible for transporting the materials to the construction site.

 

Crucial Names and Dates in the History of Sears Home Kits

 

Richard W. Sears

Founder of Sears, Roebuck and Co., Richard W. Sears started the company as a mail-order watch operation in 1886. He was instrumental in the company's evolution into a retail giant.

 

Julius Rosenwald

 

Julius Rosenwald became a partner and then president of Sears. His vision and leadership helped shape the company and expand its market reach.

 

Frank W. Kushel

General manager of Sears' building division, Frank W. Kushel, was an influential name behind the introduction of kit homes.

 

Significant dates

 

1886: Richard W. Sears founds the R.W. Sears Watch Company, which later became Sears, Roebuck and Co.

 

1908: Sears enters the kit home market by offering "Sears Modern Homes" in its catalog.

 

1920: This period marked the height of the popularity of kit homes, with thousands being sold every year.

 

1934: In the face of the Great Depression and changes in the real estate market, Sears stops selling kit homes.

 

Popular house models

 

Various house models have become popular over the years. Some of the most notable include:

 

The Magnolia: One of the largest and most luxurious homes offered by Sears.

The Avalon: A more modest house, but still popular for its efficient and attractive design.

The Elsmore: A compact bungalow model, ideal for small families.

What was included in a Home Kit

 

Sears house kits were famous for their comprehensiveness. They included practically everything needed to build a house from scratch. The materials supplied varied depending on the design and size of the house, but in general the kits contained:

 

- Beams, planks and other structural materials;

- Bricks, tiles or cladding materials, depending on the design;

- Windows, often with the glass already installed;

- Internal and external doors;

- Roofing materials such as tiles and felt;

- Basic plumbing and electrical installations;

- Flooring, finishes and moldings;

- Paints and varnishes for finishing;

- And a detailed instruction manual illustrating every step of the construction process.

 

Sears has offered an impressive variety of designs over the years, reflecting the popular architectural styles of the time. Some options included:

 

- Bungalows: Single-storey houses, often with large balconies;

- Colonial-style houses: Inspired by traditional eastern American houses, with columns and symmetrical designs;

- Tudor-style houses: With features of medieval architecture, such as exposed beams and stucco details;

- And many other styles, ensuring that there was a design for almost every taste and budget.

 

 

In addition to being practical and economical, the Sears home kits brought a series of innovations. For example:

 

- Standardization: The kits were designed to be highly standardized, which made assembly easier and reduced the margin for error. Each piece was numbered, ensuring that it fitted perfectly in the right place.

- Flexibility: Although the designs were standardized, there was a certain amount of flexibility allowed. Buyers could sometimes customize certain aspects of the house, such as finishes and aesthetic details.

- Efficiency: With everything included in the kit, builders didn't have to waste time looking for materials or tools. This sped up the construction process considerably.

Social and Cultural Impacts

 

Sears home kits played a key role in democratizing home ownership in the United States. Before these kits became available, owning a home was often a privilege reserved for the wealthier classes. With the kits offering a more accessible and affordable alternative, more middle and working class families have been able to realize their dream of owning their own home.

 

The "American dream" - the idea that anyone, regardless of their background, can achieve prosperity and success through hard work - was reinforced by Sears' kit homes. By providing a tangible and affordable way for families to own their own home, Sears consolidated the notion that success was within everyone's reach.

 

Many homeowners chose to build their homes using Sears kits on their own, often with the help of friends and family. This fostered a sense of empowerment and self-reliance, as individuals were able to take charge of their own housing destiny. The sense of achievement in building their own home strengthened people's pride and connection with their housing.

 

With the rapid urbanization of the US in the early 20th century, Sears kit homes facilitated the creation of new neighborhoods and communities. These homes often formed the backbone of new subdivisions and neighborhoods, helping to shape the country's urban and suburban landscape.

 

The designs and layouts of the houses reflected the changing family dynamics and priorities of the time. For example, the growing popularity of automobiles led to designs that incorporated garages. Sears' flexible approach to allowing customizations also allowed homeowners to adapt their homes to their specific needs and cultural values.

How Kits Influenced the Real Estate Market

 

Sears home kits during their heyday, were highly accessible. Depending on the model and size, prices ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. This price made home ownership affordable for many middle-class Americans.

 

The kit houses encouraged a culture of "do it yourself", where the owners took the initiative to build their houses, often with little or no prior knowledge of construction.

 

Today, building houses is widely seen as a job for professionals. There are increased regulations, building standards and permits required, making the construction process more complex than it was at the beginning of the 20th century.

 

Sears kit homes offered a certain degree of customization, allowing homeowners to choose finishes, layouts and even some design tweaks.

 

The contemporary real estate market has seen an increase in demand for modular and customizable homes. With technologies such as 3D printing and prefabricated modular designs, Today's buyers have a wide range of options for personalizing their homes.

 

I imagine that if Kit Houses appeared today we would be impacted daily by Instagram campaigns and digital influencers showing the variety of models and showing how easy it is to build your own house with interactive manuals on Youtube.

 

Then we'd go on Amazon and the next day our complete kit would be piled up on our doorstep so we could start the challenge.

Challenges and decline

At the end of the 1920s, here in the United States, we had the famous Great Depression: The economic crisis of the 1930s severely affected sales of kit homes, leading Sears to discontinue this product line in 1942.

 

Throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Sears faced intense competition from other department stores and, later, from online retailers. These changes in the retail environment led to significant challenges for the company. Today SEARS is still a major retailer found in many malls across the country, such as here in Orlando at the Florida Mall. But it no longer enjoys the same prestige and relevance as it did during the Home Kits era.

 

More than a department store: While many today may know Sears primarily as a department store, its legacy is vast and varied. The innovation of kit homes is just one example of its lasting influence on American culture and economy.

 

Many of the houses built from Sears kits are now considered heritage sites, and the company's history is often studied in business and American history courses, testifying to its significance in US history.

Comparison with the current market

The Real Estate Market and Current Comparison: Today, the median house price in the US exceeds $300,000. When adjusted for inflation, Sears kit homes would sell for between $12,000 and $150,000 todayshowing the drastic increase in real estate prices over the century.

 

Assembly process and manual: Each kit arrived with up to 30,000 pieces and was accompanied by a detailed manual. This manual is full of illustrations, step-by-step instructions and lists of materials, was designed in such a way that even a layman could build the house. It was like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle, and many buyers came together as a community to help each other in the process.

 

Economic and social impact: Over three decades, an estimated 70,000 to 75,000 houses were sold. These houses were not just structures; they were the materialization of the American dream. Offered at prices between $600 and $6,000, these kits made home ownership accessible to many. The ease of financing provided by Sears allowed even lower-middle-class citizens to own a piece of the American dream.

Legacy and Current Importance

Many of the houses built from Sears kits are still inhabited and well preserved. These houses are not only tangible testimonies to the period in which they were built, but are also emblems of the architectural styles, design and construction methods of the early 20th century. In many places, these houses are preserved as historical heritage sites, indicating their cultural significance.

 

The core concept of Sears kit homes, the idea of building your own home, has found an echo in the 21st century. With the growth of DIY culture and the availability of online resources, a new generation is exploring personalized and cost-effective ways of creating their homes. This is manifested in trends such as tiny housesmodular homes and other alternative construction methods.

 

Today's prefabricated and modular houses, which are produced in factories and assembled on site, have their roots in the Sears home kits. The idea of optimizing construction through prefabricated components has been revisited and improved with modern technologies, reflecting an efficient and sustainable approach to building houses.

 

Sears kit homes not only influenced the way houses were built, but they also shaped the American dream of home ownership. They democratized access to property, offering affordable options to a wide range of citizens. This impact is still felt today, as notions of property and housing continue to evolve.

Summary

Any doubts?

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