June 22, 2012

Were Most Sears Homes Built by the Owners?

In the era of the internet and Wikipedia, “facts” are often restated on multiple sites without anyone checking the source information. Oft-cited information may be inaccurate and unreliable. In today’s post and some upcoming posts, I would like to re-examine some of the common “facts” about Sears homes that are frequently mentioned, but are likely incorrect.

Were most Sears homes built by the owners?
“Roughly half of the buyers assembled the homes themselves.” 
“About half of the people who ordered Sears homes put them together themselves.”
“About half of the kit homes were built by professional homebuilders.”

How many homeowners actually constructed the Sears homes themselves? Although Sears, Roebuck destroyed all their records about the Modern Home department, let’s look at the only numbers we do have--from Sears advertising.

  • A display ad from May 1926 said that as of that date, 34,000 “Honor Bilt” homes were built, and of these, 23,800 were constructed by the owners. That is 70%.
  • A display ad from October 1926 said that as of that date, 37,000 “Honor Bilt” homes were built, and of these, 24,500 were constructed by the owners. That is 66%.
  • A display ad from June 1927 said that as of that date, 37,500 “Honor Bilt” homes were built, and of these, 24,500 were constructed by the owners. That is 65%.
  • A display ad from April 1928 said that as of that date, 41,200 “Honor Bilt” homes were built, and of these, 29,300 were constructed by the owners. That is 71%.
  • A display ad from the Spring 1929 Sears, Roebuck catalog said that as of that time, 44,200 "Honor Bilt" homes were built, and of these, 33,500 were constructed by the owners. That is 76%.

Chicago Tribune ad for Sears homes October 31, 1926
Ad from the Chicago Tribune, Oct 31, 1926.

Would Sears have a reason to inflate the number of homeowner-built homes in the advertising copy? Not really. When these ads were run (1926-1929), Sears clearly presented homeowners with a choice to build the homes themselves or to request a local contractor to assist or supervise construction of the house. Sears got the sale either way and would gladly refer customers to a contractor. In its catalogs, Sears also encouraged contractors to build their homes on a speculative basis, with articles like ”What contractors think of our Honor Bilt Ready Cut System”.

Based on these numbers provided by Sears, we can estimate that the majority (roughly 70%) of Sears houses were constructed by the homeowners themselves. The remainder were constructed by contractors hired by homeowners or speculative builders.

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