September 3, 2019

How Common Are Sears Houses?

In this post I will re-examine another common misconception about Sears homes.

Were Sears Homes That Common?

"There are actually a number of communities in North Carolina where almost the entire town is Sears houses that were purchased through the catalog."

"I have an entire neighborhood of  [Sears homes] in my current city and I love them."

"I live in Santa Barbara and [Sears homes] are EVERYWHERE here."

"There's an entire neighborhood's worth of these Sears houses across from the old town library in my town. "

According to randos on the internet, there are many neighborhoods in the United States that consist primarily or exclusively of Sears houses. Could that possibly be true? Are Sears houses commonly found everywhere?

The short answer: no. Let's look at the facts.

Sears Houses are Rare.

Simply put, Sears houses are rare. 

Sears Roebuck sold houses from 1908 to 1942. During those years, there were 10,704,000 nonfarm single family houses built. That's almost 11 million houses built nationwide. (Source: 
Carney, Mary F. Nonfarm Housing Starts, 1889-1958 : Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 1260 , Washington, D.C: G.P.O., 1959.)

Guess how many Sears houses were built during that time?

About 65,000.

Of all houses built during that time, 0.61 percent were Sears houses.

Sears houses are not "everywhere". The numbers do not support that.

Sears Houses are Concentrated in Certain States.
Sears houses are not evenly distributed throughout the country.

The map illustrates how many Sears houses have been identified in each state. White means no houses have been identified. Red means very few. Yellow Ohio and Illinois have the most houses (over 2,000).


Notice how the preponderance of houses are in the Midwest and Northeast, specifically in Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan. There are a couple reasons for that.

Often, customers purchased their houses from a Modern Homes sales office.  A house was the biggest purchase a family could make, and working closely with a Sears sales representative was comforting to many people who didn't want to just drop a check in the mail and hope for the best.

The 1930 Modern Homes catalog listed the locations of the sales offices. All were located in the Midwest and Northeast. Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan had the most sales offices, and not coincidentally, those states are where the vast majority of the Sears houses were built.

Additionally, freight charges varied based on where the customer was located and how far they were from the Sears factories. The farther away, the more the freight. Those factories were located in New Jersey, Illinois, and Ohio. Occasionally materials would also be shipped from Michigan.

There is a reason that there are very few Sears houses in the Western states. The cost savings that a customer would gain from buying a kit house from Sears would be negated by the freight charges.

The Modern Homes catalogs clearly told customers where the materials would be shipped from. If you lived in Oregon, you knew the freight charges would be a fortune. This excerpt is from the 1918 Modern Homes catalog.

Sears provided a running total of the houses they sold in the 1917 Modern Homes catalog. See a pattern here? There were a concentration of houses in the Midwest and Northeast. By the way, we have located only 62 Sears houses in Iowa as of this writing. There are many more out there.

Some Neighborhoods Consist Primarily of Sears Houses. We Know Where They Are, Because Sears Told Us.
Sears sold homes to individual homeowners, but they also sold houses in bulk to corporations who wanted to construct housing for workers. These developments were typically near factories. Local examples of such developments were in Kankakee and downstate Carlinville.

Standard Oil wanted to ensure its workers had adequate housing and placed an order with Sears Roebuck for 156 houses to be built in Carlinville.  These are all Sears houses.


Sears also sold to developers who wanted to build many Sears houses in one neighborhood. A local example of this is LaPorte, Indiana, where Sears sold 50 houses in one subdivision.

415 Kenwood, LaPorte, IN. One of many Sears houses built in 1912 by a realty company. Capture from Google Streetview.

Sears Whitehall.

Sears heavily promoted these large sales in their advertising materials. They included location specifics and many photos. Additionally, Sears would often issue press releases to local newspapers promoting the developments.

Is it possible there are company towns or large collections of Sears houses that no one has yet discovered? I suppose it's possible, albeit unlikely.  We need to be dubious of claims of large numbers of Sears houses in certain areas.

Be Skeptical.

So next time you read that an entire neighborhood consists of Sears houses, or that they are everywhere in Santa Barbara, be skeptical. There were few mass purchases, few Sears houses built in the western United States, and few Sears houses built overall. Although we are fortunate to have a substantial number of Sears houses in Illinois, in most areas of the country, Sears houses are unicorns that are not always easy to find. 


SearsHouseSeeker said...

I brought up your blog, and this post, and showed your handy map up there, in a presentation that I did tonight... very timely. Excellent info, Lara!
Sears House Seeker blog

Architectural Observer said...

Sears houses are incredibly rare! I've also noticed that many kit houses by other, competing, companies are later referred to as "Sears houses" (regardless of which company actually produced them). It's like a blanket term for all kit houses. That may be another reason why many people believe them to be more commonplace than they actually are. Great post... thanks!

M Gonzalez said...

Did local builders at the time "copy" some the Sears models? We lived in a house in Valparaiso IN that looked very similar to a Sears house...but it had been built by a Roy BIrky, who built most of the houses on the street. My elderly uncle was convinced ours was a Sears, but when remodeling we were quite sure it was not a kit.

Sears Homes of Chicagoland said...

Yes, local builders often copied the Sears models. It makes identifications more complicated that's for sure!

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