When I received a call from a 92-year-old gentleman telling me that he had read every one of my articles since I started writing as The Home Guru, I was quite flattered. And, when he told me that he wouldn’t consider having anyone else sell the house that he had lived in since he was married, I was delighted.
But when he told me it was a Sears-Roebuck house, built from a kit, I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to see it.
My enthusiasm dampened a bit when he added, “But I warn you, to reach my home you must climb exactly 50 steps up from the street.”
Okay, I’m game, I thought. If this 92-year-old can cut it, certainly I can, too. When I arrived at the home in the “quarry” neighborhood in North White Plains with my real estate partner Michael Pierce, we ventured the climb to the flat plateau in the sky where the charming home is perched, almost exactly as it was constructed in 1930.
Our host let us into the house and the first room we entered was the kitchen. Having been married to his first wife for more than 60 years, before being left a widower, he had just remarried and was retiring to New England. The home he is leaving behind for another generation of home adventurers is also delightful as a piece of Americana.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. first conceived of selling ready-to-assemble homes by mail order in 1906 in response to a financial dilemma. High inventory costs threatened to close the company’s building supplies department, until a new manager, Frank W. Kushel, had the idea of letting the factories ship supplies directly to buyers in the form of complete home kits.
The trustworthiness of the Sears catalog already helped the public become comfortable with the idea of buying items sight unseen. By the time the first Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans was printed in 1908, customers were ready to trust Sears with what was likely to be the biggest purchase they would ever make.
Kits weighed 25 tons and were shipped by a combination of railroad boxcar and sometimes truck. Similar to Ikea today, the innovations and efficiencies Sears brought to its home kits made homeownership affordable to families who previously could only dream of having a place of their own.
The innovative “balloon style” framing helped reduce the hours needed to assemble a house by 40 percent compared to standard methods of construction. In fact, the process of assembling the homes from kits was simple enough that neighbors sometimes pitched in to do the job themselves, barn-raising style. All the major pieces were numbered, every beam, shingle and clapboard, and there was just the right amount of nails so there would never be any guesswork for the novice builder.
Today that attention to detail helps owners identify their houses as being authentic Sears Modern Homes, as the numbers are still visible on many of the untreated pieces.
Modern Homes incorporated the newest technologies for comfortable living, gradually adding central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity to most of its designs. The newly invented drywall and asphalt shingles, which were lightweight, easy to install and fire resistant, were also utilized.
From 1908 to 1940, about 75,000 homes were sold through the mail-order Modern Homes program. Over 447 different housing styles were available, eventually branching into three distinct lines: Honor Bilt, the most expensive line with the highest grade materials; Standard Built, recommended for warmer climates; and Simplex Sectional, the smallest and simplest designs.
Not only did prospective homeowners have many designs to choose from, but these designs allowed for great customization. Floor plans could be reversed, breakfast nooks and ironing board cabinets added and trim customized. Sears even assembled home kits based on any other home design.
Sears offered mortgage financing for a few years, but the Great Depression caused many loans to go into default, ending that service soon thereafter.
It’s not always easy to identify a Sears home, especially as homeowners were given great freedom in customizing the designs. To determine if a home is from Sears, check to see if it was built between 1908 and 1940 (keeping in mind that a few old kits were sold through 1942). See if there are any shipping labels or the aforementioned printed numbers in the home framework. Another good sign of a Sears Modern Home is a record of a mortgage issued by Sears.
After all these years, Sears homes are still prized by collectors and are known for being of high quality in even their most humble variations.
For more information about this particular home in North White Plains, call The Home Guru at 914-522-2076.
Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is: www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.