Neighborhoods throughout Clawson, Royal Oak, Berkley and Ferndale boast a diversity of homes—everything from quaint English cottages, to cozy bungalows, to sturdy American foursquares, to classic Dutch colonials. And, at least a few of those homes were ordered as kits from a catalog.
Michigan is thought to have the large number of such homes, due in part to the relatively close proximity to Sears’ and Wards’ warehouses, which were located in Chicago, as well as the state’s abundance of railroad lines, according to Garry Andrews, president of the Ferndale Historical Society.
Never heard of a kit home? Neither had Serena and Jim Stock of Berkley until a next-door neighbor told them their 1927 colonial was a Martha Washington model ordered from a Sears Roebuck catalog. The neighbor, as it turns out, is the owner of a Sears Lexington model built in 1919, and across the street is a rare 1927 Honor model.
“Once we learned our house was a Sears kit home, we got excited and started looking into it,” Serena said. Today, the couple is listed as Sears Homes enthusiasts at www.searsarchives.com and owns a collection of books and other memorabilia on mail order homes, including a Sears poster that advertises their Martha Washington for $3,727 in the 1920s.
In Royal Oak, Gilda’s Club on Rochester Road is an example of a Sears catalog home. Although additions have been built, the original structure was purchased from a catalog in 1913, boasts Executive Director Laura Varon Brown, who like the Stocks, has a book showing what the clubhouse originally looked like.
Dream homes (some assembly required)
Between 1908 and 1940, Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Wards and other companies offered pre-cut homes for sale through mail order catalogs. Sears alone estimates it sold more than 70,000 such homes across the country until World War II intervened. By all accounts, the homes were extremely well designed and many are still in use in Metro Detroit.
The 1908 Sears catalog offered 44 house styles, ranging in price from $495 to $4,115. According to one account, the average Sears home would arrive in two railroad boxcars and consisted of between 10,000-30,000 pieces. A 75-page, leather-bound book of construction details would accompany the shipment.
A home required an estimated 352 hours of carpenter labor to assemble, according to a 1926 Sears Roebuck catalog, which promised a person of average abilities could build the house, but advised that a local carpenter could be hired for about $450 to assemble it. In 2013 dollars, that would be equivalent to $11,250.
A kit home cost 30-40 percent less to build than a comparable stick-built home, according Rose Thornton, author of “The Houses That Sears Built.”
“The average fellow could order his dream home out of the Sears Roebuck catalog, and within 90 days, his kit would be delivered to the train station,” said Thornton. “Fifty percent of kit homes were built by the buyer.”
It’s likely Henry Ford’s $5 workday, announced in 1914, played a role in their popularity, according to Andrews.
“People from the south were coming up to work in factories,” Andrews said. “Kit homes were modest and affordable. It might take many years to finish the interior the way you wanted, but the shell could be put up quickly and conveniently.”
[Tuesday we'll continue our series on Local Mail Order Homes (Some Assembly Required) when we talk to current local owners of mail order homes.]
Do you have a favorite story or memory of a Sears or Wards home? If so, please post a comment or upload a photo.