Historic Sears kit home
Rosemary Thornton/Wikicommons

Perhaps the biggest story to hit the retail industry in 2018 was the news that Sears Holding, a 125-year-old retailer, once the nation’s largest, filed for bankruptcy protection in October.

As shoppers say goodbye to Sears, and the younger generation forgets them all together, one product might be responsible for carrying on Sears’ legacy for many years to come — 1900s Sears catalog “kit homes” that are now selling for millions of dollars all across the United States.

To understand what a kit home is, you first have to imagine the days before home-browsing websites like Zillow or Realtor.com. In the early 1900s some people bought homes through a printed catalog from Sears (known then as Sears, Roebuck, and Company). Shoppers could look at all different styles of homes for sale, and then, when they were ready to buy one, they could fill out an order form and send it through the mail.

Sears’ big success

What would happen next was quite unique. They were sent a ‘kit home’ that would arrive with over 10,000 high-quality materials and pieces, sort of like an item from Ikea, but these homes required more tools, time, and skill. The homes had to be put together from complete scratch. The pieces included precut lumber, nails, paint, fitted windows, doors, a building plan and more.

From around 1908 to the 1940s, Sears sold an estimated 70,000 kit homes in about 270 different styles, ranging from Colonial to Tudor, and even small bungalows. Prices ranged from about $600 to $6,000, which translates to be around $8,400 to $84,000 in today’s money. This allowed hundreds of thousands of Americans to become homeowners, through the Great Depression and even at the start of World War II.

Today, nobody knows for sure how many of these homes remain, but the ones that are still standing are hot commodities in the real estate market. Take for example a 1925 Colonial-style kit home in Washington, D.C., that sold in 2017 for $1.06 million, which was sold in the Sears’ catalog for $3,727 in the 1920s.

Then (1925): $53,762; Now (2017): $1.06M

What makes these homes sell for big bucks today? Not only is their quality unbeatable but they have become known as historic homes in the neighborhoods that they are in.

In Washington, a good amount of these 100-year-old kit homes are still in perfect condition. Catarina Bannier, a real estate agent and kit home expert in Northwest D.C, documents local D.C. kit homes on the website DCHouseSmarts and is currently working on a project with Historic Chevy Chase D.C. to uncover all of the neighborhood’s kit houses and make the information accessible to the public.

The next generation of kit homes

The “home in a box” trend isn’t something that’s growing extinct, it’s very much alive thanks to the modern-day Sears rival, Amazon.

Last fall, Amazon started selling shipping container homes online for around $36,000.  Allwood Industrials began selling its kit homes on Amazon in 2015, and sales have tripled over the past few years. Tapani Pekkala, the owner of Allwood Industrials, told Realtor.com that he expected to sell 3,000 kit homes this year.

Pekkala said that customers started buying these kit homes for their vacation homes but since home prices have risen, many would-be homeowners are buying residences they can build themselves.

“The cabin kits are designed for people who have never, ever built anything… some people say it’s like building a Lego house,” Pekkala says. “But when you go past 250 square feet and add that second floor, you probably want that professional crew.”