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Sizing up Sears ‘kit’ homes for today’s living style

By Amanda Abrams,

Imagine purchasing all of the elements that go into building a house — pre-cut boards, nails, hinges, doorknobs, pipes, wiring, shingles and all — by mail, then using a detailed, 75-page instruction book to put them together yourself. Then imagine that you did such a good job of it that 80 years later, the house is not only standing and functional, but it’s also coveted by home buyers.

That’s the novelty of the Sears “kit” home, a product that was common to the Washington area during the early part of the last century. Today, thousands of the homes can be found in in Arlington County, Alexandria, Silver Spring and the District’s Chevy Chase and Palisades neighborhoods.

Although it takes a trained eye to tell whether a house is made from a kit, residents who own them say they’re more solid and well-built than many others constructed around the same time. The houses’ charming facades evoke an iconic image of America, and many of their owners have found creative ways to transform the original collection of rooms to meet modern needs without completely compromising the original character they fell in love with.

The interior beams and rafters in Ed Sutherland’s 1918 Del Ray bungalow “look like they were carved out of trees,” he said. He bought his home in 1999 for $300,000 from the original owner, who recalled how his father and uncle built it themselves. He has since refinished the oak floors and restored the round columns out front. “It’s as original as I could keep it,” he said.

Kit houses were a decidedly early-20th century phenomenon. The idea of selling a home’s parts by mail resonated at a time when the population was swelling, labor was cheap and home building was still relatively simple. Dozens of companies were marketing the homes, but Sears, which was in the business from 1908 to 1940, was the best known, which is why kit homes are often generically called “Sears houses.” In total, the firm offered 370 designs — ranging from bungalows most common in this area to Cape Cods and Tudors. Generally, they cost about two-thirds the price of a traditional home.

To many home buyers, it was a bargain. Sears’s 1928 “Van Jean” model home, a six-room Dutch colonial, cost $2,636 — the equivalent of $34,826 in today’s dollars — for 25 tons of materials that arrived on a railroad boxcar. Of course, that price tag didn’t include labor, but according to Rose Thornton, the author of several books on kit houses, roughly half of the buyers assembled the homes themselves.

The Washington area once had three Sears sales centers where customers could examine models in person, which means it was one of the company’s biggest markets, Thornton said.

Today, Sears homes typically sell for anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million, depending on their condition. Nancy Hammond, an agent with Evers & Co., remembers selling a kit home in Palisades last year for $860,000 — and it didn’t have a finished basement or even air conditioning. Part of the appeal, of course, is that the majority of kit homes are found in sought-after inner-ring suburbs.

Kit houses were constructed from lumber hewn from slow-growing virgin forest, mostly southern yellow pine and cypress, that was dense and heavy — utterly unlike most of the wood used in construction today and far more stable. Less tangibly, Thornton posits that homes built by family members for those they loved were constructed with extra care.

Today’s owners say that they take pains to preserve the front exterior of their Sears home but that they find the floor plan too small to meet today’s expectations of increased space and light. So they rely on architectural creativity to add a second floor or extend the house from the rear to make it work.

In the District’s Palisades neighborhood, Lisa Racioppi dramatically renovated her mother’s 900-square-foot kit home rather than see it sold and torn down.

“We sawed the house in half, almost,” Racioppi said. Although the front of the house is intact — including the wide porch and its iconic only-in-a-kit-home clusters of pillars in each corner — the home has been expanded on both sides and the original back of the house is gone, replaced by a sunny, spacious family room. The home, now more than three times its original size, features a finished and expanded basement, a family room that opens onto the back yard, and an open kitchen.

Bethesda architect Mark McInturff says those are typical renovations for kit homes. “They tend to be smaller houses — a large collection of small rooms,” said McInturff, who has worked on several kit homes. “I end up making them a smaller collection of large rooms.” Plus, in the early 1900s, back yards were not used for relaxation, so retrofitting them for modern life means finding a way to connect the front of the house to the back.

Racioppi managed to salvage a few elements from her old house, notably the original bath and plumbing fixtures, some floors, and part of the staircase. But by and large, the house is almost an entirely new entity, one that’s airy and bright.

“The contractors said it would have been cheaper and quicker to have demolished the whole thing, but I felt attached” to the house, Racioppi said. “I wanted it to look very familiar. We’re planning on staying a long time.”

There are drawbacks to a kit home. Although made of sturdy materials, not all homes assembled by their owners were well put together.

By the time Randall and Jean Caswell moved into their bungalow in the Silver Spring neighborhood of Woodside Park, it had already been altered several times — and not necessarily in the most complimentary way.

“The whole rear was an addition but a very poorly designed one,” said Julia Caswell-Daitch, the couple’s daughter and an architect. The front porch had been turned into a sunroom — appealing from within but not particularly attractive on the outside — and a second bedroom had been added upstairs, breaking up the long bungalow roofline.

Caswell-Daitch set about trying to reestablish the home’s identity. With some digging, the family determined that the home was a 1924 Sears “Walton” model and examined the original floor plans to see exactly how it had been altered. “That gave us a few clues about how to add on to it,” Caswell-Daitch said.

She designed a new front porch for the house, one based on a highly stylized arts-and-crafts model that included a broad terrace and trellises. The new facade brought the house into the yard and softened the uneven line of the roof. Later, the family renovated the kitchen and added an elevator to the back of the house, to assist the Caswells as they got older.

“It’s hugely different from the original plan,” said Caswell-Daitch. Like other Sears homeowners who have made major alterations, few would know their homes originated in a kit.

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.

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