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Local Kit Homes 'Built Like a Tank,' Say Owners

If you live in Royal Oak, Ferndale or Berkley chances are your home (or that of a neighbor) might have been ordered from a catalog.

To catch up on Local Mail Order Homes (Some Assembly Required), read the full series. 

When a next-door neighbor told Serena and Jim Stock of Berkley their 1927 colonial home was a Martha Washington model ordered from a Sears Roebuck catalog, they were more than intrigued.

“Once we learned our house was a Sears kit home, we got excited and started looking into it,” Serena said. Today, the couple are self-described Sears Home enthusiasts, studying books, blogs and anything they can get their hands on to learn more about their mail order home.

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.

Jim, an architect, appreciates the aesthetics and construction of his "sturdy" house. "These homes were built to last," he said.

Over the years, previous homeowners, tweaked the Martha Washington design here and there, but the Stocks are committed to sticking to the blueprints.

"Whenever we have to make repairs, we try to do it in a way that restores the original design of the house," Jim said.

Built like a tank, filled with history

A few streets away from the Stocks’ house in Berkley is a “pretty, pretty Sears Preston model," according to Rose Thornton, the author of “The Houses That Sears Built.”

“The Preston is rare. It’s a big fancy house,” said Thornton. It’s one of the top five most expensive homes Sears offered. Indeed, the Berkley home's first owner was Ernest R. Baldwin, a former mayor of Berkley.

Pete and Joan Sanders are the current owners of the Preston, which was built in 1917. Pete, after falling in love with the exterior of the house, left a note on the door for the previous owner offering to buy the house. Joan was not as excited as her husband until she saw the interior.

“Once I saw the inside, I had to have it,” she said. The couple says the house and its finishes are constructed of "ridiculously good" materials. “It’s built like a tank.”

The Sanders have gone to great lengths to research the history of their home. Through census and county deed records they have been able to reach out to the seven previous owners of their home, including a descendant of the Baldwin family, currently living in California, who sent numerous photographs of the early days of the house. One of the photos shows it originally had third-story dormers.

"The owner had the dormers removed because they thought they made the house look too modern," Pete said.

Expressing similar sentiment to the Stock family, the Sanders say they intend to rebuild those dormers in the future.

Do you live in a kit home?

Unfortunately, not all kit homeowners have been as lucky as the Sanders. Dane and Theresa Nielsen of Royal Oak had no idea their house was a kit home until a friend poking around in their basement pointed out lumber with telltale identifying marks. Jackie Perantoni, also of Royal Oak, did not realize the history of her house until she saw photographs of a kit home in a newspaper article.

“The house in the story looked exactly like my house, so I started doing some research,” Peratoni said.

And, Dennis Murphy, of Royal Oak, first discovered his home is a Montgomery Wards Maywood model after a friend pointed out she saw his house on a blog.

“I called my older brother. He used to work for Wards in Chicago and he had heard of catalog houses," Murphy said. "He said, ‘Your house is a kit house? That’s crazy!’ It is so cool. It makes me look at my house in a whole new way.” 

By far, however, the most common way to learn the history of your home is the way Laura Wicke of Royal Oak did—from an “85-year old neighbor.”

But it’s not enough to have your neighbor tell you your house is Sears home, according to Thornton. You have to do some research. Thornton estimates 80 percent of “stories” about Sears Homes turn out to be erroneous.

“Most of the time, people do indeed have a kit home, but it’s a kit home from a different company,” Thornton said. In addition to Sears and Wards, other companies, including Sterling, Harris Bros, Lewis Manufacturing, Gordon Van Tine and the Aladdin Company out of Bay City, MI, sold kit homes on a national level.

[Wednesday we'll continue our series on Local Mail Order Homes (Some Assembly Required) when we give tips on how to identify Sears catalog 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.

Cathy January 08, 2013 at 12:03 PM
The Berkley Library has books that detail the Berkley homes that are kit homes. May be strictly Sears kit homes.
Mickey January 08, 2013 at 01:00 PM
I live in a home in Royal Oak that is 1917 , where do I look to see if mine is a Sears or Montgomery home? I would love to know!!
Jalyn January 08, 2013 at 01:49 PM
Very interesting! I had no idea. Looking forward to the follow up article.
Laurie Welsh January 08, 2013 at 04:46 PM
Cathy, How does the Library get that list? Are the homes on there submitted by the owners, or can an owner check the list to find out if their house is on there?
Sarah Ross February 20, 2013 at 07:38 PM
Cathy, do you have any more info about the list? I went to the library today and they didn't know about it. They said several people have stopped in recently to ask, but they didn't know what it was.

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