Immigrants and minorities struggling to buy their own homes after the turn of the century had an unlikely ally—the powerful Sears, Roebuck & Company.
Sears sold mail-order kit homes and provided easy-qualification mortgages from 1908 to 1940, putting about 70,000 houses into the hands of enterprising folks looking to build their dream dwelling with their own two hands.
And all across the country, including in Charlottesville, the legacy of those homes is still felt today.
“The intent was to create a house mom and dad built that could be passed through the generations. They were latched onto a piece of the American dream,” said Rosemary Thornton, author of The Houses That Sears Built. Thornton is an unabashed Sears home fangirl—to her, they should be registered as historic locations, preserved and honored for their role in real estate’s past. “It’s not just about the house,” she says. “Sears was so progressive and helped so many marginalized people get a house. You didn’t have to come from the right part of town to own your own home.”
Thornton has identified nearly two dozen Sears model homes in Charlottesville and surrounding towns. Whether it’s the 2,900-square-foot Glen Falls luxury model in C’ville, the bevy of Carlins in Waynesboro or the Sears Dover-cum-restaurant in Crozet, many of the homes are still in working order and picture-perfect representations of Sears catalog images.
And the legacy of the Sears kit home—along with those by Aladdin Homes, Montgomery Ward and other manufacturers—is still felt in modern modular and prebuilt housing. While folks aren’t necessarily buying 12,000 pieces of lumber through the mail and throwing up their own siding, some are still drawn to housing designs that feature standard components manufactured off-site and assembled in place.
Casati Copeland, co-owner of local housing provider Green Modern Kits and a kit home owner herself, says that, in fact, she won’t sell to anyone who doesn’t have a reputable contractor at the ready to assemble the home.
“The client’s prefab project success is tied to my success, so no you may not buy my kits, get a keg of beer and invite your friends up for the weekend to build a house,” she says.
When the houses are complete, they should have a reasonably small footprint, but “these are not tiny homes,” Copeland says. “These are homes with two to three bedrooms that families can use for their different life stages.”
Copeland says she and her husband were attracted to kit homes because they allowed them to bring together their love of technology and cutting-edge design. Using prefab components allowed them to contract with a high-end architect while ending up with a modular, insulated home capable of being taken off the grid with solar power.
Copeland and her husband aren’t unlike those hands-on folks who built kit houses 100 years ago. But times have changed, according to Thornton, and we’re probably not going back to department store dwellings anytime soon.
“Building codes vary from locale to locale, so if you’re building a house in Florida, it’s different from California and Virginia,” she says. “And housing became increasingly complex. Electrical, plumbing and heating were sold separately from Sears homes…so they were primitive by today’s standards.”