Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Why You Should Be Authenticating Sears Roebuck Houses with Mortgages and Deeds

Regular readers know that I've spent a lot of time locating, documenting and authenticating houses from Sears Roebuck (and McClure and Montgomery Ward) using mortgages and deeds. To date, I've documented over 4,000 Sears Roebuck homes for the National Database of Sears Homes and a significant percentage of those were located by researching mortgage records. It's a method frequently used by myself and my fellow contributors to the National Database of Sears Homes and it's a big reason why we've been able to locate and authenticate so many homes. Because it's such an important part of the work that I do, I want to explain why I consider it the gold standard for authenticating houses from Sears Roebuck. 

First, I want to make clear that I can't take credit for the idea of locating and authenticating Sears houses this way. Several of those involved in the field of researching Sears Roebuck homes, like Rebecca Hunter and Dale Wolicki, were finding homes this way long before I had ever heard of Sears houses. But where they often had to visit a County Register of Deeds office to wade through old bound books of mortgages record and/or spend hours looking at microfilm (I've done that too!), much of the mortgage research done today is accomplished at all hours of the day and night using a web browser and databases of online digitized mortgage indexes and records. While it still takes a lot of time to go through those records and match them up to properties and houses, at least it can be done from the comfort of one's homes with your favorite beverage at your side. 

Index of mortgages in Washington DC with Sears Trustee F. C. Schaub

I know that finding Sears houses this way isn't everyone's cup of tea. It's often tedious work and some people prefer the joy of finding houses "in the wild". But all the serious researchers that I know have considered it one of the few ways to definitively authenticate a Sears house, especially in the absence of any official sales records from Sears Roebuck (which were disposed of at some point in time). So I was a bit surprised to learn that there are some in the field who don't consider mortgage and deed records as "proof positive" of the authenticity of a house. From some of the comments I've read, I can only assume that those who question this approach have never done any mortgage research connected to Sears houses. Perhaps this viewpoint is based on some misconception or misunderstanding about what a mortgage record does or does not include. So to clear up any confusion over that, I thought it would be helpful to explain what those records represent and why we consider them a "proof positive" method to authenticate Sears houses. 

An Overview of Sears Mortgages

Let's start with a quick history about the financing of Sears houses and how that became such an important part of the sales of "Modern Homes" by Sears. Sears first started selling their "Modern Homes" in 1908 and within 3 years (1911) Sears started financing the purchase of their homes. While houses were likely some of the most expensive items financed by Sears, they were just one example of a broader push by Sears to extend credit to its customers generally. While financing for homes was scaled back after a few years, it picked up again in the 1920s and was one of the principle drivers of  sales of "Modern Homes" until mounting losses from mortgage defaults led Sears to stop financing homes at the end of 1933. While Sears continued to sell homes into the first half of 1942, the years when Sears sold the most homes also coincided with the years when Sears was financing the purchase of its homes by its customers. 

We know that Sears financed tens of thousands of homes and every one of those homes had a mortgage associated with it (I refer to this as part of the "Great Sears Paper Trail"). The financing of ones house through Sears wasn't much different than someone financing the construction of a new home today, except more often that not, you were the one building the home! You needed to own a piece of property where you were going to build your house which served as your collateral to secure the loan. Once you were able to show your ownership of that property and provide a down payment, Sears would issue a mortgage under the name of one of their trustees for a percentage of the value of the plans and materials that they were selling to you and in some cases, the cost of the labor to construct the house. With the funds provided by Sears, you would purchase from Sears the plans and materials for your future home and be on your way to building and owning a new home (or paying someone to build it for you).  

The percentage of the total amount that Sears financed varied over the years as did the length of the loans. In the later years that Sears was offering mortgages, Sears extended the terms of their loans to 15 years and started using junior and senior mortgages against properties to keep monthly payments affordable as the American economy declined in the late 1920s and early 1930s. 

Cover of 1930 "Modern Homes" catalog highlighting 15 year mortgages

In the mortgage documents, Sears made clear the intent of the loan - the customer was expected to build a house of a certain value in a defined period of time.  

Excerpt from 1922 Sears mortgage filed in Washington DC

So long as the customer kept up on their payments, all was good. If they didn't, Sears had the legal authority to foreclose on the house and property, an action that Sears would take in the good years and bad.

How Sears Mortgages Lead the Way to Sears Houses

If you've ever taken out a mortgage to purchase a home, you know that a mortgage is tied to a specific piece of property. The lending institution doesn't just lend you money to purchase any old piece of property you want. Instead, the mortgage and the value of it, is tied to a specific property and generally the house and any other structures on the property. From those long ago Sears Roebuck mortgage documents, we're able to get property descriptions that, for the most part, we're able to track back to the current day location of the property. 

Depending on the locality, when the mortgage was paid off, Sears would also issue a deed for the property, indicating that the mortgage had been paid off and that Sears no longer held an interest in the property. This can be helpful in communities where records of deeds are available but mortgages are not. Deeds were also issued to property owners who purchased a foreclosed property from Sears. So if you can't get your hands on mortgages, see if deeds from Sears Roebuck are available as they'll generally have the same property description that appeared on the original mortgage. 

Sears Crescent authenticated by Sears mortgage in Takoma Park, Maryland

Whether your starting point is a mortgage or a deed, sometimes the process of tracking down that property is easy, like in places where the same subdivision names and lot numbers are still used and those subdivision plats are documented. Not so easy are places where those original property descriptions are no longer used or relied on measurements like "starting at the oak tree 5 chains east of the Bladensburg Turnpike". But we persevere and in many, many cases, have been able to find our way back to the properties where Sears financed a house.

When we get there and if the original house is still standing, 98 percent of the time (my best guess), we find a house that we can identify as a model sold by Sears. Through the passing of time, many of those houses have been altered in one way or another. But it's rare that we can't figure out which model house it started out as when purchased from Sears (and we've seen more than our share of homes that have been supersized or altered almost to the point of losing any connection to the original design). Of the remaining 2 percent, the house represents a design that never appeared in the "Modern Homes" catalog. In that case, the house likely represents a custom design requested by the customer that Sears provided the plans and materials to construct. In very rare cases, we see a house based on a plan book design or a house design offered by another kit house company that Sears "borrowed" and provided the plans and material to construct. 

Why Sears Mortgages and Deed are the Gold Standard for Authenticating Sears Houses

Once we've connected the house to the property that has the mortgage or deed, in our view, there's no need to do any additional hoop jumping to consider the house authenticated (where the house matches a design from the "Modern Homes" catalog). The provenance of the home has been established through the existence of the original mortgage or deed for the home through Sears Roebuck. Sears Roebuck mortgage/deed plus house design from the Sears catalog is "proof positive" that you've found an authenticated Sears house. With custom houses, we generally like to find additional details, like Sears door hardware, that can help us confirm the Sears origin of the house (if there are questions about the date of construction, for example). This is why I consider mortgages and deeds the gold standard for authenticating houses. No other method will allow you to accurately and consistently authenticate houses from Sears Roebuck with the certainty that a mortgage/deed record provides. 

Houses that don't have a mortgage or deed can also be authenticated but those require a deeper dive to find either a definitive piece of evidence, like marked lumber or Sears blueprints, where those exist, or a preponderance of evidence indicating that a house is from Sears. For example, if my house did not have a mortgage from Sears (it did), the fact that the house design matches the design of the  "Hamilton" model inside and out, has Sears door hardware throughout the house and a fireplace design that appears in the "Modern Homes" catalog, would be sufficient for most researchers to authenticate it as a Sears Roebuck house. 

The Proof is in the Pudding

In my view, if your community has mortgage records from the years that Sears was offering financing that are publicly available, your starting point for any serious research should begin with a review of those records. In my experience and that of my fellow kit house researchers, researching mortgages has been the most productive method of locating and authenticating Sears houses. It's not unusual to be able to authenticate 80 - 90 percent of identified Sears houses in a community using mortgage and deed records. After you've identified those properties and any houses on them, it then makes sense to move on to other methods to locate and/or authenticate Sears houses. 

Sears Vallonia authenticated by Sears mortgage in Alexandria, Virginia

The success of this approach has been demonstrated time and again in communities throughout the areas of the United States where Sears offered financing for the houses. Most recently, my fellow kit house researcher Judith Chabot  authenticated 125 Sears houses in the city of Alexandria and Arlington County, Virginia (as well as another 15 houses from McClure and 1 from Montgomery Ward) using mortgage records. While a number of these homes were already listed in the National Database of Sears Houses, very few of them had been authenticated. Thanks to Judith's months of research, we've now been able to authenticate almost 80 percent of the Sears houses documented in the two communities. For those that remain, other methods of authenticating the houses can be pursued. But for the 125 - even those that have been significantly modified through large additions and modernization - we know that they started out as houses from Sears Roebuck and can be accurately identified as such. What other approach can give us that level of certainty? 

While the use of mortgage and deed records, where they are available, will help us locate and authenticate many of the Sears houses that were built, it's not the end-all-to-be-all. In some communities, mortgage and deed records for this era are simply unavailable or not easily accessible. We also know that not every Sears house was financed through Sears. That's especially true in the early years and after 1933, when Sears stopped financing homes. But for those willing to put the time and effort into the mortgage research, I think you'll find the effort will pay off when you're able to authenticate homes that have already been documented and find "new" homes that had not been previously found. Sears has left behind a paper trail to find many of their homes. Now you just have to follow it! 

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