Marilyn Raschka spends many of her weekends driving around unfamiliar neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking her way into strangers' basements. Once downstairs, she breaks out her flashlight and shines it along exposed beams, hunting for a letter and some numbers that are each no bigger than a thumbprint.
The 61-year-old resident of Hartford, Wis., is part of a small cadre of historians and passionate amateurs on a mission to identify and protect homes made by Sears, Roebuck and Co. About 70,000 to 100,000 of them were sold through Sears catalogs from 1908 to 1940. Distressed that the houses are falling victim to the recent boom in teardowns and renovations, their fans are scouring neighborhoods across the country, snapping pictures and sometimes braving snakes and poison ivy to poke around basements and attics for the telltale stamps that mark the lumber in most of the catalog homes. Because people can be shy about the state of their basements, Ms. Raschka brings along photos of her own messy cellar to persuade them to let her in.
Precut houses ordered from a Sears catalog were shipped by boxcar in 30,000 pieces -- including shingles, nails and paint -- and assembled by a local carpenter or by the buyers themselves. Styles ranged from the elaborate, nearly $6,000 Magnolia, to the three-room, no-bath Goldenrod, sold in 1925 for $445. (Outhouses sold separately.) One of the larger Sears models, constructed in Takoma Park, Md., sold last year for about $900,000, according to a local real-estate agent.
The homes caught on as the U.S. population grew and Americans began to move away from crowded city centers. Their popularity also was driven by the rise of company towns. In Carlinville, Ill., for example, Standard Oil ordered homes for its mine workers, 152 of which are still standing.
Sears also encouraged sales to families with steady wages but little in savings by financing up to 100 percent of some of the homes. But many homeowners were forced to default during the Depression, and sales came to an end in 1940.
Like some of the die-hard hunters, Ms. Raschka herself lives in a Sears home, a 1928 Mitchell model. "My passion is to find my house's long-lost sisters and brothers," she says.
Some Sears-home buffs are like bird-watchers, seeking a feeling of accomplishment from spotting a rare style and matching it to one of the hundreds of examples in old Sears catalogs. Nostalgia is a big part of it, too: Interest in the homes, many of which are bungalows and other modest styles, is partly a backlash against the wave of supersized subdivisions and the cropping up of so-called McMansions in many old neighborhoods.
The mail-order houses, many of which had big porches and were made from high-quality materials like early-growth cypress, were less expensive than architect-designed houses at the time, and were often all working-class people could afford. Because they were typically a family's first home -- and because they were often a do-it-yourself project for buyers -- the houses, enthusiasts say, are emblematic of the American dream.
National preservation groups haven't made Sears homes a priority. It's unclear how many are listed on the National Register of Historic Places; just being a mail-order home in itself won't qualify a structure, says a register spokeswoman. The National Trust for Historic Preservation considers the homes historically important, says Midwest Director Royce Yeater, but "there are just so many."
The possibility that thousands of Sears homes are still standing around the country has only further piqued the curiosity of buffs, keeping them on the lookout for the so-called "kit" homes. The blitz of teardowns in neighborhoods across the country in recent years has added a sense of urgency to their quest.
Dale Wolicki, a property consultant in Bay City, Mich., keeps several milk crates of house plans in his car at all times in case he spots a match while on road trips for work. Donna Bakke, a Cincinnati social worker, has enlisted the help of her Girl Scout troop, which has studied pictures of Sears homes, in checking out neighborhoods. "They can spot about a half-dozen models at 100 paces," she says. Returning from canoe trips, "they don't even blink if I tell them we're taking a detour."
In the guide she published, "Finding the Houses That Sears Built," Rosemary Thornton warns that "some homeowners become quite upset when they discover someone is parked outside, staring at their home," and suggests leaving the car running in case you need to leave in a hurry. There's a section in her book titled "Law Enforcement Officials" that says, "Police don't care about Sears homes and when you're explaining, ... less is more."
It's difficult to know how many Sears homes are left. Sears doesn't have sales records, and while interest in catalog homes is growing, many people still don't know they are living in one. In addition, identifying a Sears isn't like spotting a steel-paneled Lustron, the ranch houses built to ease the housing shortage after World War II. The hundreds of styles Sears offered varied widely, and many of the homes have been altered over the years. Further complicating matters, a handful of other companies, such as the Aladdin Co., of Bay City, Mich., and Gordon-Van Tine Co., of Davenport, Iowa, produced mail-order homes closely resembling Sears models.
Even if a house does match a picture in an old Sears catalog, it could be a later rip-off by a local builder -- or a popular style that Sears emulated in its designs. Inside the house, hints like Sears-labeled woodwork can also be misleading, because Sears sold such things separately. One way to tell: a stamp of a letter and a three-digit number on beams, which were marked to facilitate assembly.
Measuring the space between studs, or support posts, can be another clue in verifying a Sears home, especially in an area with a lot of Sears imitations, according to Kathryn Holt Springston, a 53-year-old semiretired social historian with the Smithsonian Institution. The studs of older non-Sears houses in the Washington, D.C. area are often 22 to 24 inches apart, she says, compared with about 15 inches in Sears models. When she spots what she thinks might be a Sears home in the Washington area, she asks to be let into the house, and then straps on a headlamp and looks for exposed studs in the attic, closets and basement. Ms. Springston has ripped up floorboards and sometimes uses a metal detector to find nails in studs in the walls. She says she crawled through poison ivy in one abandoned home and once encountered a snake in someone's basement. (She measured anyway.)
Ms. Springston says she once held a memorial service for a Sears home that was being torn down, a 1919 Sunlight model demolished several years ago in Arlington, Va., after the owner was forced to sell. "We said, 'Bless you, house.' "
Many people who live in the homes have grown accustomed to the handful of strangers who show up each year asking to see the basement or attic. Clarice Hausman, whose 1920s-era Westly sits off a state road in central Illinois, keeps pictures of the house's stamped beams near the door. "You can't just let everybody in," she says.