According to Sears archives, the retailer sold more than 100,000 kits through its Modern Homes program between 1908 and 1940. There is no official count of how many of the homes survive, but they always have been a sought-after novelty.
One morning, nine months ago, Norm Augustinus woke up, got out of bed and went into the kitchen. It was still dark. He tripped, lost his footing and fell on something.
It was his mother. She was lying on the floor with her eyes open. She was dead.
Augustinus fell apart. He and his mom had that special bond that only lucky mothers of boys know about. Crippled by his grief, the satirist and fiction writer sold the house in Tampa Bay, Fla., that he shared with his mother –– the house in which she died –– but the lost soul that he had become didn't look to find another. Instead, he lived in his car.
For a month, he sat, ate and slept in his car, behind a McDonald's. He would still be there, he said, if not for the kindness of his family –– and "The House."
The House was a rundown Craftsman. Although it was in the city's desirable historic district, not many would want this house. Built in 1925, it was owned by the same couple for 80 years. The house sat empty, deteriorating rapidly after their deaths.
Time was kinder to Augustinus. As it passed, he grew stronger, finally beginning to break free of the stranglehold grief had on him, thanks in large part to his 23-year-old niece and supporter Candice Blaylock, whom he raised.
He wanted his own house again. He started hunting and, in September, got the opportunity to buy the old house. By that time, it had been purchased by a man who had intended to fix it up but changed his mind.
Buying it wasn't a tough decision for Augustinus. He walked into the place and fell in love. He saw potential rather than ruin. The price? $120,000.
He threw himself into rehabbing the house, a diversion to keep him from thinking about his mother. He worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week for months.
"Every job I touched was tougher than the last. When you have an old home, it's an old home. Everything is tough," he said.
Then, he found a scrap of paper nailed to a rafter in the attic. It identified the structure as a Sears mail-order house, made from a kit that was shipped by rail in pieces to be assembled by the buyer.
The label was a tattered and yellowed scrap of paper, but it made the house worth several times what he paid for it if the right Sears house aficionado came along. Not that it matters to Augustinus. He said he's not selling.
It's nearly impossible to determine how many Sears homes exist in the Tampa Bay area. Many have been drastically remodeled while the origin of others is hidden.
According to Sears archives, the retailer sold more than 100,000 kits through its Modern Homes program between 1908 and 1940. There is no official count of how many of the homes survive, but they always have been a sought-after novelty. The largest cluster is said to be in the Chicago suburb of Elgin, Ill.
There were 447 house plans to choose from, and each could be modified, including reversing floor plans and using brick instead of wood siding. The original owners of Augustinus' house had made some changes to their Elsmore model, which sold for $858 to $2,391, depending on modifications.
A center vestibule on the house plans was eliminated to make the living room more open. About 40 years ago, an addition was put across the back of the house to make a modern kitchen, replacing the one located in the corner of what is now the dining room.
The renovation is just about finished. The only job left is replacing the hardwood floor in the guest bedroom that had been removed slowly over the years to patch boards elsewhere.
Augustinus has been living in the house since he bought it but sleeping in a sleeping bag, waiting until the dirt and dust of renovation settle before moving in his furniture.
It's a moment within reach. The finishing touch on a rebuilt house –– and a rebuilt life.