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Published: Mar 14, 2017 3 min read
Modern Home No.147, available from Sears for $872 in 1913
Sears sold a variety of plans and materials for houses, including Modern Home No.147, available for $872 in 1913.
courtesy of Sears

A century ago, the typical American's salary was $687 per year. That might not sound like much—after factoring in inflation, it's about $16,500 in today's dollars—but it was more than enough to buy a house.

Well, it was more than enough to cover the materials for a house anyway. Back then, the starting price of a house from Sears, Roebuck & Company, which shipped home components in parts that would have to be assembled by buyers, was only $659. That's the equivalent of $16,164.74 today.

A recent Reddit post pointed out this amazing historical tidbit, along with a link showing an ad from the Sears Modern Home Catalog circa 1913-1917.

Decades ago, Sears sold the plans and materials to dozens and dozens of different house styles, including the Modern Home No. 229 that surfaced on Reddit. According to the century-old ad, the $659 price covered all the lumber, lath, flooring, roof, pipes, cedar shingles, paint, and other materials needed to build a five-room bungalow, featuring two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a front porch.

The Reddit post received more than 500 comments a mere 14 hours after being published with the headline "If only new houses were still so cheap!"

While many commenters pointed out people today are frustrated because our ancestors "were able to have so much, at such little cost," others highlighted that the ad—and the price—are a bit misleading. What's easily overlooked is that the "house" doesn't come with a foundation, heat, or electricity, nor does the price include land to build on. Some Redditors surmised that the basic cost of materials for building a similar 700-square-foot home today actually might not be that different, after inflation, than what Sears was charging a century ago.

The tiny houses that have become popular in recent years, which cost as little as $20,000 for materials (or $86,500 for a modern 745-square-foot home from IKEA), are good comparisons to the old Sears catalog homes.

For what it's worth, folks who are curious about the seemingly cheap DIY homes of a century ago can readily buy vintage books featuring Sears' Modern Homes (circa 1913), popular Sears' house designs of the 1930s, and illustrated catalogs of home building supplies from 1910.

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