Sunday, February 7, 2016

Hunting Down a Mortgage: Sears Sunlight in Cincinnati, Ohio

sears sunlight model in springdale area of cincinnati ohio
Authenticated Sears Sunlight • 578 Smiley Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio • 1929
(Source: listing)
This simple little bungalow, a Sears Sunlight from 1929, took a good bit of cross-referencing and digging to find, let me tell you.

Andrew Mutch, of the Kit House Hunters blog, posted today about the benefits of searching for kit houses through mortgage records ("The Great Sears Papertrail"). He has been posting lately about the many houses (many! as in, hundreds!) he has located this year through mortgage records, and about how satisfying it is to know that you've authenticated the house you're looking at, you've added it to the master list of Sears houses being compiled for purposes of historic documentation, and you don't have to second guess, or do floor plan comparisons, or look for marked lumber in a dark basement.

But, the process can be complicated.  And, there are many ways to attack the search, depending on what resource you have begun with.  You might be starting with a mortgage or foreclosure listing found via a county assessor website.  That might have been a quick find... or, more likely, that might have been a find that necessitated jumping through one hoop, and then another, or tediously wading through page after page of a non-indexed mortgage and deed book.

Or, you might have started with a mention in the legal section of an online newspaper from the 1920s or 1930s, or from a mention in a longer newspaper article, or from a mention in an ad in a 1920s or 30s newspaper (say, for a model home, like this Wardway Devonshire --no mortgage for the latter, but, it's authenticated now!).

sears modern homes 1929 catalog image sears sunlight
Sears Sunlight as shown in
Cindy Catanzaro's 1929 Sears Modern Homes catalog.
sears sunlight price 1929
From page 95 of the 1929 catalog.
578 smiley avenue cincinnati ohio sears sunlight
This was about all I could see using Google maps,
but it does show the side windows,
and that is important to narrowing down the model of the house.

Or, authenticating your house might end up involving a big, hairy combination of a bunch of those sources... and, you might find, after lots of digging, that you had already read about the house in a newspaper article you were shown a month or so before.

So, here are the steps I went through yesterday and today, to finally come up with a definite ID on this house.  This is how I explained it to my researcher friends in our FaceBook group:

Here's the kind of trail you sometimes have to follow to track down a mortgage: Charles and Grace O'Brien -- Sears Sunlight at 578 Smiley, Springdale area of Cincinnati. Found only with the help of several sources-- Cindy originally had a long newspaper article that was talking about numerous folks who were building houses in Cincinnati. But, she also found a mention just recently of his mortgage (Sept. 4, 1929, Walker O. Lewis), in the Cincy Enquirer. I was doing the Ancestry legwork for her... but, there were too many Charles O'Briens! Then, she realized we might have his name in that other article, and sure enough, it said he was on Smiley... near Greenlawn... nothing had the actual address. I looked for the first house that seemed older than the others, and the tax records said that the build year was 1945... but, upon clicking on the actual ownership card in the files, I found that Charles and Grace O'Brien were listed as owners. Whew!

Starting last night, and ending up with an answer today
Here's how it played out.
Cindy Catanzaro gave me a short list of names and dates for homes she had seen in legal listings for mortgage transactions, in a historic Cincinnati newspaper (no addresses or streets or blocks or lot numbers given at all).
You can see where I labeled Charles O'Brien's address, once I found it. 

I was helping out by using to try to attach those names to an address, through census records and city directories. If you find an address for the person, you check out what the house looks like, using Google Maps.  I was tired, but I wanted to do some research, so I did a quick look up of all 12 of those names.  I found only three leads: one was a house that is definitely not a Sears house (might have been where the person getting the mortgage lived... but, maybe they weren't building for themselves, or maybe they only had a mortgage for building materials); one was just a hot mess of a house, that looked vaguely like every bungalow ever made, but mangled; and one was so covered by shrubs and a huge tree, that all I could see was that it was light blue, and had a little bay window on the side. I was tired. I gave up.
Here's my message to Cindy late last night.

Taking a second look: This morning, I felt re-energized, and I definitely didn't want Cindy to have to RE-check every name I had already done a (shoddy) search for, so I started by re-investigating the three actual addresses I had found.  Many of the others seemed to have gone to addresses that are now smack in the middle of a highway, or where there is a Pizza Hut now, or the street name doesn't even exist anymore.  So, I wanted to note those specifics on the list she had given me, so that she didn't go re-checking those addresses.

Of the houses I did have: duuuh.  Two were good! One was the now-mangled mess of a Sears Windsor:
Click any image to enlarge.
The other turned out to be a nice little Sears Somers, with an enclosed porch... and the Hamilton County Auditor's website helped me out with this one, too:
Turns out there is what looks like a nice little Sears Josephine a few houses away!
A cooler head prevailed :)

I re-traced my steps in for all 12 of the names on the list.
I still ended up finding that many of the houses were no longer there, but I also did find this cute little Sears Claremont.  It turns out that it was already on our list, and, when I showed it to Cindy, I found out that the previous owner, who had it up for sale in 2013, had contacted Cindy via her FaceBook page (Sears Modern Homes). But... now, it is authenticated with a mortgage record!

7001 palmetto cincinnati ohio for sale

Sears Claremont at 7001 Palmetto, Cincinnati, Ohio
 1929 mortgage by Elizabeth L. Willis,
with Walker O. Lewis, Sears trustee.
I found too many Charles O'Briens in Cincinnati! And, the last name on the list, was that of Charles O'Brien.  Come on, now. O'Brien? Charles? Can we come up with any more common American names? As you can imagine, the 1930 and 1940 census, and the city directories for Cincinnati of the era, had numerous (numerous!) listings for this name. And, some even had the same wife's name, I think.  I finally narrowed it down to an address on Brewster Avenue... and the location was now something like a strip mall or a warehouse or a McDonald's. So, I had crossed off old Charles O'Brien from the list.

Into play comes the long newspaper article! But, Cindy suddenly remembered a several-column newspaper article that she had shown some of us, all about new Sears homes being contracted for in the Cincinnati area... well over two dozen.  The names were listed with a street name only, and, when we read it, we realized that we had found several of those names already, while (tediously) wading through the un-indexed Cincinnati mortgage books (there are many, many, many of these books, with hundreds of pages each... and we have been looking through them page by page).  But, many more were left to be found.  We each got busy with other researching, and hadn't returned to looking for the names in that article. One, however, was Charles O'Brien:
Charles O'Brien was one of the last names mentioned!
Oh boy. Great.  A street name! But... as it turns out, when I went back to, I found that I was able to narrow things down to Charles and Grace O'Brien... on Smiley Avenue... but... no house number! None of the resources gave a house address on Smiley! Thanks to the newspaper article, however, I knew that the house would be near Greenlawn Avenue.  And, since many of the houses on Smiley right around that spot, seemed to be newer builds from the 1940s or 1950s, I narrowed in on a couple of older-looking houses.

Darn. I found one of the dreaded straight-shot bungalows (Crafton, Winona, Hampton, Grant, Sunlight, etc.)... usually impossible to identify for certain as a Sears house, without a mortgage or something like that. But, I did have a mortgage! So, I turned again to the Hamilton County Auditor's website, and looked up the address of this house... and it told me it was built in 1945. Pfff. Our mortgage was for 1929!  Well... those dates are very often inaccurate. So, I dug further into the information on the house. Lo and behold! I found that the first owner listed on the tax card was: Charles O'Brien and his wife, Grace!

hamilton county auditor
Source: Hamilton County Ohio Auditor

So, that, folks, is how we jointly authenticated the Sears Sunlight at 578 Smiley Avenue, in Cincinnati, Ohio, through mortgage records. Piece of cake.

sears sunlight floor plan 1929 catalog
By the way, here's the floor plan of the Sears Sunlight,
as shown in the 1929 catalog.
Of course, as Andrew points out in today's blog post about the value of searching mortgage records, it really isn't the only way to find kit houses. And, of course, it's lots of fun to drive, or Google-Map- drive, around an area, and spot a kit house.  Or to come across one in a real estate listing. Not to mention that the great majority of Sears homes were probably not mortgaged through Sears (and, as Cindy mentioned in a recent blog post, there were at least 3000 just in the Cincinnati area), and won't be found using mortgage records.

But... we love our mortgage searching.  We love authenticating our houses.  And, we think it's important.  We're not about just collecting pretty pictures of Sears houses. We want to contribute to a historic record that documents these homes. And, we want to be as accurate as possible.  So... we continue! It might seem like tedious work, but it's really more like a great puzzle, and we love it.

On to more searching!


  1. I sure can relate to this post! Often, the ones that you think may be the easiest find take the most work. But when it pays off with another house added to the list, it sure makes it worthwhile!

  2. It's quite a process, that's for sure. And too funny that I totally forgot about that article with the 32 houses listed. It will take us a long time to track down everything I'm finding in the Cincinnati Enquirer. And an even longer time to blog about them. We're set for years. :)

  3. I would like to have the house from the second photo. =Great house and setting

  4. My husband and I bought the cute Sears Claremont you have pictured here in December 2014. We fell in love with it immediately. It's neat to see it on your blog!

    1. Ah! How nice! It is a cute house :)

    2. By the way, Harmony, I'd love to do a blog post featuring your house, if you're interested! It would be great to have a few interior shots, if you're willing. If you contact me directly, at my email address (searsHouseSeeker/gmail), we can discuss it. Let me know if you're interested :)

  5. I would love to have that house even if it was 200 years old. They definitely knew how to make them back then, the materials are still holding up all this time later. I can not believe all the work you put in tracing those roots, great job. You gave me some new avenues to use in my searches now.


Please include your contact information if you have a question or are offering information!
Your comment will appear after it has been previewed and approved by the blog author. Thanks for your interest!