If you live in an older home, you’ve probably wondered who sat on your porch long before you or when your bathroom was last renovated. Whether it’s a century-old farm structure or a contemporary new property, every house has a history (though some are admittedly more fascinating than others). If you’re curious about the history of your house, here are some of the ways you can find out.
1. The house’s construction might provide some clues
From the backyard to the basement, there may be all sorts of existing clues about the history of a house. Several indications you might want to look for include the materials used, the style of architecture, and items buried in the backyard or underneath the home.
A. Examine the materials used
Over the years, a wide variety of materials have been used to build houses. The material used (and the style of craftsmanship) can help you piece together information on when the house was constructed and the span of time since any modifications were made.
For example, try taking a look under the water tank lid of the toilet. If the toilet in your house is the original, you’ll likely find the date stamp on the water tank lid, which will give you a good idea of when the house was constructed. If the original toilet were replaced, the date stamp would at least help you estimate when the bathroom was last remodeled.
Another way to look for clues is by closely examining both inside and outside your home to identify the construction materials used. If you’re uncertain about the type of materials used, consider bringing in an expert to help you out.
B. Research the architecture style
Research online or visit your local library to try and find the design style of your home and when that style was prevalent in your neighborhood. Aspects of the house like the size, layout, silhouette, roof type, and the placement of its windows and doors can give you an idea of when it was built. If your house features a hipped roof design, for example, it was likely built in the 19th century.
It’s worth noting that old houses are often remodeled upon owners’ request or to reflect changing trends, so you may find that your home may incorporate a variety of architectural styles. Even with years of renovations and remodeling, you can usually still track down the core style of your house.
C. The details and hardware featured in the house might be a giveaway
Features such as molding and cabinetry styles change through the years in line with trends – such details can help you uncover the history of your house. Hardware like the types of nails used can also help you piece together clues as to when your home was constructed. It might help to research online or review design books to find other elements of the house that might be useful in determining its history.
D. Analyze the paint
Many old houses have several layers of paint, and scraping through the layers (if it’s not too damaging to the house) can help you discover the structure’s history. If you opt to use this technique, make sure to find an inconspicuous spot in the house where you can scrape through the paint to minimize the damage. You may want to bring in a professional to help you analyze the older layers of paint. The composition of the paint and the colors used can be analyzed and linked to a particular era.
E. Explore the yard for clues
A great way to explore your yard for clues involves using a metal detector. This device can help you detect artifacts such as old coins or decor that may help you learn about your house’s previous owners and its history.
2. Consider asking around
A. Talking to your neighbors
Learning about the history of your house might be as easy as checking with your neighbors. The people in your neighborhood can be a valuable source of information, especially if they’ve lived in the area for a while. Ask them if they knew the previous residents of your house and whether they’re aware of any renovations being carried out. If their houses are similar to yours architecturally, that in itself is a giveaway that they were probably built around the same time.
B. Ask your realtor
Before moving into your house, make a point of asking your realtor to give you a bit of background on the property. They should be able to provide you with information on whether the house is in a designated historic neighborhood. The realtor might also be able to help you find the names of the previous owners of the house.
C. Ask previous owners
Talking to your neighbors or realtor may help you track down previous owners. Otherwise, consider looking through the deed history of your property. In the USA, you’ll typically find this information at the register of deeds or county recorder.
Once you uncover the names of previous owners, you can track them down online for free. Consider sending a letter explaining who you are and why you’re contacting them. Provide your contact details so that they can reach out to you if they’re willing to talk. Keep in mind that some individuals may not appreciate being contacted and may not be ready to divulge information. If that’s the case, it’s best to respect their privacy.
3. Look for official records
A. Consider looking up the property records
Your local courthouse may be able to provide you with the official lot number (or the description, at the very least) of the property where your home is located. Remember that it may be difficult to find correct information using your street address, as these tend to change over time.
Property records are public information, and searching through this information can help you discover details like:
- Sales history
- Chain of ownership
- Tax history
- Modifications to the house’s square footage
To look up the property records attached to your house, start by checking to see if your county or city has public records online. You can do this for free on the Public Records Online Directory portal. To search, click on the state where you’re doing your research on the interactive map display, then select the county your house is in to view the different online public records maintained by the county.
If you’re willing to part with some cash, another option is to use a service like Been Verified to conduct a reverse address lookup. This service allows you to look up the current or previous property owners and the home value and sales history of the house.
B. Visit the municipal planning agency
The government office in charge of issuing building permits in your area should have public records associated with your house. These documents can contain a wealth of information, including the house’s construction dates, original dimensions, and the names of the people involved in its construction.
It’s worth noting that you’ll be required to pay a small fee to access these documents, including a cost to obtain a copy of the documents and a search fee.
C. Look for details in city directories and atlases
If you’re a town or city dweller, you may be able to gather clues about the history of your house by looking for details in city directories and atlases. Directories and atlases can also help track changes in street names and geographical information that you can use to narrow down your research. In many towns and cities, these directories and atlases can be accessed at the local municipal office.
D. Look for a copy of the property’s abstract
A property’s abstract records all the legal transactions attached to the property. You’ll find these documents at the county courthouse, although a copy might have already been handed to you when you bought the home.
You’ll want to look at the history of the buying and selling price. A substantial increase in the selling price over a short period may indicate that the house underwent a significant renovation or that a room or building was added to the original design. You might need to cross-reference with any available building permits for confirmation.
E. Track the chain of land ownership using land entry records
A land entry record can help you build a title of land ownership as it shows you the transactional history of a given property and provides the details of the buyer. These records are essential evidence of the transfer of land ownership from the governing body into private ownership. A detailed land entry record might show the following information in regards to past owners:
- Place of birth
- Land use issues
- Economic status
- Military service
While there are no online platforms where you can view land entry records, you have the option to remotely fill out a form to have the information sent to you.
F. Find old census records
If you want to find out who once lived in your house, try using census records to look up the details. Census records can help you gather valuable information for your research – you can confirm the facts you’ve already collected as well as learn new information. Old census records can provide genealogy-rich details of all the residents at a property you’re researching, including names, birth years, birthplaces, marital status, and relationships between residents. However, the further a census record dates back, the less detail you may find.
G. Historical maps and field books
Historical survey maps and field books are reliable sources of information about the history of houses. These were maintained to track taxes, and they can be found in either national or local archives. Some cities have historical maps that can be searched by address. While there’s no guarantee you’ll find photos of your house; it’s worth a shot.
4. Researching through archives
A. Local newspaper archives
Your local library should have archives of the local newspaper. To uncover the history of your house, you’ll want to search backward, looking for any information on construction in your neighborhood or the names of the property’s previous owners. Because street names and numbers tend to change over time, record any changes you come across and note down dates so you can come up with a chronology.
B. Look up your house on historical websites
There are a wide variety of websites aimed at preserving genealogical records and property history records. Here are some of the resources you can use to trace the history of your house:
- The National Register of Historic Places
If your house is historical, you can try looking it up on the National Register of Historic Places website. This program is managed by the National Park Service and contains records of properties with historical significance.
You can search for properties on the research page, and there’s a downloadable spreadsheet that contains details on all the properties. You can retrieve a property’s historical name or its reference number from this spreadsheet, or you can use a GIS map provided on the website for further research. You can also try a similar resource known as the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).
If you’re curious about whether or not someone passed away in the house, DiedInHouse is a reliable web-based service for this type of information. While it may seem a bit macabre, discovering that a former resident met their demise inside your house can change your feeling about it.
Most states don’t categorize a death in a home as a material fact, so it’s not uncommon for this information not to be revealed to buyers. In other states, a real estate agent is obliged to only inform you about specific types of deaths, such as recent deaths, murders, or those that occurred due to property conditions such as toxic mold. Furthermore, this resource also provides you information on fires, drug-related activity, and the names of individuals associated with the given address.
By looking into your house’s past, you’ll likely uncover the home’s architectural history, as well as details on the previous residents and renovations that may have been made. Discovering a house’s history will not only help you have more appreciation for its charm, but it can also be helpful for preservation purposes.