If you live in an older home, you’ve probably wondered who slept in your bedroom before you, when your plumbing was last updated, or why that ghost keeps stealing your car keys. Researching the history of your home is not only an exciting journey into the past, but it can also tell you how the house was built and give you tips on how to maintain it. You can learn about the history of your home by inspecting it, looking at government records, and reading through historical archives kept by your city or town.
Method 1 Examining the House’s Construction
1. Examine the materials that were used. Many different materials and craftsmanship styles have been used to build houses over the years. The materials used can tell you when the house was built and how long it has been since any changes were made.
One place to look is under the toilet’s water tank lid, for example. If you have an original toilet in your home, the date stamp on the water tank lid will give you a good idea of when the house was built. If the toilet isn’t original, the date will tell you when the bathroom was last renovated.
If your home has a mansard roof, it was most likely built in the late 1800s. Keep in mind, however, that certain styles and housing designs were still being built in more rural areas long after they had fallen out of favour in urban areas, so the location of your house will be important in determining the era in which it was built.
Examine your home from the inside and outside, and try to identify the building materials used. If you’re not sure what type of wood or stone was used, consult an expert.
2. Look through some architecture books. Go to your local library or do some online research to learn about the design style of your home and when it was popular in your area. This can help you figure out when the house was built.
Keep in mind that old houses are frequently updated several times to reflect changing trends or the owners’ desires. Your home may incorporate a variety of architectural styles.
Your house could also have been built at various times. For example, the original house may have been built in one style, and the owners 40 years later built an addition in a different style.
Even after decades of additions and renovations, you can usually find a core style to your home. This gives you an idea of the time period in which the house was built.
3. Take note of the design details and hardware used. Cabinetry and design styles come and go over time, and these details not only tell you about the history of your home, but also give it a distinct personality.
The types of nails and moulding used in your home can provide important clues as to when it was built.
To help date your home, look through design books or search online for other examples of original moulding or cabinetry. Even if these elements aren’t original, dating them can provide information about when the room was remodelled.
4. Scrape away at the paint layers. An older home’s walls may have 10 or more layers of paint. Find an inconspicuous spot and scrape through the layers if you don’t want to cause too much damage to your house.
A professional can assist you in determining the age of the lower layers of paint. Because different interior colours come in and out of style over time, the colours used can also provide hints.
Because paint has been made with various chemical compounds over the years, the composition of the paint can also be analysed to link it to a specific era.
5. Speak with your neighbours. Anyone who has lived in your neighbourhood for a long time can tell you more about your house’s history. Neighbors can be especially helpful if you’re new to the area.
Inquire if they knew the people who lived in the house before you, and if they recall any renovations.
If they are agreeable, you can also inquire about the history of their home or request to inspect its details. Because your neighbor’s house may have been built around the same time as yours, this can provide you with some useful information.
6. Look for previous owners. By looking through your house’s deed history, you can usually find the names of previous owners. This information is typically available at the county recorder or register of deeds in the United States.
Once you have a name, you can look them up for free on the internet or through a commercial people-finding service.
Keep in mind that some people may not want to be contacted or speak with you. They may have painful memories associated with the house, or they may simply not want to be bothered. Respect their wishes and refrain from invading their privacy.
Typically, sending a letter is the best way to contact a previous owner. Tell them who you are and why you’d like to contact them. If they want to talk, give them a way to contact you again.
7. In your yard, use a metal detector. A metal detector can be a great way to discover old coins and other artefacts that may add their own unique storey to your home and help you learn more about its history and previous owners.
Digging up artefacts in your yard should be done with caution. If you believe you have discovered something of historic significance, you should contact an archaeologist or a local historian.
Method 2 Pulling Official Records
1. Visit your county recorder’s office or the courthouse in your area. You can usually find out the official lot number or description of the property where your house is located at the courthouse. Because street addresses change over time, you may not find accurate information.
This information may also be found in the tax records for your property kept by your local or county tax assessor.
Keep in mind that official land and property records are typically kept using a different system than the street addresses you’re familiar with. This system allows you to trace the history of your home back to its construction.
If you live in an area that has been continuously inhabited for hundreds of years, the property grid/lot system may have changed over time. You may also need to visit your local historical society in this case.
2. Obtain a copy of the abstract for your property. The abstract is a record of all deeds or other legal transactions involving your property. These documents are usually kept at the county courthouse, though you may have received a copy when you bought the house.
Examine the price history of the purchase and sale. A significant increase in the selling price over a short period of time could indicate the addition of a building or room, or that the house was substantially renovated. You can cross-reference any building permits for more information.
If you live in the United States, go to your local or county courthouse and look through the deed registry, which is usually located in the clerk and recorder’s office. In a city, this information is indexed by lot and block number, while in rural property, it is indexed by section, township, and range.
3. Go to your municipality’s planning department. Your house’s public records should be available at the government office that issues building permits. The building permit can contain a wealth of information, such as the house’s original dimensions, construction dates and costs, and the names of those who were involved in its construction at the time.
Keep in mind that you will usually have to pay a small fee to obtain these documents, which will include a search fee as well as a fee for your own copy.
If your home is hundreds of years old, you may need to contact the local historical society to obtain a building permit.
4. Look through city directories and atlases. If you live in a larger city or town, directories and atlases can help you learn more about your house’s history. These city directories and maps were used hundreds of years ago in many areas.
Directories and atlases can also assist you in identifying changes in street names and other geographical details that you can use to target your research and learn more about your home.
Typically, these directories and atlases are available at the municipal planner’s office. If they are not present, staff will usually be able to direct you in the right direction.
5. Examine survey maps and field notebooks. Survey maps and property field books are two common sources of information about a property’s history. These are usually kept in local or national archives and were kept for tax purposes.
Speak with someone at the property tax assessor’s office to learn where historical records are kept and how to obtain them. Keep in mind that retrieving them will usually require you to pay a fee.
Method 3 Digging through Archives
1. Examine the archives of local newspapers. Local newspaper archives are typically kept at your local library. If there are multiple branches, the central or main branch usually houses the most items.
If you live in a rural area and there is no library nearby, try the largest city or urban area, or perhaps the county seat. That library will usually have archives relevant to your area.
Look for references to construction in your neighbourhood or the names of the house’s previous owners as you work backwards.
Keep in mind that street names and numbers can change over time, so make a note of any changes you notice as well as the dates so you can create a chronology.
2. Visit your community’s historical society. Most towns and cities have a historical society that keeps historical records and information about your house and the surrounding area. Larger cities frequently have their own historical societies, but if you live in a rural area, you may need to look for a historical society that covers a larger regional area.
If you have an extremely old house, such as those found in Europe, neighbourhood information may be all you have to go on to learn about its history.
If your house is under 200 years old, the historical society may have a wealth of information, especially if any of the previous owners were well-known in the community or the house was the site of a significant event in local history.
Handle delicate old documents with care, and follow the rules of the historical society regarding the care and copying of these documents.
3. Look for information on the internet. There are numerous websites dedicated to preserving genealogical and property history records, many of which are free. You can use these resources to learn more about your home and its previous owners.
If your home is in the United States, for example, you could look for records on the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) keeps all official government genealogical and land records, as well as links to other databases containing a wealth of information.
If you live in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can begin your online research at the Building History website, which can be found at buildinghistory.org. A historian maintains this site, which contains a wealth of resources for researching the history of your home, such as deeds, wills, tax documents, and maps, as well as images and information about towns and villages.
4. Make a timeline of your home’s history. As you learn more about your home, organise it chronologically so you can trace its history from its inception to the present. Keeping your information organised in this manner also allows you to identify gaps in your history where more research is required.
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