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How to Find the History of Your House

History of house

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Every house has a unique history. Finding out more about what happened at your residence can help you appreciate its unique features and quirks.

Learning more about the history of your house can also help you discover additional information about the materials and techniques used to build, restore, or renovate it. If you’re moving into a new home, finding out about its history can help you be aware of potential pollutants in the area and assess the risk of flooding, fires, and other natural disasters. 

In this guide, we’ll explore some of the best ways to go about finding out more about the history of a home.

Look at the home’s architecture and décor

Checking out the details of a home can let you know where to start your research. During different periods, people built homes with very different architecture. 

For example, before air conditioning became widely used, many homes in the southern United States had large, wide hallways to help air circulate and keep indoor temperatures cool in summer. People called these breezeways. Houses built in the 1950s often used brightly colored tiles in the bathrooms and melamine counters in the kitchen. They often included two-prong electrical outlets instead of the safer, grounded three-prong outlets that are standard today. 

Finding these features could indicate that a home hasn’t been renovated and still has most of its original materials. Hand-hewn floorboards or wood beams in the ceiling could mean that part of a home is original, or that it hasn’t been renovated in many years. A particular type of window style, crown molding, or wallpaper can help you find out when the home was last renovated as well.

Examine rooms carefully

Measuring the rooms of a home with care can help you find features that may have been covered up during a previous renovation. If a room seems smaller than it should be or a wall is particularly thick, you could get some additional square footage by renovating again.

You may even discover some additional electrical outlets or a ceiling vent in the bathroom that a previous owner decided to cover with drywall. It’s a good idea to explore the attic and the basement for family keepsakes and other items as well. After a renovation, a previous owner sometimes leaves their name and the date on the wood beams behind the walls. You could also find company names or logos on building materials that could help you find out when parts of your home were built.

Fortunately, you don’t have to tear down your walls to find out what’s inside them. Many contractors can cut a tiny hole in a wall and send a special camera behind the drywall to find any hidden features or objects. Then, they can repair the hole quickly and easily. If a contractor in your area doesn’t have this equipment, you can ask for an inspection from a mold remediation company. However, these specialists usually charge more than general contractors.

Look at the yard

A home’s yard could have traces of another house that once stood there. It could also reveal traces of a shed or outhouse, a well, or many other structures. You can also use a metal detector to look for old coins and other items that could be buried there.

Talk to your neighbors

One of the best ways to find out more about your home is by talking to your neighbors. Some of the people who live near you probably were around before you moved in, and they may have known the last owner. They can often tell you about when your house had its last renovation and when the area had its last severe storm or another natural disaster. Additionally, they may be able to inform you when the last owner had appliances like the HVAC system, the refrigerator, or the water heater replaced, and more.

Ask a realtor

A realtor can help you find out more about your existing home and any new homes you might be interested in. These professionals are experienced in researching historic information about different locations, and being able to tell prospective buyers more about a home can make it more appealing. Many realtors can help you find information about previous property owners. If the home is in a historic district, they can also help you understand the rules about a home’s appearance. These regulations can help maintain a neighborhood’s overall appeal.

Research past listings

You can ask a realtor to research past listings of a home for sale, or you can do it yourself through a variety of real estate websites. Records from several decades ago may not be available, but you can see how many times a home changed hands in the last 30 to 40 years and how the price fluctuated with each sale.

Talk to sellers and previous owners

The sellers and previous owners can tell you a lot of useful information about a home, including many facts about its history. Sellers often consider a home’s history a selling point, and contact information for previous owners is available with many types of records. Most of the time, people don’t mind answering a few questions about a former residence, and they may even feel flattered that you contacted them for information. You can often make a previous owner more willing to answer questions and share information by inviting them to revisit their former home.

Search your local registry of deeds

You can research your home’s deed on your local registrar or tax assessor’s website. Many online records include the current property owners, structure and land values, and the assessed value of the property for tax purposes. Some websites also have legal descriptions of properties and previous deeds.

However, you may need to visit the office in person to look for a property’s previous deeds. When you find out the name of the previous owner, you can look up the deed for the property when that person owned it. The deed should list the name of the person who sold the home to them. Then, you can look up the deed under that name and repeat the process.

Keep looking, and go back as far as you can. The records on file may not go all the way back to the original owner, especially if a home is very old. If needed, you can ask the registrar or tax assessor staff members where to find documents that predate their records. If you want copies of deeds, you could need to pay a fee.

Visit the town hall

In most cities and towns, records of building permits are at the city hall or town hall. Finding out what permits were issued at an address can help you find out more about renovations and the types of work done. Permits can also give you more information about when the air conditioner or water heater was replaced, how old the roof is, and more.

Check the National Register of Historic Places

If you’re not sure if an old home is officially historic, you can check with the National Register of Historic Places. It’s managed by the National Park Service, and the National Historic Preservation Act authorized it in 1966. It contains an official list of houses and other locations that were designated as historic because of their age, overall significance, and architectural style. You can search by city, county, reference number, or the name of the property. Many historic places are named after their past owners or events that occurred there. This database also contains the date that the address became a National Historic Place.

Search the National Archives

The National Archives contains large amounts of genealogical information such as: 

  • Veterans’ service records going back to the American Revolution
  • Immigration records
  • Historical information about Native American tribes
  • Passport applications
  • Digitized microfilm records
  • Casualty records from many wars, and more

The National Archives contains old census records as well. These records often contain the names of family members who lived in a home, their ages, their birth states, the year that they moved to a state or the US, their marriage status, their occupations, their personal assets, and other interesting information. However, not all of this information was recorded with every census. 

For example, only the head of the household was listed in census records from 1790 to 1840. If you can’t find the records you’re looking for on the National Archives website, you can visit one of their physical locations. This organization has branches in many cities, including:

  • Washington, D.C.
  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • College Park, Maryland
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Fort Worth, Texas
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • New York, New York
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Seattle, Washington

You can also find many types of information at presidential libraries and other organizations affiliated with the National Archives.

Visit a local library or historical society

Local libraries often contain a variety of information, including maps, history books, old newspapers, drawings and photographs, and local census records that aren’t part of the National Archives. Photos or drawings of your home can help you find out when additions were added or other changes were made. They can also help you confirm historic events like battles that occurred nearby or notable figures who visited. If your city or town was part of another one at any point, it’s also a good idea to check that community’s library.

Local historical societies or preservation centers often archive photos and important documents as well. They can also host exhibits and events about the town and its history. If you have an older home where an important event happened or a well-known family lived, you may be able to get a historical society or preservation foundation to help with restoration or repairs.

Record information carefully

You’ll probably be gathering information from various sources, so you need to keep track. You can organize your research by storing it in its own binder, briefcase, or file cabinet. Arrange documents in chronological order, and label the folders you store them in so that you can find the information again quickly. If you decide to display maps, pictures, or newspaper articles that visitors might find interesting, keep copies with the rest of your research.

Recording names carefully can help you avoid missing important information. The previous owners of your home may have used two or more spellings of their names. You could also find references to them with and without their middle names or using nicknames instead of their full names.

Multiple people often have the same name, so it’s a good idea to look for additional information, like the person’s location or the names of their parents, to verify that the person you find information about was actually an owner or a member of an owner’s family. Recording dates associated with names and the sources where you found the names, like deeds or census records, can help you as well.

Verify the details you find

When possible, it’s a good idea to verify the facts you find by checking multiple sources. Old documents may not always be entirely accurate, and they could contain errors. It’s also a good idea to be aware of details that could have changed since the house was built. For example, when some homes were contracted, they were in unincorporated parts of their counties. Today, they could be inside the suburbs of larger cities.

Street names can change over time as well, and to find information about an older home, you’ll need to know if the address has changed since its construction. Occasionally, people can even decide to physically move a vintage home or a house with lots of sentimental value from one location to another.

Moving soon? Get organized with our free moving checklist.

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By clicking submit, you consent to receive marketing communications from Updater and acknowledge that your information is 100% protected by, and subject to, our Privacy Policy.

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