The Stories Your House Could Tell: Researching The History Of Your House
by Ruth Lang | Jan 24, 2012
If you live in or have recently purchased an older or historic house, you might be curious about the history of the home, and lives of the people that previously resided there. Basic genealogy techniques you have learned as a family history sleuth can also be used to research the history of a home. We have heard the phrase "if walls could talk", but since they cannot, it is up to you to uncover the fascinating stories of your home's past!
Explore Your Home
Begin your home history research by examining your home, inside and out. Be sure to take photographs of the home, and write down the information you find during your examination. Look carefully at the overall construction to discover clues about the age and style of the house. Note modifications, alterations and additions made to the home. Inspect the exterior, and look at the shape of the roofline, the placement of the windows, and the materials used in the construction. Use stylebooks (such as are listed in the selected bibliography below) to help determine the style of your home and approximate year of construction. However, note that some styles remain popular through the years, and the style of the home is not always proof of its age. If it is difficult to determine the style or approximate age of the home, you may wish to consult with a member of your local historic preservation commission, historical society or a local architect who has knowledge of the historic architecture in your area.
Contact Previous Owners or Neighbors
Previous owners and their relatives, former and current neighbors, are a good source to learn more about your house. Ask them if any changes were made to the home, how the neighborhood evolved over the years, and if any events occurred in the home. They may also tell you about the land in which the home as built on and the history of the community. Inquire if they have any photographs of the home, family pictures that might show your house in the background, or photos taken inside the home that would give you an idea of the interior. They might also have documents or records to help tell the home's history, such as birth, marriage and death certificates of the occupants, family letters, original deeds, blueprints, diaries or scrapbooks.
Historic Registers and Surveys
If your home is listed on a local historic register or National Register of Historic Places, you may find the information you need has already been compiled. The National Register of Historic Places is the nation's official list of buildings, districts, structures, sites, and other objects worthy of preservation. Local registers include regional landmarks and historic districts. Both local and national listings provide an architectural and legal description of the property, the history of the property, owners, and the date (or approximate date) of construction. Photographs of the home may also be included in the registers. To search for a National Register property by county and state, go to the National Register of Historic Places database. Contact local preservation commissions, historical societies or libraries to see if they maintain a local register.
Abstracts of Title
You may have been fortunate to have an abstract of title (also called a property abstract) for your home that was included in the documents created from the closing of the house. Abstracts are summaries of the essential information in a property transaction and the information you find will save you many hours of research. The abstract names all previous property owners, how long each owned the property, the price of the land, and location of the original records (book, volume, page, etc.). The abstract may also include maps or plats.
Researching the Deeds
Deeds are one of the best ways to learn the names of your home's previous owners, the price and description of the property. Using deeds, you can "chain" of title of ownership, starting with the most recent owner and working backward. A deed is a legal document that transfers property from the seller (grantor) to the buyer (grantee). Deeds are typically found in government offices such as the "Recorder of Deeds", "Recorder's Office", "Register or Registry of Deeds" or the "Probate Office".
You will need the legal description of the property (a section, township and range for a rural property or lot and block or tract number in a city) to make sure you are researching the right property. You can usually find this description in the papers that were signed when you purchased your home. A legal description might read, "Block Five, Lot 12, Smith Bros. Addition, City of Anywhere".
When you arrive at the office where the deeds are stored, ask the clerk where the deed indexes are located. Indexes for recent transactions are usually digitized, and older indexes may be found on microfilm. Start with your current deed to locate the seller's or grantee's name. Next search the index to find the seller's deed for the same piece of property and note the name of the person (s) who sold them the property. Work your way back through deeds to the original owner, make a copy of each deed, and keep track of the book, volume and page numbers.
Sometimes a deed may never have been recorded, so you may have to find information on urban or suburban homes from city directories (see below). For rural homes, landownership maps may help to determine ownership for a certain piece of land during the year it was published, and may even show a structure on the property. Deeds may have been transferred during probate proceedings, so check your local probate court or archives to see if the deeds are there.
Although this type of deed research will tell you who owned the property, the deeds do not indicate when a house was built on the land. However, if you find the value of a property suddenly increases, this may provide a clue that a home or building had recently built on the property.
City directories can be a very useful resource when you are researching your home's history. Earlier directories alphabetically listed the names of owners or renters of residential or commercial properties. Often, occupations of people were included. Later directories may contain a "reverse" directory, which included an alphabetical listing of street addresses with residents.
The first year that an occupant is listed at the address may provide a clue to the construction date of the home. Be aware that the information for the city directories was usually gathered one year before publication. Also, keep in mind that the street numbering or street names may have changed over the years, especially in larger cities. You can often find city directories in local libraries, either in book form or on microfilm. Ancestry.com has a collection of city and area directories to search on its website. Free access to Ancestry.com is available from many libraries so check with your local library to see if they have it.
Fire Insurance Maps
Fire insurance maps, or Sanborn maps, can tell you much about an older building. The large-scale maps include detailed information regarding town and building information in approximately 12,000 U.S. towns and cities from 1867 to 1970. They were created for insurance companies who wanted information about buildings in order to calculate fire risk. Fire insurance maps usually feature urban areas, although small towns were also included. Many libraries have microfilmed Sanborn maps in their local history collections.
The Sanborn maps indicate construction materials, the outline, size, shape and function of each building, windows and doors, the number of stories, and the locations of porches, out buildings and wells. They provide street names, property boundaries, widths of street and sidewalks, house and block numbers. The maps can also yield an extraordinary amount of information about the community. They reveal locations of local schools, churches, shops, and other sites.
Biographical Information of Previous Owners/Residents
To find out more information on the previous owners or residents of your home, search for county histories that contain biographies on local individuals. County histories are often located in the local history section in public libraries. Vital records are another source for information on the people who resided in your home. Usually information can be found on the Internet providing information on how to order birth, marriage, and death records for the region you seek, and what years they are available. Archives.com provides a service for ordering vital records.
Obituaries may also tell you much about the lives of former occupants of your home. Some can be extremely detailed - describing where and when the person was born, places where he or she lived, local affiliations, and names of family members. Local and county libraries typically carry microfilmed area newspapers that may feature obituaries of local people, or they may maintain an obituary vertical file. You may also find obituaries through online newspaper databases, such as Archives.com Digitized Historical Newspaper collection
Be sure to search the federal census for all the years when your house existed. Depending on the location and time period, census records may provide you with names of the occupants of your home (either owners or renters), where they were born, their occupations, how many children they had, and other details. The latest census available, as of 2011, is the 1930 census, so the census is only useful for homes built prior to 1930. Census indexes and records can be searched on Ancestry.com.
During your research, you may find other records that provide you with additional information on the history of your home. Tax and assessment lists, building permits, newspaper articles, court records, house plan books, voter registration records, cemetery records, probate records and utility records are all excellent sources to that may lead to more details of your home and the previous occupants. Check for online sources from local historical societies, libraries or preservation commissions to see they have information on researching these sources in your area.
Creating a Home History Report
Now that you have researched your home's history, be sure to share your findings with your family, friends, and future homeowners. Assemble your notes, photographs of the home, photocopies of documents, deeds, maps, and newspaper clippings in a written narrative house history. Summarize all of the research you have found and be sure you fully cite all of your sources. Donate a copy of your home history report to your local historical society or library.
Protect all the information you have collected through your research by storing it in a safe environment. Archival supply houses such as Gaylord, Light Impressions or Hollinger Metal Edge, offer a large variety of folders, envelopes, protective sleeves and boxes.
- House Styles - Picture Dictionary of House Styles in North America and Beyond
- "Within These Walls" - National Museum of American History Exhibition
- Green, Betsy J. Discovering the History of Your House and Neighborhood. Santa Monica Press, 2002.
- Light, Sally. House Histories. A Guide to Tracing the Genealogy of Your Home. Spencertown, NY: Golden Hills Press, Inc., 1989.
- Baker, John Milnes. American House Styles: A Concise Guide. W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
- McAlester, Virginia and Lee. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
- Poppeliers, John C. and Chambers, S. Allen. What Style Is It? A Guide to American Architecture. Revised Edition, Wiley, 2003.
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