Have you ever wondered about the history of your house, apartment, church or other building? When was it built? Why was it built? Who owned it? What happened to the people who lived and/or died there? Or, a favorite question as a child, does it have any secret tunnels or cubbyholes? Whether you’re looking for documentation for historic status or are just plain inquisitive, tracing a property’s history and learning about the people who have lived there can be a fascinating and fulfilling project.
When conducting research on buildings there are usually two types of information that people search for:
- Architectural facts, such as date of construction, the name of architect or builder, construction materials, and physical changes over time.
- Historical facts, such as information on the original owner and other residents through time, or interesting events associated with the building or area.
A house history may consist of either type of research, or be a combination of both.
Get to Know Your Home
Begin your search by looking closely at the building for clues about its age. Look at the type of construction, the materials used in construction, the shape of the roofline, the placement of the windows, etc. These types of features may prove useful in identifying the architectural style of the building, which helps in establishing the general construction date. Walk around the property looking for obvious alterations or additions to the building as well as roadways, paths, trees, fences, and other features. It is also important to look at nearby buildings to see whether they contain similar features which will also help to date your property.
Talk to relatives, friends, neighbors, even former employees – anyone who might know something about the house. Ask them not only for information about the building, but also about former owners, the land upon which the house was built, what existed at that location prior to construction of the house, and the history of the town or community. Check family letters, scrapbooks, diaries, and photo albums for possible clues. It’s even possible (though not likely) that you may find an original deed or even a blueprint for the property.
A thorough search of the property may also yield clues between walls, floorboards, and other forgotten areas. Old newspapers were often used as insulation between walls, while journals, clothing, and other items have been found in rooms, closets, or fireplaces that for one reason or another were sealed over. We’re not recommending that you knock holes in the walls unless you are planning a restoration, but you should be aware of the many secrets which an older home or building can contain.
Chain of Title Search
A deed is a legal document used to transfer ownership of land and property. Examining all of the deeds concerning your home or other property is a big step toward learning more about its history. In addition to providing the names of property owners, deeds may provide information on construction dates, changes in value and use, and even plot maps. Begin with the deed for the current owners of the property and work your way back from one deed to the next, with each deed providing details on who conveyed the property to whom. This list of property owners in succession is known as the “chain of title.” Though often a tedious process, a title search is the best method for establishing a chain of ownership for a property.
Begin your search for deeds by learning where they were recorded and stored for the time and place in which you are interested. Some jurisdictions are even beginning to place this information online – allowing you to search for current property information by address or owner. Next, visit the registry of deeds (or location where deeds are recorded for your area) and use the grantee index to search for the present owner in an index of buyers. The index will provide you with a book and page where a copy of the actual deed is located. A number of county deed offices across the U.S. even provide online access to copies of current, and sometimes historical, deeds. The free genealogy website FamilySearch also has many historical deed records online in digital format.
Digging Into Address Based Records
One piece of information that you will almost always have for your home or building is the address. Therefore, once you’ve learned a bit about the property and looked for local clues, the next logical step is to search for documents that are based on a building’s address and location. Such documents, including property records, utility records, maps, photographs, architectural plans and more, maybe housed in the local library, historical society, local government offices, or even in private collections. Check with your local genealogy library or genealogical society for help finding the location of the following records in your specific locality.
- Building Permits: Learn where building permits are kept on file for your building’s neighborhood – these may be held by local building departments, city planning departments, or even county or parish offices. Building permits for older buildings and residences may be preserved at libraries, historical societies or archives. Usually filed by street address, building permits can be especially useful when tracing a house history, often listing the original owner, architect, builder, construction cost, dimensions, materials, and date of construction. Alteration permits provide clues to the building’s physical evolution over time. On rare occasions, a building permit may also lead you to a copy of the original blueprints for your building.
- Utility Records: If other means fail and the building isn’t too old or rural, the date when utilities were first connected may provide a good indication of when a building was first occupied (i.e. a general construction date). The water company is often the best place to start as these records generally pre-date electrical, gas and sewer systems. Just remember that your home could have been built before these systems existed and, in such cases, the date of connection will not indicate the construction date.
- Insurance Records: Historical insurance records, most notably fire insurance claim forms, contain information about the nature of an insured building, its contents, value and, possibly, even floor plans. For an exhaustive search, contact all insurance companies who have been active in your area for a long length of time and ask them to check their records for any policies sold for that address. Fire insurance maps created by Sanborn and other companies document the size and shape of buildings, locations of doors and windows, and construction materials, as well as street names and property boundaries, for both big cities and small towns.
Researching the Owners
Once you’ve explored the historical records of your home, one of the best ways to expand on the history of your home or other building is to trace its owners. A variety of standard sources exist which should help you learn who lived in the house before you, and from there it is just a matter of using a bit of genealogy research to fill in the gaps. You should have already learned the names of some of the previous occupants and, possibly, even the original owners from the chain of title search covered in part one of this article. Most archives and libraries also have pamphlets or articles available which will help you with the specifics of searching for the previous occupants of your home and learning more about their life.
Some of the basic sources for tracing the owners of your home include:
- Phone Books & City Directories: Begin your search by letting your fingers do the walking. One of the best sources for information about the people who lived in your house are old phone books and, if you live in an urban area, city directories. They can provide you with a timeline of former occupants, and possibly provide you with extra details such as occupations. As you search, it is important to keep in mind that your home may have had a different street number, and your street may have even had a different name. City and phone directories, in combination with old maps, are usually the best source for these old street names and numbers. You can usually locate old phone books and city directories at local libraries and historical societies.
- Census Records: Census records, depending upon the location and time period, may tell you who lived in your home or building, where they came from, how many children they had, the value of the property, and more. Census records can be especially useful in narrowing down birth, death, and even marriage dates which, in turn, can lead to more records about the homeowners. Census records are not currently accessible beyond the early 20th century in most countries (e.g. 1911 in Great Britain, 1921 in Canada, 1940 in the U.S.) due to privacy concerns, but available records can usually be found at libraries and archives, and online for a number of countries including the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.
- Church and Parish Records: Local church and parish records can sometimes be a good source for death dates and other information about former occupants of your home. This is a more likely avenue of research in small towns where there aren’t a lot of churches, however.
- Newspapers and Obituaries: If you are able to narrow down a death date, then obituaries can provide you with a wealth of details about the former occupants of your home. Newspapers can also be good sources for information on births, marriages, and town histories, especially if you’re lucky enough to find one which has been indexed or digitized. You may even find an article on your home if the owner was prominent in some way. Check with the local library or historical society to learn which newspaper was in operation at the time the former owners lived in the home, and where the archives are located. The U.S. Newspaper Directory at Chronicling America is an excellent source for information on what U.S. newspapers were being published in a particular area at a particular time, as well as the institutions which hold copies. A growing number of historical newspapers can also be found online.
- Birth, Marriage and Death Records: If you are able to narrow down a date of birth, marriage or death, then you should definitely investigate vital records. Birth, marriage, and death records are available from a variety of locations, depending upon the location and time period. Information is readily available on the Internet which can point you to these records and provide you with the years they are available.
The history of the homeowners is a big part of the history of a house. If you’re lucky enough to track former owners all the way down to living descendants, then you may want to consider contacting them to learn more. People who have lived in the home can tell you things about it that you will never find in public records. They may also be in possession of old photos of the home or building. Approach them with care and courtesy, and they may be your best resource yet!