How To Research the History of your Home
Do you live in an old property? An historic apartment building that looks as though it had an interesting past? If you have ever wanted to research the history of your home, you’re in the right place. Today’s tutorial will provide a range of resources that will enable you to do just that.
Some houses are obvious new builds and will have no history at all. Others will be much older and could have some fascinating former owners or historical events that happened inside or close by. I am fascinated by history so this is fertile ground for research.
Usually there are two areas of research. The specifics of the building, who built it, when, why and for whom. Then there are the owners, former occupiers and historical events that may have taken place there. Both can be fascinating in different ways.
First steps in researching the history of a property
The first steps to take when researching the history of a property is usually what spurred your interest in the first place. The period in which it was built. Is it a pre-war building? Historic house surrounded by modern buildings?
Look at the style and construction materials. Is it obviously one period or is it more ambiguous? Are there identifying elements such as a hip roof or embellishments that can help date it? Are there obvious alterations or extensions that can help separate the new from the old? Are the buildings around you of the same period? If they are, are any dated or have any identifiable features that yours does not?
Check both the inside and out. Check the loft for anything left behind by previous owners. Look for where an old building may have met a new, odd corners, beams or changes of level where there otherwise shouldn’t be. All can indicate where a building has been changed.
All these things can help you date your home. This is where you begin researching the history of a property. If you cannot do this yourself, there are lots of architectural historians or even restorative contractors who could help, for a fee. They could quickly date your property and perhaps with more accuracy than you might be able to. If you are very interested in its history, this might be a worthwhile investment.
Then perform a chain of title search.
Chain of title
A chain of title search looks at all the property deeds that relate to your property. Every time it is bought and sold, a record is made of who buys, who sells, when it was sold and for how much. These deeds are available at your local registry of deeds. That may be your library or city office.
If you have trouble locating deeds, try the grantee index in your local library. This should show where the deeds are stored. Your local county deeds office may be a good place to look too. Some have websites with current and historical deeds available to view.
Following the deeds is like following the money. It is a laborious and time consuming task that can provide just reward if you persevere. This guide to property deeds is a useful resource for anyone who hasn’t researched them before. Like any government paper trail, it is never as straightforward as it should be.
Your local country clerk should also have copies of any mortgage details relating to the property. This can give you a head start in tracing previous owners or seeing how far back money was borrowed against the property.
Finally, property inevitably involves taxes and your local tax assessor will have some kind of record of the dealings with your property. It may be a county or state tax assessor depending on where you live.
Property transactions are usually matters of public record. Therefore you can use these records to research the history of your home. These records will be held at your county courthouse, county recorder or city hall. Most of these facilities will be staffed and will be able to assist with your research. There may be fees involved for searches and copies of documents but these should be nominal. The property deeds may also be available at these places and public records and chain of title searches may be combined to save a little time. Much depends on what is available in your area.
There are also private title companies that can provide property profiles upon request. Some offer free copies and others will charge an admin fee to provide it. The same companies can also perform searches for you including legal searches for judgements or liens.
Public records can also include building permits and maps of the area. At the turn of the 20th century, a permit system was gradually introduced to try to control the type of alterations that could be performed on a home. After that time, any large extensions or extensive change would likely have needed a permit. Those are part of public record and will likely be help by your local planning department or building control.
Maps of the area will likely be in your library or county records office. These can be a valuable resource in dating your property. Find a map from a given date and if your property is marked, go back in time. Keep going back for as long as the maps go or until your property is not marked. Then you have a rough idea of when or before when it was constructed.
The internet has many resources to help. Many property websites have property research pages where you can look up the basic history of your property. This can often be a good place to start as you just need a web browser to find out things it would previously have taken hours of research to accomplish.
Resources can include:
Each has the facility to research properties and will list or link to public records that pertain to your property. Cyndi’s List is a resource page with lots of links to specific sources useful in researching the history of a property.
Researching the history of the owners
Once you have an idea of the age of your home, you can begin researching previous owners. Some of that you will already have gathered from public records, building permits, mortgage records, deeds and so on. You should have lots of material to work with.
Census records should be able to tell you who lived in your property during the periods when the census was taken. The United States Census Bureau is the first place to go if you are interested in census records. Your local records office or county court may also have copies of local census records depending on where you live and how things are set up.
The U.S. began taking census in 1790 and repeated them every decade. Records up to 1940 are publicly available and records between 1940 and now are available in some circumstances upon request.
From the census you can then use registrations of births, deaths and marriages to learn more about the people who once lived where you do. Much of this is now digitized, otherwise paper records should still be available. From the census you can begin putting together a timeline of who lived there and when as well as immediate family members which will help you continue the thread through the ages.
If you have the patience or a friendly historian or journalist, going through old newspapers is a very useful technique for learning more about your house and your area. Depending on the city, some libraries will have digital copies of old newspapers. Some may still use microfiche which you will have to search manually.
Otherwise, the newspaper itself will have copies of every edition stored in its archive. Some allow the public to access these archives, often for a fee. If you think your house played a part in local history, this could be very worthwhile.
If you have the time to invest in exploring your area, there is nobody better to do that with than your local historian. Every town has one. The person who knows everything about everything that has happened in the last three hundred years. Working with a local historian will be fun but very time consuming. You would need to invest at least an afternoon or perhaps an entire day to work with them to discover what they know.
The upside is that they are usually a font of knowledge about many aspects of your town and you will learn a lot.
Researching the history of your home is not quick and will involve a significant investment in time and effort. The mix of sources and materials will be challenging at times but hopefully, in return for your efforts you learn everything there is to know about your home.
Got any other tips for researching the history of a property? Tell us about them below if you do!