How to find out about your old house

anenemityJanuary 16, 2013

A lot of people want to know more about their old houses and the people who lived there, but they don't always know where to start. I'm not a researcher or anything, but I wanted to suggest some things that I did while looking into my house's history. I know I've missed plenty of resources and methods, so please add your own to fill in the gaps!

First thing, I went to the courthouse and looked it up in the property record. I was able to see the owners of the lot all the way back to the city's founding as well as the appraised value of the property. Any substantial difference in value is usually indicative of a building being demolished or built. So even if your house was not the first one to be built on that piece of land, you'll get a general idea of when the current structure or later additions were built.

Then I looked at the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for my town. I was able to access them online with my library's subscription service. These maps came out every couple of years, so I looked first at the years closest to the major valuation changes I found in the courthouse ledger. I found a 1904 map with my house's footprint outlined with a note, "From plans." Presumably it was the landowner building the house, so I was able to determine who built the house based on the property record from 1904. The map also informed me of a change in the address numbers. The street name is the same, but the numbering system was changed at some point. Having the old system's number made the next step easier.

With the names and dates in hand, you can go to your local library and look for old directories. These will yield all kinds of information. You can search by name or by address, which is useful if you can't see your property deed record (I live in a small town where the courthouse is close by and never very busy, so they are eager to help, but you may not be so lucky). Searching by address for me was helpful. The owner apparently built our house as a rental property, so searching by his name wouldn't have helped much. I was able to identify the occupant by looking up the street address. It also listed his occupation and employer, which can lead to all sorts of irrelevant tangential research (I speak from experience). It's neat to see phone numbers begin to appear in these directories. The most prominent and important residents always had the smallest phone numbers - the owner/builder (not occupant) of my house was the town doctor. His phone number was 1!

Don't forget about the census. It's only done every 10 years, so check out the decade closest to your timeframe. These are also arranged by address, so it should be relatively easy to locate your house even if you've been unable to find any names. The census should reveal names, ages, and occupations of all residents, even servants. I know I'm weird, but census pages are beautiful to me. The meticulous note-taking and almost calligraphic handwriting of most of the census-takers practically elevates every page to a piece of art.

Once you have all these names and dates gathered together, you can start looking in the newspaper archives and local history books to see if you can find out any revealing information about the previous owners. My house's original owners were prominent enough to have somewhat regular mentions in the newspaper, if only for their church activities.

I know it seems silly to get into the details of the personal lives of folks who died before my parents were born, but I never feel like I can know an old house until I know a little about the people who lived in and loved it before I did!

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My house was built in 1905. There are many oddities common to old houses, a hall that was maybe a porch etc. I recently learned from a previous owner that the staircase may have been relocated which changes everything I thought I knew. I contacted our state preservation society. One of their members is going to be in my area sometime in the next few months. She has agreed to look at my house for a nominal fee. We'll see what nominal is.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2013 at 11:22AM
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Check the chain of title.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2013 at 4:46PM
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That's some good information for those of us starting out on this search. Thanks, anenemity

    Bookmark   January 17, 2013 at 5:48PM
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A few other things I forgot to mention -

1. The house itself! Our house was completely gutted when we bought it, but we still have come across some interesting artifacts. If you're tearing out walls, you might just find something! Even if it's only old newspapers used as insulation, you can at least tell by the dates on the paper what time that wall was opened up.

2. General historical events in the area. My house was built around 1904, but it was probably essentially rebuilt at least twice due to extensive floods. The bigger of the two occurred toward the end of the Great Depression, so I'm guessing they couldn't afford to replace everything to quite the quality it originally was. I've got Craftsman mouldings in my house even though the exterior is more Victorian. I've searched for pictures of my house during the flood, but the closest I can get is 3 houses down. You might be luckier!

3. The Historic American Buildings Surveyhref>. This is a treasure trove of information regarding old houses. Search for your city and see what pops up! And don't think because your house isn't the belle of the ball that it won't be useful - there are plenty of humble houses featured, too. If your home isn't there, still look at other houses in your area built around the same time - it might provide ideas for authentic details to include in any renovations.

4. Your local historical/preservation society. Thanks for the reminder, Debra! I probably neglected it because mine was pretty useless as far as my search went. They just told me to check the library (gee, thanks!).

5. The yard. Look for signs of previous foundations or really anything. We were also able to pinpoint the location of an old garage that had been torn down before we bought the house by the foundation bricks left behind. I've found marbles and old coins and toys from the 1950s buried outside. I don't know why I love the fact that so many children were raised here, but I do.

6. Any living previous owners, or longtime neighbors. One of the previous owners stopped me once while I was working in the yard and told me all sorts of stuff about the house, his parents, and his grandparents (the house had been in their family since the 1920s). I got a good idea of the personality of the PO's father based on the conversation with him. Let's just say he was a character :)

    Bookmark   January 17, 2013 at 6:35PM
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I haven't actually checked with my local historical society. The people I contacted were the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia. I don't know if there is something like that in every state.

Here is a link that might be useful: PAWV

    Bookmark   January 17, 2013 at 6:49PM
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If your house was built between 1908-1981, it could be a kit home. These were HUGELY popular in the early years of the 20th Century.

There are more than 300,000 kit homes in this country, and about 90% of the people living in these homes don't realize what they have.

So, if you're into researching your home's history, please don't over look this aspect.

Look for marked lumber, like this:

Or this:

The first pic is from an Aladdin kit home. The second is from a Sears kit home.

And next time you're in your neighbor's house, look around in his basement, too. See if he has any marks on HIS lumber! :)

You'd be amazed at how many homeowners I've met who "never noticed" these marks on their lumber.

These marks - together with a 75-page instruction book - helped the novice homebuilder put together his house.


Here is a link that might be useful: More on how to identify kit homes

    Bookmark   January 19, 2013 at 6:39AM
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Another excellent suggestion, Rose. Thanks for the link, too. I'm sure it will be very helpful for lots of folks!

    Bookmark   January 20, 2013 at 12:20PM
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Go to local court house ,take your deed.On the deed it will say book say 72 page 234.Go to that book look up tht page.That should be your next deed before yours.Look on that deed ,book 10 page 50 go there.Keep going till you cant go anymore.Now my house was in 2 different counties so we had to go to 2 different court houses.We went back pretty far,plus when we bought the farm a lady who use to own it was killed in a car accident .Her estate people sent us a packet of all the deeds they had ,about 10 ,land drawings.Also I took off deeds names,looked up in phone book talked to them,I talked to neighbors.Get all the info you can.I also have deeds with the tax stamps on them.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2013 at 12:39PM
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"Go to local court house ,take your deed."

You can try and ask the attorney that performed your title search at purchase for a copy of the abstract.

They have already done a large portion of the title search beofre issuing title insurance.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2013 at 1:02PM
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I got my abstract with the goes back all the way to when the land was surveryed and given as land grants--before statehood.

Our county auditor has a website where you can look up the property by address and see the names and dates of previous owners, the selling price, and tax evaluations.

If I'm right, I even know the name of the builder--he bought the parcel just before the value went up due to construction of the house--but I can't find any easy details on him--except that a family of the same name now has several garden centers in town.

I don't know how common it is to be given the abstract, but it seemed nothing special to them at the time. What irks me most, my house is on a corner lot and up until the house was built, that parcel and the one next to it had been sold as a pair...dang, I'd have loved the extra distance to the next house!

The addition my house is in was named for a huge farm, and the street in front is named for the least now. On my abstract, the map on the front has the legend 'Dayton Avenue--now Indianola' sometime between conception and layout, someone changed their mind.

Like coincidences? When I first moved into town, the friend I lived with in a brick victorian moved to Cincinnati after graduating from OSU...and the house she bought (an 1850s brick Greek revival--is on Dayton Avenue!

    Bookmark   January 23, 2013 at 1:37PM
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Columbusguy, our county auditor also has a website with similar information. Unfortunately it only goes back to the 1950s, so my house was already 50 years old by then. I had to go to the courthouse and look at the deed/title record to go back to the beginning. Another house was on our lot previously, so it was a little hard to date the house exactly based on that alone. Like you, we are also on a corner lot. The house next door is exactly the same as ours and built by the same family - the daughter (married to the owner of the company that made the bricks for the two houses) lived in the house next door, and the son lived in this house. Their parents lived across the street! I love my family, but I think that would have been too much family togetherness for me! And every so often I feel unreasonably upset that they split the lot in two (our house is technically on a half-lot). How dare they build two houses without considering ME?! PS: I love driving through the old Columbus neighborhoods to see the houses and other architecture. I watch the Columbus Neighborhoods show on PBS whenever they show it just to see the buildings!

Brickeyee, I had my title search done by a title insurance company. I would not use them again or trust them to do anything related to my house ever again. After several serious mistakes (like my name not being on the title transfer paperwork) I noticed a typo on the title (which reads "South" instead of "Fourth," and they refused to fix it "without hiring a surveyor to re-survey the property." In doing my research, I had copies of the previous titles - transferred by them the past 2 sales. Their spellcheck had corrected the previous title's typo of "Sourth" to "South" instead of "Fourth." She tried to tell me that the street names could have changed over the years so they couldn't fix the title. Yeah, lady, it makes perfect sense to go Second, Third, South, Fifth, Sixth Street. Now I thought the purpose of title insurance was to guarantee the accuracy of the title. It's just money down a rat hole.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2013 at 4:34PM
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I also received my abstract when I bought my house. I thought it was interesting and didn't understand why they would give it to me. What if I lost it or ruined it? How would the next owner get one? Can I trust its integrity? Did the previous owners take any pages out of it?

Clearly, I know nothing about abstracts. I'm going to look at mine again tonight!

    Bookmark   January 24, 2013 at 1:52PM
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While going through all of the receipts for this year's massive list of projects (full bathroom gut, half kitchen renovation, crown moulding and lighting in dining room, new furniture, etc.), I came across this 1846 fire insurance document--one of the documents used by the wretched people at the Historical Commission to bludgeon you into submission on architectural/aesthetic issues. My house is older than the insurance document, but it's the earliest document they have to prove what was originally in my house. The house has since been added onto, etc., but it's still fun too look back.

We actually got into an argument over the style of windows I had to purchase in 2010. I wanted 9-light casements on the third floor (which some other homes in the area appear to have originals of). But they claimed I had to do 3 lights over 6 lights, which results in an idiotic, 6" opening. But the crazy thing about these people is that in the end I think they were right. The way the sashes are laid out (8 over 12 lights on the first floor, 6 over 6 lights on the second floor, and 3 over 6 lights on the third floor) creates perfect sight lines (i.e., the rail is not in the middle of your sight line). Who know if that's coincidence or not. It's still a PITA, but fun.


    Bookmark   January 28, 2013 at 11:32PM
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I think for the purppose you need to Check out the regional nation court to get out where actions are kept for houses in the place. Talk with the Recording unit of Deeds or Assessor who can specify where actions are situated and how to recover them. Discover out who the action entrepreneurs were throughout the home's record.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2013 at 12:32PM
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Where do you go to get a fire insurance document? Or how to find the original blueprints or plans? I have traced my home to it's birth, in 1886 and all the owners. I even found the servants through the census records, but I still have no clue what the original floor plan is. It has not had too much remodeling done, so of course we assume that everything is where it was originally, until we pulled down very bad plaster in our dining room and found out one of the doorways had been moved. I would also like to know if our front parlor had a bay window or not. All the other Italianates in town have fancy front bay windows and ours doesn't.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 1:23PM
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Shari, check your local historical commission (run by city/municipality) first and perhaps a local or statewide historical society (privately run nonprofit), if any exists. My fire insurance document is from the city's historical commission. They also have some original elevation sketches and blue prints/sketches.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 6:21PM
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Imhappy&Iknowit IOWA zone 6b

sapphire69, if you loose that abstract you will pay BIG bucks to have it brought up to date when you or your heirs sell. Guard it with your life. I've traced my acreage back to it being a land grant, too. Through I've been in contact with a few families who have owned the land. I have some very interesting stories about them and I know about as much as the blood relatives. It so happened my land stayed with the same families for many years so following them told their life story. I should have been a private investigator! But I know a lot about the families who once owned this land. It started me on the genealogy path and now I'm up to my eyebrows in my own family.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 10:41PM
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Ok, I did find a fire insurance map from 1901. It just basically shows the bird's eye view of the house, but there is a very clear bay window there. GRRR. Wish whoever tore it out would not have. Still would love to find original floor plans.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 4:18PM
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My house is 1700s all info is at your court house,the court house your home is in, county..Everytime a home is sold the deed is recorded,I did mine was lucky to get pretty far back

    Bookmark   February 9, 2013 at 10:35PM
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