Wouldn't you love to know the secrets of how your house came to be? What did the original owners do for a living? How much the house cost to build in 1932? Just imagine the births, the deaths and the lives that were lived under the same roof as your own. What was the neighborhood like back then? Were there trolley lines or trains nearby? How far was the nearest grocery store? Stories of eras gone by are fascinating topics for modern-day dwellers. Learning a history connects us to the past and can help us understand our place in the present.
From the urban renewal of a 1930s Craftsman to fixing up an old farmhouse in the country, older homes all over the United States are being renovated, allowing their history to be preserved. The older the better, because the further back in time you can go, the better your chances of finding out something interesting. Most people that restore houses to their former glory are not just interested in preserving a structure, but also the memories that were made by the occupants who passed before them.
Finding out the history of your home can be a little tricky. In the days of the Internet, we're used to having information at our fingertips on command. But despite everything the Web gives us, there still aren't a lot of old public records online. There are multiple sites on the Internet that demystify the process in a particular city or town, but tracking down the information requires some tenacity and good old-fashioned legwork. So it's time to brush up on the Dewey Decimal system and get to work.
Finding the History of your House
Before beginning your book research, the first place to start is in your neighborhood. Ask questions of long-time neighbors; they may be able to give you a lot of information about your property, such as who lived there, if the house was changed in any way or what the neighborhood used to be like. If they can give you names and dates, this will greatly help you in your research, so be sure to write them down.
Your first outing will be to the county recorder's office, usually housed at City Hall. It's here where you can find the deeds of all of the properties in the community. The deed will show you the progression of ownership of the house, so you should be able to trace back to the original owner. The deed will also tell you if there are any liens against the house. A lien means that someone has a legal claim on the property because of an outstanding debt. While you're looking at records, pay close attention to the addresses, they could be different than your current one if the property around it changed hands at some point. Street names are known to change over the years as well.
While you're at City Hall, you can also look for records of any surveys done on your land, as well as appraisals, tax assessments, building permits and inspections. This will let you know if any work has been done on your house, or if your property once belonged to a larger piece of property. See if your town has Sanborn maps. These are extremely detailed maps of urban areas produced until 1970 by the Sanborn Company. They were originally used for assessing fire insurance liability, but if your city has a Sanborn map and your house was built between 1867 and 1970, they can be incredibly helpful in piecing together information. They include details like the outline of the building, the shape, size and construction materials used, and the location of windows and doors. They also give street names, which can help you determine if your street has changed since the house was originally built [source: Sanborn.com]. Some cities also have old aerial maps, which offer helpful exterior details.
Look in the Library for Home History
Next, we're onto the public library. Many libraries have a Polk's Reverse Telephone Directory, allowing you to search by address rather than by a homeowner's name. These directories list the head of the household as well as the owner's occupation. Once you've determined who the early owners of your house were, you can search for their names in old newspaper records. It's doubtful you'll find this information archived on the Internet, so this means dusting off your old microfiche skills. If you were in school pre-Google, you've probably spent some time in the microfiche room. Microfiche is a method of archiving old books, newspapers and journals. Information is stored on a small piece of film that's too small to seen by the naked eye, so it's run through a magnifying device.
You may be able to find newspaper clippings about your home's former residents that can give you some clues about the house. You can also use the library to search census records, which list jobs, names and ages of people living in a single residence.
If you're able to track down the previous occupants or their descendants, that's where you're likely to get the best information: stories and pictures. If not, researching the area can be helpful in piecing together information. Records of your neighborhood may be kept in the local or county library. If you're lucky enough to stumble upon one, regional history books are full of photographs of early settlers and their residences.
What's in a House History?
What can you find out about your home in researching its history? Maybe your kitchen is where the living room used to be, helping to explain the odd angles and ill-placed window. Or perhaps you hear things that go bump in the night with no explanation and think the old owner may be paying a little visit. There are many interesting reasons to take a trip down someone else's memory lane and learn more about the house that you call home.
Renovators who wish to return their home to its original grandeur could benefit from knowing their house's history. It can be a challenge to include original details if you're not sure quite what it looked like when it was built. Years of carpet over hardwoods, drywall over fireplaces and tile over tile have left it looking worse for wear. A room added here, a wall moved there, and suddenly your floor plan no longer resembles its former self. If you're fortunate enough to track down someone who has photos of your house in its early years, the guesswork is done.
If your house is an architectural masterpiece, you might want to get it listed on the National Register for Historic Places to ensure that it's preserved long after you're gone. One of the criteria is that the house is associated with events that have made a contribution to history. For example, if a notable historical figure ever lived in your house or even visited, this fits the bill. But you have to be able to back it up, so in comes those hours of combing through microfiche.
Whether or not you believe in ghosts, some people actually do claim to have them in their homes. Unless you live in California or Hawaii, which require disclosure of unearthly visitors or ghostly activity, you're pretty much on your own to get to the bottom of it. If odd and unexplainable events send you running out the door on a regular basis, neighbors may be able to offer some insight. But if not, you might want to head over to your local library and start your own research.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Colclasure, Dawn. "Haunted Houses: How to Investigate Your House's History." Shadowlands.net. http://theshadowlands.net/ghost/history.html
- East Lake Neighbors Community Association Website - neighborhood website. http://www.eastlake.org/
- Heida, Jeanne. "Be an Old House Detective and Find the History of Your Home." Associatedcontent.com, July 30, 2007.http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/322953/be_an_old_house_detective_and_find.html?cat=37
- "House Detective: Finding History In Your Home." The National Museum of American History. http://americanhistory.si.edu/house/pdfs/webhouseguide.pdf.
- "How to research your San Francisco building." San Francisco Public Library.http://sfpl4.sfpl.org/librarylocations/sfhistory/sfbuilding.htm
- "How to Research the History of Your House (or Other Building) in New Orleans." City Archives, New Orleans Public Library.http://nutrias.org/guides/house/contents.htm
- Marvin, Betty and Sturm, William. "How Old Is My House?" Oakland Heritage Alliance. http://www.oaklandheritage.org/serv01.htm
- National Register of Historic Places - company website. http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/faq.html
- "Researching The History of Your House." Colorado Historical Society." http://coloradohistory-oahp.org/publications/pubs/1522.pdf.
- Rosenberg, Charles. " How to Find Out the History of Your Boston House." July 23, 2008. Knol.com. http://knol.google.com/k/charles-rosenberg/how-to-find-out-the-history-of-your/1gh4qfhia2omp/2#
- Sanborn Maps - company website. http://sanborn.umi.com/