How to Find Out the History of Your House
Have you ever wondered if the place you’d call a reading nook is the same spot where the previous owner set up a closet? If you’ve reflected on such things, then there’s no doubt that tapping into the past of your house is an exciting project for you to take up.
Tracing the history of a house helps you reimagine the original look of the place and how it evolved overtime as the owners changed. It’s as though you’re peeling your way through layers of wallpaper. You just never know what’s lying behind! It could be a mural from the 80s or Victorian styled wallpaper. The older the house, the more surprises it has.
By diving into the history of your house, you would surely be able to investigate more into the architectural style of the place and evaluate the actual value of your property. Moreover, you feed your curiosity about the place too. In this blog, we’ll take you through the different stages so you know how to find out the history of your house.
Stage One – Figuring The Time Period Of Your House
Your investigation must begin somewhere, so the first step to take is finding out if your house was built during a certain era. Each house follows an architectural style depending on the era it was built. Houses have been categorized into Colonial houses (1625-1840), Romantic houses (1820-1880), Victorian houses (1860-1900), Ranch houses (1950s) and the list can go on.
All you have to do is understand the features of certain architectural styles. For instance, Victorian style houses don’t have a garage, they feature stained glasses for windows and have higher ceilings as well. These are just a few traits that once studied, helps differentiate a Victorian styled house. When you make a note of the specific features your house has, you’ll be able to draw a conclusion about the era it was probably built in. Another tip is to observe the style of architecture of the neighboring buildings too.
Keep in mind that there can be upto 26 architectural styles or more. Hence, categories of architectural styles are created to simplify things and it certainly helps you make better judgement. There’s plenty of books available online and probably at your local library too that reveal more information about architectural styles. In particular, we’d recommend ‘A Field Guide to American Houses’.
If you wish to get a professional’s take on the history of your house, you can surely take aid from websites like – Ancestry, Findmypast and Trace my House. However, you would be charged a fee for such a service. Once you have a rough idea, you can move on to the next stage where your research continues, but now it’s time to glance over property papers.
Stage Two – Studying The Property Deed
In the second stage, you have to begin by exploring the paperwork. The main document you should study is the property deed. This is the legal document you obtain once you’re the owner of the property. A deed normally contains information about previous owners and majority of them even include a sketch of the plot.
By studying the deed, you get more clarity on the ‘chain of title’. In simple words, it’s understanding the timeline of owners, from the original owner to the present one. It’s where your notebook will come handy because there can be a lot of names coming up. There would be several family names too if you’re tracing your ancestral home.
Now, do note that a property deed doesn’t state exact reasons about why the homeowners sold the property. But you can always head out and speak with people in your neighborhood to know more about the homeowners as individuals. Do remember that answers to a few things simply cannot be found on a paper and must be done by chatting with people.
The facts you will derive from the property deed is the year in which the first homeowner bought the property, the value of your property back then, the size, location and dimensions of the property. You can easily obtain this property deed from the realtor. Moreover, it also happens to be the best way to study the history of the structure of your house.
Below is a Hypothetical Situation for you To Understand this Stage Better:
Let’s say you’re studying the property deed of your residential building. You use the ‘chain of title’ search method and manage to trace 10 owners of this land. Then, you also learn that it was originally a private bungalow owned by Jane Dough. You understand the exact square feet of the property by understanding the layout from the blueprint you’ve found along with the property deed. Surely by this point, you will be amazed at how the builder used the space where a private bungalow sat, and transformed it into a building where you reside now.
Now, do note that things have worked out in a pretty linear fashion in our hypothetical situation above. But it’s possible that while you do this, you face some roadblocks. For starters, you currently just have the blueprint of your apartment and not the entire building. You didn’t manage to get your hands on the original blueprint when the structure was a bungalow. Perhaps you weren’t able to trace the property back to the first owner too. These are signs that you have to dig deeper and which is why we have the third stage!
Stage Three – The Offline Hunt
We believe if you’ve reached this stage, you’re surely on the hunt for more clues. Stage three is surely intriguing and you’ll probably even feel like a detective by this stage. We call this stage, the offline hunt because that’s exactly what you’ll need to know, how to find out the history of your house.
We’ve learnt that discovering the genealogy of your home, building or even land is not a linear process. We know that spending time on the internet can be fruitful. Websites like – Zillow, Trulia, Neighborhoodscout, Homesnap and Redfin would be supportive and help you find more details to piece together the history of your house. But sometimes your search can be futile too if you’re not ready to pay an expert the fee for the research. That’s when you must begin to find resources offline. In this stage, you would need to find tangible maps, local newspapers, make visits to libraries and more.
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Let’s learn about some of the best resources to find out the history of your house.
Maps are a great way to know what your street looked like in the past. And public libraries as well as historical societies in your vicinity are the best places to find historical maps. You would find 3 types of maps i.e Survey, Sanborn and Plat. A survey map is the type that determines the property boundary. Sanborn are detailed maps of U.S. cities and towns in the 19th and 20th century. While Plat is a map that shows the value of the land especially for taxation. It’s drawn to scale and shows the exact divisions of a piece of land. By looking at different physical maps, you’ll understand street names and the manner in which the divided land was changed over the years.
Information About Permits For Your Property
We all know that any huge renovation work on a property requires a permit. For example, you could find a record of when a builder got permits to revamp a private bungalow on a piece of land and transform it into a residential building. In lay man’s terms, any structural changes made requires permits and whether permission was granted isn’t something that will be mentioned on a property deed. Hence, it’s necessary to retrieve this information from the building department. And in the end you would also learn more about the past of your house.
Gather Information From A Tax Office
The tax department would be maintaining their own records for properties where they collect tax. You could possibly find pictures or more details about the house described in their records. Looking at these records is also a fun venture to take.
Visiting County Records
This is your best offline place to find information about the previous homeowners if you don’t have access to the property deed yet. A county record would have deeds, property and land records too. So be sure to gain access to these when you’re here.
If you’re more curious about the previous homeowners, you can browse on the homepage of the United States Census Bureau, and find census records close to the year you’re looking at. You would then know more about the age, family and occupation of the owners at your place long before you saw the property. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if a family of 6 fit in the same space where just 2 of you live now?
We hope our blog inspires you to find out the history of your house. It’s definitely a fascinating process and even rewarding once you’ve found enough information to fill a scrapbook. Overall, it’s all about finding evidence about your house by using Google as your friend and local libraries too. Like we’ve mentioned, there are services that also conduct the entire research for you. So, you could also opt for that if you’re curious about the new house you’re moving into.