Are you interested in learning about your house and the people who used to live in it?
House history research can be done on any house but because of the availability of records, houses built in 1950 or earlier will give you the most rewarding results.
What you need to get started
- Access to the internet
- Access to your local library or historical society
Two Methods of Research
- Observing and analyzing the physical structure of the house
- Searching for documents, photos, maps and other records that provide information about the house and the people who lived in it
Quick Start Method
How old is my house?
Are you just dabbling and want to learn a little bit about your house such as how old it is? There are 4 methods you can use to determine the age of your house. However, please note that the year provided might be wrong if your house is older than 70 years old! The only way you can really determine when your house was built is with some in-depth research.
- Google your street address. There should be a house listing even if your house isn’t for sale. Every real estate listing includes a year built.
- Check the “field card” for your property. Every tax assessor has information about your house, including when it was built. Google “town, state assessor database” to find local online assessor information. For example, Norwood, MA assessor database.
- Visit your local historical society and see if they have any information about your house or street.
- Check with your state preservation society. If your house is more than 100 years old they may have information.
Meeting the Requirements for a Historic House Marker
A lot of people research the history of their house so that they can get a historical marker from their local historical society or historical commission. The main goal for obtaining a plaque is to determine when the house was built and often, who the builder or original owner was (usually the same person but not always).
Before starting house history research to obtain a house marker or plaque, check with your local historical society or historical commission to see what the requirements are for getting a marker. Your town likely has an established process for obtaining information and they may even have details already about your house. The staff may also be able to assist you in the research.
Learning about the Physical House Structure
What style is your house?
Discovering the style of your house provides the first clue in understanding how old your house is because certain historical house styles were popular during particular time periods. Here are 3 ways to figure out what style your house is:
- Get a book on architectural house styles such A Field Guild to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester.
- Check the historic preservation publications from your area. These can be created at the town or state level. If your house is specifically mentioned, it will include the style of your house.
- Hire an architectural historian or a historical contractor. These people can walk through your house and give you a detailed report not only on the style but how and when your house was built.
Researching the History of Your House
Your next step in house history research is to do the research yourself! That involves accessing various documents to learn about who owned your house, the families that lived in it as well interesting details such as occupations and their involvement with the local community. Sometimes you might even find that a famous person lived in your house.
To research your house you will need to locate various documents such as deeds, probate, vital records, city directories and much more. Some of these documents are available online and some you will need access in person. How you access these documents will depend on the state that you live in.
Here are a list a of the most common records you will use.
Deeds are the legal instrument that transfer a property from one person to another. All properties transfer by deed whether they are private homes, government buildings, commercial buildings or owned by an organization such as a church. First you identify the book and page of your current deed and then you work your way backwards through each previous owner through the deed records. In the Northeast, deeds can be found in town halls, the registry of deeds, the recorder of deeds or the county clerk’s office. You will need to first need to identify where deeds are kept in your state before you start your deed research.
Probate records are the documents that are generated when a person dies leaving real estate or other valuable property behind. When a person creates a will in advance of death, the instructions and wishes indicated in the will are carried out by an executor. When a person dies with property and doesn’t have a will it is called administration. The instructions for inheritance are dictated by state law and is carried out by an administrator. Real estate can be transferred to family members through probate rather than a deed so it is important to check for probate records. Also, probate records contain estate inventories which can tell you a lot of the previous owners of your house by analyzing the objects they owned. Check your state to determine where probate records are found.
Census Records – Federal and State
You may be familiar with federal census records which are an accounting of the population taken every 10 years since 1790. Since 1850 every person has been listed in the census by individual name. Genealogists and historical researchers use census records to reconstruct families. For this reason they are great for house history research too. Census records can reveal who lived in your house, when and where they were born, their occupations and much more. Each census year provides slightly different information than the others. Today we can access census records online.
Did you know there are also state census records? Not every state implemented them and not all of them are still available today. But when you do find them they will fill in the gaps between the 10 years federal census records. You will need to check individually for your own state to see if there are state census records. Most of them should be available online.
Depending on how old you are you might remember telephone books. You would have consulted telephone books for a specific town or region to find out the phone numbers of friends, families, services or stores. Before there were telephone books there were city directories. Most started some time in the 1800s. While they didn’t list phone numbers they did provide the name and address of residents and businesses in a specific area. The great thing about city directories is that they were often published every year. This means they fill in the gaps nicely between census years. City directories allow you to trace who was living in your house year by year. Many city directories are now available online but it’s important to check library and historical societies for printed copies. Larger city or state libraries are likely to have a good city directory collection.
Maps are critical part of house history research. Maps have been around for a very long time so you can find maps that date back to the 1600s. Some maps can show land ownership, displaying both the existence of a house and the name of the owner. Other maps can show property divisions. And plat maps can show specific pieces of land before or after it was developed. Many maps are available online but you will also find them in libraries and historical societies.