The homify guide to researching your home’s history

Johannes van Graan Johannes van Graan
Piano B Architetti Associati Asian style houses
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Moving into a previously owned home can certainly conjure up a few thoughts. You may have the typical questions such as “Who used to sleep in my bedroom?” Or you can also have practical queries like “Is the plumbing updated?” On the other hand, your questions can lean towards the grisly like “Do you think anyone died in this house?”

Although we can’t put you in touch with a medium to try and make contact with the other side, we can give you a few pointers on how to research your house’s history. Not only is this an exciting trip into the past (especially for those ever-curious ones), but it can also give you some practical information, like how your house was built and how it should be maintained.

But let’s start at the beginning…

Visit the local courthouse or historical society

Here is where you will find the official lot number of your house. Official record-keeping of land and properties differs from the usual system of addresses most of us are familiar with (especially since addresses, street names, property grids and lot systems may have changed over time). The local courthouse or historical society is your best bet to find your official grid/lot number.

While you’re there, ask for a copy of the original building permit. This usually contains lots of interesting information on your house including its original dimensions, the construction dates, costs, architects and contractors, original owners, etc. Although you may be charged a small fee for this service, it is definitely worth the important information you will be given.

Obtain a new copy of your property’s abstract

A property abstract is a compilation of legal documents that record transactions associated with that section of land. This may include references to deeds, mortgages, wills, tax sales—basically, any legal document connected to the property. Should you not have received a copy when you purchased the house, be sure to ask the courthouse for it. 

Should your abstract show a huge increase in the house’s selling price in a short time span, it usually means that a building or room was added or that the house underwent a large renovation.

Check your local newspaper archive

Although this might also be found at the courthouse, you can also try your luck at your local library. Search for any mentions of construction in your neighbourhood, the previous home owners and any sales or rental ads that list your home’s address. Who knows, you might even find some old photos? 

Be sure to search backwards. Street names and numbers change with time, so rather start with the latest records and work your way back.

Look for relevant time periods. For example, if you know when your home was built or dramatically increased in value, focus on that period and search for headings like “buildings” and “architecture”.

Visit your local municipal planning office

Ask for the division that issues building permits, assesses property taxes, or records home sales. This is where you can look for public records pertaining to your house. 

Sometimes an older house could have passed from one owner to another through a will or other transference, meaning it won’t be recorded on the deed. Be sure to look at surveyor maps to see if anything was added or demolished. 

You might also try the assessor’s office in your jurisdiction. Here is where records of the house’s taxable value will be kept, as well as old appraisals that describe the house in greater detail. 

You can also check old city directories (reverse phone books that list the homes by address), county histories, vital statistics and census records.

Inspect your house closely

Your house can also provide a lot of clues in terms of its era, what building materials were used, etc. 

Examine the walls and mouldings. Look for original materials, like the fireplace bricks. Housing design has changed a lot over the years, and close inspection may give you some idea on when your home was built, what significant changes it underwent, and even how rich the original inhabitants were! 

Check under the water tank lid on the toilet. Toilets are usually date-stamped under the lid, which can give you a rough estimate of your house’s building date (assuming the toilet was installed shortly after it was manufactured).  

Elements like wallpaper, kitchen cabinets and appliances can also provide some idea on the time period when a room was last remodelled. 

homify hint: The 1970s was THE era for shag carpeting (rugs or carpets that have a deep pile, giving off a shaggy look), even appearing in some bathrooms. This was also the decade in which harvest gold and avocado-coloured kitchen appliances first appeared on the interior scene.

Get to know your neighbours

Long-time residents in your neighbourhood may be able to help you with some info pertaining to your house and its previous owners. Questions such as “Do you know who used to live there” and “Do you know of any renovations done to my house?” can also help to break the ice with new neighbours. 

If you become good friends with your neighbours, you could ask to casually inspect their house structure to get some more clues on your own. Some areas have many similar houses built in the same time (so-called “cookie cutter” houses) to bring home costs down or to follow the latest architectural trend. 

A housewarming party might kick-start a friendship? Check out: The Essentials For Hosting A Housewarming Party To Remember.

Contact the previous owners

Getting in contact with the previous owners of your house will grant you firsthand, word-of-mouth knowledge on your house and its previous improvements. The owners’ information can be accessed by tracing the deed history. Once you find their details, track them down via the Internet or by using one of the many commercial people-locator services available. 

homify hint: Take care when contacting previous owners or their relatives. They may have painful memories which they don’t wish to share, or they may just not want to be bothered. In any case, respect their wishes if they don’t want to take the time to talk to you.

Are you tempted to dig into your home's past? Have you already done so? We’d love to hear what you discovered!

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