Photo: Various Photography (Shutterstock)
Whether you live in an older home or just cherish it (and lose hours with it, through the Cheap old houses Instagram account) you may have looked at a house and wondered about its history: how old it is, who lived and died there, and what other events have taken place there over the years.
Fortunately, there are a few relatively easy ways to get the backstory about your home or the one in your neighborhood that you’ve always been curious about. Here’s what you should know and where to start.
Google the address of the house
As with any other type of research, the easiest place to start is to do a Google search for home address. This may or may not be useful, but you can also start with the lowest hanging fruit.
If the house has been or has been on the market in recent years, you will likely come across an offer from Zillow or Realtor.com that, if nothing else, should tell you when the house was built. Additionally, if you don’t live in the house, it may have indoor shots that would be interesting to see. Anything else a quick Google search reveals is a bonus.
Look for clues
If you live in the house you’re investigating and don’t know when it was built, look for clues. Noisy National Trust for Historic Preservation, Closets are a good place to start because you can find old wallpaper or paint with patterns and / or color schemes specific to a period of time. Or examine any exposed rafters or bricks in the house for dates or stamps left by the builder.
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Research using public records
It can be a bit more time-consuming here. There are enough of public data out there but not everything is fully digitized so you may have to flip through handwritten (digitized) census records to find out who lived in the house previously.
Typically, the most accessible public records are titles, deeds, property tax records, Platform cards, and other local history documents available from your district auditor’s website, local library, or local history society. Likewise, Sandborn Fire Insurance Cards are widely used and contain information about the construction of the house.
Talk to your neighbors
Depending on where you live, your house can be very similar to that of your neighbor. So if you have any questions about the history of your home – for example, when it was built or what a particular function was originally intended for –maybe you know the answer. If you live in a small town there are likely some lifelong residents out there who can tell you about the history of the home, including the previous owners and their livelihoods.
Learn about the history of your city or neighborhood
Were the cottages on your street originally built to house railroad workers? Was the area once considered as rural arable land where the farms were divided into several parcels? Was there a large influx of immigrants from any part of the world during the construction of your home? Even if you can’t find anything specific about your home, it can be helpful to get some general historical background.