How to Research the History of Your House

If you own an older home, you’ve probably at some point wondered who slept in your bedroom long before you, when your plumbing was last updated, or why that ghost keeps hiding your car keys. Researching the history of your house is not only an exciting trip into the past, but it can tell you how the house is built and give you clues as to how it should be maintained. To research your house, try these steps.


  1. Image titled Research the History of Your House Step 1
    Visit the local courthouse or historical society. They will have access to the official lot number of your house. When it comes to land and properties, most official record-keeping is done using a completely different system than the addresses you’re familiar with (especially since addresses and street names change over time).
    • In older areas, the property grid/lot system itself may have changed over time. The local, state, or county land offices or local historical society should be able to find the official grid/lot number (or the equivalent) associated with your house. This will make the rest of your research go much more smoothly.
  2. Image titled Research the History of Your House Step 2
    While you're there, get a copy of the original building permit. Building permits usually contain treasure troves of information including the house’s original dimensions, construction dates, and cost as well as the names of the architect, contractors, and/or original owners.
    • Check the historical society or county courthouse for a copy of the permit.
    • Note that while there may be a small fee for their services (somebody has to dust off those old archives occasionally), it is well worth the price for the invaluable information contained in those documents.
  3. Image titled Research the History of Your House Step 3
    Dig up or get a new copy of your property’s abstract. This is a document that records all deeds or legal transactions associated with your property. This will give you the scoop on all your home’s previous owners. You may have been given a copy of the abstract when you first purchased the home; otherwise, back to the county courthouse (or print this out and bring it with you as a checklist)!
    • Review the history of the purchase and selling price. Sometimes a dramatic increase in the selling price over a short period of time usually means a building or room was added or had a large renovation. Check building permits which list type of structure, dates of construction, details, and owner.
    • If you live in the United States, visit your local or county courthouse to look at the deed registry. The registry is usually found in the clerk and recorder’s office. Ask for the registry of deeds for your particular property.
    • In the U.S., this information is indexed by a lot and block number in a city, and a section, township and range for rural property.
  4. Image titled Research the History of Your House Step 4
    Look through your city’s newspaper archive. It will usually be found at the library, though you might also have luck at the historical society or county courthouse, where they're getting to know you quite well by now.
    • Look for mentions of construction in your neighborhood, the house’s previous owners, and any sales or rental ads pertaining to your home's address. If you’re lucky, you might even find old photos.
    • Search backwards. Street names and numbers change over time, so don’t dive directly into the oldest records expecting to find recognizable leads.
    • Look for pertinent time periods. If you know when your home was built or dramatically increased in value, for example, do an extra thorough search in and around that time under headings like “buildings” and “architecture.”
  5. Image titled Research the History of Your House Step 5
    Pay a visit to your local municipal planning agency. Find the office that issues building permits, assesses property taxes, or records home sales. They should have public records pertaining to your house. Often an older house will pass from one owner to another through a will or other transference, and may not be recorded on the deed. You might want to look at surveyor maps to see if anything had been added or demolished.
    • One of the only 2 things in life we can be assured of is taxes, so a good place to start looking might be at the assessor’s office in your jurisdiction. The assessor keeps records of the taxable value of the home, and there may be old appraisals on file that describe the house in great detail. You can also check old city directories (reverse phone books that list the homes by address), county histories, vital statistics, and census records.
  6. Image titled Research the History of Your House Step 6
    Inspect your house closely. You can learn a lot just by looking. Check out how your house was built and what type of building materials were used.
    • Examine the walls and moldings. Look for original materials, such as the bricks of the fireplace.
    • Housing design has changed dramatically over the years, and you may be able to find some clues as to when your home was built, what substantial changes it has endured, and how well off the original inhabitants were.

    • Try looking under the water tank lid on the toilet. Toilets are usually date-stamped under the lid, giving you a rough estimate of when the house was built, since the toilet would presumably have been installed shortly after it was manufactured. Don't forget to put the lid back down when you're done.
    • Get a good idea of how long it has been since a room was remodeled. Different styles of kitchen cabinets and appliances, for example, go in and out of vogue every few years. Brown plaid wallpaper or an avocado-colored fridge scream 70s louder than a room full of disco dancers singing Y.M.C.A.
  7. Image titled Research the History of Your House Step 7
    Talk to your neighbors. If you’re new to the neighborhood and want to find out about the recent history of your house, your longtime neighbors may be able to help.
    • Ask them whom they know have lived there before you, and whether there were any renovations done that they can remember. Plus, asking about your house and the neighborhood is a great way to break the ice.
    • If they look at you strangely and say, "You don't know...?" and then hasten away without offering you cookies, there might be a really interesting story lurking in that old house of yours!
    • If you get to be good friends with your neighbors, you can even ask them if you can casually inspect their house structure to get clues about your own house. Some areas have many similar houses built in the same time (so-called "cookie-cutter" houses), whether for the purpose of efficiency or following the latest architectural trends.
    • For example, according to The New York Times, front porch overhangs were extremely popular in the 50s and 60s in New York, but now are going out of style and many homeowners are getting these "eyesores" removed.
    • 50 years from now, homeowners will pay a great deal of money to have their old house retrofitted with the latest eye candy: front porch overhangs.
  8. Image titled Research the History of Your House Step 8
    Track down previous owners to find out what improvements were made. The owner's information can also be accessed by tracing the deed history. Once you find out who the previous owners were, track them down by searching the internet or using one of the many commercial people-locator services available. Speaking with those who came before you may allow you to get a better idea of the original house. Of course, this is easier said than done if the owners you’re looking for died a hundred years ago. In that case you may need professional assistance of the seance kind. As Marshall McLuhan said, "the medium is the message."
  9. Image titled Research the History of Your House Step 9
    Research the history of your neighborhood. There may be a great deal more information available about your neighborhood than about your house, and this information may provide tremendous insights into your home’s history. For very old houses, which are common in much of Europe, for example, neighborhood information may be all you can find about the early history of your home.
  10. Image titled Research the History of Your House Step 10
    Compile all of your information to create a chronological picture of your house. Show how and when it was built, when various parts were added or demolished, and what natural events may have made changes to the house.
  11. Image titled Research the History of Your House Step 11
    Consider using a metal detector in your yard. Often, metal detectors are a great way to uncover old coins and other artifacts that may add their own unique story to your home. You may also find the key to that locked door in the basement that nobody ever remembers entering. No wait... don't go in there...


  • If you’re making a lot of copies at the public records office or library, one question you should always ask (if it’s not posted) is how much they charge for copies.
  • Try to find epicures of the house or pickle.
  • Try free services offered by This is a site that allows people to talk about their old homes, changes they made, memories, etc. Search and entry is free.
  • Try to find pictures of the house or neighborhood from past years to give you a good idea of what’s happened in the time since the pictures were taken.
  • Go to a local historian museum or look on the internet.
  • Use library reference rooms and computers to help track down relevant information. Search through historical records and lists of addresses of previous owners.


  • Handle delicate and old documents carefully. They may be the only records available. Protect them with clear archival covers (available at scrapbook or crafts stores) and save them in binders. Binders will help in many ways.
  • Take care in infringing on the personal lives of previous owners or relatives. They may have painful memories which they do not wish to remember, or they may just not want to be bothered. In some cases it might be best to gather your information without personally contacting these people. In any case, respect their wishes if they don’t want to take the time to talk with you.
  • Be aware of the possible consequences of digging up artifacts. Consider contacting a local archaeologist or historian to assess the possible historical importance of your property. Remember that digging up an artifact is a destructive and irreversible process. Understanding your property and the importance of an artifact's relation to it is often dependent on the careful documentation of the location and context of the find.

Sources and Citations

Show more... (1)

Article Info

Featured Article

Categories: Featured Articles | Home and Garden