House Detective: Discovering the History of Your House

“I found out my house had structures that are no longer there. The owners had horses and carriages because our home was near the site of a former racetrack. I found a bit in my backyard that was a specific type used only for carriage horses.”

This story was one of several shared during a recent Sacramento House Detective workshop.

If you live in a home built 75 or 100 years ago, did you ever wonder who lived or owned your home before you did? Who was the first owner? What was the sales price of your house brand new? Who was the builder? Or even what was on your property before your house?

Become a “House Detective” and find out how to search for answers about your house and neighborhood. Visit the Resources & Links menu for “House Detective Resources  to get started.

The House Detective workshop is designed to assist neighbors identify the age of their home, physical characteristics and architectural style, renovations, changing functions of the home throughout its history, and other information related specifically to the structure. As workshop leader, you can assist neighbors with their research by presenting local resources and websites where they can look up information. If possible, have a computer available with wireless Internet to view websites listed in printed materials.

Step one: Consider the obvious. “How many years back do I want to research?” “How much do I want to know about the house, the owners, or the period?” “What am I going to do with the information? How am I going to organize it?” A time line is an easy way to organize the research, if no other way comes to mind.

Neighbors share stories during a House Detective workshop.

You can be a House Detective on your own. Learning other neighbor’s stories increases the fun and reduces research time. Longtime residents may have been friends with the people you are researching. They may even have current contact information.

Step two: Take a careful look around the inside and outside of your house. As simple as it sounds, a careful inspection of your house will yield clues about its age in unexpected places. Lift the lid of your toilet to find the date stamped on it. One workshop participant suggested checking the toilet for a date stamp. If your toilet is original to the house, that could be your first clue.

Doors, windows and plumbing fixtures are all clues. Take note of what they are made of and how different parts are joined together. Original kitchen appliances, the layout of the home, built-ins, and permanent light fixtures will yield more clues. What is hiding underneath current layers of paint or wallpaper?

Step three: Talk to your neighbors to find out what they know about the house or the neighborhood. How to flesh out you personal stories is covered in the workshop, “Putting Flesh on the Bones,” and a separate post.

Step four: Research public record for data. Search community or university libraries, local archives, and the offices of the county clerk, recorder or the assessor where you live. Look for photos, maps, old newspapers, community newsletters and other documents that give clues about the house, neighborhood news or former residents.

Was there a significant event that contributed either to modifications or the stories of your house? Examples include a celebrity wedding held in secret or a serious crime that made headlines.

 You will find useful information in city directories and census records, records of title and transference, deeds, maps, tax assessments and appraisals. Sanborn insurance maps list ownership, building information and geographic data for your property. Be aware that street names or house numbers may have changed over time.

If a Historic Building Survey form (HAB) was completed for your home, it lists the house’s age, original owner, architectural style and more.

Historic Architecture Building Survey (HAB)

Step five: Research member-based organizations to find the people stories.

 What churches, service clubs (e.g. Lions, Rotary, Kiwanis) in your neighborhood may store historical information? You may be able to identify previous owners through their affiliation.

Step six: Review and assemble your information. Your house history will became an important community resource. Be sure to give a copy to your local library or historical society to archive.






About Janice

Janice is an accomplished writer and passionate about sharing and telling stories of people, places and animals in the wild.
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