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. You can research the history of your house by examining the house itself, looking at government records, and reading through historical archives maintained for your city or town. [1]

Examining the House's Construction

Evaluate the materials used. Over the years, many different types of materials and styles of craftsmanship are used to build houses. The types of materials used can give you some ideas about when the house was built and how long it has been since any changes were made.[2]
For example, one place you can look is under the water tank lid of the toilet. If there is a toilet in your house that is original to the house, the date stamp on the water tank lid will give you a good idea of when the house was built. If the toilet isn't original, that date will at least give you an idea when the bathroom was last remodeled.
If your house has a mansard roof, for example, it was likely built in the late 19th century. However, keep in mind that certain styles and housing designs were still being built in more provincial areas long after they had fallen out of favor in urban centers, so the location of your house will be important in identifying the era in which it was built.
Look closely both inside and outside your house, and try to identify building materials used. Bring in an expert if you're unsure what type of wood or stone was used.

Check out some architecture books. Go to your local library or research online to find out the design style of your house and when that style was popular in your area. This can give you some clues as to when the house was built.[3]
Keep in mind that old houses often have been updated several times to reflect changing trends or the desires of the owners. Your house may incorporate several different architectural styles.
Your house also may have been built at different times. For example, the original house may have been built in one style, and then the owners built an addition in a different style 40 years later.
Even with many decades of additions and renovations, you typically can uncover a core style to your house. This gives you a general idea of the era in which the house was built.

Pay attention to design details and hardware used. Cabinetry and design styles go in and out of fashion through the years, and these details not only tell you something about the history of your house, but also give it a unique character.[4]
The types of nails and molding used can provide some important clues as to when your house was built.
You can review design books or look online to find other instances of original molding or cabinetry to help date your house. Even if these elements aren't original, dating them can provide clues as to when that particular room was remodeled.

Scrape through layers of paint. The walls of an older house may have 10 or more layers of paint. If you don't want to cause too much damage to your house, find an inconspicuous spot and scrape through the layers.[5]
A professional can help you analyze the age of the lower layers of paint. The colors used also can provide clues, since different interior colors go in and out of fashion through the years.
The composition of the paint also can be analyzed to link it to a particular era, since paint has been made using different chemical compounds over the years.

Talk to your neighbors. Anyone who's been living in your neighborhood for a long time can help you understand more about the history of your house. Neighbors can be particularly helpful if you're new to the neighborhood.[6]
Ask them if they knew the people who lived in the house before you, and whether they can remember any renovations being done.
If they are amenable, you also can talk to them about the history of their house or ask to inspect its details. Since your neighbors' house may have been built around the same time as yours, this can offer you some important clues.

Track down previous owners. You typically can uncover the names of previous owners by looking through the deed history of your house. In the United States, this information is typically available at the county recorder or register of deeds.[7]
Once you have a name, you can track them down on the internet for free, or through a commercial people-locator service.
Keep in mind that some people may not want to be contacted, and may not want to talk to you. The house may hold painful memories for them, or they may just not want to be bothered. Respect their wishes and avoid infringing on their privacy.
The best way to contact a previous owner typically is by sending a letter. Explain who you are and why you want to contact them. Provide them a means to contact you back if they're willing to talk.

Use a metal detector in your yard. A metal detector can be a great way to uncover old coins and other artifacts that may add their own unique story to your house and help you learn more about the house's history and its previous owners.
Take care digging up artifacts in your yard. You may want to contact an archaeologist or local historian if you believe you've found something of possible historic significance.