My good friend Larissa from @OldHouseLove recently asked me to share what I’ve learned about home research on her podcast, which is available on a number of different platforms like Spotify and Podbean. She knew that I had just done a year’s worth of research for my thesis project and had also recently attended a free home research seminar offered by the Chicago Bungalow Association, and she thought her audience of Old House Lovers would really appreciate some basic home research tips. (I’ll be honest, I was nervous doing this and am still so nervous I probably won’t even be able to listen to episode!)
There are a couple of different reasons to research your home. Most people want to know the history of their house or confirm when it was built. For me, I began researching my home to better understand the materials in it and how to maintain them. I’ll share some of the basics of home research here, as well as the methods and resources I’ve used to piece together some interesting old house mysteries. I’ve linked resources throughout the post and websites at the bottom.
I’m not a professional of any kind, so these tips are really just a starting point for the amateur old house researcher. I tried to keep most of the tips on the generic side, so please consider this suggestions for how to get started. Not everything from the episode is reflected in this recap, and vice versa. To get more in-depth information, there are plenty of books and articles available out there… and never underestimate local-to-you resources.
The basics | Tools
- A dedicated notebook and pencil.
- Phone and/or camera.
- Computer or laptop.
- A dedicated folder on your computer
(or a thumb drive to save screenshots or downloads to).
- Evernote (or some research tool that can sync your phone & computer).
- A free genealogy account on FamilySearch.org
Make sure your address is your address
Moving houses was a fairly common practice before power lines and utilities were installed. In some areas, street renaming and renumbering occurred in the beginning half of the 20th century. As populations expanded and cities incorporated surrounding areas there became a growing need to systematize street names and numbers. Chances are, if your town or city implemented an address system change there is some knowledge of it locally.
Identify your house style
I’m not going to go into this too much because there are so many variables to be aware of: I recommend Virginia Savage McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses. It’s comprehensive and detailed. If you don’t want to purchase it, check it out at your local library. Sometimes older homes can reflect a number of different style elements from different periods, and this book can help identify what those could be.
Trace your deed (deeds and titles are different)
Deeds are tied to properties not structures, but they typically come with a legal description of the property, the names of the Grantor and Grantee, and signatures. The easiest way to do a Deed trace is to start with what you know: the name of the seller or Grantor of your property, becomes the name of the Grantee that you search for when looking for the next deed, and so on. If your house was relocated at any point then a deed trace may help you find the original address for your property.
Tip: Write down the address and names that you come across, as well as any variations in spelling. Make sure to read the legal descriptions and be critical and cognizant of any information that seems out of place or irrelevant.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help: If the clerks know what you are trying to find they can offer suggestions and tips.
Locate your Property Identification Number or Property Tax ID
It has a lot of different names, Parcel number, Assessor Identification number… it could be called a variety of different names, depending on your location. Sometimes the assessors office might have an old photo or two.
With a Tax or Parcel ID number you can locate tax records for your property: this is especially helpful if you haven’t been able to identify the age of your home. If you look at tax records and notice a jump in the price, it might mean that a house was built on that piece of property the year prior.
You can find your PIN through your city or county assessor’s office, tax appraisers office, county tax office, city hall, county clerk’s office… just to name a few places.
Fire Insurance Maps
Fire insurance maps are another way to help verify the age of a home. Sanborn is probably one of the most famous companies, but there are others as well: Sanborn, Robinson, Rascher.
It’s also a fun way to view history: When I checked for my house on the maps, I found out that my neighborhood used to have a theater that seated 1000 people. The theater is now a parking lot for a health clinic.
Now the fun part…
Once you’ve triple verified your address, you can begin combing reverse directories, US Census Data, and archived newspapers, marriage announcements, obituaries, and even real estate listings for information on the previous owners and tenants of your property!
US Census Data
Why would you want to comb through scribbly-scrawly US Census sheets? Because the person that owned your home might not have been the person who lived there.
A great source for knowing where to start in your Census data search is this website. I have a deep appreciation for its simplicity and purpose. And the fact that it’s free to use!
This is where it’s helpful to use a genealogy account in tandem with this research: For example, it didn’t take much for me to verify my address, so I jumped straight into looking for my address in the 1930 US Census. What I found was the tenants of the home from 1930 to 1940, as well as their address in the 1920 census, prior to them moving to my house (my home was built in 1924). Through familysearch.org I was also able to locate the US Army draft card for the man that used to live in my house. Other tidbits: He was originally from Illinois and his wife was from Germany. Their only daughter lived with them until she married sometime between the 1930 census and 1940 census (her new address is in the 1940 census). They are all buried at the same cemetery. Perhaps the most interesting thing I discovered is that the property they lived in prior to my house is still standing. And people still live in it!
Thankfully, what I needed was available online (I even combed through some of it in tandem with FamilySearch.) Yes, I keep using the work ‘combed’, because that is literally what I did while going through some of the most interesting interpretations of cursive writing I’ve ever seen. The finer the tooth, the better (AKA don’t attempt this when you’re exhausted).
Social directories, reverse directories, blue books, or the Polk directories (which existed before telephone books) are another good way to cross-reference tenants of buildings and houses. Social directories usually have little extra bits of info in them. For example, the US Census said that Harry was an inspector. Cool, that could mean anything. But in the social directory I found he was listed as a gas inspector!
Polk directories can usually be found for free online up until 1923. The rest can be found on Ancestry.com for a monthly or yearly fee or a free two-week trial subscription.
Local social directories can be found online, in library archives, or possibly through local historical societies, depending on your area.
More and more libraries and newspapers are archiving their information online, which is good news for the casual home history researcher. This means that you don’t have to spend hours at a library looking through microfilm and can instead spend eight hours a day sitting on your couch in your pajamas, until your neck aches, looking through newspaper archives instead.
I recommend setting a timer to shower at least once and to remind you to eat at regular intervals (you’ll need your energy), and also to remind you to switch from coffee to wine at a respectable point in the day. (The standard is noon, I believe, but my therapist recently told me that “it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere!”)
Archive.org is a treasure trove of delight (I apologize in advance to anyone who gets addicted to this website). This site is a great resource for old builder’s catalogues, millwork catalogues, books, publications, the list goes on and on. Most of the materials are free to look at but there are some books and other materials that can only be “borrowed” for a period of time. Sign up for an account to save things that you find (otherwise you may never find them again).
Things to consider
Real estate listings
If you’re trying to piece together interior details of your home (and you live in an area that has a high concentration of other homes that are similar to yours) real estate listings can sometimes be useful. Take what you find with a grain of salt, but you may be able to find an original bathroom or kitchen, or perhaps a light fixture or two.
This is another area where the book A field Guide to American Houses is helpful: there are maps that show you the general region a house type is concentrated in and how and where it spread throughout time. Consider looking at listings in different regions that are similar in style to your own home. You honestly never know what you can find until you start looking.
Don’t just Google it
Diversify your search engines (or consider ones that don’t track you). Most search engines track you and gather data on you in an attempt to anticipate your needs or what you may be looking for (no, those targeted ads aren’t just a coincidence). Consider using a search engine that just lets you search (Duck Duck Go is my growing favorite) but don’t just stick to one, use a couple to see a variety of results.
If all else fails, research your neighborhood, town, or city
There’s always cool stuff to learn, especially if you’re willing to dig. Even if you never find anything about your own home, you can learn a lot of interesting things about how your town or city came to be.
You are part of the history of your home
Don’t forget about yourself! Document changes that you make or repairs that you do to your home. Consider putting together a time capsule of the information you’ve gathered and a little write up about yourself or your family, along with some photos.
Books and other resources
I will continue to update this list.
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Nearby history: Exploring the Past Around You by David E. Kyvig & Myron A. Marty
Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood by Betsy J. Green
A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture by Virginia Savage McAlester
National Parks Service Preservation Briefs
Specifically for Chicago Bungalow dwellers and all Chicago vintage home owners:
Check out the free CBA seminar on researching your home’s history (specific to Chicago, they usually host one a year).
The Chicago Public Library: sign up online for free resources.