9 Tips for Researching the History of Your House

All homes have stories to tell, especially the old ones. Often, tracing an old house’s history that wasn’t originally owned by your family can be challenging. But the process of slowly uncovering the house’s stories, including when it was built, what changes it went through, and who lived in it, can be a fascinating journey. 

Here are 9 easy ways for anyone who wants to know more about the history of their home

1. Learn About Your Home’s Architectural History

If you carefully observe the structure of your home, you can see some of its craftsmanship and design elements pointing to a particular era. However, you may also see some details that may throw your research off track. 

The first thing you have to do is to find out the exact era in which the house was built. Some architecture books can help you with this. Studying the core styles of the structure, such as its silhouette, layout, window styles, and doors can also help. 

However, it’s also good to keep in mind that there may still be hidden stories behind these visible features. There have been several instances where contractors discovered old walls, or some other relics while renovating properties. If a renovation project is not yet in your plans, try to go around the neighborhood to spot similar homes that may show the structure’s original blueprint. 

2. Ask for Expert Help

If you get stuck and need a little bit of help assessing your home, consider inviting some local experts to take a look at the structure. You may need the knowledge of an architect, historian, and/or a restoration contractor to determine the structural and architectural elements of the house. As mentioned above, the visible features of your home may be hiding more stories, especially if the structure had been renovated or reconstructed a few times since it was originally built. It may also be possible that original house owners fancied an outdated style for the house when they had it built. 

3. Consider How It Was Constructed

During the 19th century, carpenters learned the rules of the trade through handbooks, like The American Builder’s Companion handbook by Asher Benjamin, which was published in 1827. 

The construction details of your house can provide a hint about the date of its style. It’s unlikely for the original frame of the house frame to have been reconstructed unless it was damaged by fire, or was altered for an addition. 

Take a look at your home’s foundation, timbers, and floor joists to get an idea of when it was built. For example, the floor joists of mid-18th century houses would be completely handmade.

4. Take A Closer Look at The Details

Inconsistencies in the exterior structure of your house can indicate that it has gone through some kind of remodeling or reconstruction. Take a closer look at the smaller details like the nails, paint colors, and molding as these can give you an idea as to when your house was built. For instance, all houses built before the 20th century had era-specific styles because the manufacture of building materials was only standardized by the late 19th century. 

You may need the help of professionals in dating elements of your house. One of the things they will do is to examine a paint chip to find out how many layers of paint a room’s wall has. The chemical qualities of the paint will be checked to determine its manufacture period.

5. Examine the Hardware

Hardware can also give you an idea of when the structure was built. You can know when your door was built if you look at its design. For example, you can confirm the estimated date of a door by looking at the design of the hinge. Intricately-made hinges and bolts designs were available in Europe at the same time that local hardware was still rough-hewn. Old catalogs from universities and historical societies can also help identify whether certain types of hardware have been mass-produced. If you want to find out whether the hinges have been changed, look for inconsistencies in the paint, as well as excessive screw holes. 

6. Dig Up Official Records

If your house was built in the 1900s, you have a good chance of securing official records that can indicate construction dates and remodeling, because it was during that period that homeowners were obligated to get permits for home maintenance or improvement projects. Your state preservation office can guide you to the right resources. You can trace the deed to find out when the property was sold, use old maps to determine when the house first appeared in the town survey, and look at old city directories to uncover the names of the former owners or tenants of the property. If your house is a prominent structure, an article may also have been written about it in the local newspaper.  

7. Study Old Photographs

Old photographs can provide evidence of any changes made to the footprint of a house. A good place to start is at local libraries and historical societies. Older members of the community can also tell you so much about your home’s history and its former owners or tenants. If you know the name of your house’s former owner, try to look them up on the internet to gather more information.

8. Review Tax Property Records

If you’re starting from zero with your paper trail, you can get some valuable hints from your town’s property tax records. A property’s per-acre land assessment would substantially increase if a house was built or reconstructed. 

9. Peel Back the Paint

One way of uncovering the earliest layers of paint is through the simple technique called cratering where your peel back a small patch of paint from the wood and sanding around it to reveal the original coat. You can also hire someone from a conservation firm to do this for you. Using high magnification and ultraviolet light, these experts can distinguish your home’s original paint colors. Colors fade over time, and certain chemical ingredients can cause paint to dull or darken when exposed to light, so experts spot areas that have drips or thicker coats where they can take a sample. Once they have identified the right color, they compare the color to the chromameter / colorimeter, then match it to samples from paint manufacturers. 

By researching the history of your home, you can learn about its architectural history, and get to know about its previous residents. Knowing these things can help you better appreciate your home’s quirks and charm, and encourage you to preserve it well. 

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