For some properties, that history begins with the city or county platting the area and opening it up to development. For others with very old properties, it may go back far enough to include land grants from nobility.
Either way it’s a lot of fun play detective to piece together decades or centuries of stories.
Making an Abstract
If you were lucky, when you purchased your old home you were given an abstract as a part of your closing. An abstract is a detailed account of all sales of the property dating back to its beginning.
For those of us not fortunate enough to have been given an abstract, you can research your home’s history yourself and compile your own abstract of the people who have at one time or another called your house home.
Through public records, you can discover who built the house, how much it cost originally, who else has lived there, when, for how long, and in many cases what they did for a living.
Making an abstract is kind of like doing a family genealogy for your house. Sadly, there is no one website like Ancestry.com to hep you compile your home’s history.
You can hire a title company to make an abstract, but part of the fun is to discover the history yourself. Plus, they won’t tell you details other than who sold the property to whom and for how much usually.
Your first stop should be your local property appraiser’s office. A lot of this can be done online. You’ll need to do a ‘property search’ for your home’s address.
The three things to look for on the property appraiser website are:
- The Legal Description (usually reads something like: THORNTON PARK E/24 LOT 8 (LESS N 7 FT) BLK E)
- Parcel Sales History
- Year Built
The year your house was built is very often wrong for houses built before the 1940s. Records were lost and appraisers simply guessed what year the house was built, so use this as an estimate only. The appraiser is probably within the right decade, but they may not be right on.
Depending on your property appraiser and the amount of times your house has been sold, the sales may go back only a couple years or a few decades, but these bits of information are important as you continue your search.
The property appraiser will give you the last pieces of the puzzle. Now we’ll have to go back and fill in the information from the beginning.
Once you finish your abstract research, you can always go back to the property appraiser and correct any incorrect information listed about your house so the next person won’t have to.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
These famous fire insurance maps were made for almost every city in the country beginning around 1867 all the way up to today. The old maps were beautifully hand-drawn and are collector’s items today.
Depending on your state, you can usually find some copies of the maps online through a simple Google search that will allow you to see if your house was built when the appraiser’s office says it was.
The maps were updated every few years, so here is how you search for your house.
- Use the date you think your house was built
- Find the Sanborn Map from the closest year AFTER your build date
- On the front page of the Sanborn Map, search for the area where your house is located to find the page number (like in the picture above)
- Scroll to that page and see if you can located your house
- If the house IS NOT shown, then it was built after the map was drawn, so move forward to the next year’s map until you find your house listed
- If the house IS shown, then go back to the previous year’s Sanborn maps until the house no longer shows up
Here’s a example:
Say your house was built in 1926, you think. You look up the 1928 map and see that your house is indeed listed. So you go back to the 1925 map and sure enough it is listed again.
So, go back to the next available map, which is 1922, and you notice that your house is not listed this time.
That means your house was built sometime between 1922 and 1925.
Time for the next step!
Count or City Clerk
The next stop is the city clerk. If your house is located within the city limits, you would head over to the city clerk, otherwise the county clerk will likely have the information you need.
With the legal description, the clerk may even be able to provide you with a list of all sales of your property, but not always.
It depends how your clerk works, but often checking the permitting department is a good place to start. Armed with the legal description of your property and the approximate year built, you can search for your original building permit.
This will tell you who pulled the permit, the exact date and how much the house cost to build.
Once you find the permit, you now have the first piece to your puzzle. You have your official start date to your home and the name of the person who pulled the permit, which was often the owner!
Old city directories are a wealth of information about citizens. They can usually be found at the main library in your town or a local history center. If you have trouble finding them, they are at the Library of Congress or National Archives and can sometimes be accessed online.
You can often do a reverse look up by address in the old directories to find a specific address and see who lived there and in some cases what they did for a living.
Talk about invasion of privacy today!
Now that you have your home’s date of construction, you can look at the directories starting with that year and find the home’s occupants. Just keep moving forward, year by year, until you find a different name.
When the name has changed, you know that a sale has occurred, so mark the years that sales occurred and you can go back to the city clerk and request lists of sales specific to your property that year.
Putting it All Together
Slowly but surely, you can continue compiling the abstract for your old house. If you get stuck, you can always use local resources like long time neighbors to help fill in the blanks.
Depending on the age of your house and the record keeping of your local government, it can be a lengthy process. But I truly enjoyed learning about the people who lived in our house.
Each old house has its own unique story and who knows what you’ll find. Maybe someone famous lived there!
In my house, there were couples just starting out in life, retirees, jazz musicians, a court clerk, a local fabric store magnate, but never any little children running around until my family.
It’s cool to know we’ve made our mark and someday when this house gets passed to its next owner, me and my family will quietly become just another piece of its history.