To obtain some background―and a sense of what your house may have once looked like―start with a physical examination. A peek behind a piece of vinyl siding on the exterior, for instance, might reveal a hint of an original paint color. Inside, try lifting up the carpeting. (Mismatched floorboards can suggest there was an addition.) Or loosen a corner of wallpaper or paneling―perhaps you'll find a vintage wallpaper print or even old newspapers, which were often used as insulation. Look into every nook and cranny. "I always check the newel post on the stairs," says Tim Gregory, a house historian in Pasadena, California. "Sometimes the top screws off and you'll find rolled-up house plans in there."
For help identifying your home's architectural style, consult an easy-to-understand, illustrated reference book, such as A Field Guide to American Houses, by Virginia and Lee McAlester (Knopf, $40. amazon.com), or Identifying American Architecture, by John J. G. Blumenson (W. W. Norton & Company, $16, amazon.com).
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2. Visit Local Historical Societies
The bricks and mortar tell only part of a house's story; tracking down archival papers with specifics about the people who lived there is what makes the history come alive. Take Nadine and Carl Glassman, owners of the Wedgwood Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in New Hope, Pennsylvania. They learned about their home's past with the help of records at their township's historical society, which revealed that the original portion of their Victorian inn once served as a campsite for George Washington's Continental Army, in December 1776, just prior to the famous Christmas Eve crossing of the Delaware River. Later it was home to a Quaker family, thought to be abolitionists, who rebuilt the house in the 1860s.
Your historical society should also be a reliable source for old maps, which will tell you if your lot was divided, if your home had a significant addition made to it, or what its original material was. Hunt for maps from the Sanborn Company, a firm that produced hand-drawn fire-insurance maps from the 1860s to the 1960s. The company color-coded residential buildings to indicate the materials used in their construction to help assess their risk for fire: pink for brick, yellow for wood, brown for stone. You may find that your wooden house actually has stone underneath.
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3. Peruse Government Documents
Another way to get information about your house is by visiting local government offices. At the county courthouse's real-property records division, you can access your home's deed, which lists property owners, construction dates, and purchase prices. Use the records division's computer to type in your home's square and lot number (block E, lot 27, for example), which designates exactly where your house is located. These numbers can be found on the sale papers for your house.
At the department of assessments and taxation, also located in the county courthouse (or sometimes the city assessor's office), you can search by name or address to find past tax records and appraisals; these may include photos of the house.
Such documents can be surprisingly illuminating. When Dana and Tom Davis moved into their 300-year-old clapboard farmhouse in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, they discovered a precious gift left behind by a previous owner. "He had done considerable research on the house, and we have papers from the first owners and builders in the late 1700s," says Tom. Old records show that the property stayed in the original family for about 150 years, after which the surrounding acreage was subdivided and sold. "The sales history is very telling about what was going on in America at the time," says Tom. "You can see that the property changed hands every few months during the Depression."
Your city's building department should have your home's building permits, which will list the architect, the builder, the materials used, the lot size, and the floor plan. Permits will also reflect any major modifications made to the structure, so you'll know if your instincts were right when you thought those old pipes in the closet meant a bathroom was once located there.
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4. Go to the Library
Now that you've found the names of the previous owners from the deed and tax records, search for more details in U.S. Census records at the library, where you can view, on microfilm, information that dates from 1790, when the census started, to 1930. (Surveys are conducted every 10 years, and the records are sealed for 72 years.) The census lists could give you the names of everyone who lived in the house (even renters), where and when they were born, their race, and their native languages. Learn more by surfing Ancestry.com, where you can view census and voter lists; birth, marriage, and death certificates; court records; maps; and photos.
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5. Search Old Newspapers
Old newspapers, too, can be a great place to find pictures of your house and information about the previous home owners. Some newspapers' online archives, which include obituaries, stretch back at least a century. For a fee, you can also access the 500-plus newspapers archived on newspaperarchive.com. Type in names to see if a previous owner hit it big in the lottery or won a blue ribbon for a Bundt-cake recipe. Search by neighborhood or address to unearth photos of what your home looked like years ago.
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6. Talk to the Neighbors
One of the best ways to find out about your home is simply by talking to people. Many times neighbors are eager to share their stories, and they may have stayed in touch with, and be able to connect you to, former owners, who are, of course, the best possible source of information.
James Schwartz, a magazine editor in Birmingham, Alabama, had done some research on his previous residence, a 19th-century Washington, D.C., town house. "I discovered the lists of people who had lived there by combing through old tax records," Schwartz says. But he got a more personal account when, one night, an elderly couple who had lived there in the 1950s knocked on his door and proceeded to tell him everything they had done to the house. "They said they always regretted not using finer materials when building the bookcase in the library," Schwartz recalls. "I had spruced it up―poplared it up, actually―by adding trim, recessed panels, and crown molding. They did step one, and I did step two. So it was a two-part exercise―which took only 50 years to complete!"
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7. Consider Hiring a Pro
Regina Haka, a student, learned from neighbors in Brookfield, Illinois, that the original plans for her house had appeared in a national magazine in the mid-1920s. She decided to enlist the help of Grace DuMelle, a house historian and the owner of the Heartland Historical Research Service, in Chicago. "I found the address of a man who had grown up in the house, the son of the original owners," says DuMelle. He told her his mother had chosen the house from a 1924 issue of Better Homes and Gardens.
"Once I had the name of the magazine, I secured the image and the plans for the model within a few hours," DuMelle says. Regina and her husband, Dennis, a history buff, were thrilled. "It was cool to see the original ad with the description," says Dennis.
House historians (who are not certified but usually have backgrounds in historical preservation) charge $300 to $2,500, depending on the age of the house and the amount of research requested. There's no association for house historians; use Google to find one in your area. You can get anything from a basic fact sheet to a bound report with copies of the deed, photos, maps, clippings, and a chronological narrative of the life and times of the owners.
Paul Williams, a house historian in Washington, D.C., says his clients typically come to him "for one of two reasons: Either a neighbor stopped by and chatted them up about something, like a famous person having lived there, and they got curious, or they found an object, like an antique spoon, in the yard. It usually sits on the mantel for a while until they're tired of speculating, then they call me."
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