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.