Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood

Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood
Betsy J. Green
May 2002

Every home has a story to tell! Whether you own an elaborate Victorian, cozy bungalow or cottage, ranch style, or are part of a newer subdivision, your house and property have a unique history that is just waiting to be uncovered.
Part treasure hunt and part jigsaw puzzle, researching the history of your house is a fascinating and rewarding experience. In Discovering the History of Your House . . . and Your Neighborhood, author Betsy J. Green will show you how easy it is to create a cherished legacy for future generations to enjoy. You'll learn about:

  • Beginning your search
  • Finding and contacting former owners of your house
  • Discovering the architect who designed your house
  • Finding the original plans for your house
  • Re-creating long-lost woodwork, porches, even historic landscaping
  • Locating building permits for your house
  • Finding the original price of your house
  • Researching subdivisions and neighborhoods
  • Finding deeds for your house and land
  • Getting information from a deed
  • Finding old photos of your house and neighborhood
  • Using old maps to learn about your neighborhood
  • Discovering your house on a postcard
  • Using vintage architectural magazines
  • Writing up your house history
  • Includes a state-by-state guide to resources

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Table of Contents

Where Do You Start?
House Research in Your Area
Getting Started
Even Your Subdivision Has a History

  • Story: How I Got Started
    Supply List for Beginners
  • Story: Only Believe Half of What You Hear
    “You’re Not Using a Pen, Are You?”
  • Story: “Follow That House History Writer”
    Surf the Internet
    Go to Class
  • Story: House Histories Sometimes Mirror Local History
    Follow the Paper Trail and the People Trail
  • Story: Reach Out and Touch Someone
    Take a Genealogist to Lunch
  • Story: Don’t Believe Everything You Hear About Your House
    Historical Information is Here and ThereLooking at Visual Clues
    “What Style Is My House?”
  • Story: Houses Are Not Always What They Seem
    Where Are the Plans for My House?
    Look for Old House Plan Books
    Take Snapshots of Your House
    Finding Hidden Treasures in Photo Files
    Your House Could Be on a Postcard
    Finding Your House on Fire Insurance Maps
  • Story: Sanborn Maps and Spies
    Don’t Overlook Vintage Aerial Maps
    Never Pass Up an Old Map
  • Story: Finding the Truth on Old Maps
    Bird’s-Eye Views Are Not Just for the Birds
    How Was My House Decorated When It Was Built?
    Using Vintage Architectural MagazinesSearching for Physical Clues
    If Your Walls Could Talk
  • Story: Does Your Home Have a Secret Room?
    Do You Have a Sears Catalog House?
  • Story: The Mystery of the Name on the Window
    Did Your Home Come from Another Catalog Company?
  • Story: The Porch Swing That Was Meant to Be
    Have You Tried a Metal Detector in Your Yard?
  • Story: Front Doors in the Basement
    Digging Up the Past in Old Privy Holes
  • Story: A House-Raising Story
    Was Your House Ever Moved?
  • Story: House Moving Stories
    Uncovering the Original Colors of Your Home
  • Story: You Never Know What You’ll Find in an Old Basement
    My Home’s Not Historic, But I Want to Fix It Up RightUsing Your Address to Find Information
    Who Was the Architect for My Home?
    Locating Building Permits for Your House
    Utility Records Can Provide Clues
  • Story: Don’t Let FOI Forms Scare You
    Finding the Original Price of Your Home
    Contact Local insurance Companies
    Thank the Tax Man!
  • Story: Tax Records Can Be Misleading
    Ask for Street and House Files
  • Story: Just Because It’s Written Down, Doesn’t Mean It’s True!
    Is Your Home in a Subdivision?
    Is Your Home Listed on an Architectural Survey?
    Old Address vs. New AddressWhat Families Owned Your House?
    House History Equals Homeowners’ History
  • Story: Klondike or Bust!
    Where and How to Find Deeds for Your House
  • Story: A Deed Does Not Equal a House
    “Chaining the Title”
    What You Won’t Find on a Deed
    Understanding Types of Deeds
  • Story: Signed With an X
    Squeezing Information from a Deed
  • Story: Does “Pfingste” Sound Like “Kingston” to You?
    Using the Document Information Forms
  • Story: Name Misspellings Can Drive You Knutz
    Deciphering Old-Style Script
  • Story: No Saloons or Asylums, Please
    Your Home May Have Been RentedInvestigating Owners to Learn Even More Let Your Fingers Do the Walking
    Census Records Yield Fascinating Details
    Ask Churches About People Records
    Listening to Oral Histories
    Look at Any Lists of People That You Find
    Going Once, Going Twice, Sold!
    Go to Court
    God Bless the Mormon Family History Centers
    Nothing but Help
    Ask About Donor Files
    Look for Homeowners in Local History Books
    Search for Vintage Who’s Who Books
    Don’t Overlook Old Newspapers
    Social Directories Tell You Who Was Who
    Newspapers Contain Interesting Tidbits
  • Story: Seasick Researchers
    Farmer’s Directories Left Nothing Out
    Contacting Former Owners of Your Home
  • Story: Ghostly Faces at the WindowsClues from Beyond the Grave
    Death Indexes Lead to Obituaries
  • Story: A Ghost Named Julia
    Cemetery Indexes Help You Find Obits
    Funeral Homes Can Be Helpful
    Obituaries Are Marvelous!
  • Story: Obituary Information Solves Puzzle
    Where There’s a Will, There’s Information
  • Story: A Wealth of Information in WillsCurious About the History of Your Land? Going Back to the Beginning of History
    Who Owned Your Land Before Your Home Appeared?
    Understanding How Land Was Surveyed
    Land Measurement Trivia
    “N 18.5 Degrees 3 Chains 5 Links . . .”
    “Sw 24 Degrees 3 Chains 6 Links, Ne 110 Degrees 12 Rods …”
    Untangling Land Measurements
    Square Measurements
    Landownership Maps Contain Landowners’ Names
    Agricultural Censuses Yield Farm InformationMaking Your Own History
    Put Your Research Finds in Order
    Save Your Research and Memorabilia
    Start Your Own Photo Archive
    Give Something Back to Your Local Historic Society
    Other Sources of Information

    State Historic Preservation Offices
    Regional Depository Libraries
    State Libraries
    Vital Records Office

    Every vintage home has a story to tell. Yours is no exception. Elaborate Victorian mansions, cozy bungalows of the 1920s, and 1950’s ranch-style homes —all have a unique history. It’s there waiting to be uncovered. This book is your first step on this journey of discovery.
    Researching the history of your house is part treasure hunt and part jigsaw puzzle. As you find pieces of information, you’ll put them together to create a picture of your home’s history. You probably won’t find the answers to all of your questions. But you probably will find some fascinating pieces of information that you hadn’t even thought about. For example, as you discover information about your house, you will also learn something about the history of the houses around yours and also the history of your neighborhood.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to move into an older home and find that someone had researched all the previous owners of the home, carefully preserved this information, and recorded any changes that they made to the house? Perhaps they saved photos of snowstorms, weddings, etc. that occurred in the house. Maybe they wrote this information on archival-quality paper and stored it in an acid-free box with suggestions that future owners add their photos, remembrances, and research findings. Every older home should have this kind of information. If your home doesn’t, now is the time to start. This book will guide you every step of the way.
    Discovering the History of Your House is a starting point—the first step in discovering and preserving the history of your home. If you simply buy this book, keep it in a safe place, and pass it on to the next owner, you have still taken the first step. The research into your home’s past is an ongoing process. Do a little here and there when you get the chance, keep careful records of what you’ve done, and make sure that the next owner inherits your good work.
    You are part of your home’s history, as is every change that you make to the house. Future owners will appreciate any information that you can pass on to them, whether it is something that you uncovered about your home’s past, information about changes you made to the house, or photos of events that took place in your home.
    There’s a lot of information in this book. Don’t let that scare you. Not every section applies to your house. The line beneath the section title tells you whether the section applies to your home’s age and location. Many sections apply to all homes, but some are more specific. You can decide which sections will help you find the information you want.
    You don’t have to do everything listed in this book, and you don’t have to do it in the order in which it appears. Congratulate yourself for just buying this book and thinking about researching the history of your house. It’s up to you how much research you decide to do, and how much you leave for future owners of your home.
    Some final words of advice as you begin the journey of discovery into your home’s past—be patient, be polite, but above all . . . be persistent.
    “. . . research can be both fun and addictive”
    Researching the History of Your House,
    Colorado Historical Society
    ©2002 by Betsy J. Green

Author Information

Betsy J. Green

The author of Discovering the History of Your House . . . and Your Neighborhood is a former staff editor of World Book Encyclopedia and associate editor of Reader’s Digest. Green is a noted house historian who has been researching and writing about house histories for over ten years. She has taught house history research at adult educational programs throughout the Chicago area, and has written nominations to list buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Green also regularly presents programs to libraries, historical societies, and community groups.


If you’re keen to become an architectural detective, this intriguing book will get you started. Useful tips abound: if, for instance, you’re looking for old photographs of your home, and you live on a main thoroughfare, check out photos of parades that might have passed by; if you’re looking for information on previous owners, make sure to check for variant spellings of their surname in the relevant documents. In addition, the author steers us toward the right government offices and the appropriate library resources. . . . Wouldn’t it be nice to have a copy on your shelves the next time a would-be house detective asks for help?

“Offers a wealth of small strategies for homeowners to discover an array of historical nuggets about their homesteads. ”

“Judging by the letters and e-mails OHJ receives, Betsy J. Green’s Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood could be a runaway best-seller.”
Old House Journal

“A fun book to read!”
Genealogy Works Gallery

“A fun, simple, and “user friendly” step-by-step guide to researching the history of a private home. From surfing the Internet, to following a paper trail, Discovering the History of Your House is a welcome and highly recommended primer to finding out everything you want or need to know about the architectural history of your own home, but didn’t know who or how to ask.”
Midwest Book Review