1. Survey the area.
What should your notes tell you about the home’s style and construction? You can find general guides online, but different styles and when they were popular vary locally and regionally. Rely on local, state or region-specific architecture guides from area historical societies and libraries.
2. Build your foundation with deeds and tax records.
Old property tax records might have been removed to storage or to an archive such as a library. Check with the court or local historical society to determine where the records for the area and time frame are located.
3. Frame the house by adding records.
- Building Permits: Permits track additions, modifications and other major improvements made to the property. They might provide an owner’s name, original date of construction, details about the existing structure, names of the contractor and architect, and possibly sketches of the building. Building permits are usually held in the city, township or county housing department.
- County and Local Histories: If the house or its former occupants are of historical significance—and sometimes even if they aren’t—you may find references to the home in county, city or neighborhood histories. Even if these books don’t specifically mention the home, they may describe the development of the neighborhood. That context can be important in understanding changes that occurred to the property you’re researching. Two key websites for local histories are Family-Search books (see page 6).
- Insurance Records: Fire insurance policies were often required to get a mortgage on a property, and such mortgages may provide clues as to the insurance provider. If you can find insurance records, they can provide details about the number of rooms, construction material, owners’ possessions and possibly sketches.
- Fire Department Records: A fire could explain why parts of a house appear more recent than others. Contact the local fire department for more information about extant records. If these records are now at a library or archive, you may be able to locate them by searching WorldCat or the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections.
- Utility Records: Many older homes predate modern conveniences of water, electricity, gas and telephones. Connections for those utilities made at a later date may form an interesting part of your house history. Water company records are often held by a public entity, but those of other utilities are private. Contact the local utility provider to ask whether historical records exist and where they’re held.
4. Meet the residents.
- Census Records: Censuses provide such details as who lived in the house, their names and occupations. Depending on the census year, you’ll also learn about the home: its value, whether owned or rented, and how the rest of the neighborhood compared. The May/June 2012 Family Tree Magazine has a guide on finding US census records.
Don’t stop with federal population census schedules. Non-population censuses, such as manufacturing and agricultural schedules, can provide details about both people and buildings (See the July 2009 Family Tree Magazine for research how-tos). State censuses, if they exist for the area, can help trace a family between federal censuses—the July 2011 Family Tree Magazine will help you find these.
- Newspapers: The news and society sections can be rich sources of information. The text-searchable newspapers at websites such as GenealogyBank, Ancestry.com and the free Chronicling America have expanded your possibilities for quick and thorough research. In addition to surname searches, try searching for the street name and the specific address. Chronicling America also features a searchable directory of historical newspaper titles back to the 1600s, where they were published and where you can find them on microfilm. Local libraries or state archives are generally your best sources for newspapers covering the area.
- Probate Records: These records of a deceased person’s estate distribution often are overlooked. “In addition to rich historical information about the families, they also provide estate inventories that list, oftentimes, items that were in the home at the homeowner’s time of death,” says Pierre-Louis, “thus providing a view into the lives of the previous owners.” These records are stored at local probate courts and sometimes state archives, often with microfilm copies available through FamilySearch Centers. Some are even digitized and online at FamilySearch.org.
5. Decorate with maps, atlases and photographs.
Historical societies, libraries and archives might have photos of the house or neighborhood. The Library of Congress American Memory collection also has text-searchable maps, atlases and photographs.
6. Hold an open house.
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