House Hunting

House Hunting

If your ancestors' walls could talk, what would they say? Find out with our guide to researching the places your family called home.

When I was a kid, gas was cheap and few worried about the environment, so my family took a drive every Sunday afternoon. Our routes were familiar: With Dad at the wheel, we’d pick up his mom and travel to the places she’d lived in earlier days.

My grandmother’s life was an interesting mix of tenements, mill housing and single-family homes. Unfortunately, Nana didn’t talk much about those places. Except for commenting on how much some of the neighborhoods had changed, she kept most of her memories private. Now I’d like to know more about those dwellings. Perhaps you’ve felt the same way after visiting an ancestor’s house, seeing a picture of it, or finding the address in a city directory. What was the home like — and what can it tell you about its occupants? How long was your family there? Who were the neighbors? Take a drive down memory lane with our guide to answering your questions about the places your ancestors called home.

What was the address?

An address is the key to research in property records and maps. Relatives may recall street names or house numbers, so go ahead and ask. But don’t worry if you don’t get an answer: Addresses and home ownership information can appear in any number of genealogical sources — vital records, censuses, city directories and even newspapers. You might already have these documents. Examine your research and list relatives’ addresses and dates they lived there, then look for these records to fill in the blanks:

• Address books: If you have Mom’s address book or Grandma’s Christmas card list, look through it for relatives.

• City directories: Similar to telephone books, city directories are more likely to exist for urban than rural areas, but finding them can be a challenge. Libraries and historical societies generally have them in print or on microfilm for the local area; large libraries may have more-extensive collections. You might be able to borrow microfilm from distant libraries through inter-library loan. < > ($155.40 per year) has a modest directory collection. City directories often contain clues: The abbreviation h indicates a house; and bds may appear by a boarder (or an older, working child who contributed to rent or mortgage).

• Vital records: Birth, marriage and death records contain the street addresses of parents, newlyweds and the deceased. Request these from your ancestor’s county or state vital-records office or, in some cases, the state archives — see the Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists edited by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack and Erin Nevius (Family Tree Books) for contact information. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <> also has microfilm of many counties’ vital records, so visit the FHL’s online catalog and run a place search on your ancestor’s county, then look for a vital records heading. (You can rent FHL microfilm through branch Family History Centers; for locations, see <>.)

• Censuses: The US census, taken every 10 years since 1790, sometimes includes the street name and numbers on the left side of the page. The records might reveal even more: 1850, 1860 and 1870 schedules recorded the value of real estate owned. The 1890 through 1930 censuses report whether a person owned his property, and if it was mortgaged. Censuses through 1930 are available on microfilm at National Archives and Records Administration <> facilities, large public libraries, and the FHL. On the Internet, find census records at Heritage-Quest Online <> (free through many public libraries) and

• Newspapers: Obituaries from the late 19th and early 20th centuries often include the address of the deceased. In the same time frame, marriage notices reported where the newly hitched would live, and where their parents resided — especially for affluent families. Newspaper real estate sections also reveal who sold what property to whom.

For news items, try searching database sites, GenealogyBank <> ($69.95 per year), Footnote <> ($59.95 per year) and World Vital Records <> ($49.95 a year). Use the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America <> to identify papers to look for on microfilm.

Who else has lived there?

Each time you buy or sell a house, a title researcher makes sure no one else can claim ownership. You can do a title search on your ancestors’ land by researching deed records, which show ownership transfers from grantees (sellers) to grantors (buyers), as well as the purchase amount. Do this even if your family rented — you might find the landlords were relatives. Deed records also help you learn if a building was converted to other uses — my uncle’s house, for example, is now a garden shop.

Start deed research with the present and work backward. Records are generally indexed by grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer). First, see if the FHL has microfilmed records for your ancestors’ county; my favorite shortcut is consulting the research outlines for each state, accessible from <>. Look for the Land and Property section, which will tell you what microfilmed county records the FHL has. Visit your local Family History Center to order the appropriate films. State archives or local historical societies also might have county records on microfilm.

If none of these sources bear out, you’ll need to visit the repository holding the records — probably the county clerk’s office, but call to make sure, since old records may have been sent elsewhere. You can request deeds by mail if you know the date, but most clerks won’t be able to do much searching for you. A reference such as Red Book by Alice Eichholz (Ancestry) gives you more specifics on land records in your ancestors’ state, and see the August 2006 Family Tree Magazine for help interpreting historical deeds.

The deeds are nowhere to be found? Try looking in tax records, which also show property values. Check them year over year: Changes in the taxed amount could indicate home improvements. Record locations vary from town halls to county assessors’ offices to state archives. Look for FHL microfilm, too — run a place search of the online catalog on the county and look for a tax records heading.

What did the house look like?

Carolyn Ender and her husband had just the address of her parents’ first home, purchased in 1948 in Corpus Christi, Texas, and a picture of the newlyweds in front of it. They started by digging up property records in the county courthouse, then stopped by. To Ender’s delight, it looked the same, and the current owner invited her inside. “It was a great experience to walk through the house and imagine my mother cooking meals for my dad, sweeping the floors and working in the yard as a young housewife.”

Ask relatives for photos showing ancestors’ homes and search photo collections at libraries and historical societies. Look for street scenes, too — the house might be in the background. If the house still stands, you may be able to find contemporary images on the county auditor’s or property assessor’s Web site. For example, most listings on the Hamilton County, Ohio, Property Search site <> link to images. Visit the house if you can. If a neighborhood is unfamiliar, first find out if it’s safe, and bring someone along.

Don’t expect to find many pictures inside homes, since low lighting prevented most amateurs from shooting indoors until flash bulbs became common in the 1920s. If you do own an interior image, look for features — such as Grandma’s ornate mantel — that identify where it was taken. Snapshots showing objects in the living room or a family gathered around the dining room table provide evidence of everyday routines.

The decor might include framed family portraits (use a photographer’s loupe to examine them), and it could help date the photo. Compare it to illustrations in The Tasteful Interlude: American Interiors Through the Camera’s Eyes, 1860-1917 by William Seale (AltaMira) and The Elements of Design: A Practical Encyclopedia of the Decorative Arts From the Renaissance to the Present edited by Noel Riley and Patricia Bayer (Free Press).

Historical societies sometimes keep local building plans, which would show you the layout. Various archives also collect blueprints of architecturally significant buildings — worth checking if your ancestor lived in an innovative structure or one designed by a famous architect. Contact the state’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects <> or the American Architectural Foundation <> for information on local collections.

What style is it?

Certain types of homes — Cape Cod, Tudor, saltbox, shotgun — are instantly recognizable. Knowing when your ancestors’ style of house became popular in the area could help you figure out when the house was built. A community’s ethnic heritage also influenced building design, so the house your great-great-grandparents built might reflect their homeland. For example, the overhanging second story on many 17th-century New England houses resembles British residences; Hispanic families in the American Southwest often used adobe.

If you don’t recognize an ancestral home’s style, consult our online guide <> and see A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester (Alfred A. Knopf) or The Elements of Style: An Encyclopedia of Domestic Architectural Detail edited by Stephen Calloway, Elizabeth Cromley and Alan Powers (Firefly Books). Study architectural histories of the area, likely available through a historical society or arts organization, to learn when the style came into vogue.

From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold almost 75,000 of its Modern Homes in mail-order kits homeowners assembled onsite. The company offered 447 styles over the years, which you can view by era, along with prices, at <>. People could even submit blueprints of their own designs, and Sears would size and ship the materials. Other companies, such as Aladdin <>, had similar programs. See About Your Mail-Order House <> for research tips.

What was it like to live there?

When visiting a New Hampshire town where my family lived in the early 1900s, I asked a town historian to help me find their neighborhood. The houses were long gone, replaced by a modern development, but the historian showed me an old map. There was my family — their home was a mere dot on the grid, but I was able to get a sense of what the area was like when my relatives lived there.

Looking beyond your ancestors’ walls at their neighborhood puts you in their shoes. Local history books tell the stories of towns and neighborhoods — what people did every day, their jobs, predominant ethnicities and religions, and more. Libraries and historical societies generally have these tomes; also try searching online bookstores such as <> and Powell’s Books <>. HeritageQuest Online has a large collection of digitized local histories.

Maps document changes as streets were widened and neighborhoods built. Be aware cities often renumbered (and sometimes renamed) streets, as Chicago did in 1909, which could throw you off. A recorder of deeds or seasoned local researcher probably can tell you about these occurrences. Chart your own ancestors’ residences using the following map resources, and for more help, consult Walking With Your Ancestors: A Genealogist’s Guide to Using Maps and Geography by Melinda Kashuba (Family Tree Books).

• Google: It might be easiest to start with Google’s familiar mapping tool <>, which can show you where a house was located and, if you click the Satellite tab, a bird’s-eye view of what’s there now. For some urban areas, you can click the Street View tab for a street-level shot of the address.

• Digitized maps: The Library of Congress’ American Memory <> has a large collection of digitized historical maps. Click the Maps link to search illustrated panoramas of cities across the country (Panoramic Maps) and old maps of cities and towns (Maps and Cartographic Items, Revolutionary Era, or Civil War Era). The University of Texas at Austin’s Perry Castañeda Library has posted maps from old auto guides and other sources <>. State archive and historical society Web sites, such as Historic Pittsburgh <>, often have online maps.

• Atlases: The 19th-and 20th-century Beers Atlases, which generally cover the Eastern United States, have dots signifying houses, with surnames beside them. Some are available in electronic format from publishers such as Piper Publishing <>. Look for these and other printed atlases at local historical societies and archives, or search the Internet on the place name and historical atlas.

• Plat maps: These land ownership maps originally were hand-drawn. Early ones contain sketchy detail, whereas the later, mechanically printed versions usually show streets, significant buildings and houses. Contact the local historical society for information on old plat maps. For early settlers of some areas, you can find federal survey plat maps in the General Land Office records database <>.

• Sanborn fire insurance maps: The Sanborn Map Co. of Pelham, NY, started creating highly detailed maps in 1867 to assess properties’ fire hazards. You can see the size, shape and construction details (windows, doors and fire walls) of buildings for 12,000 municipalities in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Digitized Sanborn maps are available through many large research institutions. A local library or historical society may have maps for the area on microfilm. The FHL has microfilmed maps for a handful of cities and years.

Where can I get more help researching a house?

If you’ve never considered learning more about your ancestors by studying their homes, Where We Lived: Discovering the Places We Once Called Home by Jack Larkin (Taunton Press) is a fascinating account of the types of dwellings our ancestors occupied and what that information tells us about their lives. You can get professional help with house research through the Association of Professional Genealogists <> or from a local AIA branch. Finding the story of your ancestors’ home is the next best thing to hopping in the car, getting Grandma and driving the highways of her life.
 From the September 2008 Family Tree Magazine

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