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House Histories

How to Trace the Genealogy of Your Home or Other Building

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New York City brownstone. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
Mario Tama/Getty Images.
Mother and daughter looking at old photo album in the attic.
Sean Ives/Stone/Getty Images
Have you ever wondered about the history of your house, apartment, church or other building? When was it built? Why was it built? Who owned it? What happened to the people who lived there? Or, my perennial favorite question as a child, does it have any secret tunnels or cubbyholes? Whether you're looking for documentation for historic status or are just plain inquisitive, tracing a property's history and learning about the people who have lived there can be a fascinating and fulfilling project.

When conducting research on buildings there are usually two types of information that people search for: 1) architectural facts, such as date of construction, name of architect or builder, construction materials, and physical changes over time; and 2) historical facts, such as information on the original owner and other residents through time, or interesting events associated with the building or area. A house history may consist of either type of research, or be a combination of both.

To learn more about the history of your home or other building:

Get to Know Your Home

Begin your search by looking closely at the building for clues about its age. Look at the type of construction, the materials used in construction, the shape of the roofline, the placement of the windows, etc. These types of features may prove useful in identifying the architectural style of the building, which helps in establishing the general construction date. Walk around the property looking for obvious alterations or additions to the building as well as roadways, paths, trees, fences and other features. It is also important to look at nearby buildings to see whether they contain similar features which will also help to date your property.

Talk to relatives, friends, neighbors, even former employees - anyone who might know something about the house. Ask them not only for information about the building, but also about former owners, the land upon which the house was built, what existed at that location prior to construction of the house, and the history of the town/community. Check family letters, scrapbooks, diaries, and photo albums for more possible clues. It's even possible (though not likely) that you may find an original deed or even a blueprint for the property.

A thorough search of the property may also yield clues between walls, floorboards, and other forgotten areas. Old newspapers were often used as insulation between walls, while journals, clothing, and other items have been found in rooms, closets, or fireplaces that for one reason or another were sealed over. Now I'm not recommending that you knock holes in the walls unless you are planning a restoration, but you should be aware of the many secrets which an older home or building can contain.

Chain of Title Search

A deed is a legal document used to transfer ownership of land and property. Examining all of the deeds concerning your home or other property is a big step toward learning more about its history. In addition to providing the names of property owners, deeds can also provide information on construction dates, changes in value and use, and even plot maps. Begin with the deed for the current owners of the property and work your way back from one deed to the next, with each deed providing details on who conveyed the property to whom. This list of property owners in succession is known as the "chain of title." Though often a tedious process, a title search is the best method for establishing a chain of ownership for a property.

Begin your search for deeds by learning where they were recorded and stored for the time and place in which you are interested. Some jurisdictions are even beginning to place this information online - allowing you to search for current property information by address or owner. Next, visit the registry of deeds (or location where deeds are recorded for your area) and use the grantee index to search for the present owner in an index of buyers. The index will provide you with a book and page where a copy of the actual deed is located.

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