Wouldn’t you like to know who built your house, the names of all the owners throughout the years, their children, their occupation, when they planted that big tree in the backyard, why they put on that addition, what colors they painted the house, and why in God’s name did they ever paint that chestnut woodwork white!!!!
Life happens, and if only those walls could talk! If you only knew earlier that those holes in the woodwork you repaired where from bullets and that low area in the garden you just filled in is where the bodies are buried. Maybe this is an extreme case but maybe not. (FYI-I do not recommend repairing bullet holes because you are then covering up history)
The past residents are part of your house just as much as you are now. You are all part of the history – part of the energy of the house, and will remain part of the house forever.
So you need to make your mark! Let future owners know about what you did to your house and about you personally. Old House Guy will guide you through the process. (Hopefully you preserved the historic character of your home or even restored it back after the previous homeowner made a mess.)
There are two steps to this.
- Documenting changes to the building and grounds.
- The other is the personal information about those changes, meaning why you made them and a personal stories about you and your families’ life in the house.
With this information, future owners can then connect with you when you are long gone. You will be thought of as an extended family. Your memory will live on!
Imagine moving into an old house, visiting the local historical society, and having the opportunity to read a large file on your house and all the previous residents. Well it has to start somewhere so let is start with you right now.
Note: You may not feel as warmly towards the residents that painted your chestnut woodwork white. Now you have a big job of stripping it or living with it. Please be cautious of making changes to your home without consulting Old House Guy or another old house professional.
Documenting the History of Your House – How to Start
The first step is to create an outline of changes you made to your house since you took ownership.
STEP 1 – Touring your House and Gathering Data
With a pad in hand, walk around the exterior of the house, then the interior and list each of the changes you made on paper. Remember what the house looked like when you moved in. Were there any additions, modifications, remodeling, or special repair problems that future residents may need to deal with? (new gutters, steps repaired or replaced, new wallpaper, new faucet, new wiring, furnace, light fixtures, door knobs, etc.) Yes make it detailed. This will make sense later and remember what is insignificant to you will be very significant to a future resident.
STEP 2 – Dating your Data
Once you have this completed, go down the list and write down the year each change was made. This is the difficult part. It is not always easy to remember what year you did things. Check receipts etc. to be accurate. If you are not sure then note that. Use “Circa” by putting a lower case “c.” before the year (c. 1987) if the date is approximate, or use a range of years (sometime between 1995-2001).
STEP 3 – Gathering Data in your Backyard
Next do the same for the property. List the trees, gardens, garage, shed, barn, pool, tree house, etc. Anything you changed or added since you moved in. Shrubbery can last 100 years so do not think this is unimportant.
STEP 4 – Organizing and Sorting
If possible transfer this information to a Word document on a computer and organize by date order (ascending or descending – whatever style you prefer).
The method that worked best for me was to work off my house expenses. I kept a listing of expenses by year. I listed each year I lived in my house and worked backwards from the current year, referring to my expenses and writing a paragraph about what was done and why. At first it was brief, but then I went back and expanded it making it more interesting for the reader. It was a bit difficult to remember the details, but once I started it all surprisingly came back. I even listed the paint name and code numbers each time I painted. Once you start, it will flow so easily.
STEP 5 – Adding the Details
Now that you have this completed, go back over the list and explain the location. Refer to locations – rooms, etc. by north-east corner or street side. Rooms are changed, walls are removed, kitchens are relocated, but street and compass locations remain.
EX: Children Johnny and Sally grew up and moved out of the house. You combined their rooms to make an office. Future residents (especially if you did a good job) may not be able to see signs of this change. They will not know which room was Johnny’s. You would be best to describe it as “Johnny’s room, 2nd floor north-west corner etc”. Describe the exact location of the wall. Give all the detail you possibly can. Think of yourself as someone explaining what you did to someone in the future. If you don’t think this is important, go on some historic house tours and hear their stories. Future generations will send you blessings of good karma for good information!
Sharing your Home-life and Personality
STEP 6 – Introducing the Characters
The previous steps list the details of changes made to your house. You will need to expand and add some personality to that information but first you will need to introduce the characters (residents). This information can be placed at the beginning of your research.
On a separate page, list all family members and pets that have ever lived in this house while you were the owner. Also include maiden names, marriage date, birth dates and death dates if they passed on during this period of ownership including reason for death and burial location.
State your previous address and explain why you moved and what made you decide to move into or build this house. List the move in date and tell some information about your moving experience and first nights in your new home.
Don’t forget: Education – Employment – Family Traditions – favorite vacations – automobiles – enclose a photograph of family – List neighbors, stores, etc. nearby that were part of your life while living at this house.
STEP 7 – Fill in the Gaps and add Some Personality
Now that your readers know who you are, go back over your list and add personal comments such as why you made the change, did you hire someone or do it yourself, the cost, the problems you had doing it, anything to give it personality and really “make it you”. Ex. The red wall paper was replaced because Fido kept peeing on it . . . . Driving to the store to pick up new wallpaper, you were involved in an accident – etc etc.
Keep going back over it and adding to it.Don’t forget about daily life – where your kids went to school, your neighbors, happy/sad memories and traditions.Remember to write clearly so your explanation can be understood by those living in another time period. Be cautious of trendy terms and assuming the reader knows what you are describing. Best to make it alien friendly.There is no real format to all of this, so do what you think future owners would like, or what you would like to read about someone who lived in your house many years ago. If you are the first owner of a new house, or the 10th owner of an old house, write down all the information you know in your own personal style and format.
You may think that your life in current times is not exciting as peoples’ lives were years ago. What you need to do is to put yourself in the place of someone 100 years in the future and imagine them reading about you and how interesting it will be for them to read what you have to say. Simple things like what kind of car you drive or watching that big screen television may seem boring to you, but will definitely be exciting to them.
Imagine yourself reading what someone wrote years ago – don’t you think it would be interesting to know that those bricks you uncovered in the back yard was a pathway in a rose arbor leading to a Victory garden, or the reason the tree you planted is growing so well is because it’s located where the privy once was?
Saving your story
Sorry – all this work you did is not finished. You will have to add to it for the rest of your days. It may be good to mark your calendar for January each year when it’s cold and you have more time.
However, your research needs to be saved and stored. Who knows what the future brings. Take this info and put it on a CD if you want but remember that CD’s are used today and their lifespan is limited. Use a printed copy in combination with a CD. Include photos of your house and your family – don’t forget the family pet! Take photos of every room. This is great documentation for the future. The layout of furniture, colors and styles are important too. Did you know that coffee tables were not used before a sofa as we know it until 1938? The point is that what you think is insignificant will not be to future residents.
This is your legacy. You may be gone but you are insuring your memory will last forever!
Take this information and give it to your local historical society for safe keeping. If they don’t have a resident file, they need to start one now. You can tell them the Old House Guy said so! They will keep this information in a private file. It will be available at a later date to future owners, family members, and researchers. Just don’t forget to provide the historical society with updates. The copy you retain will make a great keepsake for your family and children’s children. Keep your copy in a safe place such as a safe deposit box.
If your town does not have a historical society, you may try a neighboring society. They will be interested in obtaining any historic info they can and will pass it along if a new society opens up in your town. Just keeping this info in your house has a risk of being lost by future owners or damaged etc. There may be a future foreclosure or divorce and your valuable information may be burned up in anger. If god-forbid, your house burns, then everything is really gone. Things happen, remember that. You can also try University Libraries. They have archival departments where information such as this is stored in a climate controlled environment.
Don’t stop now – Research Previous Residents of your House
Once you complete your information, why not research previous owners? Through my research, long gone previous residents became my extended family. Those no longer living I feel like I knew. You will develop a connection to those who once lived in your house as you discover more information. Your house will mean so much more to you, and your children.
How to Research Previous Owners of Your Home
Deed Research (easy in person or online)
By tracing back the Deeds, you will find the names of each owner and the dates they owned the property.
Where to get the information
Search for or call your local county courthouse to see if there is online access to Deeds and if so how far back do they go. If they are not online you will have to make a personal visit.
Deed Research is performed at the Deed Room of your County Clerk’s Office. The Deed Room has indexes available for view dating back to the later 1700’s. Upon entering the Deed Room, first see the attendant. They are VERY helpful usually. You are not the only person doing work like this and they will give you a tour and explain what you need to do to accomplish your task.
Bring a copy of your Deed to the Deed Room or write down the Book & Page for the attendant. If you do not own the building or cannot easily access your Deed, the name and address of the owner and year of purchase should do fine. This is the starting point. The more information you have the better. The attendant will advise you. Bring a pencil – pens are normally not permitted.
Your Deed will reference the previous owner by Book and Page. Their Deed will reference the previous owner to them, and down the line. You will need to reference each book in order to trace the house/property back. Be sure to either photocopy or write down the names of the Deed holders and dates.
Understand the Deed is for the property, not the house. Your house could have been constructed in 1910 but the deed can be traced back to 1790. There may or may not have been previous structures at the location. The deed will NOT tell you that in most cases. Once you enter the turn of the 19th century, most deeds will be hand written. Have fun straining your eyes trying to read them. Also remember that tracts of land were usually subdivided through the years. You are working backwards. Your 50 x 100 lot in 1920 may be 10 acres in 1900.
Keep in mind what is most important is to chart a time-line of the property owners with dates of their ownership. Notice the trends of family deed transfers.
You now know the property owner’s names and changes to the size of the property.
Mortgage information is also available for research.
Census Reports (easy)
What is it?
Federal Census reports are available dating as far back as 1790 (New York). They were produced every 10 years.
State Census reports are available for years ending in “5”. Ex 1905, 1915, 1925
There is a 70 year privacy law, therefore the most recent Census available should be 1940, but may not currently be accessible in a library yet.
Where to get it?
Online: Depending on the state you live in, there may be free online sources to view Census reports. Call your county library for information about online access and microfilm. Some state universities will have all the Federal and State reports available for free on microfilm.Ancestry.com – Membership Fee – (They also have marriage, birth, death certificates, etc.)
Information is usually indexed by State, County, Town, and then street address. If a resident was not at home, the census taker would make a second visit and the information was then entered on a page with other street addresses. Scroll down searching for the last name of the homeowner for that year based on your deed research.
Keep in mind names of towns change, county and local borders change. If you are not able to find your town, it may be part of or included as part of a larger neighboring town.
Online sites are very convenient however they work on an index system. You type in the name and the system searches for a match. If the census taker misspelled the name you will not find it. Remember that years ago, not all information was recorded accurately nor was it verified. Names were spelled as they sounded. A Polish name beginning with the letter “L” is pronounced as a “W” sound and may be written as a “W” instead of an “L” in the Census.
There are advantages to visiting the library and viewing the documents on microfilm. Here you can scroll down the list searching by street and see all names listed. You will find information about the residents of that house including servants and borders. Their ages, dates of birth, immigration information, occupation, schooling etc. are listed.
Through this, you now have a good picture of life in the household as it evolved every 5 years. The information is very interesting. The 1930 census even states if the household owned a Radio.
Sanborn Fire Maps (easy)
What is it?
See the Wikipedia entry for Sanborn Maps .
The Sanborn map collection consists of a uniform series of large-scale maps, dating from 1867 to the present and depicting the commercial, industrial, and residential sections of some twelve thousand cities and towns in the United States. The maps were designed to assist fire insurance agents in determining the degree of hazard associated swith a particular property and therefore show the size, shape, and construction of dwellings, commercial buildings, and types of roofs. The maps also indicate widths and names of streets, property boundaries, building use, and house and block numbers. They were produced every 4 years for some towns.
Where to get it?
Although the maps only date back to the late 1800’s, by examining the map every issued year, you can see the structural changes on the property. For example, a barn built or destroyed, or a room removed to make way for a driveway on a small property, or a porch addition.
The research you did using the methods above should be sufficient. Below are other research methods that can possibly fill in some gaps or provide more information.
Also consider various Genealogical resources such as Church records, marriage, birth, etc.
One good source is the Mormon Church family search site .
Newspapers are a great source of information for the earlier 1900’s and before. You will find information such as birthday parties and relatives visiting from out of town to someone purchasing a new car. Through this, I even found out who wired my house for electricity in 1910.
Where to get it?
Contact your local or county library for information.
City Directories (easy)
What is it?
City Directories are telephone and address books. Many times your town will be included with addresses from a larger neighboring town. There will probably be a listing in alphabetical order by Resident Last Name and another listing by Street.
Again if you cannot find your information here, contact your local library. These directories go back to the mid 19th century.
Tax Information (easy if you have their cooperation)
Where to go?
Your local Tax Assessor’s office.
You will need the Lot and Block number. It is doubtful they will look it up for you unless the sun is shining brightly. This document will list each person who owned your property and the value of the property. Over the years, the value usually climbs at a steady pace. An abrupt increase often means that new construction occurred – possibly when the home was built.
Wills & Estate Inventories 1670-1900 (not as easy)
What is it?
Years ago when someone died, an inventory was taken of all their possessions and a value was placed on each. This includes servants, cows, candle holders, etc. Years ago, even the wealthy did not have what we have today. While you are there, inquire about other information that is available to help you with your research. For instance they may have building permits, architectural plans, etc.
Where to get it?
Contact your County Library for information on County Archives. They will direct you to the appropriate person and you can set up an appointment to view their records.
You will need an approximate date of death. As usual, the more information you have the easier your search will be.
Other links for further research
- Library of Congress
- Historic Panoramic Maps from the Library of Congress
- Ellis Island Passenger search
- General research – Vital Statistic documents
- Ancestry.com Rootsweb directory/