Discovering the secret history of your old house may take no more than a matter of hours (if you are very lucky!) & reveal a wealth of information about the building & the people who once lived in it. You may find the original name of the house, discover when it was built or renovated & reveal the lives of the strangers who once lived within your four walls. The following notes may help guide you on this journey.

Archives | Land Title | Materials | People | Structure | Style

Archives & Other Sources
Seek information in research libraries and archives which have old maps and plans, surveys, valuation rolls, local government building files, plans and rate or tax books, electoral rolls, telephone books and directories which list residents in cities, suburbs and towns. Check water and sewerage records, and records of gas or electricity authorities and lands administration. Old photographs, paintings and sketches may provide a view of your house or a mere glimpse.

In many areas of the US Sanborn Fire Insurance maps indicate when new buildings appeared and when modifications such as porch additions or new wings were made. Look for them at the local fire department, tax or assessor's office, real estate offices, title insurance firms, city planning offices, the National Archives or the Sanborn Map Co., 629 Fifth Ave, Pelham, New York 10803. Environmental Data Resources of Southport, CT, has them available in digitized form. Visit their Website for further information. In Canada, fire insurance plans can be found at university, private and provincial archives as well as City planning offices.

In the UK, contact the Historic Buildings Group via the Country Records Office or local museum service. Other possible sources of information include the County Archives Office, regional offices of English Heritage and the County Council or district Council. English Heritage may be able to provide a list of architectural historians who can conduct research on your behalf. Jean Manco's website, Guide to Researching Historic Buildings in the British Isles, is an invaluable resource. House Histories, operated by Mark & Gill Walters, will research the history of houses and buildings throughout the UK. Period Profile provides a similar service. Useful sources of information include ordnance survey maps, Post Office maps and, in Scotland, fencing plans which can be seen at Register House, Edinburgh.

Land Title

If the land title system in your area permits searches through a chain of titles from owner to owner back through history there may be useful information to be obtained. This sort of search is often carried out by lawyers at the time a property is purchased. It can reveal everyone who has owned the property, when they bought it and how much it cost them. The pattern of land development usually begins with a large area which is subdivided into smaller and smaller pieces. A significant rise in price after subdivision often indicates the construction or renovation of a building on the land.


The best source of information about your old house is the building itself. Learn how to read the information contained in its structure and the materials from which it was built. Materials gathered on or near the site such as rough-hewn or sawn timber, rough and unformed stone, earth, bark and hand-made bricks are generally indicators of early buildings. Milled timber, chiselled stone and materials which are clearly the products of industry suggest work which has been carried out at a later date. Examine hardware and any original wallpaper for design registration numbers from which dates can be determined. But remember that these are approximations: not the date of construction.


The history of your house may be recored in the memories of people who once lived there or in nearby houses, or in stories they handed down through their families. Old photograph albums may contain shots in which the house is a backdrop to a variety of family activities. Locating these people may provide the best information you will ever find.


The appearance of a house may be deceptive. A major renovation can confuse the history of a house. A building in a particular style may have begun life in quite different form. Check floor and ceiling joists and within the roof cavity for consistency of materials, appearance and construction techniques. This generally indicates a single construction date. The use of different materials or techniques will suggest a structure that was created at two or more different periods.


Style is a guide to the date of construction. But builders may continue working in a style long after fashion has moved on. A later renovation in a newly-fashionable style may create confusion. Use style in association with other dating techniques. To identify books which provide guidance on style for your area as well as information on construction dating and building history please go to the Books area of this site.

As research progresses, record information as soon as you find it. When you have completed your research document it with text and photographs. Three copies are a good idea: one to keep, one for the next owner of the building and one for the local historical group or library history file.

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Drawings © Ian Stapleton 1997 Text & Directory of restoration products and services © Ian Evans 2007