How do I research the history of my house?

Research strategies to discover the history of a particular building or property.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer. Michael Ferrell Counting House, Main St., Halifax Court House, Halifax County, North Carolina. 1938. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Most research for house histories will be done locally in the town or county where the property is located.

As you research, keep in mind that specific house numbers, and even street or town names, and county or state borders may have changed over the years.

Property Records

Begin at the County Tax Assessment Office or similar local entity, which should house a record of ownership history and descriptive information about the property. The documents in this file may be maintained for a fixed number of years depending on local collections policies, if that is the case, find out where older records are archived.

Search the Deeds at the county courthouse. Begin with the most recent property owner and follow the title backwards. Be mindful of how the property was transferred: agreement of sale, sheriff’s sale, inheritance, etc. You may need to follow the paper trail to related records such as Liens or Judgments filed in the Civil Court, or Wills and Estate distributions filed with the Register of Wills. Make note of owners, dates conveyed, boundary changes, descriptive details, neighbors mentioned, and so forth.

When you reach all the way back to the original owner who received land from the government, you will need to consider the history of the state where the property is located. In the original 13 colonies, plus Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia, you will proceed to research at the State Archives in each respective state. For the other 30 public land states, explore the Land Entry Case Files and Related Records at the National Archives.

Building Permits and Blueprints

Also at the city or county level, you may review building permits and blueprints. Generally, these are held by a Building Department, City Planning Office, Borough Office, Zoning and Code Enforcement Office, or similar entity depending on your location. Records may typically be searched by address, permit number, or the parcel number assigned by the County Tax Assessment Office.

Local Histories

Learn about the community that your house is a part of and about the specific people who have lived there. The Library of Congress Local History and Genealogy Section has over 100,000 local histories and over 50,000 genealogies. Search the Library of Congress catalog for the town, county, or family of interest. This research angle will provide historic context. You may learn what history your house has witnessed; when your community installed modern conveniences such as public water or bricked roads; or if it survived a disaster like flood or fire. Find out what you have in common with past residents and what their lives were like. Did you attend the same neighborhood school? Did a soldier march out of your door and off to war? The basic principles of genealogical research will apply as you learn about the people who have called your house "home."

Find out more about how to research the history of your house by browsing these Library of Congress Subject Heading(s):

Historic buildings--United States--Research--Handbooks, manuals, etc.

Dwellings--United States--Research--Handbooks, manuals, etc.

United States--Genealogy--Handbooks, manuals, etc.

Maps

Find the property on historic maps, many of which you can explore online through the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Search their digital collections for town and county maps that show the land over the years. These maps may reveal many details depending on their purpose such as: farm line and land ownership maps that identify boundaries and property owners; railroad maps that exhibit transportation development; or panoramas that show the expansion of a city.

If your house is in a town, whether big or small, be sure to view the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which show building footprints, building material, height or number of stories, building use, lot lines, road widths and water facilities. The maps also show street names and property boundaries of the time. Follow your community backwards from the latest map available to the earliest one created. If your town is particularly small, look at neighboring communities too. Sometimes the set of maps made for a county seat or more populated area will include smaller villages close by.

Newspapers

Newspapers provide one of the best ways to learn the story of your house and its inhabitants. Search for your town, street, and the specific people who were past residents. Look in social columns for events at your house and the visitors who stopped by. See if your street was located along parade routes. You may even find announcements about the property being purchased or the house being constructed.

The Library of Congress provides free access to Chronicling America, a collection of historic newspapers. One of the tools on this web site is the U.S. Newspaper Directory, which you can use to lookup area newspapers and search for articles related to your community and the people who lived in your house. If the newspapers for your area have not been digitized yet, use the U.S. Newspaper Directory to see which repositories house the archives. Access further resources about available publications through the Library of Congress Newspapers and Periodicals Division.

Photographs

See Using Local and Family History Photographs to Tell the Stories of Your Ancestors for research strategies to search the Library of Congress' print and digital collections for photographs of your house, neighborhood, and past residents.

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Last Updated: Jul 31, 2020
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Please Note

The staff of the Library of Congress cannot undertake research in family history or heraldry. In order to perform work of this nature satisfactorily, it is necessary to identify a particular branch of the family concerned, and, because of the time and effort involved, searches for this kind of information usually require the services of a professional genealogist or heraldic searcher.