Real Estate

Home Histories: How To Discover Who Used to Live in Your Home

published Oct 3, 2013
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

If you’re lucky enough to live in a historic or familial home, then you know how interesting it is to learn about the people who used to sleep in your bedroom and cook in your kitchen and how different, yet amazingly similar, their lives were to your own. But what about the rest of us? Curious to know how to even begin finding out who used to live in your home? Read on for the resources to start your search.

*A quick note before you get started: depending on your state and the age of your home, this could be a pretty easy or very difficult process. Regardless, in almost all cases, it will take more than a quick internet search. Be prepared, at the very least, to go down to your local hall of records and do some of the dirty work yourself.

First things first, talk to your neighbors! It’s the simplest (and friendliest) way to get some great information.

If you’re starting from scratch, you’ll need to figure out when your house or apartment building was constructed. The style, materials and original details of your home (if you’re lucky enough to have those) will give you a rough idea of its period. For simple, free information, real estate sites like Zillow or Trulia are great places to start. Searching by address, especially if the house is for sale or recently sold, will most likely tell you at least the age of the property and usually some other basic information. For a bit more depth (and if you’re willing to shell out a few bucks), Housefax will prepare a report on your property including age, fire history, building permits and even if there was ever meth lab activity reported!

Now it’s time to head down to your county courthouse. Look for:

  • The lot number of your property (perhaps different from your address as numbering systems or even road names change over time).
  • The original building permit of your home.
  • The abstract — a collection of the legal records associated with your property such as deeds, mortgages, wills and tax sales.

These documents together should give you pretty good picture of not only when and how your home was built, but also the names of all the previous legal owners. Now you’ll be able to search for those people directly.

If your house was around in 1940 or before, you’re in luck because after a 72-year waiting period (the amount of time they’re kept confidential), the 1940 census was made public in 2012 with information such as occupation, family size and even education level and income. Search the census by location right here.

A few other interesting tidbits:

  • If you’re in New York City, check out this fascinating map by which uses color to chart buildings by age.
  • Think you might have a ghost or just morbidly curious? The site Died in House will (for a small fee) give you a report of any deaths that occurred in your house as well as any known past owners or residents.
  • Don’t feel like doing the digging yourself? This Toronto-based service, HouseStories, will do the research for you and prepare a personalized (and even illustrated) house history for you.

Good luck and happy hunting!

(Image: 1939 to 2012 a Home Loved Through the Decades)