You Can Find Out Who Lived in Your House

published Nov 26, 2023
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Credit: Samara Vise

There’s a lot to know about where you live, and I’m not just talking about the evolution of your neighborhood. You can dig into the history of your actual home. Granted, what you find will depend on how old your home is and what information is available. But if you’ve always been curious about who roamed the halls before you or what structures or landmarks stood where your house sits now, you have a few places where you can get started.

Visit your local library.

Arthur Read was right: Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card. Head to your local branch or see what online resources you can access with your library card number and zip code. The closer to home you start, the more likely you are to uncover information, according to The Library of Congress. “Regional libraries and historical societies have a mission to collect and preserve records of that specific place,” according to the library.

For example, I live in Chicago, and the city provides a copy of Chicago Historic Resources Survey in every library and made it available online. Here, you can search your street name and possibly see what year (to the decade) your home was built and who the architect was. I found this info by searching the “Commission on Chicago Landmarks” — you could similarly search for a group in your city or town.

Check public records for permits.

In my case, I didn’t see my building in the survey, which means the Commission on Chicago Landmarks didn’t find a permit date. (Womp, womp.) Finding your home’s building permit can be a bit of a slog, but it’s not impossible. You’ll most likely have to go in person to another library (for example, in Chicago, it’s the Maps Department at Daley Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago) or put in a request with your city’s Freedom of Information Office. 

According to The Library of Congress, you can also contact your local County Tax Assessment Office to get a hold of a record of ownership history. You should also be able to find “descriptive information about the property,” per The Library of Congress. If you’ve got a really old home, you may be directed to a location where older records are archived.

Another tactic: Get in touch with your local county courthouse. You may discover payment delinquencies or civil suits regarding your address that can help you understand when and how the property or land changed hands.

Once you’ve got a building permit, you’ll have access to more juicy details, potentially including a history of all the building’s construction projects, the architect and builder, and the very first owner.

Go to your local historical society.

Your local historical society has old newspapers, maps, and copies of photographs that could reveal surprising tidbits. Discover what your parcel of land was used for — farms, factories, etc. — before it was developed into the abode you know it as today. Journey back in time using the most recent to the oldest maps to keep track of changing street names or reallocated land. Possibly even view copies of historical photos of your house or street.

You may be able to look up all of this information with just your home’s address, but a permit provides more entry points for your search — for example, the architect’s, builder’s, or original owner’s name.

Do a good ol’ internet search.

Type in your home’s address or other identifying information about your house using Google, Google News, and Google Books, and you might luck into historical archives. From old newspaper articles to possible mentions in books about the history of your city or town, plenty of old records could give you detailed information without needing to leave your home.

Look at property listings.

If you’re hoping for a simple history, like the year your home was built, you can search property listings on real estate websites. More information is available on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) database, but that’s restricted to real estate agents, so you could ask your realtor for a detailed listing with info like zoning maps and previous ownership. Of course, real estate listing information doesn’t come with citations confirming its accuracy, so it’s best to assume it’s not necessarily 100% correct.

Search your address at

The website’s name is shocking, but the info may be helpful. Disclosure laws don’t require sellers to reveal who or how someone may have died in a property. You can pay $12 per inquiry to find out that history of your home. Your report includes “any records found stating that there was a death at the address.” You can also see previous residents and individuals associated with that address, which could be beneficial when looking up deeds, permits, or other government records.

Talk to neighbors.

When in doubt, talk to the people who have been there the longest. Your neighbors might have stories you never thought you’d hear. Of course, you can use these conversations as leads to research factual information in other archives like newspapers.