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Nothing satisfies like solving a good mystery, especially when the mystery to be unraveled is the history of your house. The average owner of an old house knows only roughly when the house was built. While the real estate company might have said one thing, the neighbors probably have their own ideas. So how do you find out exactly how old your house is? A surprising number of resources are available for the determined sleuth!
Visit your town, city, or county tax assessor. Assuming they have been conscientiously maintained, the tax records should list the name of every person who has owned the land on which your house sits, along with the assessed value of the property from year to year. Do you spot a sudden jump in valuation? That suggests the construction of a new home on what had previously been an unimproved lot, or it might signify the completion of a substantial addition or renovation.
The office of your county clerk is another important place to stop as you wend the paper trail toward knowing more about the provenance of your home. You’re interested in three files: the Registrar of Deeds, the tract index, and the grantor-grantee index. These give you a comprehensive listing of all transactions that have involved your lot. Names and dates are included, and in addition, you’ll find the salient details of any lawsuits or liens filed over the years.
If you live in a city or town, seek out the local building inspector. Ask to see any permit applications associated with your street address. Because building permits are typically required for new construction and substantive remodeling projects, this line of inquiry may reward you with some interesting facts. Even if the date of your home’s construction is not given, you can at least learn about any major changes that have been made to the structure—additions and so on.
Fire insurance maps are yet another source of trustworthy particulars. These maps, which in many cases date back to the 1870s, can help you determine the materials used in the initial construction of your home.
Many libraries devote sections to local history, their valuable archives containing such things as historical maps, original building plans, and even old photographs. Scour the real estate listings in decades-old newspapers and consult the census records for your area. Also, consider delving into wills and probate records, insurance ledgers, phone books, zoning maps, and municipal planning studies.
If the case has gone cold despite all your efforts, turn your investigation toward the house itself: Its materials, method of construction, and architectural style all provide vital clues to its age.
For example, asphalt tile flooring exploded into popularity around 1920 but had been virtually forgotten by 1960. (Note that if at least one of your bathrooms still has the original fixtures, you can usually find a manufacturing date stamped on the underside of the toilet tank cover!) So long as your home has not been completely renovated, the builder’s choice of materials is likely to suggest a specific period of construction.
Another strong indicator of age is your house style. Like fashions in the clothing world, the popularity of different architectural styles waxes and wanes. Italianates were an 1850s favorite; Colonial Revival was all the rage in the 1890s; and by the 1900s, Craftsman-style houses had begun popping up everywhere.
Of course, you can always hire a professional architectural investigator to solve the mysteries surrounding the origin and history of your home. But why pay for someone else to have all the fun?