Getting Started Researching Your House’s History

by Josh on August 30, 2010 · 9 comments

in House History,Journal

Reader Mike recently emailed me;

I found your great house blog the other day!  I’m also working on renovating a S. Minneapolis bungalow and I’ve been trying to find out the history of the house.  What resources did you use to find out your house’s history?

Well, Mike, although I hardly consider my own house history research to be closed, here are some tips for you and other similarly curious souls who want to get started uncovering the history of their house.

Start With Your Abstract

Remember that big pile of paperwork you got when you bought your house?  One of the documents you received that day is the property abstract (unless your property is recorded in torrens).  The abstract contains a running record of the sales transactions of  the property and will give you names of past owners and dates the property changed hands.

On my own abstract, the sale records include not just the past owners of my house, but the buyer who subdivided the land for my neighborhood, and the previous status of the property as farmland and unimproved property going back to American settlement of the area west of the Mississippi River in the 1850′s.

Seeing the chain of ownership is interesting enough, but once you know the names of past owners you can use each one for further research so you have some biographical detail to go along with the names.

Let Your Fingers Do The Researching

Old print directories can be a great resource for learning about your house’s past occupants.  Here in Minneapolis, city directories from the first half of the 20th century are kept in the special collections of the Central Library downtown.  Unlike today’s printed white pages, these directories were searchable by name or by address.  For any year of the directory, you can look up an address and see the names of the occupants as well as their profession.  If your house spent any time as a rental– or, like my house, as a parsonage– the directory can tell you who actually lived in the house, whether or not they owned it.  These crucial components of an address index and professional information might not be part of directories for other cities, but it’s at least worth checking.

Read The Obituaries

Some of the most useful house research I have turned up came from the newspaper obituaries of past owners.  Minneapolis’ central library keeps a “person index” in its special collection that catalogs news items by the persons named.  Not every person ever to live in the city or to have their name appear in print is cataloged, so to make the index is itself indicative of a certain level of status.  In general, finding an obituary match requires the previous owner to have died in the commuinty, or spent enough of his/her life there that the survivors provide notice of the death.

It was through obituaries that I learned that the original owner of my house has a building named for him at a nearby college, and that a pastor who lived here for several years had been a leader in the Norwegian resistance against the Nazis in World War II.  Equally valuable, however, was the survivor information contained in the obituaries.  Through online research, trial-and-error phone calls, and a lot of luck, I was able to locate and correspond with the daughter of the original owner of my house.  She was wonderfully generous in sharing stories and photos from her family’s time in the house, but another person I found from the house’s past was more wary about sharing her family history.

The bottom line on obituary research: your results may vary.

Talk To The Neighbors

Long-time residents of your neighborhood can help get your house research started, too.  They might have stories or pictures that include your property or the previous owners and they are probably more willing to share than a stranger you track down from an obituary or news clipping.

Just take what you hear around the neighborhood with a grain of salt, here’s why: when we bought our house, the sellers said they heard from the neighbors that the King of Norway visited the house back when it was a parsonage for the Norwegian pastor.  It’s a great story–and the Norwegian King did visit Minneapolis several times–but I haven’t been able to document the royal house visit in any newpaper story or first-person account.  It still could have happened, I just can’t say for sure.

Picture It

This final history reserch suggestion is very Minneapolis-specific, but who knows, your city might have something similar: The Minneapolis Photo Collection.  This online database of historic photos of the city can be great for visual historical research– and it is a tremendous time killer.  I didn’t find any photos of my house and only a few from my neighborhood, but I can spend hours looking around with this virtual time machine.

Other Ideas

The items listed above are only the things I have done myself.  But there are plenty of other avenues for research.  Here are a few more to consider:

  • State, county, or city historical societies (databases, research assistance, photos, indexes)
  • City property records (building permits, dates, property values, contractors/builders)
  • Genealogical websites or print resources (biographical data)
  • Neighborhood organizations or homeowners associations (neighborhood history, data)

Knowing resources for research is important, but it also helps to know what to do with them.  Here are some questions to keep in mind as you do  your research:

  • About the house itself: Who built it and when?  What other buildings did the builder make?  What was happening in this neighborhood when the house was built?  What significant events have happened since?
  • About the past owners: Who were they?  What did they do for work?  What can be known about their time living in the house?  What changes did they make to the building?  Can you make contact with a past owner or his/her descendants?
  • About what you find in your research: Is this information trustworthy?  Where can I turn to find out more?

With a bit of information to go on, access to historical material, and some thorough and persistent searching, it is possible to uncover some interesting details from your home’s history.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

mike August 31, 2010 at 10:55 am

Thanks! This info will be very helpful in learning my house’s history. I’ll let you know if I find something interesting.

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mike August 31, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Darn, I couldn’t find my abstract so I called the title company. They said they never received it from the seller so it was lost at some point. I’ll have to try a different place to start.

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Adam August 31, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Thanks for the info but I never received an abstract. WHere else could I look? Any suggestions?

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Josh September 2, 2010 at 8:33 am

Mike & Adam,

You are in good company if you don’t have an abstract for your property. Another place you can turn for historical building and ownership information are the offices for your city and county governments.

Your city’s records department should have information about building permits issued for the property. In addition to the names of owners or contractors, there will be dates and descriptions of the work performed. When I did this for my property, I could see when the boiler was converted from coal to natural gas, and when the tuck-under garage was enlarged to accommodate the longer cars of the 1950s.

Also check with the assessors office at your city or county government office to see if they can share information about the property valuation history and records of previous owners. This should be analogous to the kind of data you would get on an abstract. Who knows? You might even be able to find some of this data on your city or county website.

I hope that helps– good luck!

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HolyokeHome September 3, 2010 at 6:37 pm

We used Sanborn fire maps to date our house, because abstracts don’t come with home purchases in Massachusetts. Just another thought!

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Josh September 14, 2010 at 6:39 am

Great suggestion, HolyoakeHome. I’ve never used Sanborn maps myself, but yours isn’t the first recommendation I’ve seen for them as a research tool. I will definitely have to check out the Sanborn fire maps the next time I am working on house research.

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Kim Wolterman September 29, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Also check with your local historical society as they often have information on doing research in your area. For more tips on researching house history, please check out my website http://www.myhousehistory.net, and best of luck in your search.

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mike @HA January 4, 2011 at 10:19 am

I was finally able to get more info on our house history! I found another great source for Minneapolis history – the Minneapolis Development Review (where you go to get permits). They have a computer set up where you can search old permits including the original building card, permit to build, and a 1934 land survey for each house. We found lots of info there. I still need to go to the library and look up the owners by year so I can fill in some gaps. I wrote about what we found at http://www.athomealterations.com/2011/01/faces-from-past.html

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