Home History, Preservation, and Research

Houses, like people, have a history. For good or bad, that history impacts the structure that it is today. An older home is typically one that is over 50 years old. Houses that were built 100 or more years ago are antique homes. Researching the history of a house is important whether one is buying or currently living in a new, older, or antique home. This history can reveal valuable information, such as original features, potential problems with its construction, and any changes that have been made.

Researching Home History

Researching houses isn't a quick process. While it takes time and patience, investigating the history of one's home can also be interesting and is often worth the effort. Research can provide information like whether it lacks weatherproofing or if there's an asbestos risk. Before getting started, one should know what they are looking for and where to find it. It also helps to have a plan and keep information organized for easy review.

1. Former Owner Researching

Previous owners, depending on how long they've lived at the property, can provide a wealth of information. They can tell the new owner, or a prospective buyer, about any changes or repairs that they've made or share other exciting details or problems about the property. Sellers can also relay information that was given to them by the person or persons who sold it to them.

2. Geography and Maps

Exploring historic maps is a good way to learn details about changes to the land over the years. This may include the addition of new streets or changes to street names. Maps, depending on their type and purpose, can reveal city growth or landmarks and buildings that are no longer in existence.

3. Census Records

Census records provide information on past residents of a house and can paint a picture of their lives. From old Census records, one can discover how many people lived in the home at the time, their employment status, citizenship or immigration status, and whether they had children. The census can also help illustrate demographic changes to the area, if any.

4. Land and Property Records

Land and property records are legal documents about real property. They include property tax records, land deeds, and titles, plus any related liens or judgments. These records will reveal who owned the property when they owned it and if there have been any past or current liens or judgments. Depending on the state, property and land records are typically available at the County Clerk's Office or the Tax Assessor's Office.

5. GIS Database

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be found on most government websites. This system allows users to search for a property using the home's address, zip, or by longitude and latitude, plus an interactive map. From there they can get information on the parcel of land including its property class, the year it was built, the basement type, if applicable, and the house's architectural style. A sketch vector of the (home) is also a part of the details that are available. This will show what parts of the house are original and what parts are not.

6. Registrar Mesne Conveyance

The Register Mesne Conveyance (RMC) office oversees property taxes and land titles. In some places, such as South Carolina, it is called the Register of Deeds. Visit the RMC to find information about changes in ownership and when the house was built. RMC records will include titles, deeds, probate records, and plat maps that show boundary lines, land size, and flood zones.

7. Sanborn Maps

In the past, fire insurance companies used Sanborn Maps as a way of assessing whether a property was too much of a risk to insure. These maps are still searchable today. When researching the history of a house, one can use Sanborn Maps to find information about the building's original materials, the date of construction, building size, and information about other buildings that may have once been on the site. People can search Sanborn Maps through their local library or online through the Library of Congress website.

8. Visit Local Preservation or Historical Societies

Historical and preservation societies can tell a person whether their older or antique home is a historical structure or part of a historic district. These organizations collect and preserve historical information that has to do with a specific area, including information on dwellings. As a result, they will often have photographs of older homes or important records.

There's no reason one's sleuthing has to stop at a local level. One may even try the State Historic Preservation Office in their state or the National Register of Historic Places to see if the older home that's in question has been designated as historically significant because of its structure, age, or both.

9. Check Online Databases

There are many online databases that provide information about homes and property. These databases are often accessible for free from public libraries. Through online research, people can also find almost anything from newspaper archives to sites where they can search for deaths in the home. Genealogy databases and area-specific databases are also an option with and without a subscription.

Historic Preservation

There's no question that owners of historic homes want to preserve them for generations to come. Unfortunately, there are factors that can ruin a property if one isn't careful. To successfully preserve a home, it must be well-maintained, properly upgraded, when necessary, and appropriately documented.

Proper Maintenance

Maintenance is critical to historic preservation. Basic maintenance includes ensuring that it is kept clean inside and out, and painted. Maintenance should be carefully and thoughtfully executed to avoid damaging original, aged features. Electrical systems, plumbing, and roofing are also areas that require routine upkeep. If the electrical system in an older home has not been updated, for example, it can catch fire and damage or destroy the property entirely. Neglected plumbing systems can develop mold and water damage and deteriorate from age.

Proper care can reduce the need for repairs, but they are inevitable in homes that are over 50 years old. When repairs or replacements are necessary, it's important to stay close to the appearance of the original in terms of details and materials. Sometimes, as with damaged plaster walls, it is best to choose repair over replacement. Plaster is generally superior to drywall, which is common in modern homes. Although drywall is less expensive, plaster has many positive benefits such as fire resistance, it's better at blocking sounds, and it is more suitable in appearance for older or antique structures.


It's important that owners of historical properties maintain excellent records in the event of a loss. These documents might include property layouts, site plans, copies of valuations, property receipts, and photographs of the home.


When hiring contractors to work on a historical property, one should take certain steps to protect their home. These steps include:

  • Conducting proper research to ensure the workers have the experience necessary to work on a historic home, such as checking references

  • Verifying that they have the proper insurance.

  • Enlist the aid of an attorney to review any contracts before signing.

Homeowners should also be cautious of any hold-harmless wording or other red flags.

  • Maintaining the Exterior of Small and Medium Size Historic Buildings: People interested in preserving their historic homes will find this helpful preservation brief on up-keeping the exterior of small to medium-sized homes on the National Park Service website. The page covers maintenance schedules, building components, exterior walls, and more.

  • Tens Steps for Preserving Your House: The Nantucket Preservation Trust lists ten useful steps on how people can preserve their historic houses no matter where they live.

  • Six Tips for Updating a Historic Home: Updating a historic home is a tricky step than can have disastrous results if not done correctly. On this House Beautiful page, homeowners will find six useful tips on how to update a historic house.

  • Plaster vs Drywall: What's the Difference?: Older homes often have plaster instead of drywall. Click this article to understand how plaster is a better option, and to read the pros and cons of both.

  • Maintaining Your Historic Home: A Practical Guide for Homeowners (PDF): This Delaware County maintenance guide is a thorough resource for owners of historical homes. The 40-page guide covers everything from planning maintenance to sustainability.

  • How to Find and Hire Contractors for a Historic Home Restoration: Restoring a historic home takes a contractor with the right experience and skill. This Angi article explains how to both find and hire the right one.

  • Advantages of Maintaining Historic Windows: This page on the Wisconsin Historical Society website discusses the advantages of maintaining the original windows in a historic home. The reader will also find a list of common myths about historic windows.

  • Recommended Maintenance Schedule: Click this link to read a useful maintenance timetable for historic homes. Areas covered by the schedule include roofing, exteriors, gutters, wood, and structural elements.

  • How to Spring Clean Your Historic Home: Spring cleaning is a yearly ritual for many, but there are certain techniques that can be harmful to a historic home. This Preservation Virginia page reviews things that owners of older or antique homes should and should not do when spring cleaning their house.

  • How to Preserve Your Historic Home (Video): This link leads to a video on how to preserve one's historic home. The video reviews the importance of maintenance and bringing in professionals to do any work.