Clues & Documents


A great source of information about the history of the property can be the builder’s plans, although they can often be hard to come by. Some builders (especially with older homes) may have just kept the plans in their heads and modified them when needed. The best place to find them however is in the house itself. Homeowners often kept the plans in the attic, basement of tucked away in a closet somewhere. If your research leads you to past occupants of the house, they might have accidentally taken the plans with them. Sometimes tracking down the heirs or descendants of the former occupants will help to find the drawings. You can also check with the state historical society and see if it has drawing of the house or knows who to contact to get them. Many archives collect plans of architecturally significant buildings or those drawn by noteworthy architects. You might also consider looking in a book of house plans if all else fails. Many older homes were modeled from basic plans.

No house history research is complete without checking out the maps of the neighborhood. As you move backward through records and property changes, a map of the area will help to keep you oriented. As the Register of Deeds (or a related office) for maps that cover the neighborhood, such as surveys that were conducted when roads were widened or moved. In any older town, the roads were changed (especially in residential neighborhoods) at least once to accommodate the coming of automobiles, as opposed to the horse and buggy. The house you are researching may appear as a small dot on the map or may be complete with details on a fire insurance map. It simply depends on what type of map you find.

A great resource is a plat map. When a piece of land is subdivided into streets, blocks or lots, this information gets recorded on a plat map. Originally, this maps were hand-drawn and contained only a few details. Printed maps usually show streets, significant buildings and houses and rural maps will show who owned what plots of land, cemeteries and much more. Plat maps can be found at the office where deeds are filed or usually at the local library.

Many researchers also turn to birds-eye view maps, which are panoramic scenes of cities and towns that show buildings, trees and homes from an overhead vantage point. Thousands of them were created for cities all over American between 1850 and 1900 but they show few details and while striking and beautiful, are only of assistance when dealing with well-known or highly visible locations.

Another type of map, which is quiet useful but only if you location happens to be listed on one, is a Sanborn Map. Beginning in the 1860’s, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. created maps to assess the fire hazard of buildings. The maps list construction details, such as windows and doors, and depict the size and shape of the insured structures. They also detail property boundaries and usage for about 12,000 cities and towns in the United States. Check with your local library to see if these types of maps are available in your area.

Biographical Encyclopedias: If the people who lived in the house you are researching were notable in the community for anything, then they may be listed in the county or city biographical encyclopedia. These books were created for communities around 1870 to 1905 and list the accomplishments of local businessmen, bankers and pioneers. Many of them will also contain a portrait of the individual. Again, they are a great resource if you are lucky enough for the occupants of the house you are researching to be listed.

Building Permits: Generally, before owners can make any major changes to their home, they need to obtain a permit from the town’s building department, which may also be called the planning department or code enforcement. These permits record the vital statistics of the home from number of bathrooms to bedrooms, porches, window locations and more. Permits also include the names of the homeowners, when the work was done and the contractors for the job. The information contained in a permit could play an important role in your research and provide clues to hidden aspects of the house, such as the location of former doors or windows — prime suspects when occupants report unexplained chills and drafts.

Photographs: A wonderful addition to your research would be a vintage photo of the house. You can often find photo files at local historical societies, libraries and newspapers. Search under the name of a previous owner or the street address. You might also contact local real estate agencies to see if they have any photos of the house on file. When you visit a library or historical society, it’s always a good idea to bring a current photo of the house with you. It might jog someone’s memory and you can also use the photo for reference when looking through books of house styles.

Hopefully, all of this information will be of use to you and even if only a small part of it assists you in your hunt for the history of house, then has server some purpose. Even if you follow it closely though, there is no guarantee that you will not run into a dead end, even using the material, but I have had good luck with it and hope that you will also. If the ghost in the house can be connected to a person who once lived there, especially by details that were not known before researching the house, then you have a pretty powerful case and excellent evidence of life after death.