Learn how to uncover a house's history
When Jim Wang purchased his home, he knew it was subdivided into an 11 acre and two 3 acre lots. The owner had put in a driveway so all three lots could have road access. Jim was satisfied with the road (even though it’s gravel), so he didn’t pursue anything further.
Unfortunately, the two other lots weren’t so lucky. The owner is trying to get their building plans approved by the county and it turns out that the road isn’t up to code. That means the new owners need to improve the road before the county will approve their building plans—it could cost the new owners at least $20,000.
Hopefully, you won’t have to deal with what Jim’s neighbors are going through, but getting more insight into a house can be important. Keep reading to learn how to find the history of a house.
What’s included in a house’s history?
When talking about the history of a house, it can mean many things to different people. It can be as comprehensive or as basic as you want—from understanding the historical value of your property, to structural changes (like dividing up land like in Wang’s story), all the way to who lived in the home, including their family history.
Adriane Stuebs, broker and owner at RE/MAX Shine in Jefferson, Wisconsin, said the definition of a home’s history depends on what you want to find out and what could convince you to buy the place.
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“Some buyers want to know who lived in a property and did anything noteworthy happen that would make them want to buy it for a great story to share,” she said. “It can also mean the structural integrity of the home to understand whether it’ll be a sound investment or something to lose sleep over.”
Some aspects of a house’s history you may be able to search for include:
- Previous owners (including occupation, age and family members).
- Whether your home is considered historical.
- Architectural style.
- Structural or architectural changes.
- Historical property values.
- Year your home was built.
- Property tax information.
- Noteworthy events happening in the house.
How to find the history of a house
Here are a few resources you can use to track down the history of a house:
- Census records: Look up the names of people who lived in your house, including other facts like immigration status, marriage status, occupations and more. However, not all information may be available, so dig through places like Census.gov, The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and other genealogy websites.
- The Public Records Online Directory: Property values are assessed annually, and this information is public. It can include information such as the date your house was built, previous owners and history of property values.
- County Courthouse: You can look up information such as building permits to see how your home could have changed over the years. This is also the place to view historical maps to see how the neighborhood has changed over the years.
- Deed records: This method may work for older homes, but looking for historical deed records can lead to understanding who the previous owners were. Places to check out include state archives, local historical societies, the Register of Deeds or Clerk of Court.
- Your realtor: Your realtor can show you things like previous interior pictures, listing prices and any changes to the physical property. The county appraiser’s website may also have similar information.
- DiedInHouse.com: It’s a bit morbid, but this website can show you if anyone has passed away in the house. In many cases, realtors need to disclose if someone died, but not all states have mandatory disclosure laws. This website will also tell you about any meth activity or fire incidents on the property.
- The National Register of Historic Places: For older homes, you can search to see if your house is considered historic.
- Preservation societies: Your neighborhood may have a historical preservation society that keeps old records such as photos of your house and the surrounding neighborhood.
- Property search services: If all the above sounds too intimidating or time consuming, a property search service may be able to pull up information on your property, including property values, previous owners and more.
Why bother researching the history of my house?
While it does seem like a lot of work to research the history of a house, it can lead to important information that could impact its value. In Jim Wang’s case, the gravel road didn’t really affect him, but his neighbor is looking at extra expenses to the tune of a few thousand dollars.
Kevin Williams, appraiser and owner of Gainesville Appraisal Service suggested that buyers should look at the history of a home to understand any possible condition issues. For example, realtors may list the home as having certain features but with some digging, it turns out there could be some false information.
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“Maybe the listing says there’s a new HVAC system but it turns out the unit is 10 years old or the square footage of a home is listed differently between the MLS and public records,” he said. “These factors can affect the overall value of a home if not correctly known.”
Stuebs agrees that it’s vital to investigate the history of a home, even if it’s knowing about the physical structure or what may have occurred there. Things like past insurance claims and natural disasters can cause your home insurance to be more expensive.
“Look into things like whether the owner was a full-time resident, or rented it out,” she said. “This could mean the home was vacant for a period of time, which can imply delayed maintenance concerns.”
Home is where the history is
Learning how to find the history of a house is crucial to help you understand what you may be getting into before you finalize the purchase. There’s a chance you can discover structural and architectural details and more about the family that lived there if you choose. Even if you find out that the property is in tip top shape, you can feel reassured that you poured your time and energy into finding out that there won’t be any issues.