Older houses are not only beautiful, but they come with a lot of history. When you decide to purchase your own old home, it can be a good idea to dig into its past. Not only can this research provide insight into who lived in and around your home, but it may help you learn things about the structure itself that you'll need to know if you need to do repairs in the future. If you plan on renting out the property, knowing the history of the home can also help answer questions a prospective tenant may ask or give some background as to why certain things in the house are the way they are.

Property Records

When you visit your local government records office, you should be able to find a record of the house's ownership history as well as descriptive information about the property in general.

  • You should always start at your municipal tax assessment office or a similar local entity. They will likely have information about your property for a fixed number of years depending on local policies. If those details do not cover the full lifespan of the house, you should ask where older records are kept.
  • Visit your local county courthouse to search for the deed to your property. When you do this, you should start with the most recent and then follow the title to the house back to its original owner. While researching, keep in mind how the property was transferred, boundary details, descriptions, and neighbors.
  • When you reach the original owners of the property on which your home sits, consider the history of the state. In the original 13 colonies, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia, you can continue your research in your state's state archives. For the other 30 states, you should explore the Land Entry Case Files and Records at the National Archives.

Building Permits and Blueprints

At the local level, you can review building permits and blueprints to learn about work done on your house. Generally, to access these blueprints, you should stop by the building department, planning office, zoning and code enforcement office, or a similar entity. To find the information specific to your property, you can search by:

  • Address
  • Permit number
  • The parcel number assigned by the assessor's office

City and Telephone Directories

City directories are compiled through door-to-door surveys at irregular intervals, so there may not be any current city directories available, but the most recent one should give you a good starting point for research. These directories make it easy to search for individuals, families, and businesses to get details like addresses, occupations, and household residents. Searching through city and telephone directories can provide a community perspective of your new property. You can obtain access to these directories through:

  • Your local academic library. Librarians are trained to be able to use these sources, and they can help you find the information you need.
  • Online through archive websites. These websites usually have years of archives set aside that you can peruse at your own leisure.
  • Your local heritage center. Heritage and historical societies often have some of the same information libraries do, except their records are focused on the specific area of the city or town the society is located in.

Local Histories

Learning about the local history of the community is a great way to really delve into the history of the area and the people who have lived there. It not only helps you learn about the lives of the families who lived in the house before you, but it also gives background on the history your home has witnessed and can help answer some of the following questions:

  • When were modern conveniences installed?
  • Did the house survive a natural disaster?
  • What were the former residents like?
  • How did the former residents change the house or property when they owned it?

Historical Societies

A historical or preservation society is dedicated to preserving and researching historical information. They exist to help future generations understand their heritage and the history of the town they live in. Because of this, they can be a fountain of knowledge of the area your home is located in. They have often collected historical data about many of the houses and families in the area and may be able to help you learn more about the home and its previous owners.

  • Note that historical societies are often run by a committee of volunteers, so keep in mind when you're hoping to learn more about your house that you may have to make an appointment.


If you find an old map of the area you live in, you may be able to find your property on that map. These maps can reveal details about your land and the history of where your home was built.

  • Maps can reveal boundary lines and how those may have changed throughout the years.
  • Railroad maps show how transportation developed in the area.
  • Maps can also show how a city expanded and how street names may have changed over time.


Newspapers are one of the best places to learn about the history of your house and neighborhood. Social columns in older local papers can provide details about events and specific information about inhabitants if you search for your street or address.

  • Discover if your street was located along a parade route.
  • Find announcements about your property being purchased or constructed.
  • Some social columns may list events on your property and which notable people in the community may have stopped by.


Photographs are a great way to visualize changes throughout the years. Once you find more details about your home and its past inhabitants, you'll be able to search for photographs of the property and its former owners. These images can give you a better idea of what the house used to look like and how the previous owners' personal styles affected the interior and exterior of the home. You can find photographs in a multitude of different places!

  • Historical societies may have photographs of your property and its former owners.
  • Local state and municipal agencies often have an archive of old photographs. If you aren't sure which one to visit, feel free to call and ask. You'll likely be directed to the right office.
  • Print sources such as books, old newspapers, magazines, and postcards may contain useful images of your property or previous owners.
  • Libraries often have archivists and research librarians who can help you do the necessary research.
  • The Internet can be a good source for finding the photos you need; there are a variety of websites with historic photos that may be able to help you.
  • You may even find personal photos in the house after you purchase the property. If that's the case, you may want to consult with your local historical society to learn more about the people in the photo and maybe help add to their collection.

Additional Resources