In Homecare & Renovation

A beginner’s guide to discovering the history of your house

A beginner's guide to discovering the history of your house - old deed document (2)

Do you wonder what secrets your house hides? Every home has a story to tell. It’s just there — waiting for you to unravel it. Are you curious and have a passion for vintage? This guide to researching the history of your house is for you.

You will learn how to decipher the secrets of your home. I promise it will give you talking points. And you’ll see your house with different eyes.

Let’s head into my beginner’s guide to discovering the fascinating tales of your home. Whether you live in a Victorian terrace, Edwardian semi or country cottage.

Why you should research the history of your house

Period properties come with a long list of issues: damp, rot, subsidence, etc. You name it! But sometimes you have to stop for a moment and realise, “Hang on. This house has been here for over a century! And it will still be here when I’m gone.”

You can discover many surprising facts about your home, and the people who lived in it. You may have been told who the previous inhabitants were. But who were the people who lived there several generations ago?

You appreciate your home more when you find out its past. Researching forms a connection between you and your house. And that enthusiasm shows every time you refer to it. You’ll end up loving it!

It may not be your forever home. Still, think about when it’s time to sell. A period home with a colourful history is memorable, and it will appeal to more potential buyers The best part is you don’t have to spend a penny.

But if you rather spend a penny or two, you can renovate your home sympathetically. Why not restore it to its former glory? Learning about the original architectural features of the home will help you. It’s always advisable to respect the period elements — and then let your style shine with the decor!

5 Key questions to ask yourself before you start

A beginner's guide to discovering the history of your house - old assignment document (2)

Sometimes it’s tricky to know where to start. Here are five handy questions that can define your research. From the material you already have, to your main aim.

1. Do you know the precise year your house was built?

This one can be problematic. House surveys and mortgage valuations include an estimate in their report. Surveyors are not 100% exact. They got the date of my house wrong by twenty-three years! It is a valuable starting point to explore, anyway.

2. Do you have any old house documents around (deeds, plans, letters, etc)?

The current house deeds are likely to be kept by your mortgage provider. At least until you finish repaying. What about the old ones? Your solicitor should give you with those after the house purchase. It can take several months (6 in my case). The wait is worth it.

3. Do you know who the previous owners were?

If you can approach the previous owners — do it. There is no harm in asking if they know anything about the history of your house. And if they have no idea, perhaps they know somebody who can help. An older neighbour or local shopkeeper.

4. Has the name of your street/town/county changed over the years?

Knowing this piece of information can prevent a few headaches. Most cities spread out and merged with adjoining villages and hamlets. Which eventually became suburbs. The boundaries and names of the counties have evolved a fair bit.

5. What is your main goal?

Think about what you would wish to discover with your research. You may be interested in the people who lived in the house. Some are keen on the architecture. Or the local urban development over time — that’s me!

Where can you find all the information

I’ve rounded up the available resources you need to start your quest. These are the sites and tools I use for my own research. It’s not an exhaustive list, but a useful one to keep!

Online resources

Government census and survey records are split into different sites. This how-to page from the National Archives summarises all the content. You can access most of them without paying. Did you know your council has a local archive? And very likely a searchable online database too.

If you’re looking for maps, there are plenty sites around. Some of the largest are Old Maps and British History Online. The latter offers a tonne of info, not just maps. Their catalogue is impressive. The Registration District maps from the 1871 census are available from Cassini. And Valuation Office maps range from 1910 to 1915.

I find sites such as Join me in the 1900s incredibly valuable. A quick Google search can show local photo archives, and small history blogs you never heard of. A little tip: the mobile app Nextdoor can be a great way to find like-minded neighbours.

Offline resources

You must visit your local archives. If you can’t find a specific detail — it’s probably there. Or at least they can help you. Here you can ask to see the documents you searched on the online database. Be organised, though. I keep a spreadsheet with all the document reference numbers and descriptions. This is important because you can only access one record at a time. Once you’ve done with it, you can request another one.

Don’t forget local history groups. They are hyper-local. So, go to your public library and find out when they meet. I enjoy reading books about the city and its communities. They’re packed with facts, dates and names. Finally, ask people around your neighbourhood. Mention your research and start a conversation.

5 Easy tips to research the history of your house

A beginner's guide to discovering the history of your house - old street plans (2)

My essential piece of advice is to concentrate on one aspect of your research at a time. People/genealogy, house itself or local history. Once you know what to work on, the fun times begin! These are five tips to make your study easier.

1. Start with what you know

Start with the material you have right now whether it is an old deed or letter. Take your time to read it. The writing can be elaborate, and difficult to understand. Then, extract all the significant names and dates. Add them to your list and continue your search. As you dig deeper your list of clues will grow bigger!

2. Work backwards

Don’t get overwhelmed by all the census reports. There’s a better way to do it. Go backwards from present times until there are no records or mentions of your address. This could be a sign that you have reached the beginning (before your house was built). The information in the census is often incomplete, and they are only available every 10 years over the last century.

3. It’s OK to guess

So, you know who lived in your house in the past. That’s great, but you need more details. Why not guess their relationship based on surnames? You can also use dates of birth to establish a link. At least until you obtain accurate records. If several unrelated families lived in the same house, you need to dig deeper.

4. Know your maps

This is my favourite. Check the relevant online maps over the years and focus on your street/neighbourhood. They can give you an idea of the age or period of a house — but it’s not precise. Are you any good at Photoshop? Download the maps as image files and use semi-transparent layers to compare them. Watch the scale to avoid inconsistencies.

5. Document everything

Next time you go to your local council archive, take your laptop and camera. Use your own laptop to take notes and browse the archives, instead of their computers. You need your files with you at all times. Don’t forget to ask about their photography policy. Most let you take non-flash photographs of the papers. Otherwise, you should be able to photocopy small documents for a small fee.

Ideas to put all the knowledge together

Let’s say you’ve found everything you wanted, and completed the history of your house. Hurray! Now what? What do you do with all the stuff you’ve accumulated in that pen drive?

If you’re research focused on the people who lived in your house. You can create a genealogy tree of the family, or families, that lived in the house. Easier said than done as there were more inhabitants per house back in the day. Be warned — it can get messy!

You can go with a different approach if your main goal was the house itself. The best way is to create a visual timeline of the house from planning permission to present times. Including everything you come across in between.

This is only the beginning…

Once you have information to start with — go deeper. Investigate the architect or the developer and see where it takes you. Why not find out about the history of your community? Or the life of an important person born in the area?

The more you research the history of your house, the more resources — and questions — you will find. This project is never finished. It’s a never-ending story. But well worth the journey!

What have you discovered?

Have you discovered an interesting anecdote with your research? Or a curious fact about your house? Do you have a great tip to find records? I’d love to know about it! Please, share it in the comments section below or drop me a line.

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14 Comments

  1. julie
    3 months ago

    Great piece. I tried this a year or so ago with the house I’ve in. Built in the late 1870s I tracked owners up until 1911 then the trail went cold. You’ve inspired me to give it another go and fill in the gap between 1911 & 2000

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      3 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, Julie! It can be frustrating when there are gaps in the timeline. Hope you find the resources helpful!

      Reply
  2. Abi | These Four Walls blog
    3 months ago

    Such an interesting piece! I’m lucky enough to know a bit about the history of our house and I love thinking about all the stories which must have happened there over the years. I hope the previous owners would be happy that we’re taking good care of it!

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      3 months ago

      Thanks for popping by, Abi! Great to hear that you’re already into house history research. You’re right, so many stories to unravel!

      Reply
  3. Jenny Kakoudakis @Seasonsincolour
    3 months ago

    This is a very interesting article juan! You’ve done such good research around this subject.
    I wonder, however, what prompted YOU to do the research for your home in the first place ? Was it a year plaque up front that was the source of your inspiration or something more? Do tell!!

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      3 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, Jenny! That’s a good question. I’ve always loved architecture and urbanism. So I started to investigate how the streets and roads in my area developed over time. It’s still an ongoing process (and in early stages). I may write about my findings once I gather enough juicy information. Stay tuned!

      Reply
  4. Hollie (MiaFleur)
    3 months ago

    This is such an interesting read! I’m going to send it on to my mum as well, I’m sure she’d find it really useful too. It’s a fascinating topic and one I’m sure once you start looking into, just prompts more and more investigation as a result!

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      3 months ago

      Thanks for popping by, Hollie! Hope your Mum finds it useful. This guide is only the beginning. As you say, the more you look into it, the more you want to know! It’s like a pleasant trap.

      Reply
  5. jade wilce
    3 months ago

    An amazing read – so well thought out and some real detailed research here! My sister in law has recently moved in to a really old home, which I am sure is full of history and stories! Can’t wait to send it on!

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      3 months ago

      Aww, thanks for your comment, Jade! I hope they find it useful. The oldest the home, the more secrets to discover.

      Reply
  6. Anne Marie
    3 months ago

    Oh, how I wish my house had a great history… Sadly, as we had to buy what we could have afforded at the time we went for 1960’s terrace ex-council house (and not the Victorian detached which I would have liked) . Although I have a really good neighbour that always comes with a great story to tell about the neighbourhood and post-war times (the fact that he’s been in his house since it was built helps too) 🙂

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      2 months ago

      Thanks for the comment, Anne Marie! To be honest, even when I lived in a new-build apartment block I was fascinated with what the area looked like in the past (studying old maps, etc.) But I have to say those neighbour stories are the best!

      Reply
  7. Sarah
    1 week ago

    About 2 months after moving into our newly renovated house, we had a neighbours party and it was so interesting! A couple have lived in their house next door for 41 years and have all the local gossip and information on the 2 previous owners of our house. I don’t know why we have a need to know these things but it’s so intriguing!

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      1 week ago

      Thanks for popping by, Sarah! Neighbours can be an interesting source of information (you hit the jackpot). You have to make that party a regular thing!

      Reply

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