Introduction: Assembling a History of Your House

photo credit: Diana Winton Hayes 2014

Step 1: Why Create a History of Your House?

Chances are you are looking at this "Instructable" because you like or love your house. Understanding the history of your home is a great way to learn about the life the building had before you owned it and it is a means to share your time and understanding with future owners.

This process lends itself to doing as a family. It is a great way to help children learn the history of home, possibly a family home that has been in the family for generations. You can involve many generations in this effort. It is also a good process for neighbors to do together. Researching history is a great tool for bringing people together.

Step 2: The Elements of a Great House History

Deeds and Tax Records

Photographs- Historic and Current

Maps- historic maps, atlases, and fire insurance maps


National, State, and Local Historic Register Information

Interviews with past owners or reading diaries, letters, and wills

An architectural description

Samples of building materials

Writing a good narrative

Step 3: Materials and Supplies for Your Project

A digital camera, zoom and video capability are helpful

A paper notebook

A laptop or tablet

A large three-ring binder- at least 3 inches in width

Acid free folders and acid free storage boxes- purchase at end of your research to get the best size ( Source: Gaylord)

Use a flash drive or jump drive to back up your data on your computer regularly and keep it stored off premises in a safe deposit box.

Step 4: Planning for Your Project

This type of research can be done alone, with friends, neighbors or as intergenerational project for your family.

Ask yourself if you will tackle this project all at once or if it is acceptable to do this over time when you have time. There is no right answer but making time for the project will help you complete it.

Step 5: 1. Public Records

Copy or photograph and digitally scan these items and put the paper copies in your three-ring binder.


Document transfers of property ownership.

Grantee- Buyer

Grantor- Seller

Property Tax Records

Increases in assessment often help date significant changes in a property’s physical appearance.

Step 6: Public Records

Town and County Offices

Surveys- historic district information & land surveys with deeds.

Wills and other Probate

Records provide clues to furnishings and lifestyle




Death Certificates

Step 7: 2. Photographs

Take current images of all four exterior elevations (sides) and the interior. Label accordingly.

Date you take the photograph; include location

Exterior Elevation side (North, South, East, West) and street address

Interior Room name and geographic orientation(northeast living room for example)

Remember to photograph interesting architectural details.

Pictured example: Newel Post, foyer, east side, 10.15.15

250 Rainbow Street, South Royalton, VT 05068

Step 8: Historic Photographs

Local historical societies, local house museums and historic preservation groups are good sources.

Descendants of previous owners

Check local newspaper archives.

Look for post cards of your community. Scan all copies and place a hard copy in your three ring binder.

Step 9: 3. Historic Maps

Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps provide great details about the shape or footprint of buildings and when utilities were added such as electricity and steam heat.

A list can be found at in the online geography and map room. Often town offices or historical societies and libraries have them in their collections.

Other historical maps can be found locally or in state-owned libraries or in special collections at area colleges and universities.

Step 10: 4. Property Surveys

Surveys, prepared by registered surveyors are often filed with deeds or passed on during real estate transfers.


Establish property boundaries

Provide clues to the landscape and details regarding trees, wells and utilities are often noted

Prepared by surveyors

Step 11: 5. Interviews, Diaries and Wills

Check your local historical society for interviews and diaries of previous owners. Understanding ordinary life can be extraordinary.

Check with descendants of past owners, too.

Check probate records for wills of previous owners- you may find out how your home was furnished and get clues to the lifestyles of previous owners.

Last Will and Testament

Step 12: 6. National and State Historic Registers and Local Historic Districts

Contact your state historic
preservation office for national register and state register of historic places information.

Contact your Town Office for information about local historic districts.

Surveys and nomination documents offer details about historic architectural detailing.

The US National Park Service maintains the National Register of Historic Places.

US National Register of Historic Places

Step 13: 7. Prepare an Architectural Description

Work at writing thisyourself. Need inspiration?

Read: A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester

2013 Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, NYC, ISBN 978-1-4000-4359-0

Use Preservation Brief No. 17: A Guide to Architectural Character

Step 14: 8. Gathering Samples of Building Materials

When making renovations, keep samples of woodwork, plaster and lathe, mortar, wallpapers, and glass. Try to save and reuse as much historic material as possible but scraps can be helpful to understand how your home has changed over time and to match historical materials with new as work progresses on the house.

Collect items and store them in labeled plastic bags.

Eventually store the items in acid free folders and boxes.

Note molding profile in the example pictured, and observe that there are only two layers of paint.

Step 15: 9. Preparing Your Narrative

Start with a chronology of ownership.

Write about previous owners and interesting stories you have collected.

Include your architectural description and past and current photos.

Write your story for others to enjoy now and in the future. If you are doing this as a family project, ask the children to include their experiences with living in the house. If you are doing this project with the neighbors, compare notes and write about the neighborhood.

Step 16: Checklist and Review

You have assembled:

  • A three-ring notebook with copies of items found in research
  • A digital record on your computer with an off-premises flash drive for back-up protection
  • Photos, surveys, probate records and map details
  • Your own narrative

Congratulations- You have a History of Your House!