It's every home renovator's dream: You lift a floorboard in the attic and, voilà! There are the original blueprints, with dimensions, specs and elevation drawings. The mysteries of your house are solved, and you have a roadmap for repairs and restoration.
For most of us, this is only a dream. In the early 1900s and before, builders rarely drew up the kind of detailed specifications found in modern blueprints. House construction was largely a matter of convention, using methods passed down by word of mouth. Written manuals and pattern books often contained the hazy instruction, "Build in the usual way."
So, should you give up the hunt? Not yet! Here's how to find answers... without tearing up your attic floor.
1. Call your Realtor.
If your house was built in the past 50 years, the sales agents at your real estate office may be able to help you locate facts about its construction. Often they will know the local developers and be familiar with housing styles in your region.
2. Visit your neighbors.
There's a reason why that house across the street looks familiar. It may have been designed by the same person. Perhaps it is a mirror image, with minor differences in finishing details. Walking your neighbor's halls can be a good way to learn about the original floor plan of your own home.
3. Consult your Building Inspector.
In most cities around the world, builders must file for a permit before beginning new construction or remodeling an older home. Permits, often with floor plans and elevation drawings, are usually filed in the Building Inspector's office at your local city or town hall. These documents may not date very far back, but they can be useful for learning about modifications made to your house in the past 20 years or so.
4. Examine the fire insurance maps for your neighborhood.
While you are at City Hall, ask where you can see the fire insurance maps for your area. In the United States, many fire insurance maps date back to the 1870s. At the very least, these maps will indicate the construction material (brick, wood, stone, etc.) used for your home. A good bird's-eye view map will also provide a three-dimensional drawing of houses in your neighborhood. Sometimes there is enough detail to show the shape of the buildings and the placement of doors, windows and porches.
5. Dig into the city archives.
Many communities maintain archives with old photographs, building plans and maps. These records may be heaped in disorganized piles in the town hall attic... Or, they may be cataloged and shelved at your local library or museum. If you are lucky, there may be an official city historian who can advise you in your search.
6. Browse historic plan books.
If your home was built at the turn of the century, there's a good chance the builder drew his inspiration from a pattern book. In the early 20th-century, many American houses -- some surprisingly complex -- had humble beginnings as a Sears, Roebuck ready-to-assemble mail order kit. Others followed stock plans published by firms such as Palliser, Palliser and Company.
7. Read old advertisements.
Simple floor plans for your old house, or houses like it, may have been published in real estate advertisements. Check your public library for back issues of local newspapers. Also check farm journals and women's magazines for featured building plans.
8. Hire an expert.
Blueprints may not exist, but every modification made to your home left behind a trail of evidence. A building professional (usually an architect or a structural engineer) can use field measurements and other clues to recreate the original plans.
Now that you know how your house used to look, the real work begins... Renovation!