Unless your house is brand new, it may be difficult to pinpoint its birthday. Houses often aren't built all in one piece. Rooms are added, additions built, roofs raised, porches redesigned. Written records of construction and renovation can be confusing and conflicting.
To make sense of it all, you need to be an architecture sleuth. Here's how.
Try to identify the architectural style of your house.
Look at the shape of the roof and the placement of the windows. Explore Web resources such as our House Styles Index, or books such as A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia & Lee McAlester. Knowing the style of your home will help you place it in a historic period.
Examine the physical evidence.
The building materials and construction methods used for your home contain many clues. A trained investigator can date a house by studying its wood, plaster, mortar, and paint. For technical instructions, print out a copy of Architectural Investigation. This Preservation Brief from the U.S. Department of Interior is a primer for the pros.
Check the title.
If your house is very old, the title may not list all owners. However, it can provide the name of the previous owner... and this information will help you locate people who can answer some of your questions.
Talk to survivors of the previous owners, neighbors, the meter reader, the mail carrier, local carpenters and plumbers, and anyone else who might know something about the house. Their memories might be faint, but someone may have an old photograph, a bill, or written correspondence that will help place your house in time.
Visit the Tax Assessor.
The tax roll for your home is located at your local City Hall, Town Hall, County Courthouse, or municipal building. This document will list each person who owned your property, and the value of the property. Over the years, the value usually climbs at a steady pace. An abrupt increase often means that new construction occurred. The year your property became more valuable may be, in fact, the year your house was built on a previously empty lot.
Visit your County Register of Deeds.
While you're downtown, stop into the Registrar's office and ask to see the tract index or a grantor-grantee index for your house. Translated from legalize, this means that you are asking to see a listing of transactions involving your property. In addition to providing dates, these records will give you names of everyone who ever purchased the land your house is on... Or who ever filed a suit against it!
Follow the Paper Trail.
By this time, you probably already have a pretty good idea about the age of your house. Research is addictive, however. You may not be able to resist scouting out nuggets of information buried in resources like these:
- Biographies of people who lived in your area
- Guidebooks of your town
- Local newspapers
- Census records
- City directories and phone books
- Academic papers
- Family bibles and genealogies
- Insurance records
- Wills and probate records
- City plans and feasibility studies
You can always try an old trick real estate agents often use: Check your toilet. Lift the lid of the tank and look for a date. If your house is fairly new, the toilet date will correspond closely with the construction date. And if your house is old... Well, at least you know the age of your toilet. Throw a birthday party!