Learn five ways to figure out how old your house is along with what year it was built. Houses have lots of hidden clues if you know where to look!
When we first moved to this house four years ago, I became rapidly obsessed with learning everything I could about it. Who built the house, how old is the house, what style is it, and everything I could get my hands on. Through trial and error, I came up with five ways you can figure out how old is your house. Let’s go!
First: Ask the Previous Owners
Gulp. I work by myself for a reason. People and I just don’t mesh super well. BUT, I can’t deny that the neighbors around my house have lived here much longer than I have. In some cases, they have been here for over 60 years! I just can’t pass up that opportunity to learn what I can.
Once you get settled into your new house, go for a walk down the street. The point is to see who is around! Ideally, you want someone who has been there for a long time and has a lot of memories of your house. Bringing along some homemade cookies or cupcakes never goes amiss either.
We’re fortunate to have some very friendly neighbors who live around us and have lived around us for many, many years. They are an invaluable wealth of knowledge when it comes to the old house!
Second: Figure Out the Architectural Style
HUZZAH. BOOKS. Old houses can kind of be a crapshoot when it comes to figuring out their style because so many of them blended different styles from different regions. However, this book is the absolute gold standard for helping you identify each of the individual pieces in your house.
Introducing The Field Guide to American Houses. This is the HOLY GRAIN of old house architecture styles.
It gives you everything you need to know about the different styles, time periods, details, and layouts of houses from the 1700s up through the modern-day. You can use the reference pictures in this book to find houses that look similar to yours, and from there identify potential time periods for your house.
If you have no other old house book in your library, you should have this one.
Third: Trace the Deed
This method is a 100% Nancy Drew sleuth-level adventure. You ready? Ok. First thing you need to do is go to your county records offices. You’re looking for the records of property deed sales. Ask around to find someone who knows what they are. Once you find the right place, look up the most recent deed of sale for your property.
You may get luck and find some digitized records, but many will be in paper format. You are looking for the specific deed of sale that describes when YOU purchased your property.
As you read through that deed, you should find a sentence that says something like “This deed references the property sold in Deed 123.” Bingo. That’s what you’re looking for. Now begins the investigative bunny hop.
Deed 123 represents the sale of your house or property immediately before you purchased it. This is the start of the chain of ownership. Your next step is to look up “Deed 123” in the archives. As you read through Deed 123, it will probably say something like “This deed references the property sold in Deed 456.” Do you see where I’m going?
First you find your purchase deed. Then you find the next deed it references. Finally you can bunny hop this same process as far back in the records as you can go.
For our house, I eventually found the name of the original builder on a purchase deed from 1903. That’s when he bought the land. It’s a little bit of an exercise to get all the way back to the beginning, but totally worth it.
Fourth: Local Records
In addition to tracing the deed, nose around while you’re in the records office and see if they know anything else.
Building Records Office: If you have a house of prominence or a house in a well documented city, the building office might have a copy of the house plans on file somewhere.
Property Valuation Administration: I didn’t know about this department but it seems to keep records of the land and taxes on each property in the county. I wouldn’t much care about that except ours happened to have a picture of the house from 1944 stapled to our property card. This is the only historic picture of the house I have, so I was absolutely thrilled to find it.
Tax Records Office: Figuring out how old is your house can sometimes be traced to tax records. When they build a house, the taxable value of the property should increase. So you can trace the tax history back to a year you see an increase. Ding ding! That’s probably when they built a house.
Fifth: Sanborn Fire Maps
Oh how I WISH we had Sanborn maps of our property. They would be so useful!! The Sanborn Fire Maps were typically made of cities throughout the years that showed where houses and buildings were located. You can see a list of maps here.
If you live in a populous city area, you may be able to track the fire maps across history and see when your house popped up. For example if your house isn’t there in an 1898 map but is there in a 1900 map, you have a pretty narrow date range for your house.
The Game of How Old Is My House
Even with all these tips and tricks, sometimes we don’t know when our houses were built. Sometimes we won’t every know with any certainty. And that’s ok! We can still love them and care for them as they are.
If you want to hear more about this house specifically, you can check out this episode of The Vernacular Life Podcast.