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House detective: Learning the history for your house

Recently a neighbor asked if I knew when my house was built.  I immediately went to the bathroom.

Now before you get the wrong idea, it should be known that the bathroom, more specifically, the commode, is often a good source of information about when a house was built.  That is because many, if not most, commodes have the date of manufacture embossed inside the lid.  That makes the commode a good place for a clue as to when a house was built.  It is obviously not a good place for date detecting if the original commode has been replaced.

Your house is loaded with other clues about its history.  If you own a house that was not purchased new by you then it might be fun to do a little detective work and learn its history.  I know one owner who discovered some holes in the baseboard of a hallway that had been painted over.  It turned out that the holes were from the .38 caliber revolver that the wife used to shoot her husband.  It seems that the event had occurred several years earlier and an owner or two earlier, and that most of the neighbors knew about the incident.  It can be enlightening and useful to do a close physical inspection before you buy a house even though a home inspector may have been used.

One thing to check out is the attic stairs.  Often there will be a tag at the top of the stairs at the entrance to the attic.  It can reveal the date of installation of the attic insulation as well as its R-value or the number of inches of insulation.  It may also contain the name of the insulation company and the individual installer.

The furnace is another source of clues about your house.  Like the attic insulation tag, it may contain information about the date of installation and the installer.  In general, major appliances may provide similar clues.  Another clue worthy of inspection is the fuse box.  There you will find valuable information about the electrical layout of the house as well as the condition of the wiring.

Another source of information is the file that contains all those paper you were given at the real estate closing.  Among them will be a certificate of title and maybe even a copy of the title search.  The title search will reveal the history of the ownership of the property and all encumbrances that were filed regarding it.

Clues can also be discovered outside the house.  Visiting the neighbors often provides fascinating information about previous owners and events that occurred on the property (see shooting case above).  Chances are good that you will meet one neighbor who has lived in the neighborhoods since the first few houses were built.  He or she will probably delight in telling stories about the neighborhood’s development complete with juicy gossip and facts that you would have never discovered otherwise.  One of my neighbors knows the names of every owner on my street since he moved in the 1950s.   Visiting neighbors can also result in finding that there are other neighbors with fascinating life stories.

A visit to the local building permit office or city hall can also be a good source of information.  Usually there is someone in the planning or zoning office who can recite the history of most every neighborhood in town.  By virtue of where he or she works, he has an interest in the development of the area.  Get one of these folks to talking and you will wish you had brought a tape recorder.  Listening to government employees tell about “the good ole days” is a good way to learn about why development occurred the way that it did and why some neighborhoods have the unusual characteristics that they do.

While at city hall make sure to visit the building permit office.  If you are lucky you might even find a copy of the building permit for your house.  Another place to find the date of construction is the tax assessor’s office.  Because that agency must reappraise your property for tax purposes it will have the construction date.

If your house is less than a generation old it might be possible to locate and talk to the developer of the subdivision.  That neighbor who has lived there since the first year will probably know the name of the developer.  Don’t be surprised if you come away with some unexpected information.  I once visited a developer who pulled out a scrapbook of newspaper articles about his subdivision.  He was most proud of his model home opening and the promotional visit by one of the stars of the then-top rated television shows.

If this information whets your appetite and you live in a really old house, then consider that there are people who specialize in researching the history of homes and issuing reports on their findings.  On the other hand, if you are simply curious about when your home was built and want to know a little more about its history, then you now have a basic guide to get you started on your research quest.  But do not forget to prepare for the unexpected.

Happy detecting.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government in Jackson. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.


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