Have you ever been curious about who used to live in your house? Would you like to know more about a beautiful old building you've always admired? Do you want to learn more about the history of your neighborhood?
You may find the answers to those and many other questions you may have about your home and your neighborhood with as little as a few hours of checking at your public library, courthouse and historical society.
This research can produce satisfying and surprising results that can, quite literally, make history come alive. While I was investigating the housing cooperative where I live, some of the building's long-term residents told me the daughter of the original owner of our 70-year-old property still lived in the neighborhood. I contacted her, and the information she provided added greatly to the archival research I had done.
If you're interested primarily in the history of your neighborhood and city or county, the best place to begin is at your local library or historical society or even a bookstore.
Wherever you live, the first thing you should do is look at your house and the neighborhood. Note your building's size, number of floors, construction materials, any remodeling, and its position on the site. All of this is important, as you will need to compare your visual impressions with the written materials you find and the oral reports you collect from long-term residents and neighbors.
After this visual inspection, the next step is to establish a time line and a chain of ownership. If you live in Maryland or Virginia, you'll probably have to do a title search at the local courthouse land records office, similar to that done by companies that sell title insurance.
If you have your house deed, look at it for the "reference" it makes to the previous owner. If you don't have the deed, the land records office staff can help you find it in their books. The deed will list the seller ("the grantor") and the buyer ("the grantee") and also will refer to the seller's deed by book and page, or "liber" and "folio." This earlier deed will tell you who the next previous owner was. Continue tracing deeds back until you can find no earlier ones or any indication of a building on your property. This can be difficult: Deeds are records of land transactions and may not indicate clearly the existence of any buildings on your plot.
If you live in the District, your first step also will be to establish a chain of ownership, but you'll need different materials to do it. After the visual inspection of your building, you should consult Washington real-estate atlases, available at the Columbia Historical Society and the Washingtoniana Room of the D.C. Martin Luther King Library. Locate your home on the most recent map and make a note of its lot and square number, which you'll need for further research. By going back through earlier atlases you can see when your house was constructed and how the surrounding neighborhood grew and changed.
A shortcut to learning about your D.C. home and the surrounding properties is to use the Lusk's Assessment Directory, a guide to tax valuations, also kept at the Martin Luther King Library. A listing in the front of the book translates street addresses to their corresponding lot and square number. You may have to compare this information with that in the real-estate atlases, as many properties have used different numbers over the years.
Once you have the correct lot and square number, look at the second part of the directory, where it will show the year your house was constructed.
If your D.C. home was built after 1877 and you want to know more about its construction and any later remodeling, your next visit should be to the National Archives to see the files of building permits.
Besides providing a check of your earlier estimate of your home's construction date, you also can discover the house's architect, builder, original owner, construction materials, dimensions, and estimates of the cost. You also can ask the National Archives staff what other buildings were done by your home's architect.
I learned that the building next to mine had been constructed a year earlier by the same developer, which helped explain the two properties' many similarities in appearance.
The building-permit files can turn up other interesting tidbits. You may find original blueprints of your home or reports showing the progress on the completion of the construction work.
For D.C. properties constructed before 1877 and for suburban homes, your best bet is to use tax records to estimate when the house was built and to complete or verify the chain of ownership obtained from the title search.
D.C. tax records back to the 1820s are available at the National Archives, from 1889 and later at the D.C. Martin Luther King Library, and from 1900 onward at the Columbia Historical Society. Suburban records are kept at local courthouses and also may be available at the local historical society. Also check your community library's "Maryland Room" or "Virginia Room."
Work backward through the tax records, noting changes in ownership and the value of "improvements," that is, any structures erected on the plot. Without a building permit to indicate the exact construction date, you'll have to settle for an approximate year based on your inspection of the tax records and any other materials you can find.
You can supplement your checking of these archival materials by comparing them with the physical characteristics of your home. The American Association for State and Local History, as well the Old-House Journal, publishes guides to architectural styles and to building materials of various periods. The AASLH even has a leaflet on dating old structures by the nails used in their construction.
How long will it take to research your home's history and former residents? That will depend on how much you want to learn. "It can be a long process or a short one, depending on the particular property, your persistence, and luck," says Fairfax County historical researcher and writer Nan Netherton, but in "two or three hours" you often can get records back to original land grants.
Going beyond a simple title search to fully investigate a home's owners and residents can take much longer. Elizabeth Miller estimates that checking out the building permit and real-estate atlases and researching the residents of a typical late 19th-century house in the District could take 15 to 20 hours.
Regardless of how much time you spend on your home, remember that others will want to know the results of your efforts. Write up at least a short report of what you've found and give copies to the local library and historical society.
What if you get hooked on doing such research? You might consider joining your local historical society or even the L'Enfant Trust's "Adopt-a-Block" program. The trust, which works to identify and preserve historic properties, is looking for volunteers to survey architecturally significant structures, with the goal of producing a complete catalogue of such D.C. buildings.
The personal satisfaction? As Columbia Historical Society curator Elizabeth Miller says, "It's a way to understand the historical process in a way you never did in school."
Information-research consultant Bill Black has investigated the history of all his Washington residences.