Old house on a cliff.

If you live in a house that’s more than a few decades old, you might wonder about its history. What were the circumstances surrounding its construction? Who lived there before you moved in? You might even wonder about the evolution of the home’s structure as it has undergone home improvement, or you might have a morbid curiosity about whether or not your home has a sordid past. With the help of online resources and public records, much can be learned about the history of any property.

Internet Resources

Some online resources about home research provide a general guide to the process of learning a house’s history, while others are focused on one geographical area. But even region-specific information can offer useful tips or ideas about where to look for information.

Search Resources

A variety of collections of information exist that can help you with your research. Information on finding previous owners and their histories is carried in tax records, newspapers, commercial search applications, or title histories. Census records are particularly useful in locating a multitude of family information and learning more about those who occupied your house. You can also learn a lot about the legal issues surrounding property ownership, how property lines were drawn, and how people have taken ownership of property as the country was settled. Subscription services can provide an easy method of gathering information, but they come at a cost.

Former Owner Research

  • Historic American Newspapers: The American newspaper collection contains 154,205 titles from 1690 to the present. Newspapers provide an excellent way to trace former owners, as many newspapers print records of property transactions.
  • Historical Newspapers: Compiled from a variety of sources, this guide provides newspaper archives that are available online and at no cost. The collection is broken down by state.
  • New York City Building Information Search: Look up an address in New York City to learn more about the property.
  • NETROnline: Search public records to find out more about the people who once owned your home.

Property Legal Issues

  • National Center for State Courts: Court records may turn up filings related to the history of your property.
  • Legal Land Descriptions in the USA: Original land distribution fell into two categories: Indiscriminate Metes and Bounds and the Federal Township and Range System. Categories include definitions and references.
  • Surveying Units and Terms: Surveying units of measure and surveying terms can help you understand the details of property records.
  • Understanding Property Deeds: A deed is the documentation needed to transfer ownership of a property, and learning details about the deed can tell you a lot about the circumstances surrounding the sale of the house.
  • The National Map: The Public Land Survey System is a method of describing and subdividing land in the U.S. The article describes the PLLS, its history, and commonly used terms.

Geography and Maps

  • Fire Insurance Maps: Thousands of maps made for fire insurance companies give details of cities and towns across the country.
  • Geological and Topographic Maps: The USGS provides geological and topographical maps in digital form from as early as 1884. The maps provide a basis to compare changes over time.

Census Records

  • Census Data: Search through census records from 1790 to 1940 that contain birth places and dates, family information, marriage statuses, occupations, and street addresses.
  • Census Records: The National Archives maintain census records that include information about families and where they resided.
  • About Census Records: To protect people’s privacy, census records are kept confidential for 72 years, so you won’t be able to find more recent information in federal records.
  • United States Census Records: Find full, free information from census records collected all over the country here.

Subscription Internet Services

  • RealQuest Property and Ownership Information: RealQuest is a property ownership database that includes former owners, lot descriptions, valuations, and sale dates.
  • American County Histories: A historical source for books, newspapers, and periodicals, this collection provides local and family history resources.
  • ProQuest Digitized Newspaper Archives: This service is available at most major libraries for free and allows you to look through more than 35 million pages of archived newspapers.
  • Ancestry.com: Learn about former owners of your home through birth, death, and marriage certificates and census, church, military, and other vital records.
  • MyHeritage Search: It’s free to search this database of historical records, but a subscription is needed to view results.
  • Find Records in the U.S. Census: From 1790 until the present day, the census of the U.S. population has been taken every ten years. Search by name, birth year, city, and state to find residence and employment information.
  • Genealogy.com Articles and Forums: Genealogy research tips and guides are available on this site. Search by homeowner name for genealogy articles on immigration, military service, religious records, wars, and other details.
  • Genealogy and Family History Records: Newspaper archives can be an excellent source of homeowner information, since they typically record births, marriages, and obituaries. This source is available as a subscription and can be used for free at many libraries, with resources dating back to the 1600s.
  • SiteXPro Property Data Analytics: Offering a pay-as-you-go option, this website contains property information for 99.9 percent of the households in the U.S. Any desired real estate data is available.
  • Who Died in the House? A death on the property can cause the value of a residence to decrease. For a per-use or package fee, this site will report deaths, crimes, sex offenders, fires, meth labs, and other interesting things that may have happened at the address.

Historical Societies

Historical societies help people to view and understand their heritage. Historical societies possess a wealth of human and documented knowledge and are often eager to share what they know to help others learn about the past.


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