The anxiety of buying a new home can form in any number of ways, and you might find yourself questioning the property you’ve chosen: Is the backyard really that small? Is the soil contaminated from the nasty-looking stream nearby? Did someone die in the house recently?
Your questions could take on a more inquisitive air if the house is particularly old: Who originally built the house? Did any significant historical events happen here?
[Read: The Guide to Buying a Home.]
Here are eight things about your house you may want to know:
— History of major construction and work on the property.
— Details of previous sales.
— Names associated with the address.
— Environmental information about the property.
— Deaths that occurred on the property.
— Fires or gas leaks that have been reported on the property.
— Meth activity.
— Historic photos of the home and neighborhood.
Before you scour the public record and historic documents for information about your house, be sure that you are ready to deal with the issues that may arise from knowing more. If you discover major issues with a property you own — whether it’s soil contamination that makes it dangerous to live there or a murder that occurred in the house — you may have to disclose the information to would-be buyers when you try to sell the property.
Still, the more you know, the better equipped you are to restore a historical property, make the structure safe for your family or simply stay away if it’s a home you haven’t purchased yet.
To help you in your quest for property knowledge, here are nine ways to find out the history of your house and the land it sits on:
— Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office.
— Local assessor’s office.
— Census records.
— Local library or historical society archives.
— Local history books.
— Historic Aerials.
Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has digitized its collection of more than 5 million federal land title records, making it possible to pull up images of original documents signing land over to private individuals dating back to 1788.
Survey plat maps, land patents and field notes on properties show the formation of property lines. All the information is searchable with the state name, name of the patentee or even minute details for the property, such as township and range number if the property is in a township, survey number and issue date.
The free searchable collection of documents only covers property in the public domain, which excludes Hawaii and additional counties in some other states. However, details for properties in those places should be available through an online or in-person search through the state’s archives.
Local Assessor’s Office
Your local assessor’s office, often at the county level, keeps the records of all properties under its jurisdiction and can be a valuable resource for information regarding a home’s ownership history and legal record.
While some assessor’s offices require an in-person visit to access property records for free, most are available and searchable online for easy access of current information. Many online records show current property owners, land and structure values and assessed value for tax purposes. You may also find a legal description of the property and previous deeds documenting the sale of the property.
If you don’t see extended historical documents about your property, reach out to the local assessor’s office to see if it’s possible to have that information made available to you. Some offices charge a fee to make copies of documents and send them to you if you can’t visit in person.
If you’re curious about the history of who lived at your address in decades past, census records will give you details about the identity and number of people who previously called the place home.
For privacy protection reasons, census records are confidential for 72 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, so you’ll be unable to look up census details for a specific address or individual after 1950, unless it’s about yourself or a direct ancestor of yours.
Census records from 1790 to 1940 are available to the public through the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
Local Library or Historical Society Archives
Aside from documents kept in the government’s public record, you may find valuable details about an older house from your local library or historical society archives. Libraries and locally focused historical societies often keep archives of local newspapers, and you may be able to find out news or events revolving around your house and the people who lived there previously.
While some news archives are digitized and searchable, there’s a good chance you’ll have to search by hand if you’re looking to explore news from before the age of the internet. Especially in small town settings, you may be reading headlines on microfilm, which allows you to scroll through images of news pages photographed and kept on film.
True to its name, DiedInHouse.com can tell you the name of people associated with the address over time, if someone has died in a home, if there were any previous fires on the property or if it was ever used as a meth lab, among other details.
Roy Condrey, founder and president of Simply Put Solutions Inc., parent company of DiedInHouse.com, says he got the idea for the site when a tenant in one of his rental properties claimed the house was haunted. Condrey found no evidence of the paranormal, but it made him wonder. “I started thinking, I didn’t know the history of these homes,” Condrey says.
When Condrey found no websites offering information about deaths in homes, searchable by address, DiedInHouse.com was born. His goal is to help people learn more about a property that may or may not have to be disclosed in a sale, like its connection to a serious crime or incidents that could compromise the safety of the building.
At $11.99 for a single search, you receive an instant report that pulls from data providers that partner with DiedInHouse.com. For the next 30 days, DiedInHouse.com will continue to search the address in case the initial report missed anything and will notify you with any new results, as well as provide a final report at the end of the 30 days.
Local History Books
If you know your house dates back to the early days of your town or neighborhood, you may find the address noted in history books focused on local events. If you live in a big city or renowned neighborhood these local histories may be more widely available. For small towns or less popular cities and neighborhoods, ask the local historical society for guidance or check with local independent bookstores that might carry works from hometown authors.
Combining public record information with crowdsourced details and stories connected to addresses, HouseNovel aims to function “as if Zillow and Ancestry.com had a baby,” says Amanda Zielike, CEO and co-founder of HouseNovel.
The free platform launched in February and is still adding property information across the U.S., with its most robust property information in Minnesota, where the company is based. As time goes on, records get added and users can share stories about their childhood home, upload relatives’ old photos or even add basic information like square footage or the number of bathrooms, which are reviewed on the back end by HouseNovel for quality control.
“You can go in and search any property in the United States … and sign up if you want to save and follow homes,” Zielike says.
Originally launched as a portal for environmental records, Nationwide Environmental Title Research, better known by its acronym, provides an array of information from its databases and partner information companies, as well as links to local assessor offices across the country.
NETROnline.com’s property data has become a standard resource for many financial institutions. As Brett Perry, president and founder of NETROnline.com and Historic Aerials, explains, the site streamlines the research process on a home, “essentially making it easier to get those documents, as opposed to going to the courthouse (in person).”
While property data reports can be purchased through the site for additional information not readily available, the site provides free access to environmental records and links to county assessors’ offices with online records.
A part of the NETROnline.com network, Historic Aerials contains the largest database of U.S. historic aerial imagery. An aerial image of your home from 50 years ago or more can offer some interesting context about your property or show you what once stood where your house is now. Viewing the images online is free, while downloads start at $3, and a printed photo starts at $60 with delivery included.
“It’s a virtual time machine,” Perry says. “It enables the user to put in their location and see what it looks like not only today from a bird’s-eye view, but going back in time — in some instances to the 1920s and the 30s … you can look at different decades and see what existed on your property.”
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Update 08/18/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.