History and genealogy aren't just about people. Most American stories focus on hearth and home, so a house's history is often as interesting as a person's.
Just as a person's history starts with him or her, a house's history begins with the current or most recent resident. The best place to start looking for information is the office of whoever keeps the county's land records. Typically, this is a clerk of court or a register of deeds office, but that varies according to location. When in doubt, ask at the courthouse where to find those records.
Indexes to deeds are in large ledger-style books labeled "Grantors" (the person selling the land) and "Grantees" (the person buying the land). Look for the land of the current landowner in the Grantee book.
Then take the name of the grantor in that transaction and look for his name in the Grantee book to see from whom he got the land. Continue this process back to the original owner of the land.
Sometimes it may appear that there is a missing link in this chain of ownership. That could signal that someone inherited rather than purchased the land. This will require that the researcher move over to the probate court or whatever court handles estate matters. Look for wills or administration of an intestate estate (when someone died without a will) using the names collected in the deed search.
Determining ownership of the land won't necessarily reveal who built the house. That might take a little more work in other records. Here are some different places to learn about the actual builder and/or resident in the house.
•Ask at the local library whether there are newspaper clipping or vertical files. Local papers often run feature stories on homes of historic interest.
•While at the library, see if anyone has written a county or city history. These usually include information on how communities were developed and who built the earliest homes.
•Check with state or local historic preservation organizations to see if anyone has already explored a specific house's history. Visit a meeting of the local historical society to see whether anyone is familiar with the house.
•Explore old city directories. These also will be at the library. Directories usually were printed annually or bi-annually and were cross-indexed by residents' names and street addresses. By tracking backward through the directories, it is possible to tell when a house was constructed at a specific address.
•Check building permits. Here again, a check at the local courthouse probably will net the location of that office. Jurisdictions began issuing permits in most areas by the turn of the 20th century.
•Sanborn Fire Insurance maps were created from 1883 through the late 1960s for city homes. By working backward through these maps, it's possible to see when a building appeared on a town plat. The maps also show the materials with which a building was constructed - this was of great concern to insurance companies. If a town's Sanborn maps have survived, they may be online or at a local library.
•Tax offices might be a good source of information. A property's value jumps when a house is built on it. Comparing tax records from year to year would reveal that jump, indicating construction.
•Census records may provide names of people living in a particular house. The 1880 population census was the first to report the street name and house number for each household. All subsequent population censuses were supposed to contain the information, but some census takers were lax in reporting. Working from this angle will require the researcher to find a specific neighborhood using district or post office identifiers at the top of census pages.
•Don't forget to talk to the neighbors. Older neighborhoods may contain lifelong residents who can share stories about residents and activities involving the house.
•If a house was built by a local industry to house its workers or top management, seek out a history of the company to get details about the community.
There is more to a house history than names and dates. What the people who lived there did within their home is an integral part of its history.
So researchers must delve into the occupations, hobbies and lifestyles of the residents. Did they operate a small still in the basement during Prohibition? Was the resident a doctor who saw patients in his parlor? Did "society folks" live and entertain the community elite? Perhaps a political powerhouse lived there and brokered high-level government deals over cigars in the den.
Was the house filled with the laughter and happiness of children or did it ache with the pain of a chronically ill youngster? There is no escaping that researchers must seek the biographical information of the people who brought the house to life.
When all the work is done and the story is written, don't forget to donate a copy to the local library for future generations to enjoy the fruits of all that labor.