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How to Determine the History of Your Home

  • Transcript

    LESLIE: Well, Tom and I both live in very old houses with very rich histories. And if you do, too, you might be interested to learn as much as you can about your home.

    TOM: That’s right. Finding out when your home was built, who lived within its walls and what changes were done over the years can be a bit challenging. But it can also be fascinating. With us to talk about that is a guy who’s uncovered the history of many old houses. He is the host of TV’s This Old House: Kevin O’Connor.

    Welcome, Kevin.

    KEVIN: Great to be here, guys.

    TOM: So, Kevin, how do you get started? This is a real history project, isn’t it?

    KEVIN: It is. It can be a lot of fun, especially if you love old homes like I do. And I would say that the first step is to identify the era in which the structure was built. And you can do that with the help of architectural books. Most homeowners can figure out a core style by just examining the silhouette of the house that they live in and its layout, as well as the style of the windows and the doors and other features, all of which might be clues to tell you when your house was built.

    TOM: Now, there are also records available either in your local municipality or even at your county level that can give you some clues, as well.

    KEVIN: Yeah. Building permits is a great place to start. Sometime around the 1900s, we had to start pulling permits and so that becomes a permanent record in every town. But then there are also preservation officers, town historical societies that keep catalogues of this municipal information, old maps. Sometimes, local newspapers will have those.

    When I was doing the research on my old house, we were able to actually pull up old photographs from the historical society and they were taking pictures of the street. They had a picture from 1890; the home wasn’t there. They had another picture of 1894 and it was there.

    TOM: Well, there you go.

    KEVIN: So we were able to narrow it down to that four-year window.

    TOM: Good point. And that’s a real treat when you do have the pictures of the way the home used to look, because there’s been an awful lot of changes in the last 100 years. And let’s face it, nobody keeps track of that.

    KEVIN: No one keeps track of it. And those old pictures of your house always look so good. Whereas when you buy it, it looks so run-down.

    LESLIE: Aww. Now, Kevin, are these records fairly easy to get? Are they publicly accessible? Can you just walk in and ask or do you need permission?

    KEVIN: Well, it depends on where you’re getting them. The county records are all public records. Anything the town holds is public record. The historical societies, you’re going to have to ask for their permission but keep in mind, that’s what they’re there for.

    TOM: Now, another clue to how old the home is is to really look at what’s around the home. Look at the neighborhood; there’s a lot there that you can gain.

    In fact, I remember when you guys were doing the Brooklyn house, there were a lot of clues. You actually found parts of your – the house that you were doing in the project at other people’s houses.

    KEVIN: It was quite remarkable.

    TOM: They were like sharing some of the architectural details.

    KEVIN: Yeah. And so here’s the thing: it was early 1900s, late 1800s and a lot of these old, brick row houses were going up. And you wouldn’t think about it because they look so old and classic but it turned out it was just a subdivision.

    TOM: Yeah.

    KEVIN: It was just a developer rolling up the street one block at a time, building 10 houses and moving on because they were building worker housing.

    TOM: And then when did development become a dirty word, you know? I mean we see beautiful, old neighborhoods and we see developments and developments are like, “Ugh. I don’t want to live in a development; I want a beautiful, old neighborhood.” But they were all developments.

    KEVIN: They were all developments.

    LESLIE: I think another great way, if you’re sort of stuck with determining the age of your home, are probably in the construction details. Because I imagine a lot of the way that houses were built are very significant to the time that they were actually built.

    KEVIN: Yeah, because the way our houses are built and the materials we use, they change over time. And so they can actually be really good indicators of when the home was built.

    For example, if you have knob-and-tube wiring in the house, well, that was used pretty much up until the 1920s, so that ought to be a good indication. Plumbing wasn’t always copper pipes; they used to make those pipes out of steel. And so those were used up until about the 1940s. But then you can look for other things like unlined chimneys. Is there any insulation in the walls? Are you using plaster and wood lath? All of those things can be really good indicators of when your home was built.

    TOM: Now, what about newspapers? Is it a good idea to check the history with newspapers? Clearly, there’s many, many years of newspapers contained in microfilm today.

    KEVIN: And there’s probably a lot of good stories from your town locally. There may even be a story about a bigger house in the neighborhood that was built, because it was a big event. And that might lead you to the date when your home was built, as well.

    TOM: This is a real fun detective project.

    KEVIN: Can be.

    TOM: Alright. Kevin O’Connor, the host of TV’s This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.

    KEVIN: My pleasure.

    LESLIE: Alright. You can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For your local listings and a lot of step-by-step videos on so many projects that you can tackle, visit ThisOldHouse.com.

    TOM: And This Old House is brought to you by Lumber Liquidators. Lumber Liquidators, hardwood floors for less.

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