[10 on Tuesday] 10 Ways to Research Your Home's History

Posted on: July 31st, 2012 by Emily Potter 6 Comments


When we make friends we like to learn about them -- we ask them where they grew up, where they went to school, and when they were born.

Our homes are a lot like that. We spend time with them, value them, and take care of them. So it makes sense that we want to know more about them -- who lived there before, how it’s changed over time, and when it was built.

If only walls could talk, right? Instead, here are 10 ways to uncover the story behind your older or historic home (or any other building you’re interested in):

1. Look closely at your house. Exposed rafters in the attic and bricks in the basement can tell you a lot about how old your house might be. You might find dates or stamps left by the builder; different-sized bricks will tell you that the house was built in different construction cycles.

Tip: Closets are great places to uncover clues like old wallpaper or paint -- certain paper patterns or color-schemes can be traced back to a popular period style.

2. Be your own archaeologist. Scope out your backyard the next time you’re in the garden and look carefully at buried treasure you might find, like old glass bottles or children’s toys. Items like that can tell you a lot about who lived in the house and when.

3. Talk to people. Talk to your neighbors, local business owners, even the mailman. They might be able to tell you who lived in the house before you and remember if any changes have been made to it over time.

4. Explore the neighborhood. Are there other older buildings that look similar? How does your house fit in -- for example, does your house face a different way? It could have been built on land that was once a farm while the rest of your neighborhood was built later.

Tip: If you live near a city, measure the distance to the city center. The farther you are from the original core, the younger your house might be.

5. Learn the history of the area. How old is the city or town you live in? Did any major events take place in the area? (For example: Was it the scene of a battle? Was your home, or any other nearby building, designed by a noted architect?) Answering these questions can offer important clues to your house’s own history.

6. Check your historic district status. If you don’t already know if your house is designated as a historic structure, you can check with your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) or other local preservation office. They will also be able to tell you whether you live in a historic district.

Tip: Look for properties in your area on the National Register of Historic Places.

7. Research land and property records. A simple deed or title search can tell you who owned the property and when and tax records can tell you how the property has changed over time. Many city or county records offices also have Sanborn fire maps, which can date back as far as the 19th or 20th centuries and show the footprint of your house and layout of the neighborhood.

8. Look up local census data. Census records can tell you more about the lives of previous owners, like the number of children in the house, cost of the home, whether the home had a radio, and more.

Also: Stop by your local public library and look for a city directory -- a precursor to the modern phone book -- which might offer more details on previous occupants.

9. Contact your local historical society and visit your public library. Ask to see old photographs they might have of your house or the surrounding land, historical maps of the area, or newspapers with specific articles that reference history of the local town.

10. Read! There are many books out there to guide you further in your research, such as Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You by David E. Kyvig and Myron A. Marty; or Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood by Betsey J. Green. Search your public library or local bookstore for more titles.

You don’t need a master’s degree to learn about the history of your home, public building, or any other place. All you need is a little time, your eyes, ears, and feet … and 10 helpful tips to get you started.

Bonus: Check out the University of Maryland University Library’s webpage on researching historic houses. You’ll find the information there can be applied to places nationwide.

Let us know what you find out!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Emily Potter

Emily Potter is a copywriter at the National Trust. She enjoys writing about places of all kinds, the stories that make them special, and the people who love them enough to save them.

[10 on Tuesday] 10 Ways to Weatherize Your Historic Home

Posted on: July 24th, 2012 by Julia Rocchi 1 Comment


Do you live in an older or historic home? Could your energy bills use a little bit of help? Are you wondering how to lower them without affecting the unique features that give your house its character?

Today’s 10 on Tuesday guide -- a new feature on Preservation Nation that will share preservation-friendly tips, tools, and ideas -- is all about how you can increase your home’s energy performance in a way that maximizes energy savings and preserves your home’s historic character.

Most of these recommendations will work for a home of almost any age or style. In fact, many traditional homes were built with locally sourced materials and environmentally-friendly features such as thick walls, light-reflecting finishes, operable windows and shutters, vents, awnings and porches to provide shade.

So if you’re the owner of an older or historic home, you can feel good about living in a building that has served well for 50, 100, or 200 years or more. Here are 10 ways to keep it that way for another century:

1. Consider a whole-house approach. When you weatherize a home, you are equipping it with everything it needs to be more energy efficient. So look beyond just one area or component of the house, and take into account how the whole structure is working together.

2. Identify problem areas by conducting an energy audit. Local utilities and state energy agencies now frequently offer audits -- for free or at minimal cost -- to help homeowners target leaks and identify cost-effective options for sealing them.

3. Seal cracks, holes, and gaps, especially around windows, doors, and other areas with high potential for heat loss. Think small cracks don’t matter? A gap of just 1/8 of an inch under a standard door lets in as much air as having a 2.4 inch-wide hole in the wall. And remember: For every cubic foot of heated or cooled air (that you pay to condition) that leaves your house, one cubic foot of outside air enters!

4. Reduce drafts with simple steps such as closing curtains, blinds, shades, or shutters at night in cold weather; using draft “snakes” at doors (or simply a rolled towel); and closing your fireplace damper when fireplace is not being used in winter.

5. Check for proper ventilation to spaces you aren't heating or cooling to protect from the effects of condensation.

6. Repair older windows and doors with new glazing. Install storm windows where appropriate. (More on window repairs in a future 10 on Tuesday!)

7. Make sure water is properly draining away from a building through gutters and downspouts, combined with foundation waterproofing and drains.

8. Install insulation, where appropriate, around ducts, pipes, and water heaters, as well as near the foundation and sill.

9. Maintain watertight roofing and siding.

10. Establish a baseline for your energy usage so you know a) if your changes are working, and b) if you’re really saving money. One way to track your energy usage is to analyze your energy bills for the last twelve months (or longer if available).

As you can see, weatherizing your home doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to be effective. You can take on plenty of low-cost DIY projects to save energy, and put those extra savings toward the fun projects (or perhaps another historic property…?).

Have you weatherized your older or historic home recently? What were some of your experiences?

Wait, there’s more! Check out these oldie-but-goodie videos from the Preservation Nation vault about weatherizing your home in summer (see below) AND winter (so you can get a head start).

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the director of digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.