How to Research the History of Your Home
For ten years, Sarah and Jeff Shepherd walked by the historic mansion, Montfort Hall, on their daily walk through the Boylan Heights neighborhood of Raleigh, North Carolina. The two shared a love of historic buildings and Monfort Hall was one of the few remaining pre-civil war homes in the city. Sadly, the building had seen better days. It was obvious it had been long neglected. Still, they couldn't get it out of their mind. The home was too beautiful to languish uncared for and the couple longed to see it restored to its previous glory. Eventually, they made an appointment to tour the inside.
When the Shepherds stepped through the front door of Montfort Hall they were shocked. Despite the rundown condition of the exterior, the house was in excellent shape. There was no structural damage and many of the architectural details that made the house so special were still intact. At that point, the couple made a decision. Sarah Shepherd says, "So many old buildings are torn down instead of being saved, and we felt obligated to do what we could to save it and share it with others."
They decided to purchase the mansion and turn it into a boutique hotel in order to share the historic home with others. The result is the Heights House Hotel, which opened in May of 2021. But the building didn't renovate itself overnight. The Shepherds wanted the restoration to be as gorgeous and authentic as possible, which meant they needed to learn how to research the history of the home before getting started.
Why Should You Research the History of Your Home?
People are drawn to old homes for a reason. The character and details of the house go beyond aesthetics—they tell a story. According to Sarah Shepherd, "We fell in love with this home, and as owners, felt a responsibility to be good stewards of it. In order to honor it, we had to understand the history of the home. That way, when we were restoring it and adding on to it, we were staying true to the architecture and original design of the house."
Since old homes generally pass through different ownership, each one leaves an imprint on the house. Through research, the Shepherds were able to determine which elements of the house are original in order to highlight and repair them. The lessons they garnered along the way are helpful to anyone interested in learning how to research the history of a home. This is what they learned.
How to Research Your Home's History
Talk to Your Realtor
If you want to learn how to research the history of your home, your realtor is a great place to start. Realtors can do so much more than unlock doors and negotiate contracts. They have access to a great deal of information through the Multiple Listing Service, which could include old photos in addition to tax records, zoning, and boundary maps. They may also be able to connect with the previous owners to learn more. In the case of the Shepherds, conversations with their realtor and the previous owner led them to discover that a student had written about the original owners of the home, the architect, and the house itself as the thesis for his masters. It was a wealth of information they might not have discovered if they didn't ask questions.
Check Public Records
Even if you're not working with a realtor, you can still find a great deal of information via the public records available through your local tax assessor's office, courthouse, city hall, or building permit department. This could include the names of previous owners, permits issued for additions, deeds, or lawsuits connected to the house.
Check Old Newspapers
The Shepherds found state archives to be a great resource for old newspaper clippings and photographs. You may also be able to access them through your local library or through the Library Congress website, Chronicling America. Try searching for your property address, neighborhood, names of previous owners, and important dates that may shed more light on your home's story.
Contact Local Historical and Preservation Societies
Local historical and preservation societies may be a treasure trove of stories and photographs pertaining to your home. They'll also be able to tell you if your neighborhood is in a historic district or if your home is officially designated as a historic structure.
Consult Census Records
Once you learn the names of the previous owners, check old census records to get a better picture of who lived in the home, including how many children and extended family members may have lived there.
Look On DiedinHouse.com
The history of your house extends beyond the people who lived there. It also includes the people who died there. The website DiedinHouse.com will help you determine if anyone has died at any address in the U.S.
Don't Give Up
Leave no stone unturned. Each thing you learn is a potential clue to your home's history. In the end, it's worth it. Perhaps Sarah Shepherd puts it best when she says, "nothing beats the stories and charm of a historic home!"