How to research the history of an old house

When Nick Weith and Damien Mordecai bought their home in Gowanda, New York in 2020, the Zillow listing said “Built in 1940.” But they knew better.

The square silhouette. The Second Empire roof. It was clearly Victorian. This dates from 1940? It was supposed to be a placeholder.

After a deep dive into the history of their new home — with the help of a local historian, ancestry websites and digitized town records — the couple realized their hunch was right. “The Kimble House”, as they have since considered it, was actually built in the 1870s.

They also learned a bunch of other cool stuff. Like the original owners of the property (Byron and Deborah Kimble), and the name of the guy who built it (Byron’s dad, Charles). They even found books, photos and other memorabilia of its most famous resident: the dancer and set designer Antoine Nelledied in 1977.

If you’ve never scoured the century-old home market, these details may seem insignificant. But determining the true age of a property — and other facets of its history — is valuable information. For new owners of older homes, it can inform renovation decisions and determine your eligibility for tax exemptions.

Plus, it’s damn interesting.

What a Home’s History Can Tell You

A little research can tell you a lot. What materials were used in the construction? What has been renovated, if any?

These are major budgetary considerations. Lead paint removal can cost you a few thousand dollars, and asbestos removal can cost up to $30,000, according to HomeAdvisor.

You should also look through your home’s history to find out when major structures were last updated, such as the plumbing, roof, and foundation. This can help you anticipate when your next repair is on the horizon and avoid any health or safety risks before you move in. If you are really aware of things, it can help you decide if you want to move in.

“If the electrical, plumbing, or HVAC hasn’t been updated, there can be a ton of costs associated with bringing a home into the modern world,” says Bret Weinstein, CEO of Real Estate Guide in Denver. We found that an HVAC replacement cost over $100,000. »

There are other financial benefits to knowing your home’s history.

If it can be certified as a historic structure by an organization like the National Register of Historic Places, you could receive valuable tax benefits. (The Federal Tax Incentive for Historic Preservation, on the one hand, offers a tax credit for income properties equal to 20% of rehabilitation costs. Some states and cities offer additional incentives.)

And don’t discount resale value: if you ever decide to put your historic home on the market, it will likely sell faster (and for more money) than a comparable new home.

A good story “always” makes a home more salable, says Leslie Turner, co-founder of House Real Estate in Charleston, North Carolina

“People like to be connected to history,” she says.

How to Research the History of a House

There are countless ways to unearth the history of an old house.

Local historical societies, museums and libraries are great places to start. Newspapers – which you can find in digitized form or on microfiche in many libraries – can also be good sources of information. And your town’s historical records keeper (probably a county courthouse) may have historical maps, deeds, utility records, and old building permits for your very property.

Online resources can also be of great help. At Kimble House, Mordecai used Ancestry.com, which gives paid subscribers access to census records, birth and death notices, historical photographs and more. It takes time, he says, but if you can track down a single former resident — or even a relative of a former resident — you can usually piece together a property’s history.

However, a little luck never hurts.

Turns out the historian Mordecai and Weith tracked down was working as a real estate agent in Gowanda. And about 40 years ago, the Kimble house was one of his properties.

“He laughed a little when he came in,” Weith says. “He was like, ‘He looks pretty much the same as when I sold him 40 years ago.'”

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