WHERE TO BEGIN
The first step of finding the “birth date” of a building is to trace the property deeds as far back as you can. Following the chain of deeds is the foundation of learning the history of a building. While deeds typically will not list if and when there was new construction on the property, they will assist in answering the question when combined with other documents. Beginning the search requires obtaining the most current deed, which in this case was my own. Within the body of the deed it will, in most cases, make reference to a book and page where the deed from the previous sale is located. The wording will be something like,
“...being the same premises conveyed by [name of grantor/seller] to [name of grantee/buyer], by deed dated [date of conveyance] and recorded in the office of the Clerk of the County of [name of county] in Book [book #] of Deeds for said County pages [page #]...” (See the sample deed to the left)
The next step will be to take that information and find the numbered book at the county clerk where deeds are recorded. With the referenced numbered book in hand, turn to the page noted to find the deed from the previous sale. Once you locate the deed from the previous sale, you can look once again within the body of this older deed for reference to details of the transaction before that. This is repeated over and over with each deed until you reach the first sale of the property.
Note that many counties provide access to deeds online going back 20 to 30 years where you can pull up any deed by simply putting the book and page number in a search form on the county website. Otherwise, and at some point as you continue the search into the earlier 20th century, you will need to visit the county clerk where copies of the books are kept on microfilm. When you reach back to the 19th century, the deeds are typically kept in physical books similar to those pictured.
In my case, as I followed the deeds back, I came across one that separated out an acre of the property and noted that a new house had been built on it. While it is not typical to find wording about a building, this deed happened to mention it. Even so, saying that the house was "new" was relative to whoever chose the wording. Other building records and tax assessments along with a historic building engineer’s review helped me to close in on a date, or I should say dates. It turns out that my home had been built in three different stages. The initial footprint was discovered to have been from c.1800-1810. This was determined via maps and the engineer’s report along with the dating of building nails pulled from sections of beams. A study of the architecture and directional change of flooring indicated an addition had been added close to the turn of the twentieth century. The last addition was constructed during the 1970s by which time building records were filed with the town and available by request. So, after some detective work, consulting an architect, building engineer, and researching tax assessments, maps and deeds, I now know the age of each piece of my home.
- Deeds - follow back to earliest
- Building records - for alterations
- Building engineer - familiar with historic properties
- Historical society records
- Maps - from libraries, historical societies & online
- Tax assessments - compare with previous years. If there is a significant jump not replicated across neighboring properties this may be a clue that a structure was added to the property.