The Georgia Trust

Discovering Your Old House'S Hidden Past

We’ve all dreamed of finding a priceless antique in the attic—but what if the attic itself is a priceless antique? Researching the history of your home can be a time consuming but ultimately rewarding endeavor.
“If you were going to marry somebody, you would want to know their background,” says Ken Thomas, historian for the Historic Preservation Division (HPD) of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “Why wouldn’t you want to know about your house?”

The best resource for the history of your house is the house itself. Walk around and take note of any unusual features. In what style was the house constructed? What materials were used? The style and materials used in construction can be important indicators of when the house was built and even who built it. If you don’t have the first clue about building styles, try checking out a book on architectural styles from your local library.

Your next step should be to talk to your neighbors, past and present. Maybe they remember events and people associated with your home. Another source for information is your local historical society. They may be able to provide a historical context for your house in the community, information on the builder or first owner and possibly even historic photos. The Georgia Historical Society lists contact information for historical societies on its Web site at www.georgiahistory.com.

Next, it’s time to research. If you live in a National Register district, contact the state to get background information on your area. In Georgia, the Survey and National Register Unit of HPD is a good resource, as is your local regional development center.

There are many documents that can help you trace the history of your house. Spend some time at your county courthouse, where you will find wills, tax records and other deeds related to your property. A sudden jump in the tax appraisal of the property can indicate the year your house or an addition was built. Take a copy of your deed, which contains a legal description of your house. Other materials you can look for at other locations include building permits and city directories. Sanborn fire insurance maps can be particularly helpful in learning about the history of your house. The University of Georgia has a large collection of original Sanborn maps, and Georgia State University keeps many on microfilm.

Keep three goals in mind: 1) tracing the physical changes and architectural style of your house from the way it originally looked and functioned to the way it looks today; 2) tracing the ownership and occupancy of your house; and 3) analyzing the information gathered to learn more about the people and stories connected to your house.

There are several things you can do with this information. Maybe you’d like to try to secure National Register designation. Maybe you want to restore the house to its original appearance. Whatever you decide to do, make sure to give a copy of your research to the new owners should you ever decide to sell the house, and don’t forget to add yourself to the end of the list of owners.

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