How old is my house?

How HM Land Registry can help

Some people get in touch with us to ask “How old is my house?”, often because they need this information to take out building insurance.

We keep records of land ownership, not what’s built on the land. If your property was sold by the developer who built it though, you could find out its approximate age using the date of the first transfer or lease by the developer, as this date is often referred to in the register.

Get a copy of a title register

If your property was not sold by the developer who built it, we won’t have any information about its age.

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Get offline and use real life resources!

Not every database has been put on the internet so with a little legwork in the real world, you’ll be able to find information that simply isn’t available online.

Check the local library

Your local library will have records of the area that may never be put online, simply because there isn’t enough demand. While someone across the country may not care about the history of the land in your area, your local library will most likely have resources that will be helpful when checking out various neighborhoods or specific pieces of land.

Check out a local history book that covers the neighborhood where you’re house-hunting. If you’re not sure which one(s) to read, ask the librarian.

Visit the local building department

If your local library isn’t as helpful as you would like (or even if it is), the local building department should be your next stop. They will be able to provide insights around building codes and any possible violations that the home has — whether that’s because the rules changed or a previous owner broke the rules.

You can see what permits have been issues and what the rules are for that area. You can find out what the official inspector will look for and conduct some of the simpler checks yourself, before placing an offer or coordinating an official inspection.

Read a local resource book

When in doubt, turn to books. You can search through the Arcadia Publishing database by ZIP code, subject, or title to find a book that might have the property listed.

The database is massive and houses a wide variety of books. You might have to do a bit of digging and get creative in how you approach the search, but once you locate a lead, the effort will be well worth it.

Chat with a local historian or take a local tour

If you really want to learn about an area, find a local historian or take a local tour. Even if the home isn’t an area with lots of tourism and tours, there will often be a local historical society, professor, or even just local history enthusiast who will be happy to share their insights with you.

Contact previous owners

If you have the opportunity to meet the sellers, ask them what they know about the house. Chances are they will likely be more than willing to share the home’s history. In fact, they may even consider it a selling point. If that’s not an option, reach out to them after you move in. As you learn the identities of previous owners and find contact information for them, try to connect with them. They can share what they know about the house’s history as well as memories of living there. If you’re lucky, you may even have a previous occupant knock on your door wanting to revisit their former home. Take advantage of the opportunity, and ask them questions. They may be able to provide more information than you’d expect.

Check the National Registry of Historic Places

Is your house old? If you’re not sure whether the home is considered to be officially historic, try checking with the National Register of Historic Places. The service, managed by the National Park Service, contains the official list of homes that are registered and designated as “historic” due to their age, architectural style and/or overall significance.

To search online, visit the National Register of Historic Places website and search for your home using the searchable online table, a downloadable spreadsheet or the interactive map. (Although the website claims the table is the best way to search for information, I found the map to be the easiest.) If you have a reference number, you can search it using the spreadsheet. You can also search the spreadsheet by state.

How do I find old photos of my home online?

These are some of the best places to look for photos.

  1. Your Home History Association.
  2. Images from the books of America.
  3. Neighbors.
  4. Former owners.
  5. Historic American Buildings Study (HABS)
  6. Local history books.
  7. History room of the local library.
  8. Old newspapers.

Historypin

Historypin was first on the scene with the idea of superimposing old photos on Google Street View, attracting lots of publicity in the 2010s. It remains a diverting browse, although how useful it will be for your research depends on how much material has been uploaded for the area you’re interested in. Visitors can browse the photographs on the website, and if you sign up then you can upload and curate collections too. WhatWasThere also allows you to explore historic images linked to Street View. It works well, and has all sorts of interesting stuff if you dig for it, but there are not yet enough photos from the British Isles to make it genuinely useful.

What kind of property details can I get from public records on a house’s history?

As we described earlier, the local parcel viewer is a great place to begin any property records search. The corresponding property report gives you a wealth of information on the house, including the year it was built, floor plans, photos, condition, lot size, and tax roll history.

Property details you can get from public records include: 

  • Property info: Which includes owner’s name, address, maps, parcel and block number, zoning, jurisdiction, and any historical preservation status. You can also see the property tax information and its status (if it’s been paid or is delinquent). Other property info includes the size of the lot, square footage, floor plan, number of rooms, certain fixtures, number of stories, what year the house was built, and if the home was remodeled.
  • Assessor’s summary, assessor’s roll values, or tax rolls: Tax rolls will have basic descriptive information about the property such as name, legal description, taxes paid, and the assessed value of the property. You can typically find the tax roll history in the property report.
  • Zoning districts, special use districts, and regulations such as additional dwelling units (ADUs) 
  • Environmental info and environmental impact statements: This can give you specialized info about the land and property, including potential air pollutants, flood risk, seismic hazards, and slope info.
  • Maps: Maps can show you how the area, land, property, and street layout have changed over time.
  • Surveys: You may be able to look at a property survey on the county recorder’s website. A land survey will show you the home’s property lines. If it’s not online, you can request copies from the recorder’s office. You may also find surveys on a maps section for land records. Note that surveys aren’t always indexed by parcel number, so in many cases, you’ll need to copy and paste the abbreviated legal description.
  • Active and completed permits: Permits usually have the name of the property owner and contractor, as well as the address. You might see permits listed in the property report.
  • Planning or building department complaints.
  • Encumbrances, liens, deeds, and easements.
  • Plumbing permits, septic system records, and private well records.
  • Photos: These are typically searchable by parcel number or legal description and can often be found at the city, county, or regional archives. You can often see an exterior photo in the property report, via a parcel viewer. Property record cards usually have photos. It’s not always straightforward to find aerial photographs, but you may find some city or county agencies that make those available online.
  • Area reports as part of the property report: These include taxing district, maps, the area’s typical valuation, and other details. If you’re lucky, this will also have a report from the department of assessments about the neighborhood. An area report may include a one-to-two page overview of the area the house is in, including topography, the typical condition of homes, and the specific subareas of the neighborhood.

Find Your Local Building Inspector

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Also ask your local building inspector to see any building permit applications associated with your street address. Required for most new construction and remodeling, these documents may reward you with information about any major changes that have been made to the structure. Compare these with the other dates you’ve accrued, and use them to narrow your scope when researching community documents. shutterstock.com

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Peruse OldHouseWeb forums for property type insights

While the forums on OldHouseWeb aren’t going to tell you much about the specific house you’re considering buying, they can tell you a lot about houses from that period and/or in  your region.

Depending on when your house was built, you can gather information in the Pre-1900s or Post-1900s house sections, check out photos in the Picture section, and ask questions and network in the General discussion and Hangout forums.

The Resource forum is where you may discover that the type of house you’re considering buying is perfect for your needs … or is going to be way more effort to maintain than you want to expend.

The forums on OldHouseWeb are free to peruse, and creating an account to interact with other users is also free.

Reverse Address Searches For a House

There are a few services online that allow you to check who lives in a home currently, their phone numbers, as well as previous residents. Searches like these can also offer information about home values, sales transactions, and neighborhood safety.

These searchers can better help you assess whether the neighborhood is the sort of place you want to live in. They’ll also inform you about foreclosures as well as mortgage and loan statistics in the neighborhood.

These services aren’t free, however, with a service like Been Verified costing from about $17 per month.

A Real Estate investor will sometimes use sites like these to find people to contact for off-market properties to buy. Finding investment opportunities are more scarce with limited housing inventory.

How to Look For Property Owners With Financial Distress

Realty TracDid you know you can search online to see if a homeowner is experiencing financial distress. A company called Realty Trac provides a database of foreclosures, bank-owned properties, auctions, and short sales.

They have partnered with Zillow who will display on their website property owners who have missed mortgage payments. I’ve written in the past how these Zillow listings can be deceiving because they are not for sale.

On their website, they will purposely make it look like these homeowners who have missed payments are actively selling their homes. They are not!

The vast majority of the time these homes will never be listed for sale as the owner will get caught up on their mortgage. Realty Trac, however, can be useful to see distressed properties.

How can I find the history of a building for free?

First, check that public records are available online in your city or county. You can do this by using the public records directory online portal. This is a great way to do a free property history search.

Title deeds

The title deeds to your home should include:

  • names of vendors and sellers
  • a description of the property
  • amounts of money used in the transfer of ownership

They may be used to trace the owners of the land on which the house was built.

These deeds may be held by the solicitor, bank or building society involved in the sale and purchase of your house. Further information for many properties can be obtained from the Land Registry.

Share your discoveries

Are you researching the history of a listed building? Join our community and Enrich the List with photos and information that you discover.

Find out how to Enrich the List

Interesting American Housesand House Museums

If you wan to know more about researching house history in your county, town or state then we list the local GUIDES that are available. Links to useful US sites can be found by clicking hereFind My Past has easy access to many free records dedicated to helping you trace the history of a houseWant to date your house?Go to How old is my American House with lots examples of American house styles.

Historic Catalogs, Newspapers, and Advertisements

A variety of other publications can also assist you in locating the vintage blueprints for your house. One source is historic catalogs. If your home was built at the turn of the century, there’s a good chance the builder drew his inspiration from a pattern book. In the early 20th century, many American houses—some surprisingly complex—had humble beginnings as a Sears, Roebuck ready-to-assemble mail-order kit. Others followed stock plans published by firms such as Palliser, Palliser, & Company. Check out the Sears and Craftsman homes advertised in old magazines and mail-order catalogs. Other catalogs offer a collection of plans for mid-century homes, such as the many Cape Cod house plans from the 1950s and the heyday of the Minimal Traditional style in 1940s America.

Reading old advertisements can also give you a historical context for building processes of the past. Simple floor plans for your old house, or houses very similar, may have been published in real estate advertisements. Check your public library for back issues of local newspapers. Also, check farm journals and women's magazines for featured building plans.

Neighbors

Along with talking to realtors, explore what your neighbors know. There's a reason why that house across the street looks familiar. It may have been designed by the same person and built by the same developer. Perhaps it is a mirror image, with minor differences in finishing details. Walking your neighbor's halls can be a good way to learn about the original floor plan of your own home.

Stock plans are associated with production home builders, but anyone can buy stock plans and build on a plot of land. Planned and gated communities usually limit the available house styles, which are stock plans for that community. As you drive through your neighborhood, you may notice many variations on the same essential plan. Although they are not unique, houses built from stock plans can be quite lovely. Catalog houses from Sears, Roebuck & Co., and Montgomery Ward built decades ago are still popular today.

Investigate the Materials Used

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Your home’s materials speak volumes about when it was constructed—so long as your home has not been completely renovated. For example, asphalt tile flooring exploded into popularity around 1920, but had been virtually forgotten by 1960. One handy trick: If at least one of your bathrooms still has the original fixtures, you can usually find a manufacturing date stamped on the underside of the toilet tank cover! shutterstock.com

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Look at your house’s design features. The designs and architectural style of your home can narrow down the years in which the house may have been built, since styles tend to change over time. Go to your local library to see historical maps and view architectural guides for comparison.

Historical Maps of Your City

Some cities have historic maps that you can search by address. There’s no guarantee they include photos of your home, but it’s worth a shot. You can look up historic photos of interest near you using WhatWasThere.com, for example. Otherwise, you’ll have to run a search for historic maps specific to your city. Here are a few maps for major U.S. cities:

New York CityPhiladelphiaSan FranciscoLos Angeles

And while it’s not exactly ancient history, you can look up your home’s Google Street View history, too: Just search your address in Google Maps, click on the photo of your home to access Street View, and then look for the timeline, which goes back to 2007. You can also try searching for your home’s address in Google Images to see what pops up.

Can I do a free online property title search?

The short answer is yes. While most of the resources described above are free or very low cost, running through a comprehensive title search will take some time. But if you just want to know when your home was built or who currently owns a property you’re planning to buy, you can likely find that out in just a few minutes. 

For example, in the property details shown in the parcel viewer described above, you can often see the sales history of the property. This will show the sale price, the seller and buyer’s name, and the type of deed. The sales history will also show you some, but not necessarily all, recorded easements and encumbrances.

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