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How to Find the History of a Property

Does your investment property have a hidden history? If so, that may increase its value.

[Updated: Feb 11, 2021] Oct 04, 2020 by Liz Brumer
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If you're considering purchasing a property and think there may be some history behind the house, it's possible to do some sleuthing and determine if there was a notable property owner or unique use of the land in the past.

It may seem like a superficial factor compared to property characteristics like square footage or condition in real estate, but studies have found a historic district or designation can increase property value. The price per square foot in New York City found a significant increase in value for designated over non-designated homes. A home with historical significance can also potentially allow you to be eligible for certain incentives, like the historic rehabilitation tax credit (HTC). If you think one of your properties may have historical significance, learn how to find the history of a property yourself.

Where to start

A good place to start can be a property record research service like US Realty Records. You simply put in the property address, and it will comb through multiple databases to retrieve information on state, county, municipal, and assessors records. It will likely not have any information specific to the historical significance unless it's already designated a historic property, but it will give you a place to begin your research by compiling owner records, property details, and sales information.

A basic search costs $1.25 and can save you from having to do individual searches on multiple sites. Be cautious if you choose to use sites like Zillow (NASDAQ: Z) (NASDAQ: ZG) or Trulia for these purposes. They can be incomplete and often only use one or two sources for their information.

How to determine historical ownership and occupants

Typically the property ownership for a piece of real estate is the easiest factor to determine since it's easily accessible public record sales history. In most counties, you can do this for free online or in your appraiser's office, but if preferred, you can obtain this information with a formal title search, which will give you a list of every legal property owner from the initial record to now. If you already own the property, you should have a record of the original title search that was completed prior to closing. In most cases, you will have also purchased title insurance, which will hold the title company responsible for any inconsistency in reporting, ensuring the title company has done due diligence to the best of its ability.

Having a copy of the physical deed can also help you showcase the property's unique history or get it registered with a historical society. It's usually best to access this information by going to the county recorder in person, because many online records can be incomplete, especially for older transactions. It's important to note that this will only give you information on the owner or owners of the property, not on other occupants such as children or dependents, which could play an important role in its historical significance.

Digging deeper

Checking the census records can provide additional information on every person who lived there. Depending on the time frame, it may also give you additional information, like ages, immigration, marriage status, occupation, and more. You can obtain census records online or at the public library. The librarians will typically have experience with these kinds of searches and will be able to assist you to perform a thorough search. It's important to note that this will only give you information on its oldest inhabitants; due to privacy concerns, most of the census data from the mid 1900s onward is not currently accessible.

Once you have the owners' names, you can begin to search each individual for noteworthy contributions or historical significance. If your area has a local historical society or if you can reach out to a local historian, this could be an obvious starting point to see if they recognize any of the occupants. Oftentimes, the central library will have special collections on the history of your area and municipality.

You can talk to previous owners or neighbors, too, but that will only take you so far back in history and is based on memory without documentation to prove any claims. Newspaper archives can take you further back in time. You just never know if a famous historical figure grew up in your property or even a current celebrity may have used it as a secret retreat from the media.

In summary, the following resources will help you determine the previous residents and their potential historical significance:

  1. Title search
  2. County recorder
  3. Census records
  4. Historical society
  5. Local historians
  6. Central library
  7. Previous occupants or their descendants
  8. Longtime community residents
  9. Newspaper archives

How to determine your property's historical use and status

The history of your land or house can be a bit trickier to uncover. Start your search by going to the National Register of Historic Places. If the property is listed, you're in luck and most if not all of the research will already have been done for you. If it doesn't show up, that doesn't mean you don't have a historic house. The National Trust for Historic Preservation operates a similar, but sometimes differing, register. States and even cities will sometimes maintain their own historical records, but to be on this registry, someone at some point in history did the research and requested it be placed there.

The Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records can also provide you with federal land records, which will include:

  • The land patents, which are the original transfer of title from the federal government to an individual.
  • Plat maps, which are a drawing of the boundaries and acreage.
  • Field notes, which are a verbal accounting from the initial survey of the land.

Keep in mind that many of these initial conveyances were not for a small urban property. More often than not, these were large tracts of land that were parceled out over time into smaller and smaller pieces. This avenue of research won't show you any of these subdivisions but will give you an amazing big picture of how it all started.

Older or larger cities will sometimes have historical maps of the city you can search by address. But this is often not available for rural or smaller locales. The website has developed software to merge historical photos with Google Maps (NASDAQ: GOOG), so you could potentially find historic pictures from your area. These images are more often focused on businesses or public works, though, so don't expect pictures of your house unless something of true historic significance occurred there. Keep in mind that street names and even house numbers can change depending on how far back the property goes. The parcel number, however, will be maintained as far back as the initial records go.

Building permits may not be the first thing you think of, but they will have information on the original owner, architect, builder, and date of construction. They can sometimes even contain architectural drawings, depending on the municipality and date. Insurance records can potentially offer you even more detailed records. If you can track down a policy tied to the property, that's the difficult part; they will likely have information on what the property was used for, its contents, and sometimes even a floor plan. Fire insurance is usually the best place to start. Public fire departments were not always around, so many owners would carry a private fire department policy for their property.

Another great resource if you have some time on your hands is reading local history books. Arcadia Publishing runs The History Press, which publishes local and regional history books that aren't mainstream enough for general publishing. When all else fails, you may stumble on some luck from within the house itself. Large homes with attics or basements may have boxes long forgotten stuffed in a corner or even inside a wall if you're doing any demolition.

In summary, the following resources will help you determine the previous uses for the property, including photographs and their potential historical significance:

  1. National Register of Historic Places
  2. National Trust for Historic Preservation
  3. City designations
  4. The Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records
  6. County Clerk for building permits
  7. Insurance companies, especially fire insurance
  8. Arcadia Publishing

It's not always easy, but the research can be worth it

Finding the history of a property can be an interesting but time-consuming endeavor. It may be the ownership history or the original use of the land itself. Either way, stories sell. A 2019 survey by the National Association of Realtors found that 21% of buyers bought an existing home because it had more charm or character.

Set your unique property apart by highlighting the house history regardless of whether it's listed as an actual historic building. If you end up finding some interesting property history, then you've likely just increased the value of your real estate and more than likely will see it sell faster because of the property history.

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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of Bank CD rates’s board of directors. Liz Brumer-Smith has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Bank CD rates owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (C shares), Zillow Group (A shares), and Zillow Group (C shares). Bank CD rates has a disclosure policy.