The following is just a few tips when researching your house – Check out the book "Discovering the History of Your House" by Betsy J. Green for more in depth information!
Four most important sources of written information:
2. Old phone books and city directories
4. Obituaries of former owners.
Take photos of your home (from all angles). You can use this when discussing your house with others (including former owners) or when looking through old pictures of the area.
Deeds – rarely will you find information about structures on the property from the deeds. Not all people listed as owners of the land may have lived there – they may have rented the property out to someone else.
Phone books or city directories may help you with this problem - available in the Local History Room at the Champaign County Library.
Death records - will provide death dates of individuals.
Wills – wills can provide information about the family and the material items. Estate records often include an inventory of the property (including the home furnishings) and maybe even descriptions of the house that may be helpful.
Building permits – check for any under your address. You may need to fill out a “Freedom of Information Form.” No problem – just fill it out, it usually just asks for name, address, and what information you are searching for.
Building Department or Code Enforcement – permits for homes, fences, additions, etc. Utility records – water, sewer, electric, etc. May show when service was first connected.
Tax Records – look at them for a period of years, you may be able to tell when a house was built on your land (large increase in taxes).
Fire Insurance Maps (Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are available online for free through OPLIN). You may find what materials were used to make your home and what it was used for.
Once you have the former homeowners’ names you can then search for information about those individuals/families. You may discover old pictures or other information about the home. Look for information about former homeowners in local history books. If you know when the land was sold you can search the newspapers for real estate ads or other articles about the family/house. Obituaries of former owners can provide much information (occupations, date the person moved, relatives, etc)
You may find former owners (or descendants) of your home. Approach them with care – explain who and what you are researching, ask if they have any photos or information they may be willing to share. Keep in mind, they may not be as interested in researching their old house as you are!
Newspapers - search newspapers by the name of the owners, street address, etc. The Champaign County Library provides free access to Urbana area newspapers at the following site: Newspaper Database
Check with the Historical Society and local library for information. Pictures of your house may be filed under other topics such as the family name, architecture, parades that went by your house, severe weather stories, etc.
Real Estate Agencies that have been around for many years – ask if they have old photos.
Renovation – while doing work on your home, watch for writing on the walls, literally. Many times people will write dates, names, etc while doing work on a building.
Metal Detector – use a metal detector to search the land around your house. (Did you know you can borrow one from the library?)
You need to always keep in mind that the information you are searching for may not be available. It may have been lost, destroyed, etc. People make mistakes, even in “official” records – keep this in mind!
Keep track of all the information you gather.
Think about donating copies to the local library and historical society.