May 21, 2013

10 Tips for Finding Clues to Your Home’s History

[10 on Tuesday] 10 Tips for Finding Clues to Your Home’s History from PreservationNation

Last week, after completing our series on how to buy a historic house, we embarked on the next step in the process: deciding whether to restore or rehabilitate your home. Once that’s decided, the fun really begins, since it involves playing detective. There are clues all around to what your house may once have looked like; you just need to know where to look.

We covered the go-to-the-library angle before in our "10 Ways to Research Your Home’s History" toolkit, so today we’ll look more closely at what your house and its immediate surroundings might be trying to tell you.

1. Inspect the exterior. Is the outside of the house all one architectural style, or are there a couple of different styles visible? More than one architectural style may signal a later addition to the original structure.

2. Match up the interior to the exterior. If the inside of the house has a section in a different architectural style and the outside does not, that suggests a major remodeling in one area, but perhaps not an addition.

3. Know your materials. Are the exterior walls all made of the same thing? Or are they different? Any differences -- even subtle ones like larger or smaller clapboards -- could indicate an addition to the house.

Tip: This might not apply if you bought a Queen Anne-style house, as they are known for incorporating many different materials.

4. Examine the floor plan. Is the layout of the house consistent with its style? For example, if your Georgian house -- which should have a symmetrical floor plan -- is asymmetrical, that would imply a significant alteration.

5. Check out the walls and flooring. Are the walls uniform, or are there thinner or thicker areas that could show a door or window has been filled in? What about the floors? Do the boards all run the same direction within a room? Are they the same size throughout? Inconsistent walls and/or floors can hint at an earlier design.

6. Look up. Are there changes in ceiling height? This could demonstrate several different things: that a wall has been removed, an addition built, or mechanical systems added.

7. Peek behind molding and switch plates. Clues about old paint colors and/or wallpaper are often lurking behind molding and switch plates, which can suggest both the earlier look of a room and what its original use was.

8. Investigate interior trim. A change in baseboard trim, window/door frame styles, or other altered embellishments can lead you to either an addition or a thorough remodeling.

9. Spy on your neighbors. Or, more specifically, on their property. Are their walls and fences identical to yours? This could reveal that a larger property -- perhaps yours, if your house is the oldest -- was sub-divided for development.

10. Scour your yard for clues. Are there changes in grass color, depressions in the ground, or other markers indicating a lost wing of the house or an outbuilding? Is there any abandoned, overgrown, or clearly removed foliage? This could help you locate a garden or orchard.

Adapted from The New Old House Starter Kit by Richard Wagner, AIA.

Sarah Heffern is the National Trust's social media strategist. While she embraces all things online and pixel-centric, she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @smheffern.


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