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A Historic Home and Real Estate History Research Guide

historic downtown crystal lake il

Plenty of people have an interest in researching the history of other people, whether it's past events in their town, state, or country or the genealogy of their own family. But all of these people once lived, worked, and learned in buildings, and those buildings can also have interesting histories of their own. Researching your own home can help you to uncover who built it and learn about the people who lived there before you. It can also reveal changes that have been made to the structure along the way and point to issues that you may need to keep an eye out for in the future.

Researching Home History

Researching the history of any piece of real estate can be a time-consuming process that calls for a lot of patience, but the results can be well worth it. Before you get started, consider what types of information you're looking for and learn about where you might be able to find it. You should also set aside a place to keep the information you find and make a strategy for how to keep it all organized.

Former Owners

The previous owners of your home can be great sources of firsthand information. If you can get in touch with the people who owned your house before you moved in, ask them what they know about the home's history and what changes they made to the house while they were living there. They might also be able to pass down information that they found out from the people who owned the home before them. If the previous owners of your home are inaccessible, you can also ask your neighbors what they know about your house's past.

Geography and Maps

Historical maps can show you the growth of the area where you live, including the addition of new streets and buildings over time and changes to street names that were made. You can also learn about interesting nearby landmarks that may no longer exist.

Census Records

Old census records can give you the names of people who used to live at your address as well as their ages, what they did for a living, and where they immigrated from. By comparing records, you may be able to chart the course of people's lives, watching as children grow older and move away, spouses marry or die, other relatives move in and out, and residents take on boarders.

Land and Property Records

Whenever real estate changes hands, legal records will be created, and these records can often be examined at a local county clerk or assessor's office. Property records can show you who held the deed to your waterfront home at different times, how much the property was sold for, and if any liens were ever filed on the property.

GIS Database

Government websites may provide access to geographic information systems (GIS) data, which can reveal details about your property such as when the home was built, what architectural style it was built in, whether it was built as a single-family or multi-family structure, and whether it had a finished basement. GIS data may also include a sketch of the home, which will show you what it originally looked like, revealing which parts of your home were added later.

Sanborn Maps

Sanborn maps are maps from the 19th and 20th centuries that were created to help fire insurance companies understand the fire risk of different properties, based on factors like the size and shape of a structure, the locations of doors and windows, and how the property was used. These maps were created primarily for larger municipalities, but if they exist for your city or town, they can be a great source of information.

Local Historical Societies

Preservation or historical organizations often collect information about older homes and other historic structures, and they may be able to tell you more about the origins of your home. They may even have photos of your home when it was a horse farm or before it was a house near a golf course.

Other Online Databases

Records about properties are the most obvious place to look, but other types of databases may also have useful information about your home. Newspaper archives may have interesting tidbits about the past owners of the house or events that were held there, and genealogy databases can also help you to dig up information.

Historic Preservation

It's great to have an understanding of the history of your home, but it's also important that you protect the property for future generations to appreciate.


Historic homes can require quite a bit of maintenance to ensure that they're safe and sound. This will include basic maintenance that any home would need, like keeping the siding, roof, plumbing, and electrical systems in good shape. But an older home can have additional issues due to its age and historic nature. For instance, lead pipes used in plumbing can be toxic, galvanized iron pipes can rust and break, and deteriorated electrical wiring can present a fire hazard. Plaster walls may also crack, and when this happens, they'll need to be repaired. Whenever you need to do maintenance work on your home, try to avoid diminishing its historic character as much as possible. Use materials that are faithful to what's already there, and repair fixtures rather than replacing them.


Document all of the details of your historic home as it currently stands. This will provide important records for future owners of the home, and it will also help you to restore your home if a disaster should happen.

Choosing Contractors

If you need to hire someone to do work on your house, research contractors carefully to ensure that they have the skills required to work on a historic structure. Check their references, and make sure that they're properly insured. Then, closely examine any contracts before signing them.

Additional Resources

By: Brad Sowell
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