Most people who set out to discover the history of their house do so because they are interested in finding out about it’s origins and the people that lived there. There are some however, that see a home history as a means of boosting their property’s value and it’s saleability.
For some time and particularly since the most recent economic downturn vendors and their agents have been looking for ways to give their properties an edge. An article in the Daily Telegraph by David Rose recently rekindled the discussion, as he set out how sellers keen for a good price are hiring historians to discover interesting facts about their properties in order to sell them for a higher price.
Estate agents, he says are “including the details of a property’s past to add interest to historic buildings amid a surge in public curiosity about the provenance of their homes”.
But does the history of a house add any value and more important could it even detract from it?
Certainly in America it has long been held that in certain historic districts home values rose between 5% to 35% compared with home values in undesignated neighbourhoods within the same communities,
A study by the Washington based National Trust for Historic Preservation a few years ago found that US homes in historic neighborhood designations were more likely to be protected from “out of character” refurbishments or new “inappropriate” buildings thus ensuring that those aspects that made the area so attractive to buyers are protected over time.
The study discovered that even if the home’s price didn’t rise, it is less likely to fall if the neighborhood is in a historic district. In the UK we, of course call these districts a conservation areas but it’s essentially the same.
In this country people pay a premium to live in a conservation area because they are buying into the quaintness of an area of special historic interest. In fact the status of a conservation area is not confined to rows of high value Georgian or Regency buildings but can be conferred on fishing and mining villages, 18th and 19th century suburbs, model housing estates, country houses, historic transport links and their environs, and even stretches of canal.
Also it is said that houses with blue plaques (there are reckoned to be 850 in London alone) which are affixed to the walls of houses where famous people once lived can add thousands of pounds to the value of a property.
So it seems that there is a premium to be paid for a house with an historic interest or famous residents and therefore it could be worth tracing the history of your house for that reason alone.
Various attempts have been made to add house provenance to the rest of the details provided in the sales literature with varied success. At one time, and for all I know it may still be continuing, a major estate agent employed a top house historian to provide house “readings”
More recently according to an article in the Daily Telegraph - Benchmark House Histories which is based in Tring, Hertfordshire, are producing “histories for a range of properties located mainly in Southern England and are reporting a steady increase year on year in the number of enquiries they have received”.
They have found that a building’s history - when it may have been built, who the architect was (especially if a well- known name), how its usage has changed over time and details of owners and occupiers - serves to add interest in a property.
There can be little doubt that in a tough market a property that has a well documented interesting history might have the edge over other similar properties. Does it really add value on its own and if you are using the history of your house to increase its sales potential, do you also have to be careful what you find?
Stories about the life (and death) of residents who once lived in your house might be fascinating but what if you find a grisly secret? Anyone who has researched homes knows that the past was not always rosy and houses have had their share of dubious stories that might not improve sales potential.
As historian, David Olusoga presenter of A House Through Time TV programme pointed out we don’t have to go far back in our national past to find ourselves in an age where births and also deaths took place in the home rather than hospital.
So it’s not unlikely that some births and several deaths took place in your house and most likely in your bedroom. You can probably live with that – you probably do - but how about if they were murdered? Does that alter things? What if a former resident was a serial killer or committed suicide?
If you live in America you have to be careful when selling a house because in some states you must disclose whether any deaths occurred in the property within the last three years. By contrast other states explicitly tell sellers that they do not need to disclose deaths on the property to buyers.
A nationwide survey here by Sell House Fast, reveals that 36% of us wouldn’t buy a property if we were told that someone had died there. Not surprising perhaps this increases when they find out that there has been a murder or suicide and 67% of homebuyers can’t imagine living in a property with a history of violent death.
Just as an aside respondents were also concerned about other issues that may have taken place on the property, with people expressing reservations about buying a property that had been the site of rape or other violent crime (21%), followed by illegal drug production (13%) and house repossession or eviction (7%).
You can just imagine how that would read in the estate agent’s usual sales pitch –
"Semi detached, three generous bedrooms, a large garden –and the site of a gruesome murder."
Villisca Axe Murder House Iowa. In 1912 six membes of the Moore family and two visitors were bludgeoned to death. Axe wounds were also found on each, giving rise to the home's name. The murderer was never found.
But that is not the only downside to tracing your house history if it is just for the benefit of improving a sale. What do you do if you find the house is not only the scene of an unpleasant episode but someone also reports that it is haunted?
Should you then tell your prospective purchasers that there is a ghost of Lady Mary Smythe who walks out of the mirror in the upstairs hall and screeches when there is a full moon?
Oh yes! and what happens when you fail to mention Lady Mary’s peregrinations and she scares the hell out of the new owners five year old son leaving him traumatised and they sue you? But as there is no such thing as ghosts (are there?), perhaps we should not dwell on this for too long.
Meanwhile over the other side of the Atlantic in the US they are so worried about home deaths that if you Google the subject you will find pages and pages of people asking if there’s a way to find out whether someone died or their house is haunted.
Not surprisingly a website and App - DiedInHouse.com - which seems to be doing well –is the first web-based service that helps you find out if anyone has died at any valid US address
So what does all this mean to the house historian? Well, I suppose the lesson is, that if you are researching the back story to your house for the purpose of increasing the value and making it attractive to the market then tread carefully.
The older and perhaps grander the house the more likely your story is going to include some, let us say, les salubrious goings on and you might want to use the edit pencil on some of the tales if you think it is going to have a negative effect on your ability to sell.
For me the joy of finding out more about the celebrations, dramas and tragedies of the people who lived in my house, my ancestor’s house or client’s houses - warts and all - is all consuming. I will go where that leads me.
I am sure that in the right area and with the right building, a well documented house provenance does no harm and might well add to the value, but as we have seen it depends on the story.
Resources and links mentioned in this blog
David Rose in Daily Telegraph “Could your house be a secret goldmine?”
Benchmark House Histories
National Trust for Historic Preservation
BBCA House Through Time
Sell House First
Who died in House
Christopher Middleton in Daily Telegraph Why houses will sell
An important part of tracing your house history is discovering more about the people who lived in it and how the house formed a backdrop to their lives. Finding out more about the celebrations, dramas and tragedies of the people who lived in your house- discovering their stories - is uniquely linked to the history of the house. One of the key places to start is the census.
The census has been taken every ten years since 1801 when the government wanted to ascertain how many men were available to fight the Napoleonic wars at that time. The idea stuck and with the exception of 1941 and in Ireland 1921 is a key resource for the house historian. However, the first census which contained personal information of use to the historian is the 1841 census. Generally, the census is only available to view after 100 years so from 1841-1911 it is possible to discover who lived in every house in the country. The census can be searched by address and we show you how and provide some useful tips.
Go to the 'A-Z of Record Sets' drop down from the 'Search Records' menus.
Next enter the year of the census in the search bar
or scroll down to find the individual census year you require
The required census page will then load and you will see the option to search by address for that census with the 1901 and 1911 census years, there is an 'Address' tab on the search page that would then need to be clicked to search by address
If you cannot find the address first time, check the registration district as it may have changed and examine old maps and street directories online for clues that may help you locate the house in the census. The street directory may give you a resident’s name which you could also use in your search.
Search for ‘St’ as well as ‘Street’, ‘Road’ and ‘Rd’, ‘Avenue’ and ‘Ave’, and ‘Ln’ in addition to ‘Lane’, etc, or miss these suffixes off entirely. For example, Blacknest as well as Blacknest Road
The 1841 Census did not require an exact address just a place name. From 1851 however, an exact address giving the house number or name was required. Too often however in rural areas the only address given was the name of the village or parish. Also remember that the numbers in the extreme left-hand column are schedule numbers, and not house numbers.
A Schedule was a form that the enumerator delivered to each household during the week before the census was taken to be completed by the head of the household on the census night. Each house has a separate schedule number.
The enumerator visited all of the houses in his patch, to collect these schedules and then he copied the information on it onto into his enumerator’s book, in schedule number order.
1911 Census – a few problems searching by address.
The address given in the 1911 Census is taken directly from the entry made on the form at the time by the householder. This leads to several problems.
In 1911, householders did not have a uniform way of stating their address as we do today. Some people listed their address as a house name followed by a town rather than a house number followed by the street name and this was the information that was transcribed.
The original form only provided a small space for the address, and that only encouraged the householder to either write smaller and perhaps illegibly as well as abbreviate the address to make it fit.
The spelling of the name of the property or road may have changed over time.
An example is Blackness Road in the town of Crowborough, East Sussex. In 1911 it was variously described as just Blackness or Blacknest Road and was in the registration district of Uckfield whilst in an earlier census it was East Grinstead and in more modern times has it’s own registration district.
*Trace My House has no connection with FindMyPast. We recommend using it simply because it is the only service that offers the address lookup facility and therefore is of great value to house historians.
To read more about using the census to trace the history of your house go to Census
There are two distinct aspects to tracing the history of your house. Firstly, there is the building itself with its architectural and construction history and then there are the people who have occupied it and made it their home.
Finding out more about the celebrations, dramas and tragedies of the people who lived in your house- discovering their stories - is dealt with elsewhere in detail. Here I take a look at how the ordinary house has evolved and look for clues which may help you date the age of your house.
Hopefully you have been lucky enough to have collected some documentary evidence, of which the most obvious are the deeds of the house. These should provide you with details of the building or reconstructiondate and possibly the names of former owners and sometimes tenants. But if you do not have these, or they are not clear, you are going to have to do some detective work to discover its approximate age based upon the evidence that the house presents today.
However, it is not always clear nor easy to determine the age of a house, especially if it is an ordinary town house or rural building. Also, whilst many larger older houses have evidence of their history, smaller homes are not always so fortunate. Not only that but the status of a building whether residential or non-residential is likely to vary over the years. Houses that were built to suit a particular need or requirement may have been adapted when that use was no longer required.
Many of the older houses we see today were not built as dwellings but for other purposes, and have been converted for use as homes.
To illustrate the dynamic role of the house over the years, just take a look today at the larger farmhouses which have been rehabilitated as luxury homes or bed and breakfast accommodation and the many smaller former workmens’ cottages that have been bought by people as a retirement or weekend home. Once the most basic of houses they have been converted and now serve people of a much higher social status than those that they were originally built for.
On the other hand we can see villas, especially in towns, that started life as a home for the wealthy and have since been subdivided into flats or tenements and are home to a completely different sort of resident.
You only have to look at East London to see examples of how dramatically a building could change from a prestigious home to a tenement. In the 18th and 19th centuries rural dwellers moved to London in their droves to search for work and seek a better quality of life Landlords eager to take advantage, divided their buildings into flats and tenements which became insanitary and grossly overcrowded. The living conditions for people who lived in these houses were a million miles away from the rich merchants for whom the homes were built.
So how do you date your house? Well, if you are really lucky you will find the house has a date on the front door, a chimney stack,or the external wall but even then you have to be careful because the date may not be when the house was first built. It could be the date when it was repaired or when a major or minor reconstruction had taken place.
You may find your house has a fire insurance plaque. These plaques which are placed on the outside of the house date from the period when each insurance company maintained its own fire brigade. They only attended fires if the building in question was insured by them, hence the plaque outside. Finding these today is becoming rarer and anyway they were mainly found in towns and cities
So without a date or any clues as to the age of your house we need to look for other clues and start by taking account of settings. Firstly, note if it is in a town or village street, in a small hamlet or isolated in a rural area? Does it have any distinguishing geographical features around it such as a stream or hill? If in a street, is it part of a terrace and are all the buildings uniform? Does it appear to be part of a large building now subdivided? Note how it compares in size, age and general character with the joining or nearby houses.
Very few small houses have survived before the Tudor period. Historians have had to rely on excavations on the sites of deserted mediaeval villages to find out more about them. At that time the house was not expected to last more than a lifetime and the evidence suggests that the earliest huts were basically circular or rectangular.
In rural areas most small and medium-sized houses were built by landowners engaged in agriculture - particularly farmers of various classes. Whereas in towns the majority of houses were built by people employed in industry and commerce such as merchants and tradesmen.
Having considered your homes environment we need see if there are any clues as to it’s former use that may help us.
Lots of people in rural areas were employed in agricultural trades but there was also the need in every village for craftsmen whose houses included their workshops. Today these trades are long gone but their houses could still show evidence of it.
After farming the most important rural trade was probably milling, with water and windmills going back to mediaeval times although most surviving examples only date from the 18thand 19thcenturies.
Wealden House, Hale St , Kent Probably late fifteenth century and
once was a wheelwright's shop and smithy.
The mill usually had a mill house adjoining and many watermills survive today and have been converted into prestigious homes. We are less likely to see converted windmills.
Every village and town also required other craftsmen such as the wheelwright and smith which were vital trades in pre-industrial times. Their workshops and homes have in some cases survived.
In industrial areas trades such as spinning and weaving were important cottage industries and many of these homes have survived. Often these can be distinguished by the long horizontal windows on the upper floors which provided the necessary daylight for the looms.
In most cases chapels and churches converted to residential use can be easily recognised, but some former places of worship may not be so apparent. In the early days of non-conformity, particularly the Methodist movement the congregation often met at the houses of the leading members. So an ordinary looking house could have been a chapel A clue may often be found in the house names such as Chapel House, Bethal, Ebenezer, Glenorchy etc.
WEAVERS COTTAGE Colcar, West Yorks Late 18th century weavers house at Golcar
Whilst the name of a house could be a clue as to its former use, the street name may also provide evidence of it’s age, particularly from the 18thcentury onwards.
The visit by a monarch or a national event could be celebrated by naming streets in honour of the occasion. Following a visit from George III new streets were given names like Gloucester Lodge, Gloucester Road ,Gloucester Row. Look for names that suggest a royal visit such as Royal Crescent, Royal Terrace. Waterloo Place or Victoria Terrace.
Some place names are not what they seem. We might laugh at or be bemused by names like Ha-Ha Road in Woolwich but a ha-ha is a type of sunken fence that was commonly used in landscaped gardens and parks in the eighteenth century and so this might give us a clue as to it’s origins. Slag Lane so called because once when a carriage got stuck in mud, slag from a nearby colliery was put down on the surface and the name stuck. Locals are embarrassed by Crotch Crescent but William Crotch who it was named after was a Professor of Music locally.
You might not want to live in Butthole Lane, Sheffield but it takes its name from the old English word ‘butt’, which was a target. It is believed Butthole Lane was where archers practiced shooting at targets during the Tudor period.Finally Trump Street has nothing to do with the US president, a stone’s throw from the Guildhall London and is simply a corruption of trumpet and is where the brass instrument makers would live.
House names often reflect their past use and there are many - The Coach House, The Old School House, The Old Rectory, The Old Vicarage, The Old Post Office, Mill House, The Granary, The Grange, The Bothy, Blacksmiths Cottage, Old Forge, The Old Station House, The Old Police House, The Old Surgery and Railway Cottage. All of these are signposts to the history of your home.
Some homes have been named after people who lived there and others reflect the environment around the house- Honeysuckle, Orchard, Oaktree, Hillside etc. These are probably not useful in helping you date your house but might give you a clue about what the area was like at one time.
So! having examined your house, its environs and looked at obvious clues the next stage is to examine the architecture and style of your house. to try to date it.
Howoldismyhouse.com has examples of house styles of every period and plenty of clues to help you determine the age of your house. Below are a few more examples of houses whose origins might give a clue plus one surprise house.
The back of Leinster Gardens showing the façade.
The railway runs through the gap under the facade
TOLL HOUSEat Motcombe, Dorset The ground floor windows in the
projecting bay (some since blocked and containing the business name)
gave a good view of the approaching traffic on the Turnpike Road