Every house has a history, regardless of its age. When visiting homes, some people get a gut feeling, or intuition, about the people who lived and visited there before, which may color their impressions of the building.
If a house is particularly old, there may be hints in the construction or the wear marks on frequently used items that indicate patterns of use or provide a sketch of who lived there. Consider a light switch that is worn smooth by an owner who rose early to tend to farm animals or to work the early shift at a hospital. Similarly, well-worn basement stairs that are grooved from the footsteps of past owners and tenants may indicate a time when food was stored in keeping rooms rather than refrigerators or when coal was carried up the stairs to fireplaces.
Most of the following tips for finding the previous tenants or owners' property records also apply to finding the current owner if you’re curious about a home that you pass or thinking of renting one. Finding the proper legal documents may help you avoid a troublesome individual with a history of filing lawsuits against tenants or neighbors. This information can also reveal issues with the building’s construction (such as lawsuits against contractors) or the owner’s finances.
These tips direct you to readily available public records and websites that may yield useful information. Of course, there may be omissions if the city didn’t keep proper records, if the records were destroyed, or if the residents didn’t comply with requests for information.
8 Ways to Find the Previous Owner of a House
- Inquire with the realtor about the prior owner. Realtors may share scintillating information about interesting characters or their tenants. Others prefer to consider a building for sale as a blank slate. The realtor is likely to take the lead from the prospective buyers: if the buyers ask questions, the realtor may divulge information, but stories are less likely to be shared if they are not prompted.
- Get title deeds to your house. These public documents describe previous owners and the years that the house was in their possession and any changes made to the property lines. Further information in deeds may indicate boundary disputes with adjacent neighbors, potentially signaling that the owner was territorial or private. Liens on the deed may show if the previous owner was in financial trouble, indicating less ability to maintain the property
- Search your local tax assessor’s office (public records). A town or city assessor’s office is responsible for keeping records about property uses (residential or business) and whether improvements were made to evaluate it for tax purposes. With these records, it may be possible to trace modifications, significant damage (such as a fire), additions, and other renovations, like upgrading the heating system.
- View census records. Census records are the official count of residents in a city or town. These public records enable you to see the names, ages, and occupations of people who lived at a particular address. Historical census data may include an individual’s possessions (a fork or two in the household before 1700 indicates wealth). In addition to the national census, local clerks generally collect information about short-term residents for tax and voting purposes as well, so be sure to investigate those records at city hall.
- Try to find what you want on the Internet. Search your address in an online database for mentions in police logs, fire department calls, or business news. Also, remember to search the individual names of previous residents collected on census records and deeds. You may learn about lawsuits involving the home or its residents, divorces, foreclosures, and previous sales that were forced through the legal process.
- Ask your neighbors. Asking about previous residents is a good way to break the ice with your neighbors. Enter the conversation gently, being aware that there may be negative relationships among those who live nearby, and don’t take one person’s opinion as absolute fact. Be prepared for bad news along with the good: do you really want to know if the past owner died on the property or if his children were members of a gang?
- Visit your local library. Librarians are very resourceful and may be able to point you to local history information that shows when a building was constructed. Other sources of information in public libraries are historical resident lists kept by the city clerk, newspaper archives, history books written about the city’s past, and planning documents that show the evolution of property development. Librarians may also know people to ask about past residents. Don’t discount the possibility of looking up nearby neighbors and researching them as well. These people may be able to tell you more than historical documents can.
- Use a phone book. Phone books may divulge more than a resident’s name and number, including a (written) link to the person’s business listing (pages in the back of the phone book) or other family members that lived nearby at the same time. If you search multiple years of phone books, you may be able to trace the movements of the home’s previous residents through a series of different addresses.
It may be fun to find out who owned your home in the past, but there’s always a risk of learning too much. Before researching, ask yourself what kind of information will be helpful and limit yourself to that topic.