It’s no secret that Americans move around a lot. Whether it’s for a job, cheaper housing, or to be closer to friends and family, the average American will pack up and move 11.4 times over the course of their lifetime. With each new home comes a new story. After all, the home may be new to you, but chances are it’s hardly new! So you might ask the question, “What’s the deal with my house?”
If you find yourself itching to get the scoop on your home, whether you have lived there for 3 months or 30 years, we’re here to help. Below you will find a practical guide to researching your home.
Step 1: The Survey
Even if you aren’t necessarily interested in the architectural history of your home, it’s a good idea to conduct an informal survey of your home’s architecture. It will help you if you want to find out how your house was built but it will also help you discover what alterations were made over time. If a house has a mishmash of architectural styles, you can bet that someone made changes to the building along the way. Look at the roof, look at the style and placement of the windows, look at the building materials. Make notes as you go. It’s all part of a bigger picture and it will help you create a fuller history of your home.
Step 2: The Deed
The best place to start is with the deed of your house. If you rent your home, don’t worry. Deeds are a matter of public record and can be obtained by anyone, not just the building owner. You’ll want to establish a “chain of title” by tracing the deeds of your home back as far as you can. This will help you find out who the previous owners were, whether there were changes to the property lines, etc. Remember: Information you may not think is relevant might later prove to be vital, so make copies as you go!
For houses in Malden, you’ll want to visit the Southern Middlesex Registry of Deeds.
Before starting your search, you may want to view their MassLandRecords Quick Start tutorial.
Step 3: The People, Places, and Things
There are other records that will help in your search. Building permits can help you discover when changes were made to your home. You can contact the Malden Permits, Inspections, and Planning Services office for help with these records.
Utility records can help you learn when the home was first occupied (assuming your home does not predate electricity and plumbing) or when your home was modernized. Try contacting the water utilities department first, then the electrical, gas, and sewer companies that operate in Malden.
Insurance records can also be an information goldmine. You can find claim forms for fires, water damage, and more. Look for any insurance company in Malden (the longer the company has been active, the better!) and ask for records of policies associated with your address. Similarly, you can look at the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps which contain information including but not limited to the property lines, building materials, and street names (remember street names change over time!). Luckily, we have Sanborn Maps at the Malden Public Library Archives in both hard and digital copies. If you would like the digital files, make sure to bring a flash drive with you when you visit us.
Which brings us to the area that we can help you with the most in the archives: people! We can look through the poll lists and directories dating back to the 1800s to find out who lived at your address. These resources can tell us the names of any occupants, what their occupation was, and whether they owned or rented the property.
Once we are armed with a list of names, we can try to find them in the newspaper index and then look at the corresponding microfilm. Our microfilm reader lets you scan articles and email them directly to yourself. If anyone of local prominence lived in your house, we may also be able to find them in our books about important Malden figures.
Step 4: The Timeline
Once you have all of this information you can begin to create your timeline. This can be as detailed or sparse as you want it to be. If you prefer to note who lived in the home at what time and when certain events occurred, such as fires, additions, or electrical wiring, that’s great! If you would like to create a more narrative timeline, including information you have discovered about the people who lived in your home, that’s great too! The choice is yours so have fun with it!
Some additional resources to help you with this process are:
- How to Trace the History and Genealogy of Your Home by Kimberly Powell
- House Histories: A guide to tracing the genealogy of your home by Sally Light (it is available for in-library use or you can purchase a copy)
- How to Research Your House’s History: Part One by the National Trust for Historic Preservation
- How to Research Your House’s History: Part Two by the National Trust for Historic Preservation