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House History: A Guide to Uncovering the Stories of Local Buildings and Properties

Building Permits, Deeds, and Property Taxes

Frederic B. Pyle, architect. Row house for S.W. Woodward, 2118 Leroy Place, N.W., Washington, D.C. Between 1892 and 1917. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Most property records will be found locally in the town, county, or state where the structure (or the land) is located. The level of detail in these records may vary depending on the time and place.

As you research, keep in mind that specific house numbers, and even street or town names, and county or state boundaries may have changed over the years.

Building Permits and Blueprints

Not every builder was required to file a permit with the local government, but for those who were, you may find building permits and blueprints at the city or county level. Generally, these are held by a Borough Office, Building Department, City Planning Office, Zoning and Code Enforcement Office, or similar entity depending on your location. Records may typically be searched by address, permit number, or the parcel number assigned by the local office responsible for property tax assessments. In some locations, the oldest of these documents may have been transferred to another repository, such as a state archives, library, or historical society.

Building permits had to adhere to the codes and laws of the time and place in which construction was planned. You can do further research into the legal side of the project to add context and perspective to the story of the property.


Much as census records provide a sturdy foundation for the genealogical profile of an individual, deeds provide the framework for building the history of a home. These are the key documents that establish a timeline of ownership, boundaries, and significant developments.

Contact or visit the city or county office where deeds of property ownership are filed, often called the Recorder of Deeds or the County Clerk. Begin with the most recent property owner and follow the title backwards. Be mindful of how the property was transferred: agreement of sale, sheriff’s sale, inheritance, etc. You may need to follow the paper trail to related records such as Liens or Judgments filed in the Civil Court, or Wills and Estate distributions filed with the Probate Court. Make note of owners, dates conveyed, boundary changes, descriptive details, neighbors mentioned, and so forth.

When you reach all the way back to the original owner who received land from the government, you will need to consider the history of the state where the property is located. In the original 13 colonies, plus Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia, you will proceed to research at the State Archives in each respective state. For the other 30 public land states, explore the Land Entry Case Files and Related Records at the National Archives.

Property Taxes

Reach out to or stop by the city or county office responsible for assessing property taxes. That office should hold a record of recent ownership history as well as a property description. The documents in this file may be maintained for a fixed number of years depending on local collections policies, if that is the case, find out where older records are archived so that you may consult those documents.


The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Across the country, courthouse records are gradually being digitized for preservation and access. It is well worth examining individual county courthouse, state archives, and other community websites to determine if the community records have gone digital. However, do not limit yourself to online resources only. It will take time, funding, and coordination to get records online. Always follow up with the county offices directly to determine what has been scanned and what you still need to view in person or request to be copied.

These web sites provide contact information and online resources to locate property records across federal, state, and local repositories.

National Archives

State and County Archives