Official records should back up any guesstimate about construction dates and alterations, especially for a house built in the 1900s. "Around the turn of the century, owners had to start getting permits for alterations, for plumbing, that sort of thing," says Gilmore. Every state has a preservation officer who can guide a homeowner to the right resources: county archives, state preservation trusts, and most importantly, local city or town historical societies. The latter will have the best catalogs of municipal information, including maps, local newspapers, and the genealogical information that reveals fascinating details about the people who lived their lives in your home.

Florence Oliver, the town historian for Somers, did the deed trace for Gladys Schondorf in 1983, working backward from the current owners. The search started at the town's deed office, then moved on to the Westchester County archives for the period before the town was incorporated. Oliver looked at transfers for the Schondorfs' 2.7 acres, as well as the larger tracts of 92 acres and more that earlier owners held, and she even glanced at transfers for adjoining property to hunt for mention of the land in question. She was able to trace the sale of the property through the previous 23 owners, as far back as the initial colonial landowner at the turn of the 18th century. The house itself is first mentioned specifically in a deed dated 1849, in which a man named George Van Kleek bought an 81-acre lot from his sister Theresa "with the provision that their mother, Sarah, could occupy and enjoy during her lifetime one kitchen, two bedrooms, one parlor, privilege in the garret and cellar in the dwelling house and the use of a quarter of an acre for a garden." This listing describes half the rooms in the present house. If the Schondorfs' home didn't exist by 1849, it was about to be built.

George Van Kleek's house is clearly visible on an 1851 map, the earliest one in the Somers Historical Society that shows property locations. Looking at maps in chronological order, a researcher can pinpoint the date a house first appears in a town survey. For homes built after 1866, Sanborn maps—named for the firm in Pelham, New York, that created them—give excellent descriptions of size, layout, and materials for houses in more densely populated areas (the maps were used by insurance companies). They are usually on file with historical societies or available through the Sanborn company, which still exists. "They tell you, for example, if the building was wood frame or brick, how many stories it had, where the window were placed—things that would help a policy be written," explains Mary Beth D'Alonzo, a project archivist with the Georgia Historical Society.

When starting your quest, D'Alonzo points out, don't dive into old records looking for your own address. Street names, house numbers and lot designations frequently change over the years, so it's a good idea to work backward from current records. To uncover the names of former owners or tenants, D'Alonzo also suggests checking old city directories, organized by address. Historical societies or libraries usually have them, and they are available through the present day. City directories exist even from the days before phones—as far back as the 1830s or earlier. Newspapers also sometimes yield surprising information. "Look at indexes for the years you think your house may have been built, under headings such as 'buildings' or 'architecture,'" says D'Alonzo. "Construction of the more prominent houses in the area may have warranted articles," she says. "A lucky researcher may even find how many rooms were on the first floor, maybe even the wall paper."
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